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Specialist and Novelty Cakes – The Low Down

Posted 25/04/2010 by Kay Sexton

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Sometimes it seems like the cake world has gone through a wormhole into another universe. What happened to the days when wedding cakes were round or square, two or three tier and white or pastel? When did birthday cakes stop being simple buttercream supports for candles and become hello kitties or angry birds?

Of course there are reasons to be thrilled about this sudden interest in all things cake. TV programmes like The Great British Bake Off and nostalgic dramas like Call the Midwife remind people of the great heritage we have in baking.

But it’s not the traditional Battenburg or Maid of Honour that’s exciting the current cake buyer. Today novelty cakes have become a talking point and the baker’s skills are constantly being tested with innovative new techniques and demanding recipes.

There are good and bad points to this enthusiasm for specialist cakes:

The Good

  • More educated and informed cake buyers will quickly drive stodgy, tasteless cake bakers out of the supermarket.
  • Continuing development of the cake baking industry means there’s a niche for every good baker.
  • Lots of publicity for amazing cake artistry boosts every baker’s order book.

The Bad

  • Customers (and family and friends) can expect to get artisan cakes for supermarket prices.
  • Cutting edge cake skills in others can cause a good baker to doubt his or her worth.
  • It can feel difficult to keep up with a fast moving industry, especially if our skills are ‘traditional’ ones.
  • Time management is tricky. Multi skill cakes, where baking, icing and assembly all take time can leave the baker out of pocket, because he or she didn’t budget for all the finicky elements.

The Ugly

  • There are whole internet sites such as Cake Wrecks purely devoted to revealing the level of failure that’s possible when people’s ambitions outstrip their technical skills!
  • Pricing can be a nightmare – when a customer (or friend) wants something novel, they aren’t usually keen to pay for the three or four ‘apprentice’ attempts we have to produce before we turn out the ‘masterpiece’.
  • Saying no is tough, but saying yes to something we’ve never baked before can be a disaster too! Either way, we can end up with damaged relationships or a reputation for being awkward.

So how does an average cake maker develop the kind of specialist skills that normally earn thousands of pounds for their possessor? We can learn a lot from other professions.

Hairdressers

Hairdressers have apprentice rates and model nights. This is where people pay less to have their hair cut by a new hairdresser or even pay nothing, but accept that they aren’t in charge of the process – the stylist is going to cut, colour or style as they wish, not as the client wishes.

Cake bakers can have model cakes too. Offering to bake a cake for a special occasion, without pay, is an ideal way to upskill yourself. You might want to try one of the two examples in this article and ‘give’ the resulting cake as a birthday present. That way you get to experience the baking process and learn some key tricks and tips, without the pressure of knowing that somebody is paying for, and expecting, perfection.

Designers

Interior and garden designers work out a complete plan, with lights, fabrics, furniture, plants etc all included. This makes it easier for them to source materials and allows the customer to see the ‘whole thing’ rather than just concentrating on one item.

While most of us just want to bake cakes, we could work with other caterers, party planners, entertainers etc to offer a complete package, so if we’re making a novelty cake, the rest of the catering could complement the central baking, maybe with strawberry printed napkins and pink lemonade for a kids party or strawberry daiquiris and chocolate dipped strawberries for a more adult event. Being able to offer this kind of complete service when required would take the pressure off us to present the ‘big finish’ and could get us more referrals from the other people we work with.

Fishermen

Yes, seriously! The point about fishing is that you throw back the fish that aren’t big enough to be worth taking home, so that they can grow bigger and be caught again later.

If we want to be specialist cake makers, we may have to ‘discard’ the bog standard orders and hold out for the work we really want to be doing. It’s good to have somebody you can recommend to take on orders you don’t want to fulfil – that way they can also pass your name to people who want cakes beyond their skills.

Celebrities

A celeb can’t buy a pizza or fall off her Michael Kors heels without ending up all over the newspapers, gossip mags, facebook and twitter. So when we make a really special cake, we should try to get ourselves some celebrity coverage too.

A simple press release, of about 300 words, describing the cake and the reason it was made, with a really good jpeg of the finished article, can be emailed to the local press and to specialist publications. Make sure you have the client’s full consent and that you don’t publicise a surprise cake before the celebration takes place! On a slow news day, good craftsmanship and a happy local story can get our story into the press and before we know it we’ve become a local expert.

Techniques of Baking

So, once we’ve got the theory under our belts, what about the practice?

Here are a couple of the most challenging current cake designs on offer – the hidden shape cake and the outer stencilled roll. Both have technical issues that need to be overcome and both have a huge ‘wow’ factor that can really move a baker into the expert category.

Hidden Shape Cakes (Cupcake As Pictured)

You can find instructions for hiding one shape, usually a coloured sphere or cube inside an apparently plain cake, on many internet sites. What is often left out of these instructions is the detail of how to construct the cake and how to overcome the problems that may arise.

Mixture

The absolute key to this kind of cake is to have the same mixture for both the coloured shapes and the exterior cake. However, the colouring you use in the shapes will make them more moist and dense than the plain batter. Don’t panic! The idea is to have the coloured elements just barely cooked (very moist and still a little soft) as they are going to be baked again. This stops them either rising through the plain mixture or dropping to the bottom as during their first baking they will have risen as much as they are going to, but still have enough moisture to taste good.

Colour

The hue of the hidden shapes has to be really intense, but adding too much liquid to the mixture will change its structure, causing it to act oddly when cooked for the second time. Stick to gel colouring rather than liquid and maybe, if your first try doesn’t work, add a teaspoon of cornflour to the coloured batter for every three spheres or cubes you aim to include.

Don’t freeze

There seems to be a school of thought that says you should freeze the hidden forms… don’t! The way this cake works best is if the shapes and the mixture are at the same temperature when they enter the oven together. This means the shapes have to be fully cooled, but if they are even a couple of degrees chillier than the outer mixture, they will tend to drop to the bottom of the tin and balls may even flatten out, losing their spherical shape.

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