Sunday, July 08, 2007

Art Deco and Paisley Wedding Cake

All wedding cakes, particularly the bride’s cake, are collaborative design efforts. I’ve only done them as gifts and most folks have at least some ideas about how they want this particular piece of their wedding ceremony to look and taste. At least, my friends and relations who wanted wedding cakes did! This is the story of the latest effort, an Art Deco and Paisley wedding cake undertaken for friend G.

The bride’s cake, as I’ve said in previous texts, is the fancy decorated cake that is featured in most weddings as part of the whole cake-cutting and mutual eating ritual undertaken by the bride and groom in front of the reception guests. Traditionally, these used to be “white” cakes in the U.S.

White cakes are simple butter cakes that are made with only egg whites, which give them an white/off white color and soft texture. Of course, now people pick pretty much any flavor they want although some folks still insist on having white icing. The availability of titanium dioxide whitening products (bleach is not just for clothes and teeth anymore!) allows one to use real butter and vanilla and still get that extra virgin white for one’s buttercream frosting.

I’m a fan because I hate the mouth-feel of all shortening frosting. Additionally, clear vanilla is also obviously artificial vanillin rather than “real” vanilla. Taste tests of real vanilla versus fake vanilla undertaken by the relentless experimenters at Cook's Illustrated decided that in most baked goods, even their super tasters couldn’t really tell the difference between the two.

Despite this, I am superstitious enough to prefer real vanilla.

Actually, my favorite vanilla is a Mexican vanilla from Veracruz produced by Gaya (the same folks who produce the wonderful Xanath, the vanilla liqueur that is probably the only alcoholic drink [besides absinthe] that fascinates me and [unlike absinthe] I would actually drink neat). I visited the factory once in Gutierrez Zamora (or perhaps it was just a branch) and got a whole liter of the stuff to take home at great expense. It seems lighter in color and stronger smelling than ordinary vanilla.

I do note that most of the bride’s cakes or main wedding cakes that I’ve made have been white or yellow cake. About half and half, come to think of it! My most recent wedding cake included both yellow and chocolate layers. This was per the request of the bride and I think it’s a great idea. The more flavors the better. She had the top two tiers as golden buttercream (rich yellow cake) and sour cream chocolate fudge as the bottom tier with vanilla and chocolate frosting.

One chocolate frosting I particularly like is the confectioner’s sugar version included on the back of the Hershey’s cocoa box (which they include in order to better the sales of their cocoa!). This is the one I used for G’s bottom tier filling for her chocolate layer. It’s not as pure chocolate as a ganache (which is just cream and chocolate) but it is a lot more stable at room temperature so it is preferable for an Arizona summer wedding!

The bride also had some firm ideas about cake structure. She liked the idea of having a three tiered number without pillars but stacked directly atop each other. I’ve never actually done this particular tier architecture, but it’s one that I’ve always wanted to try so I was game. It’s pretty simple. You just have to stack the tiers directly on top of one another, with the only stipulation being that they require the internal straw support to hold up the weight of the cake. The proportions of the cakes seem to be more of a matter of taste and I’ve pretty much followed the 6inch, 9inch, and 12inch combo as a guideline for stacked tiers.

Friend G also had some ideas about the general design elements that she wanted in her cake. She wanted black and white colors and also paisley, with some dashes of bright colors here and there. We came up with a variation of an art deco theme with the paisley thrown in for good measure in the requisite colors.

Actually, I’d done an “art deco” cake for G years ago, for her birthday bash. Art deco is a design movement from the 1920s (roughly) to somewhere in the 1930s and 1940s. I don’t know that much about it, though I do recognize the visual style, but I do know that one influence is supposed to be culled from New Kingdom Egyptian designs because of the splashy discovery of King Tut’s tomb by Howard Carter circa the early 1920s.

The New Kingdom is known as an imperial period of Egyptian history complete with flamboyant rulers, a famous correspondence with client states (the Amarna letters), and distinctive brightly colored stylized art (some have suggested to me that it is “tackier” than the Old Kingdom visual style, which may explain why I found it very cool at about age 9, which is the first and last time I attempted any kind of writing on the subject).

At any rate, the salient point is that a celebrated archaeological discovery basically led to the interior elevator doors of the Chrysler Building being decorated with stylized lotuses borrowed from the visual stylings of a very old empire in another part of the world.

It’s kind of striking, isn’t it?

So I borrowed the lotus schematic (a bit more chunky than theirs, admittedly) to make this design for her original art deco birthday cake. I used the same design, except in black and white combined with white beads for the top and bottom tiers of her wedding cake. Here's the cheesy schematic I used.

The paisleys were in reserve for the second tier that would provide some eye-catching variation from the more stylized and dramatic top and bottom layers. However, the paisleys proved to be more problematic.

For one thing, paisleys are extremely detailed. Two paisley design books and countless web design sites later, we really hadn’t found anything that was do-able using any kind of medium that I had in mind.

Truthfully, I lack the technical skills to create elaborate icing paisleys and certainly not in the patterns that were illustrated. In fact, the only reason I even considered fabric patterns at all is the recent purchase (as a birthday present from Mr. Pretzel Bender) of a cake printer.

A cake printer, for the uninitiated, is just a regular inkjet printer that has been refitted to handle edible ink cartridges that can be used to print out images onto frosting sheets. The frosting sheets are basically sugar paper (well, they are a little thicker than paper) that are entirely edible.

This paper-like substance is printed on with edible ink and the finished sheet is then placed on icing that hasn’t yet formed its sugar crust (basically, most confectioner’s sugar based frosting forms a sugar crust upon sitting out within a few minutes, it’s some kind of chemical process obviously). So the frosting has to be “fresh” and then hypothetically the sheet will not only adhere to the frosting surface, but it will also appear to melt into the frosting surface.

Most commercial cake printings that I’ve seen are “photo cakes”. Basically people bring in a photo or digital file to a cake shop (often a grocery bakery) and get their kid, puppy, spouse, whatever juxtaposed onto a cake surface for whatever the occasion demands. Although I understand the personalization that comes with having you and your nearest and dearest’s image plastered onto a cake, I can’t help but find it kind of gauche unless it’s done humorously!

Personally, I am more interested in using cake printing to help create the cake decorations themselves, not simply paste photos onto cakes. In other words, instead of turning cakes into edible picture frames, I would rather turn the images into cake decorations! Fabric designs, embroider patterns, and of course ceramic designs are all the kinds of things I imagined being able to print out and use as part of a cake decoration paradigm that utilized printing.

Also, I had envisioned cake printing used in addition to other things so that icing embellishments would help keep things multi-dimensional on the cake surface. That was how I planned using printed paisley patterns on G’s wedding cake.

So G and I went through digital paisley designs and several books worth before she finally found one that had a black and white schematic underneath the bright colors of the pattern. The black and white was in keeping with the rest of the cake and also in keeping with her dress, a swatch of which is seen below!

We’d already decided to use rolled fondant to cover over the tiered layers. Rolled fondant when put over a tastier icing like buttercream is mostly non-offensive to me though it is a bit like eating very sweet vanilla flavored soft candy. I found a good locally produced fondant that comes in 10 pound buckets. Yes, buckets. It also comes in “virgin white”. And no, I will never get tired of repeating that phrase. However, the use of fondant as the outer covering required some experimentation in the application of frosting sheets, as I will explain below.

I ended up printing up the chosen wallpaper and plate patterns G had picked on about 5 frosting sheets. My idea was to cut out the design elements (various paisleys and flowers) and decoupage them onto the fondant. But what would be the best substance with which to glue them? I read on some internet sites that folks had used water to moisten the back of the frosting sheets (or the fondant surface) and had managed to get their frosting sheets to stick onto the surface though of course they never really melt into the surface like they do on wet buttercream frosting.

I experimented by using water to adhere frosting sheets onto fondant for a cake as a test run a few weeks before the wedding and found that water causes the colors on the frosting sheet to bleed after a few hours. Not good.

I thought about alternative sticky but edible substances and settled on trying out corn syrup (which has to have a pretty high sticky factor among edible and sweet substances). Mr. Pretzel Bender pondered whether the fondant and frosting sheets would be fat soluble. I didn't know but it gave me an idea!
I settled on using a simple experimental protocol to see which substance would work better. Using three test paisleys I stuck them onto a sheet of fondant using melted butter, water, and corn syrup, respectively. Immediately the water one began to bleed.

I then covered the sheet in plastic wrap to see what would happen the next day. Well, unfortunately, I can’t show you the second day test because the water and corn syrup ones were so sticky and broken down at that point that they stuck to the plastic wrap and came off in icky smears.

On the plus side it did answer my question about what substance would be best for sticking the frosting sheets to fondant! I obviously needed to use some kind of fat.

On the cake I ended up using trace amounts of vegetable fat because butter goes rancid when left out. The patterns didn’t melt but they adhered okay and if they remained sugar paper-like when the cake was being cut, I figured that was better than having the colors bleed and the pattern melting and sticking to everything and everyone!

To finish the paisley layer I used royal icing that had been dyed black to put the finishing touches including accents on the paisleys and flowers seen up close here.

Royal icing is a combination of confectioner’s sugar, meringue powder, and small amounts of water that is a form of sugar cement. It hardens to almost rock-like proportions.

Finally, for the top of the uppermost tier I put on an art deco lily pattern that G had picked. Originally I was going to put this pattern on by using a frosting sheet. However, I decided that royal icing would be better. It would stand out and look a little more interesting that just a flat printed surface and besides, the white of the frosting sheets didn’t quite manage to match the “virgin white” of the fondant.

To put the pattern on the cake top I used a variation of a method for creating Frescoes that I had read about in a children’s book on art called “Great Painters” that described how the artists first prepared the lime surface and then used paper with their painting design on it to transfer it to the fresco surface. The process is this: the pattern paper has dots/slits where the design is located and the artist transfers the pattern via a light water based paint or carbon dust by tracing over the pattern paper while it is attached to the fresco surface. It’s really a kind of underdrawing.

I traced the printed out pattern onto tracing paper, then I used an exacto knife to cut slits along the pattern. Next I put the pattern sheet on top of the fondant covered top tier and used an edible pen tip to push the pattern through very faintly on the cake. Finally, I applied (somewhat ineptly, I’m still not that great at piping royal icing steadily, it requires a surprising amount of pressure) the art deco lily design onto the cake top in royal icing!

Here’s the final finished product. I think it’s one of my favorites. I’m not sure what part was more fun, the artistic collaboration aspect or that it was part of a wedding ceremony of good friends!

And we all got to eat it too.