Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Cakes as Ceramics

I’ve always liked the idea of using ceramic decorative styles as an inspiration for cake decorating. So far I have limited my efforts to creating decorations that are merely reminiscent of the actual ceramic on various birthday cakes for friends and family. The two ceramic decorative styles that I’d tried up till now include Blue Delft and one that I fancied was at a little like “Chinese porcelain”. Both have cobalt blue painted designs on a white surface.

Blue Delft I’ve tried for a few years with very limited success. I can’t say that I ever got even close in color when I tried using the “brushed embroidery” look with royal icing. I got a better Blue Delft look when I tried it on my cake printer using one of the plate designs (altered to get the colors a little clearer) on my own birthday cake this year. I used the kind of rolled fondant (Fondx) that tastes good and can produce a wonderful lustrous smooth surface.

You can see it below.

Still, I wasn’t really satisfied. For one thing, the colors in the frosting sheet tend to bleed and blur after only a few hours and they don’t adhere well to a rolled fondant surface (this was prior to my subsequent experimentation with vegetable fat as glue).
The “Chinese porcelain” was a better attempt at ceramic design.

Actually, I used a modern version of a Talavera (a Mexican glazed ceramic) plate for inspiration. Talavera is neither Chinese nor porcelain, it is earthenware, meaning it was fired at much lower temperatures than true porcelain and does not include the requisite feldspar which was the secret sauce for the real thing. Talavera is the Mexican version of the Spanish maijolicas (glazewares) that dates to colonial times. The modern Talavera plate I used had a non-traditional heron bird in its center, in addition to the almost “busy” blue paint designs in the shape of plant like fronds and drops that seem to take up all the available space in the Talavera style.

I wanted the craqueleure look of some china (real porcelain supposedly doesn’t develop the fine cracks that are due firing temperature differentials) and figured that quick pour fondant was the way to go. Quick pour fondant is a kind of sugar glaze typically flavored with almond and the most common decoration of petit fours, those little rectangular cakes covered in frosting that are sweet enough to make your teeth hurt.
So, I made the cake and poured on the quick pour fondant which I’d never tried before and discovered two things at once. The first thing is that the stuff dries remarkably quickly so you have to get a nice even pour onto your surface the first try. The second is that the recipe I used was a little too much for my cake so I ended getting a fair amount on myself, the counter, and the floor. Luckily I’d had the forethought to do the pouring onto the cake prior to it being put onto a plate otherwise I’d have had a puddle of fondant and a cake floating on it on my plate.

The surface cracked up nicely (barely visible but still there) and it was nice and smooth and shiny, just like I had hoped. You can see the slight cracking below.

For the painted design, I opted to use paste food coloring. Paste food coloring is highly concentrated edible (or at least non-toxic) pigment that appears (from the ingredient list) to be suspended in some combination of glycerin and corn syrup. It is used in lieu of liquid food coloring because it does not alter the composition of the dough or icing like water would. It doesn’t really go bad though it can get “gummy” in texture over time.

Paste food coloring is typically used in icings, gum paste, fondant, and I suppose, cookies. I guess you could use it in cakes, though I have used liquid food coloring for cakes on those rare occasions that I have felt the need to dye a birthday cake green.

I decided to paint the design directly onto the fondant glaze using the unadulterated paste color as paint. This proved to be a mixed strategy. The fondant glaze was not hard but soft-ish with a crust, so painting on its surface proved difficult and also a tiny bit damaging. Also, it turned out that the paste color “navy” was the closest to cobalt blue on the white surface than any other color I had.

You can see the design and the cake up close below.

The one above is still my favorite decorated cake, but I don’t always like using a fondant glaze, so I tried out a variation on the painted ceramic theme a year later on a rolled fondant surface.

Once again, I painted a poppies design directly onto the cake’s surface. I didn't use a ceramic tradition directly to inspire this one, although I am fond of the poppy designs seen on some lacquer vessel work done in metal and glass. I used the food paste colors to paint the design. This is an ultimately flawed approach (although the colors are vivid) because as far as I know, they don’t dry. At least, probably not in the time that it takes to eat the cake. So, they may leave more color than I would like on the cake eaters themselves than I would like! Plus, if you make a mistake, you can’t really wipe it off and try again. The dye is VERY strong.

I made them for the same person, friend R, so he’s probably used to it by now…still, I wanted improvement.You can see the poppies here. The very nice script was not produced by me but by a fellow friend of R’s who, as you can see, has exquisite handwriting!

As an aside, I found out later that the Wilton baking Product Company had some product called “brush-on-color” available in rather bright shades for fondant application via stamps or brushes that would presumably dry. However, I didn’t care for their shades and I think they may be discontinued, so I wanted another solution for establishing a painting tradition on fondant covered cakes.

I decided to try a solution that I had used earlier on the UFO and Dalek cakes to apply metallic powder colors to fondant by painting them on in a vodka solution. The vodka evaporates leaving behind the paint. Why not for designs and regular colors? I figured they must have powder colors for practically every shade. They did. So I purchased a few for my next ceramic project.

This time I wanted to make one from a Mesoamerican ceramic type, Chalco/Cholula Polychrome. The friend for whom this cake was to be made studies the region and the ceramics in question. Additionally, friend D had pictures of the ceramics that would prove helpful in its reproduction in cake form.

By way of background, the two names refer to a region and a center, respectively. The Chalco region is the area in the southeastern Basin of Mexico that produced highly decorated elaborate polychromes in the Postclassic period. Cholula is a large site in central Puebla that has a lengthy occupational period, was known as a prehispanic religious/pilgrimage site, and also produced distinctive highly decorated elaborate polychromes that appear to have seen wider trade in the Postclassic period (time of the Aztecs, roughly speaking). The reason two names are attached to this particular ceramic type is because it is apparently difficult to distinguish vessels from the Chalco region from vessels from Cholula (though I imagine chemical sourcing helps). Here are some examples I used for inspiration.

The polychromes in question also apply a distinctive painting technology that involves double slipping. Slipping is a solution of clay and other minerals (often for color and surface treatments) added to water that is thin enough to be poured over the surface of already formed and partially dried clay vessels. Double slipping is exactly what it sounds like, pouring a second layer of slip on top of a previous slipped and dried layer.
For the Chalco/Cholula polychromes, it appears that double slipping was done by first applying a white slip and then an orange or orange/red slip on top of the white slip. Next, painted decorations or incising or a combination of the two would be applied. The double slipping has the effect of making the orange and orange/red distinctively “bright” in appearance. It is a technique that would appear to make the identification of these double slips *almost* apparent even without the occasional incising and rubbing off of the top orange slip that allows the white to peep through underneath.

Incidentally, double-slipping is one of those techniques often associated with Chalco/Cholula ceramics but it apparently also occurs earlier in other parts of Mesoamerica. At least, it does in the Gulf Lowlands. It is called “laca” in Spanish, which I believe simply means lacquer, a term which has been loosely applied to anything that produces a shiny hard surface though of course no actual resin is involved, just paint.

To get the “white slip” look, I simply covered the cake (golden buttercream) with white rolled fondant. Next, I used the vodka and a brush to apply the orange powder pigment to the surface. As you can see below, the colors are very bright and the brush application adds a certain look to the surface that is at least reminiscent of real double slipping.

In the end I achieved a very bright orange. And having seen a few samples of the Gulf versions of double-slipping, they can be vivid.

Next I applied the painted designs using powdered red and black pigments. The designs were based on actual Chalco/Cholula Polychromes from a museum collection.
Side design elements added below.

Top framing swirl added below.

Top design elements added below. I made the white circles by scraping off the orange paint and filling in the middle with red paint. That technique appeared to get the best approximate look of the ceramic designs from the photos.

Here's a close up of the top center below.

As you can see I mixed and matched a few design elements that I liked rather than copying any one pot wholesale. I imagine this kind of thing was done by the original potters themselves. The ceramic designs themselves weren’t that hard to imitate, although admittedly I lack the painting skill and technique of the original potters and I did choose the "easy" designs.

Of course, archaeologists attempt to guess at the motivations and reasons behind imitation because they can tell a lot about the people making them. And getting at the political, economic, and social implications from such residue is always a complicated process.

Sometimes imitation is the result of local artisans trying to compete with the distinctive beauty of Chinese porcelain for a European elite market (they invented bone china in the process). Elites often acquire exotic imported materials in social competition with each other and also because they've been trained to cultivate such tastes!
Other times imitation is the result of political relationships, the client states of imperial New Kingdom Egypt cultivated having Egyptian serving and eating vessels (though they did not use other items in the Egyptian ceramic repertory related to, for example, burial practices) possibly as a signal of their special relationship with Egypt.
Of course, generally it's not as simple as I am making it sound. Most imitation combines social, political, and economic factors.

People can be annoyingly messy in their motivations.

My own efforts at cake ceramic simulacra have similarly mixed motivations. Tragically, I am not required to analyze cake imitations for a living (though I imagine one could compare the decorative traditions of say, Australia with the US and get interesting results).
Perhaps another time.

For now, I can just happily eat cake and not worry about the subtext of recreating antiquities in cake form.

Here's the full view of the Chalco/Cholula Polychrome Cake: