I’ve been decorating cakes for 15 years now, and I’ve learned a lot along the way. Here are a few things I wish someone had told me, so I didn’t have to find out on my own.
1) No cake is perfect. I’ve spent countless hours over the years admiring other peoples’ work, and wishing mine could be equally perfect. In fact, I once emailed Ron Ben-Isreal, a major celebrity in my world, to tell him how much I admired his flawless work. I was shocked that he wrote back, but even more shocked to learn that he saw many flaws in his own cakes. The truth is, you can probably spot a flaw if you look closely enough at any cake, and I’d bet the designer could spot many more. Instead of focusing on the flaws, I now try to be objective about my work and view it the way other people would.
2) Fondant CAN be refrigerated. This was a big one for me. I took my first fondant class at a small cake decorating store in Jackson Heights, NY, in 1999. We were taught that fondant should never be refrigerated. One summer several years ago, I drove a cake all the way up to Malibu in the heat. When I got there, the buttercream filling had softened and tried to escape, leaving unsightly horizontal ridges and allowing the cake to compress, all of which caused the fondant to buckle. It was my first and only complaint from a bride, but I was devastated. I called my friend Melody from Sweet and Saucy Shop to lament my misfortune. It was she who told me that fondant could, in fact, be refrigerated. I now always refrigerate my cakes, transport them in a commercial cooler, and have not had a problem since. (Note: Set your fridge to the warmest possible temperature to reduce the difference between the air temp and fridge temp. Depending on the weather, your cake might form condensation when you take it out. Be sure to allow time for the condensation to evaporate, and don’t touch it during this time as the fondant is very sticky.)
3) It’s important to invest in your craft and yourself. Quality tools make a huge difference and save you a lot of time. Although it may seem like a big investment at the outset, if you calculate all the time you waste with cheap materials, you’ll find that the investment actually saves you money in the long run. I once bought inexpensive fondant that dried out very quickly, spent countless hours trying to work with it, and in the end, had to purchase the other, more expensive fondant. I spent more money and wasted more time than I would have had I bought the better fondant right off the bat.
4/ No one knows what the cake looks like in your imagination. In your mind, the cake for your daughter’s third birthday is perfect: the pink a lovely rosey shade, the vertical stripes exactly 1″ wide. When all is said and done, the pink is more like fuchsia, and you didn’t have time for the stripes. All your guests can see is a beautiful cake with pretty pink roses. They can’t read your mind, so to them, it looks exactly as it was supposed to.
5/ Make every cake like someone is going to see it. Regrettably, I don’t have time to read many blogs, but I found myself reading a post on wedding photographer Jasmine Star’s blog one day. I don’t know if this is what she meant, but this is what I got from it, and it stuck with me: Don’t ever shortchange yourself or your clients. Give them what you would want and expect for yourself. Strive to do your best. Everything you put out there represents you. Make it count.
6/ Use a ribbon cutter for vertical stripes. An inexpensive and indispensable tool that I somehow didn’t know about until two or three years ago. Although others are on the market, I have found that the FMM Multi-Ribbon Cutter is the best.
7/ You’ll find your style. When I taught high school, by the end of the semester, I could identify each of my 150 students’ handwriting. Cake design is like that: everyone has his or her own individual “handwriting”. Early in my career, I tried to emulate every cake artist whose work I admired, but like trying to forge your mom’s signature, it never quite worked. Eventually, I found myself using techniques over and over and applying them in new ways that I had developed, and using colors that I’ve liked since I was a kid. I stopped thinking so much about defining myself as an artist and just let my own style emerge.
8/ Keep learning. From doctors to teachers, all professionals are expected to stay current with new developments and practices in their field. Jacqueline Butler, of Petalsweet in San Diego, told me that she tries to take a class every year with someone whose work she likes. Classes are a wonderful way to stay current with new trends, learn new techniques, grow as a professional, and meet fellow cake designers. Thanks to Jacqueline, now I too try to take at least one class every year.
Because I am still learning and evolving as an artist, this list is in no way comprehensive. I hope to revisit this list and add to it in the future, but for now, I hope you can benefit from my experiences and mistakes. I have truly grown from them.
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EIGHT THINGS I LEARNED THE HARD WAY