What a wonderful opportunity for temporary insanity a child’s birthday party throws up for the modern parent. Eleven months of the year I could care less for the making, baking and lunchbox fussing that is supposed to come with child ownership, but a birthday party is SHOWTIME. It’s when you get all your crafty ya yas out because, dammit, people are watching. And if I could make one other parent think for just a second that I enjoy nothing more than making sugar paste effigies of Garfield and sewing up darling little costumes then it’s all been a worthwhile charade.
This year, Isaac (recently 6) decided upon a Transformers party. The theme, IMO, just gives you something to work with for cakes and invitations and is a good cue for presents when parents find themselves standing bewildered in the Kmart toy aisles. So a Transformers cake was planned, and it was at some very early stage of the cake planning that a mental picture of the sort of cake you can only realise with fondant was formed in my mind and nothing could be done to dislodge it.
I’ve been quietly obsessed with fondant cakes since forever. It’s food! But it looks like modelling clay! And you can make anything out of it! Then eat it! You could make a futuristic miniature city out of fondant then go stomping through it like Godzilla, randomly taking a bite out of people and buildings as the mood takes you. Despite visiting the Royal Melbourne Show for years just to see the decorated cakes and having unfettered access to all the relevant retail outlets, I had never actually taken the next step: I had never planned and created a fondant iced cake. It had just never occurred to me.
First stop: the internet. YouTube is an amazing resource for cake decorating. While some videos consist of nothing more than a finished cake shown rotating slowly to Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise”, many more are incredibly useful videos of professional pâtisiers giving brisk step by step demonstrations of cakes in progress. Fondant is quite easy to use if you follow the basic rules: be quick, be clean, don’t overhandle it, only colour it with powder or gel concentrate food dyes, don’t let it get too warm, and don’t put it in the fridge. I should imagine these last two rules make being a fondant artiste in the summer a total pain in the arse.
Having watched plenty of cake porn I was ready to hit the stores. You can get plain white Orchard brand fondant from Safeway for about three dollars, or you can buy pre-coloured stuff from specialty cake deco stores, which is useful if you need a deep colour and are wary about adding tons of expensive colouring only to end up with a disgusting seaweedy grey.
Wanting a flat surface and square edges for my Transformer cake, I cut off the rounded top of my cake and turned it upside down, then cut the basic shape from a template I’d printed out. The offcuts from the side of the cake were used as the pointy extra bits on the Transformers’ heads and glued into position with buttercream, which is a deliciously decadent whipped mixture of butter and icing sugar, with a tiny bit of milk and vanilla essence. Once you have a cake ready to cover you need to give the whole cake a “crumb coat” of buttercream to even out the surface and to give the fondant something sticky to adhere to. It’s possible to substitute the butter cream with a glue made from watered-down jam, but your cake has to be perfectly smooth or you’ll see the lumps in the surface of the fondant. By this stage I’d licked more beaters and spatulas than absolutely necessary and was feeling slightly ill.
Next was the main fondant layer. Starting with a clean and dry surface, I kneaded the fondant lump on the kitchen table until it was pliable like firm pizza dough. You can sprinkle cornflour on the table to stop it sticking but too much will dry it out. Then using a wide rolling pin I worked the dough into a 1/4″ thick sheet and carefully laid this over the cake. The fondant sheet is really strong, soft and beautiful to work with and only requires that you don’t stretch it once you have that 1/4″ thickness. Corners and crevices need gentle coaxing, feeding excess from the edge towards the areas requiring extra. The sheet can be smoothed with a fondant paddle once it’s in place. The fact that I now own a fondant paddle brings me joy and shame in equal parts.
Next: the coloured fondant. There’s really no end to what you could do with the stuff. Just look at some pictures on Flickr tagged with fondant and you’ll see what I mean. I used Wilton gel colours (available online) and got a nice blue but the red was kind of cack. I set about making the red Transformer face first, cutting the whole face out and then trying to lay it over the cake straight from my silicone mat. This was a total disaster and the face stretched and broke up as I was transferring it. This was getting on for 11pm the night before the party and I was getting a bit hysterical and overtired – not great conditions for delicate decorating of cakes. Finally I realised I could just roll out a sheet and cut it all to size once it was laid on. I ended up making the design in the soft fondant with the back of a paring knife before finally painting on the silver borders, which was an edible silver “lustre dust” mixed with a teensy bit of vodka. And a teensy bit more in a small chilled glass to celebrate the end of a job well done.
I think I’d like to do another fondant cake one of these days, perhaps with a few more working days to play with. I’d hate the pressure of doing a wedding cake at this stage but give me a few more years and I’ll be up for it.