Wednesday 14 March 2012

Novelty cake decorating course: lesson 1, the equipment

Cake decorating classes can be great fun and so useful if you want to expand your repertoire of cakes or techniques. I signed up for an 8-week evening class at my local adult education college - which incidentally is a lot cheaper than taking a private course, as adult education is government-subsidised. I think I'm paying around £70 for 8 two-hour sessions - a bargain! Though that was before I found out what equipment I would need to buy....
I would also point out that this is not the first cake decorating class I've done. I did a one-off cupcake decorating class, which was my first foray into the world of cake decorating, but is a million miles away from the level of skill I want to achieve. I also did a four-week evening class last year, which I haven't yet blogged about - I hadn't started this blog at the time, and I was saving the posts for a rainy day! They will go up soon - but it would help if Alphabakes came out with I, B or D any time soon! My point is though that the class I'm now taking didn't require any previous level of experience, but novelty cakes are obviously a step above standard cake decorating. There was one person in the class who didn't seem to have done anything before and was aware that she might struggle; at the other end of the scale there were some women who had taken every course on offer at this college and made passing references to covering their cake with sugarpaste at home to save time- which is something I think I will probably need help with! So there is clearly a range of abilities in the class and for anyone considering a cake decoration class, I would recommend one specifically aimed at beginners if you haven't done it before.
So last night was the first class and it didn't start too well. We'd been given a list of things to bring for the first session - a cake drum, a cake dummy, some sugarpaste, a rolling pin, icing sugar and food paste colouring - but some people had forgotten, so the tutor decided we wouldn't actually make anything this week and would go through the class plan and equipment list instead. I was a bit disappointed as it seemed a waste of a lesson and I'd been hoping to get started making something, even though in the end I did learn some useful stuff about different pieces of equipment.

The class is taught by Lorna, who seemed to really know her stuff, and was also willing to listen to what types of cake we wanted to make over the next few weeks. This particular course is a novelty cake decorating course, so we would be focusing on shaping cakes and creating cakes that look like... well, I don't want to give it away just yet! But let's just say shoes will feature heavily in the next few weeks' blogging :-)

So after introducing ourselves and explaining what we wanted to get out of the course, Lorna launched into the list of equipment. She was very good at answering questions and passing on tips, so in the absence of any photos from this week's class, I thought I'd share some of her insights here.

So for the novelty cake course I will need:

- CMC/tylose powder. CMC is Sodium Carboxymethyl Cellulose Gum, an artificial product that is used as a thickener. For instance you add it to sugarpaste to make it hard (i.e. turning it into modelling paste). The rough quantity is half a teaspoon of CMC to 250g sugarpaste.

- Cornflour. Random tip when using sugarpaste: when rolling it out, dust the board with icing sugar to stop it sticking. However when rolling out any other kind of paste, such as modelling or flower paste, use cornflour. This is because cornflour is tasteless but you can't use it with sugarpaste as there is some sort of fermentation reaction! However you can also use Trex - a vegetable shortening (i.e. lard) that is white in colour, as it won't dry out the sugarpaste or leave marks like icing sugar could.

- Food paste colours - colours that come as a paste, gel or powder are better to use than liquid ones

- Gum tragacanth. This is a natural substance similar to CMC with the same purpose of thickening and stiffening icing, but some people prefer to use it as it's a natural product. It is also used to make mexican paste (don't ask me what that is, I haven't found out yet!) and also to make sugar glue.

- Icing sugar

- Marzipan. This is optional - some people like to cover their cakes with marzipan before using sugarpaste, as you do when you make a Christmas cake. It can make for a smoother overall effect, but not everyone likes the taste of marzipan and you don't need to use it on a normal cake. On a Christmas cake it is needed to stop the alcohol in the cake soaking through to the icing.

- Mexican paste. OK, I gave in and googled it... it's apparently a soft fondant used for cutting out shapes and modelling. It's better than fondant or flower paste as it does not stretch or lose its shape.

- Sugar glue - edible glue to stick on icing

- Trex/ vegetable fat - see above

- Cake smoother/ polisher: this is a flat piece of plastic with a handle that you use to, well, smooth over the top of the cake once it has been iced

- Craft knife - for cutting out shapes

- Crank knife - a knife with a 'step' in it. Good for spreading buttercream and for picking things up like icing you have cut out. Because the blade lies flat on the table or the cake you're not using the point of the knife.

- Crimpers. For making decorative edging around a cake covered in sugarpaste. You sort of pinch them together to make a pattern.

- Dusting brush - any flat brush you can use for dusting over edible lustre and so on

- FMM Tappit alphabet set. FMM is the brand but you can buy others. These are effectively stencils you use with Mexican paste to make lettering for cakes. This one is called 'tappit' as you tap it to get the shapes out. We were told this was optional but Lorna added that professional lettering can make a huge difference to a cake - and as I've never tried to ice words by hand, I have a feeling it would ruin the effect!

- Garrett frill cutter. I've never heard of this; Lorna had one to show us and the best way I can describe it is as a sort of wheel. It makes a frill to go around the edge of a cake, though I don't really understand how!

- Long and short non-stick rolling pin. Lorna's long rolling pin was a fair bit longer than mine, and made of what looked like fibreglass or silicon or something whereas mine is wooden (and not non-stick). But she said that hers cost around £30 and not to go to the expense of buying one at this stage. I will however need a short rolling pin - about sic or seven inches long - which is used for detailed work.

- Marzipan spacers. I'd never seen these before either - they look like two long rods that you put on the table while you are rolling out sugarpaste or marzipan, to keep the rolling pin at a uniform height - that ensures your marzipan is rolled out to exactly the same thickness all over.

- Mini palette knife

- Patchwork cutters -these are a special kind of cutter used with Mexican paste. I'm not going to buy any though until I know what shape we need!
- Jem shoe cutter - luckily I already had this, as it costs about £15. I bought it on a whim last year and still haven't used it as it looked a bit complicated, so I'm very pleased that Lorna will now show me how!

- Cocktail sticks. Good for getting a tiny amount of colour paste out of the pot, amongst other things.

- Clingfilm - to wrap any open sugarpaste in, so it doesn't go hard

- Greaseproof paper - I think Lorna said we would use this when rolling things out

- Paper kitchen towels - always useful

- Scissors

- Small plastic bags - the resealable kind are good to store small cutters and also when you have made up quantities of sugar paste or Mexican paste
-Box to transport our work. Incidentally when you have made models to go on a cake, you should store them in a cardboard rather than plastic box, as they will sweat in the plastic.

- Non-stick rolling board

- Anti-bacterial kitchen surface spray: to use on the worktops especially if we're not rolling out on a board. And frankly I'll have so much to carry I don't think I can bring a board as well!

- Apron

- Cloth to wipe down your work surface

- Tea towel
And that's it! Crikey, that's a long list....
I went on the internet as soon as I got home and bought what I thought I needed. I already had a few things, and some things Lorna had said were optional, so I didn't need to buy everything. I realised it would take too long to shop around and if I bought things from different websites I would end up paying multiple amounts of p&p. Someone in the class recommended Ebay as well which was a great idea. I used one site primarily which Lorna recommended, called They had a huge range and the prices seemed pretty good, though I had to pay £6.49 p&p which seemed a little expensive (though I guess sugarpaste is heavy...) but I did also check on Ebay if I could find anything cheaper and bought a few things from there. In total I think I spent about £50, which isn't quite as bad as I thought when I saw the equipment list, but I already had some of the things on it and also decided I would do as Lorna suggested and make my own Mexican paste rather than buying any.
Lorna also mentioned a local cake decorating shop, and that TK Maxx often sells cake decorating items - but I can't get to either of these shops, as I don't drive and am not in the local area during the day, and I don't tend to go shopping at the weekends - in any case I'm away this weekend so wouldn't be able to get anything before next Tuesday's class anyway. I've realised being the only person in the class who didn't come by car is a pain for another reason - having to carry everything! At least this course is near my house so I can get home from work, grab something to eat and pick up what I need for the class, rather than coming straight from work (when I took the other cake class last year, I had to take everything into work on the train, including a big cake, and then carry it from work all the way to the class then all the way home again - and it was a long way!). But it's still a good 20 minute walk carrying what seems to be a lot of equipment - plus a cake to decorate! So as well as learning some new cake decorating techniques, it looks like I'll be building up some muscles as well!


  1. A long list of things indeed...and it's all down hill from here...I can't physically fit anymore cake decorating paraphernalia in! :-) Good luck with the shoe cake.

  2. That's a lot of stuff!! Might have thought of 4 of them...

    All of a sudden piping looks like the simple option!

    1. I'm bored of just piping on cupcakes now! I'm doing Ian a cow cake for his birthday and a shoe cake for my birthday!

  3. sounds like complicated stuff.


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