I am a huge fan of cake. I love baking cakes, decorating cakes… mostly eating cakes. I have had to make peace with the fact that despite my ‘A’ in Feminist Legal Theory, one of my happiest places is in my kitchen with a spatula.
Personalising the perfect cake for the right person on their special day is a true creative pleasure. As officiously self-appointed official family cakemaker, I’ve probably made made more than 150 cakes for friends and whanau over the last ten years. I’m no patissiere, but I have a couple of very reliable recipes and as an enthusiastic amateur I now know my way around a garden variety celebration cake.
I used to have to consult my cookbooks, go to to the library and internet for inspiration and that fellow cake enthusiast feeling. But it was pretty exciting to see the emergence of YouTube tutorials, television shows, and truly excellent websites dedicated to celebrating both brilliant cake making and, er, epic fails.
But here’s the thing – what has happened to cake decorating over the last three to four years is just plain nuts.
It’s no secret that most cakes fall within the high sugar, high fat treat food, category. It’s not meant to be an everyday food. But I am staggered by the trend to sheer excess and overuse of fondants, and frostings The decorations have taken over and the ratio of icing to cake is way out of whack.
The emphasis now seems to be on the form rather than the flavour. The result is sometimes amazing but not an amazing eating experience, as anyone who has ever chowed down on a plug of fondant will tell you. I’ve made my own share of fondant bumblebees and monkeys, but I’m growing increasingly uncomfortable with the priority that appearance is taking over the edible experience. I feel strongly enough that it may even be a personal manifesto: It has to be all about the delicious.
I blame the world domination of the cupcake, which has gone from a near muffin with a glaze and some sprinkles to an entire business model and the tired inspiration for a thousand chicklit covers. The cake acts simply as an apologetic support for an effulgence of overcoloured buttercream. Is it weird or a natural correlation that at this time of concern about body image and obesity, when type 2 diabetes is epidemic that there should be such an obsession for sugared decoration?
TV shows have to take a lot of the responsibility. Television is a visual medium, so the drama comes from how the cakes look rather than how they taste. The shows are fun, but they don’t have to focus on flavour and, lets face it, not every cake needs its own working hydroslide, thanks Ace of Cakes.
Pinterest is in the dock on this one too. While there’s some serious skill involved, fondant crafting seems to have taken over where Fimo left off, with ‘”Amazing ‘lil cowfaced mermaid cake topper tutorials” popping up all over Facebook, Youtube and Craftsy too. And maybe that’s the point, that it has become crafting rather than cooking.
Another personal rising concern is the seductively intense colour offered by the modern gel colourings. Again, I can’t claim high ground. I have three sons and have eaten a miniskip’s worth of bright blue icing during my parenthood. But am I the only person who thinks this probably isn’t quite right? If someone came along with some decent and effective ‘natural’ colourings I’d be an instant customer right there. But despite my searching there doesn’t really seem to be a good alternative offering just yet. Perhaps I should take a hint: maybe we just weren’t meant to eat cyan?
Gorgeous San Francisco bakery Miette put out a beautiful and useful book recently. I understood their philosophy is that a cake must be more about taste and texture than architecture and fashion. Their cakes are so so mouth watering and yet so simple and beautiful that I defy your mouth not to water when you look at them. And not a single one is overdone in its decoration.
Interestingly, Miette cakes aren’t huge either. The European influence at work here dictates that a small slice of divine quality is worth far more than an enormous slab of banality. I’d go with that.
Maybe you’re well ahead of me on this, but as my children leave their primary coloured baby years. I’m feeling a pull towards a more ‘natural’ style of baking. The low cal, artificial sweetener, apple-puree-butter-substitute is not for me – unless I am baking for someone with diabetes and my experience to date is that they don’t want it either. But I am interested in trying more nut flours and fruit ingredients such as those set out in New Zealander Amber Rose’s recently published book Love, Bake, Nourish. I’ll bet I can find a way to personalise those suckers.
What’s your favourite celebration cake?