Resolutions & Realisations

25 01 2011

So another year has passed and as we enter a new one I’m once again pondering whether I’ll be able to keep on top of blog posting as much as I would like to.  I was going to make a New Year resolution but I don’t think my brain could handle the additional guilt at not being able to stick to my promise.  Instead my focus is on a fresh start.  While life has been kicking me in the behind recently my baking has been neglected and part of me is happy with that.  Don’t all faint at once, it’s taken me a long time to realise that I have no one to answer to when it comes to how often I bake, or blog, or even brush my teeth (well except my dentist)  I think I’m still under the misapprehension that everything I undertake is being overseen by some higher being that has some power to punish me if I fail.  What exactly am I failing at if I don’t bake when no one has asked me to, ordered something from me or is paying me to do so?  The answer is nothing.  I don’t fail at life if I down baking tools, take a break and pay some attention to what is happening around me.  It’s something I’m still learning about & I can’t say I’ve progressed very much but I’m trying to bring the enjoyment back.  Every hobby or interest I’ve ever taken on has very quickly morphed into a chore and baking has been gradually becoming a monster in my life.  At times I feared the passion was gone altogether, I couldn’t even get motivated to think about it never mind produce something worthy of consumption. However I find myself with renewed vigour and the love for the art is back.  Now is the time to put the passion to good use and learn to balance the need to bake with the need to have a life too.  I was bitter for so long that I couldn’t pursue this full time, that other bakers, cake decorators, food bloggers had it lucky and I was forever destined to reconcile invoices while dreaming about macarons & brownies.  I can’t say I’m happy to acknowledge that this may well be my future, no one can know for sure, but I do know that I should not let that affect the love that is in my heart for the craft.

 Now that I’ve shared that insightful little part of my psyche with you I’m going to move onto more constructive information.  Not only was I finding it hard to find time to bake amongst the madness I couldn’t get past the fact that my baking equipment was a mess.  There was no point pretending any longer, I wasn’t even sure what was lurking at the back of the cupboards and instead of creating a space for everything I was just piling new on top of old and holding my breath hoping the whole Jenga like construction wouldn’t fall down round my ears the next time I opened the cupboard.

I’ve decided to share my organisational skills with the world in the hope that it inspires you to de-clutter or even to start picking up the tools of the trade that you think you might need to embark into the crazy baking world.

First things first, this is the horror before I tackled it:

There was more to this mess but I’ll refrain from bombarding you with it all.

And this is the result, totally worth 5 hours of my precious day off, really.

I’ve decided to delve deeper into each of the boxes to share my  basic baking toolkit.  I don’t consider my  collection to be large but I’m sure some beginners would find it overwhelming.  In order to save your sanity I’ll put the rest after the jump…apologies for the lengthy ramblings!

The Basics

I started my first forays into baking with one spoon and a plastic cup which didn’t even have measurements on it.  The creations then may not have been masterpieces but they were edible so it just proves that despite the need for some tools, fancy equipment does not a baker make.  I’d consider the collection above to be a great starting set.

Spatulas are a must.  I’ve tried several and my favourite for sturdiness & flexibility are Le Creuset.  They may be expensive but in this case, they’re worth it.  A cake tester can be easily replaced by cocktail sticks, skewers or even a knife but at less than £1 it doesn’t break the bank to have one or two of these to hand for quick testing.  Offset spatulas are a recent addition to my arsenal.  They are so useful for icing, especially if you aren’t covering your buttercream with fondant or want a nice crisp edge to your ganache coating.  A pizza cutter is a godsend when working with fondant and sugarpaste,  it cuts cleanly without the drag or tearing that can happen with a standard knife.  I’ve tried plastic ones but they really don’t cut as precisely so metal is definitely the best option.  I didn’t have any modelling tools for a few years but I must admit they’re a great addition to the toolkit.  I tended to use whatever was at hand to sculpt with but having the right shaping tools makes a big difference especially for making figures.  I find a ruler useful mainly for measuring a stacked cake to roll out enough fondant to cover it but it also makes a handy scraper for my silicone mat, I can clear away all the icing sugar and scraps, ready for a fresh piece of fondant. I have a large selection of paintbrushes but tend to stick to the same few, mainly for painting fine detail or applying lustre dusts.  I also use a larger one to clean the icing sugar off cakes with a touch of vodka.

Colours

When I first ventured into decoration, as opposed to just baking something that tasted good, the only items I knew about were shop bought coloured fondant and the watery colours that you buy in any supermarket beside the almond essence and dessicated coconut. I soon realised that those colours weren’t going to cut it.  After a lot of trial & error & some rather vile chemical tasting concoctions I found out about other colour options.  Many of the baking blogs I follow religiously are American and many of the products they extol the virtues of aren’t available here (or at least without exorbitant shipping/ customs costs)  so I found some online friends that used UK brands with similar results.  I use mainly Sugarflair paste colours and lustre dusts.  To be honest I haven’t ventured too far from Sugarflair solely because I’m really happy with the results and cost so see no urgency to try something new.  Feel free to do some research but I find the ones I’ve bought via ebay or through my favourite UK online shops have been reasonably priced & lasted ages.

Black Extra and Red Extra are essentials IMHO, achieving a true black is tiring and black extra takes a little of the hard work away.  I tend to buy a small package of premade black sugarpaste when I just don’t want the struggle.  I rarely buy any other pre-made colours, everything you see on my cakes is coloured by hand.  Aside from the black and red I’d recommend an ice blue, melon & party green.  You should be able to make most colours from those basics without the need for additional colours.  As you can see I also have some lustre dusts.  These are powdered colour that can be brushed on with a dry paintbrush to give a shimmer to fondant decorations or mixed with rejeuvenator spirit to make various sparkly liquid colours.  I have a few colours but the most used are the silver and gold.  Rejeuvenator spirit is also useful for cleaning lustre dust off brushes as it can dry out quickly and clump the bristles together.  Gum Tragacanth is a white powder that you mix with fondant when you’re mixing your colours to give it a little extra strength.  It makes it harden that little bit quicker and stronger.  I don’t use it too often as I’ve had varied results so I try to make fondant figures at least a few days in advance in order for them to harden as much as possible before being placed on the cake.

The variety of shimmers, lustres, liquids & glitters are endless just a few of the basics can make a big difference to your decorating.

Piping

This is one area of decorating that I feel least confident with.  I know that it will improve with practice but being a perfectionist I’m usually reluctant to even spend time practicing as I know it will end in tears.  Despite the lack of experience I have gathered a nice basic set of piping tips.  For cupcakes I tend to stick with a nice large star tip and the smaller tips are used for piping royal icing onto cakes or cookies.  I have attempted basketweave a few times but with very mixed results so it’s something I need to re-visit.  I’m also going to try the flower tips as soon as I pluck up the courage, as I would love to master the buttercream roses that are adorning so many beautiful cupcakes these days.

In this picture you can see a basic small piping tip set, with the couplers and cleaning brush included.  You should be able to pick up a nice combination set for less than £20.  Alternatively you can buy individual tips for a few pounds each.  I’d recommend not skimping on the quality, the plastic ones just don’t cut it & the cheap metal ones just rust.  Also in the picture you can see the pipers best friend, disposable piping bags!  I spent a few frustrating years grappling with material piping bags that had to be washed out thoroughly and dried before they could be reused.  They were hideous and I can’t thank Lakeland enough for introducing me to the disposable kind!  You can also see flower nails in the pic.  These are traditionally used for holding a buttercream flower while you pipe it, they are easily turned while holding a piping bag in the other hand.  I use mine for a completely different purpose.  When making large sheetcakes (usually over 13″ long) the edges can start to burn while the centre is still unbaked.  A flower nail eradicates this problem.  Grease and line your tin as normal, place the flower nail in the centre of the tin with the nail spike facing up.  Make sure it is well greased.  Pour the batter in around the nail, bake the cake as usual and once it’s cooled in the tin, tip it over, remove the lining then carefully remove the flower nail.  There will be a small hole which is practically imperceptible but the centre of the cake will be evenly baked.

Cutters

This area of baking magic is an endless one.  I, along with every baker I know, could extol the virtues of the multitude of cookie cutters available out there or lurking at the back of their baking cupboards for months on end. I’ve amassed what I consider a decent collection but I know plenty of fab cookie aficionados that would beg to differ.  I’ve heard of some who have in excess of 500 cutters, I daren’t even imagine the storage involved there!  The top picture shows some of the most useful sets I own.  I started with the most basic and most widely used, the circles.  I’ve found the double edged plastic sets to be perfect for a wide range of uses, from simple sugar cookies to fondant cake decorations.

The lower picture shows just a selection of my random cutters including vegetables, bones, a variety of gingerbread men & shapes.  I’ve also gathered several sets of letter cutters which have come in very handy over the years for cake decorating.

Tappits

This little selection of cutters takes things to another level.  The flower & leaf cutters are for creating sugarpaste/ fondant decorations.  They are quite straightforward to use and add a nice touch to cupcake or cake decorations.  The tappits are a whole other story.  In my haste to learn as much as possible, over the years I’ve made some purchases that I probably should have thought more about.  Tappits is a case in point.  I saw some fabulous cakes with funky lettering that looked so neat and crisp and I thought I had to have the tools to make that fine lettering because my piping left a lot to be desired!  I asked around and was told that they were tappits.  I scoured the net but found that they were too expensive so I waited until I could find them a little cheaper.  I finally got around to buying some and excitedly rolled my fondant to try them out.  Well, could I figure out what I was doing wrong?  Not one letter would work out for me, they would break or get stuck in the cutters.  I tried several times but to no avail.  So I pushed the tappits to the back of the cupboard and ignored them for several months.

So after more frustration at my lack of piping skills I decided the try the tappits again.  This time I followed the instructions exactlyand amazingly not every letter was unusable.  After a lot of practice I started to learn the tricks behind the tappits, the right length of time to leave the fondant to harden, the perfect thickness to roll the fondant out & they started to become an asset rather than a liability.  I’d recommend a set as an investment because with some practice they can be very useful tools indeed.

Cupcake wrappers

These are somewhat of an obsession with me.  Ridiculously I make less cupcakes than any other baked goods but I have enough wrappers to keep me baking for years.  I think it’s because they’re a relatively cheap item to pick up when you see a cute pattern or different sizes.  I have far too many mini wrappers and rarely make mini cupcakes, I tend to use mine more for cake truffles or little sweets.  As a basic set you could get away with having a white set that cost £1, really its the flavour/ decoration that people will remember but there’s no denying a very unique or cute wrapper will tie a theme together.  I don’t have any pictures of my latest acquisitions which are the lasercut wrappers that have become very popular recently.  I was lucky to receive a few sets for Xmas and have bought a few myself but must admit they’re far too expensive at between £3 and £10 for a set of 12 wrappers to warrant buying in bulk for a cupcake order.  I’m saving mine for a special occasion but suspect I’ll just take them out to look at or use for photos without ever giving them away!

Edible decorations

This is just a selection of the edible decorations or elements to my baking.  The most important item is the vanilla angel delight.  I use a stabilised vanilla cream as a topping or filling on many of my cakes and vanilla delight is a vital ingredient.  I usually have several of these amongst my edibles.  Sprinkles are another item that I could easily get carried away with.  I’ve tried to keep my stock low so that I use up what I have but when I see a new tub of something I haven’t used before I tend to snap it up fearing it will never be seen again.  I tend to buy these pots when they’re on offer in supermarkets or even in pound shops, I recently got some great sugar pearls and sprinkles sets at all less than £1 in B & M Bargains.  The Meri-white powder is a recent purchase.  After a few years of using fresh egg whites to make royal icing I decided to be a bit more food safe and use a powder substitute in order to avoid potential problems using fresh/ raw egg.  I found it a little annoying using the powder instead of egg whites, I wasn’t too happy with the royal icing it produced so I’ve recently been using ready made royal icing mix instead.

Impressions

The green mats on the right are impression mats.  I use these to apply texture to fondant, either for the sides of a cake or on a base to set a cake on.  They’re a little more expensive than some items I’ve bought but work the money to produce a look that would take much longer to create by hand.  I also have 2 large mats with swirl & paisley impressions.  The rulers were part of a kids set but come in handy with their variety of edges.  The roller was a Xmas gift from family.  It’s got a range of parts to create beaded effects or lines to pipe over, add decoration with or create edging in fondant.  I haven’t had the opportunity to use it yet but hope I get the chance soon.

Non-edibles

Above are a selection of items that I’ve gathered over the years which have come in handy but aren’t necessarily essential.  The thin ribbon is used mainly for tying treat/ cookies bags or decoration cupcake wrappers or boxes.  I have kept larger ribbons from gift boxes and used them on plain cakes to add some colour or on packaging.  The labels are for chutney/ jam jars and I used them for the first time this Xmas when I made my own chutneys to give as gifts.  The straws are probably the most used item as I use them as supports in tiered cakes.  I used to have wooden dowels but find that the straws are cleaner, simpler to remove & so much easier to cut to size too!  The lollipop sticks are a recent purchase, I’m hoping to make some cake pops as soon as I have the time so I snapped these up last time I found them on offer online.

So there you have it.  An introduction to a variety of items in my baking arsenal.  It’s in no way an exhaustive list and there are so many more things I’ve realised I didn’t include as I’ve written this post but I’ll save those for another time.  I hope to find the time to introduce my readers to my baking book collection which has grown so large in the last few years & I’ll also have a giveaway of one or two cookbooks that I’ve found very useful. 

As I’ve mentioned many of these items have been bought for me or found in the high street shops, supermarkets or £1 shops but I use online shops quite frequently too.  There are a few links at the side but the one I use the most has to be http://www.cakescookiesandcraftsshop.co.uk/ I’ve never had any problems, delivery has always been really quick and they have a great range available.  I’m in no way endorsed by CCC shop, I’m just a very happy customer!

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2 responses

1 02 2011
Dawniepants

I am hugely jealous of your collection! ESP the cupcake wrappers i also share an addiction for picking them up!
I’m currently still v intermediate in my tools, bowl, wrappers 1 set of cutters 2 cake pans you see my point?
But your cupboard looks amazing, I very much need to tidy mine as there are icing nossles everywhere ( another obsession).

Xx

1 02 2011
leangel

Thanks for the comment Dawn. It seems like only yesterday that I was buying my first spatula and coloured wrappers. Its weird to look back and see how much I’ve amassed and how much I’ve learnt over the last 6 years or so. In some ways I’m envious of you with one set of cutters and pans, I’ve almost got so much it’s hard to know where to start when I get the baking itch. I want to try everything I own so sometimes I end up not trying anything at all, so overwhelmed by choice.

I definitely say get tidying, it’s given me a whole new lease on my baking life. I actually want to start new projects because I know exactly where everything is!

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