Get your mixing bowls out and aprons on! Following National Cake Decorating Day on 10 October 2022, let’s make October cake month. Grace Stevens, South Africa’s buttercream goddess and skilled cake crafter is here to whisk us through some cake baking history as well as share a few useful decorating tips for your next cake masterpiece.
Where it all began
It is thought that cake baking first started in ancient Egypt, although these were nothing like what we consume today. The first cakes were more of a bread-like consistency and sweetened with lashings of thick syrupy honey. The Greeks modified this to create an early version of what we now know as cheesecake, while the Romans added raisins, berries, nuts, and fruit to their mixture to create the first ever fruitcake.
It took a few more years of trial and error, coupled with advances in technology and a better understanding of ingredients before bakers in Europe crafted the modern-day cake. Round, plain on the inside and topped with delicious icing, this is the cake we all know and love so much today. At this time, icing was made using a mixture of boiled sugar, egg whites, and some flavourings like chocolate. These sweet ingredients were expensive, so cakes were considered a luxurious treat, made, and consumed for special occasions like weddings.
Originally a wedding cake was used to crown the bride and was crumbled over her head for prosperity. Celebratory birthday cakes only appeared in Germany in the 18th century, although it is thought that the Romans made cakes with candles to celebrate male birthdays much earlier than that.
Early cake decorating consisted of placing usually inedible trinkets on the top of the cake. However, this developed too with time, with crafters discovering innovative ways of adding edible décor to their baked treats. They first dabbled with almond paste before moving onto a sugar paste to create delicate flowers that were made popular by French pastry chefs.
Wedding cake variations
As connoisseurs of divine pastry, it is little wonder that the traditional French wedding cake is a croquembouche encompassing delicate balls of choux pastry that is baked and then filled with delicious vanilla cream. They are then piled on top of each other to create a dazzling tower and are usually adorned with edible flowers and a shimmering glaze.
It Italy, a wedding cake is called millefoglie, which derives its name from the French mille-feuille. Literally translating to a thousand layers, it is made of sheets of puff pastry layered on top of each other with a light pastry cream in-between.
The traditional English wedding cake tends to be a much denser fruit cake, covered in almond paste and royal icing. Usually the top tier is frozen, and eaten by the couple a year later, on their first anniversary.
Cakes made of eggs, flour, sugar, and milk are not traditionally African, but South Africa has embraced the wedding cake trend full on, adding our cultural flair in the form of bright colours. Xhosa wedding cakes for example are decorated in black and white to reflect their heritage.
Grace’s three cake decorating tips
- Have fun
There is no rulebook when it comes to cake decorating and the possibilities are endless. Roll up your sleeves, get creative and have fun with your creations, and don’t mind the mess.
- Be patient
A lot of cake decorating requires practice so don’t be too hard on yourself when you get things wrong. Give yourself plenty of time for mishaps, keep positive and remain patient – after all practice makes perfect right?
- Keep your guests in mind
The perfect sweet treat for a happy gathering – a cake is a great way of bringing joy to others. Remember the type of guest that you are catering to when you begin decorating. If you’re baking for a children’s party you can probably go to town on creativity and be a little more carefree, while a high-end formal wedding reception will require a cake executed with greater restraint, precision, and sheer perfection.
For more delectable recipes, easy tips and online tutorials, shop, and live classes visit www.gracestevens.co.za or follow her on Grace_stevenschef or Facebook grace_stevenschef.
Grace’s easy cake recipes to try!
Vanilla Bean Cupcakes or Cake with Granadilla buttercream by Grace Stevens
Double Chocolate Cake with Caramel Buttercream by Grace Stevens