Newcastle, NSW, Australia
I’m a former industrial chemist, and after deciding on a career change while at home with my two young children, I’m now a qualified pastry chef. In 2009 I started taking some classes in cake decorating and other pastry-related cookery, and taught myself many more decorating techniques from books and internet resources. In 2010 I started a pastry apprenticeship, studying Retail Baking (Cake & Pastry) Certificate III at TAFE, which I completed with Distinction in 2012. I completed my apprenticeship in December 2013, and am now working as a full time Pastry chef and Cake Decorator at 'Exquisite Cakes by Lennert' in Cessnock, NSW.

Friday, August 21, 2009

All Dressed Up

I walked to playgroup today, two kids in the double stroller and sixteen gingerbread passengers in a container underneath. It’s the first time in months that I’ve walked any distance with the stroller, and even now, I still feel completely buggered. It wasn’t until I was about to get Rebecca’s dinner ready that I realised I still haven’t posted photos of the finished gingerbread people. So here they are (or should I say, as they were… they’ve all been eaten now!) dressed up and ready for playgroup…

 
Okay… if you look at them as an extra-fun morning tea treat for the kids, then they’re great. However, my real reason for making these biscuits was for piping practice. Sure, they might look good at first glance, but if you look at them closely, it’s stating the bleeding obvious to say that I still can’t pipe to save myself.

Rolling dough between two sheets of baking paper, good… using baking paper cones with snipped tips as plain piping bags, BAD. I didn’t like using them at all. I used paper cones for most of Cameron’s birthday cake, but I still slipped piping nozzles inside them. I just couldn’t get consistent lines out of the snipped cones for love nor money. The tip openings seemed to stretch, as the lines became thicker and thicker as time went on. I also sometimes ended up with a “ribbon” instead of a cylindrical line from where the scissors must have squashed the tips flat.

But, piping disasters aside, my gingerbread people were a hit at playgroup. They tasted fantastic, and even though the kids wouldn’t have appreciated how much work had gone into them, the mums certainly did. And we often learn by trial and error… although I seriously can’t see myself doing much more multi-colour piping unless I invest in a bunch of plain nozzles.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Gingerbread People

“Run, run, run, as fast as you can... you can’t catch me, I’m the Gingerbread Man!” I can vaguely recall trying to make gingerbread once or twice somewhere in the dim dark past, but not doing what you’d call a spectacular job. Regardless, I’m going to call this my first SUCCESSFUL attempt at making gingerbread people. Piped icing clothes are still to come (and there are actually twice as many as in the photo), but this is what they look like naked…

 
I made a couple of handy discoveries while making these biscuits. The first was just a lucky coincidence that four of them fit rather neatly onto one of my cookie sheets, but the second was a stroke of sheer genius, even if I do say so myself. I’ve always been a fan of rolling out dough between two sheets of baking paper. So today I rolled out a portion of dough, peeled off the top layer of paper, cut out two boys and two girls, and removed the dough trimmings. I looked at the lined tray, then looked at the four dough cut-outs, wondering how I was going to transfer them to the tray without them getting stretched out of shape.

Light bulb moment! The cutouts were already on baking paper, the bottom layer used when rolling out the dough. I simply trimmed the baking paper around the cut-outs and slid the paper, biscuit dough and all, onto the tray. Brilliant! No mess, no fuss, no gingerbread deformities. It worked so well! I now know EXACTLY how I’ll be doing any kind of cut-out biscuits in future.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

My First Cupcakes!

Today I baked my first cupcakes ever! I’ve made plenty of muffins, and probably as many mini muffins, but I didn’t even own any cupcake-size tins until two days ago. The cupcakes for the class were supplied by the teacher, so this is the first time I’ve made them myself. I used the same Madeira cake recipe that I made Cameron’s birthday cake from. The quantities for a 6 inch tin gave me a dozen cupcakes, which was a good sized test batch.

I need to do some more hunting for better quality cupcake cases, though. The supermarket only had “cheap and nasty” ones with gaudy prints, and they aren’t even cut straight. I carefully smoothed the batter in each paper case, noticing as I went that when they were sitting flat with the batter nicely leveled, one side of the case sat distinctly higher than the other. The cakes rose perfectly evenly and found their own level, but when you look at them side-on from the right angle, they're obviously deformed. Not a huge issue for the average home baker, I guess, but for someone wanting to do professional quality decorating, they just don’t cut it.

Thankfully this was just a test batch and I never intended to ice or decorate them, because they hadn’t been on the cooling rack more than a minute before I gave in to temptation. Mmmm… fresh cupcakes straight from the oven, still warm and crunchy on top! Whenever I bake muffins, one or two always seem to disappear before they’ve had a chance to cool, but I wouldn’t have had a hot freshly baked cupcake since my mum made them when I was little. Ahhh, childhood memories come flooding back!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Almond Puffs

These meringuey-macaroony things were a joint effort between Rohan and myself that basically came about because I accidentally bought a packet of natural almonds instead of the roasted ones that we normally snack on. Rather than just throw them out, we thought we might as well try to make something out of them. Rohan found this recipe for Almond Puffs, which involved blanching, toasting and processing the raw almonds and folding them into a simple vanilla flavoured meringue mixture. (Yeah, I know, they don't look that exciting, hardly worth getting the camera out for... )


This batch of Almond Puffs is destined for our Dungeons & Dragons group tomorrow night. I like to bake for get-togethers where possible, both to get some feedback on my cooking from others and so that Rohan and I don’t end up eating entire batches of baked goods on our own . We play D&D every second Friday night, and even though our coeliac Dungeon Master says he doesn’t mind, I still always feel guilty when I take along yummy baked treats that he can’t eat. No such problems this week…since the recipe contains only almonds, egg white, sugar and vanilla, it also gets bonus points for being gluten free!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Too much of a good thing!

I’ve taken a bit of a hiatus from baking and blogging since my classes on Saturday. Last Thursday, Friday and Saturday would have to have been one of my busiest three day stretches in recent memory. Such an unfortunate coincidence that the classes were the day after Cameron’s birthday. Too much cake for one weekend! Cake for morning tea, cake for afternoon tea, cake for dessert… I even had a brief period over the last couple of days where I just couldn’t face eating any more!

I can honestly say that my first chocolate mud cake was easily one of the nicest mud cakes I’ve ever tasted, and certainly one of the richest! Rohan has had more of it than me… I just can’t eat that much dark chocolate at a time. The cupcakes are long gone, Cameron and I finished off Bob the Builder last night, and there’s only about an eighth of the mud cake left. I haven’t had any of the mud cake since Sunday, and Rohan just told me that the rest is ALL MINE!!!

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Decorating Workshops

Today I had my two cake decorating classes at Hunter Community College, Cupcakes in the morning and Working with Chocolate in the afternoon. It was an enjoyable day, but unfortunately I had a splitting headache by the end of it. With everything I’ve had going on over the last few days, I’ve been up very late the last two nights, and lack of sleep plus being so busy finally caught up with me. It took a while for the painkillers to kick in, but my brain is finally functional again!


We decorated four cupcakes each in the morning class, covering them with ganache and fondant, then adding various decorations. Marilyn, our teacher, walked us through making the ribbon rose and monster cake, and showed us how to cover the heart shaped cake in fondant. The decorating on the heart and the last cupcake was entirely up to us. I wasn’t impressed with the ribbon rose, but the class leaned toward showing what could be done without specialist cake decorating equipment. Time constraints meant that my monster didn’t have the full mouth of teeth that I would have liked, and my last cake had to be a fairly simple cut-out. Out of the four, I was happiest with my “hearts & flowers” cake.

 
Lunch break, the bring on the chocolate! First we made up our modelling chocolate, then made ganache to cover the cakes, added chocolate collars, and lastly made roses and leaves from the modelling chocolate. Again, things were a little rushed at times due to the three hour timeframe. I was one of the last to get my chocolate collar on, and there were a few breaks and cracks where the chocolate was spread too thinly. I was happy enough with my roses for a first attempt, but I ran out of time and had to make the leaves later at home. By this time the modelling chocolate seemed much firmer and easier to work with, so I’m looking forward to trying roses again when I don’t have to worry so much about the clock.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Chocolate Mud Cake

No rest for the wicked… the birthday candles have been packed away and the kids put to bed, and I’m already back in the kitchen working on my next baking project. The Decorating with Chocolate class I’m doing tomorrow requires students to take their own cake to decorate, so I’m sticking with the chocolate theme and baking a mud cake.

I’ve never made a mud cake before, and all I can say is that I hope it’s supposed to be a REALLY runny batter. And I hope I’ve lined the tin enough, as it’s supposed to take around an hour and forty minutes to cook. I didn’t have any brown paper, so I just lined the inside of the tin with baking paper and wrapped quite a few layers of newspaper around the outside.

I’m finding the thought of having newspaper in the oven a little nerve-wracking, even though my cake decorating book assures the reader that it won’t burn because the oven temperature is low enough to be safe (so, what is Fahrenheit 451 in Celsius, anyway?). Safe or not, the strange smell that started coming from the oven within minutes of putting the cake in almost made me want to pull it back out and take off the newspaper collar. But I crossed my fingers and left it on, and I sincerely hope that the dodgy smell is just the volatiles in the ink burning off.

I’ll be stoked if my first mud cake turns out as well as my first Madeira cake, but I won’t be losing any sleep if it doesn’t. I just need a cake to decorate tomorrow, it’s not for a special occasion, and it’s a good opportunity to try another new recipe. Whether the tin in the oven holds a mud cake or a mud brick, that’s what I’ll be decorating tomorrow.

The Verdict... YUMMY!!!

I can now happily report that Cameron’s cake tastes as good as it looked. The birthday boy, his Nanna and Pa, Aunty Shell, Grandma and I all enjoyed a slice this afternoon. Unfortunately Daddy was at work and a bit bummed about missing the cutting, but he’d said I might as well do it while the family were all here. I must admit, I did have a brief “NOOO!!! I spent so much time on this, I don’t want to cut it!” moment, but I guess you wouldn’t get far as a cake decorator if you couldn't handle having your creations carved up. I wonder, is that what they mean by "you can't have your cake and eat it too" ???

Happy Birthday Cameron!

My little boy is 3 today! He’s still asleep, but I was awake early so I thought I might as well get up and get a head start. I made Cameron’s cake yesterday because I knew I wouldn’t have time today. Birthday or not, Friday is our playgroup day and I still want to take the kids today, especially since we’ve missed the last two weeks while the kids have had the flu. This afternoon we’re expecting some birthday visits from family, and tonight I’m back in the kitchen to whip up a chocolate mud cake for my decorating class tomorrow.

 
Overall, I’m pretty stoked with how the cake turned out. Again, the piping is a bit uneven and there are a few little gaps here and there. It doesn’t really show so much on the photo, but looking at the actual cake, I can see all the boo-boos and patch-ups a mile away. I’m probably being a bit hard on myself… it’s still a thousand percent up on my previous efforts at kids birthday cakes. Anyway, the birthday boy is starting to stir, so I’ll wrap this up for now.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Finished!

I've finished the cake, but it's very late and all I can do right now is put it in the fridge, breathe a sigh of relief, and crawl into bed. I'll take the final photo in the morning and post it as soon as I get a chance. Zzzzz...

Taking Shape...


Now it’s starting to look like Bob the Builder, not just some blue blobby thing. I didn’t do too bad a job of piping the outline, just a few little breaks and kinks that I managed to touch up by poking the icing into place with a toothpick. I know, I still have a LONG way to go when it comes to getting piping right. I’ve already made up the next batch of buttercream and tinted the yellow for his hat and peach for his face while the camera battery had a short stint on the charger. Bloody thing decided to be flat as a tack when I went to take a photo straight after piping the outline. It’s back on the charger again, and will hopefully be at full capacity by the time I finish the cake. It’s going to be a long night…

A Blue Canvas


YES! Buttercream covers everything... I think I did a reasonable job of disguising the cutting mistakes. I was a bit surprised at how much of the royal blue Wilton gel colour it took to get the buttercream even to this shade, which is only a fairly pale blue. I shudder to think how much normal food colouring it would have taken! I did the best I could to get a smooth finish, but I couldn’t seem to even out one spatula mark without making another one somewhere else. Unless there’s some trick to it that I’m not aware of yet, I guess I just need more practice.

A Blank Canvas

 
The cakes are cut and assembled on the board. Unfortunately I was rushing a little and didn’t do the best cutting job. I didn’t like my chances of making two different sized cakes exactly the same height, so I deliberately made the small one a little higher, figuring it would be easier to cut a small cake to match a big one than the other way around. Good in theory, but I did such a wonky job of trimming the small cake that in the process of trying to even it up I cut too much off so it ended up shorter than the big cake anyway! And I should have stuck with the plan I came up with last night to make a paper template to mark out where I needed to trim for the ears, instead of just going “nah, I can do this freehand.” Oops. Ah well… buttercream covers everything. (I hope!)

Can we bake it? YES WE CAN!

Cameron’s “Bob the Builder” birthday cake is underway! The cakes are in the oven, and so far so good. I’ve never made a Madeira cake before, but it didn’t seem too unlike making a butter cake. It’s also the biggest batch of cake mix I’ve ever made, and if I thought the pile of butter I cut up last night looked scary, the mixmaster almost had a coronary!

The butter had been out of the fridge for a few hours, but my poor old mixmaster still struggled. I so badly want a Kitchenaid. I’m still using a cheap old Kambrook, the first mixer I bought when I moved out of home. Even after I finally got the butter and sugar creamed, I was having doubts about the bowl capacity by the time half of the eggs were in. The mix was right up to the top of the beaters by the end! I switched over to my two litre pyrex jug to fold in the flour and milk, and even that was full to the brim by the time it was finished.

So the two cakes are in the oven, and might I add that the aroma of baking cake is just starting to waft through! I’m making a 9 inch cake for Bob’s face, and a 4 inch that will be cut in half for his ears. The mixmaster is having a little rest following the trauma of making up such a huge batch of cake batter, but the poor thing still has to get through two separate batches of buttercream before today is over!

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

All Is Prepared...

The kitchen is clean, the mixmaster is out and ready for action, I’ve cut the lining papers for the cake tins, and just cut up what looks to me like a scary amount of butter. I think I have pretty much everything ready so I can hit the ground running and get started on Cameron's birthday cake first thing in the morning. Well, first thing after nappies, bottles and breakfast, anyway.

I’m a little excited and a LOT nervous about making this cake. After having all these ideas bouncing around in my head for weeks, tomorrow will be the day that it all comes together, or all falls apart. Even though I haven’t actually done any classes yet, I still feel like I’ve already learned a lot from the cake decorating book I bought and instructional videos I’ve found on the internet. Not long now before I start putting ideas into action!

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Cake-fest Coming Up!

I’m gearing up for a busy few days of baking and decorating later this week. My son’s third birthday is on Friday, and I have two Hunter Community College cake decorating classes on Saturday. The morning class is decorating cupcakes, followed by decorating with chocolate in the afternoon. The cupcakes will be supplied, but I need to take my own cake to decorate for the chocolate class.

So I have Cameron’s “Bob the Builder” cake to bake and decorate on Thursday for his birthday on Friday, then on Friday night I’ll be baking another cake to take to the class on Saturday, plus I’ll have who-knows-how-many cupcakes to bring home. There’s going to be more cake than you can poke a spatula at in this house by Sunday!

After I get the kids into bed tonight, I need to sit down and go through the recipes I’ll be using and write myself up a grocery list. It was Rohan’s idea to do a separate trip for baking ingredients rather than trying to get them with the regular weekly grocery run, and I’m glad he suggested it. I hate grocery shopping with a passion, but I love baking, and I’m almost looking forward to a shopping trip dedicated to baking ingredients!

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Free Form Pumpkin & Feta Pie

Back in May I did a Pies & Tarts cooking class at WEA. I can’t say it taught me anything I didn’t already know about making pastry, but I guess it was aimed at home cooks, not people who want to take pastry making to a professional level. Still, it was an interesting afternoon, and there were some nice recipes in the course notes. The Pumpkin and Feta Pie that we had for dinner tonight was one of them.


This is the second time I’ve used this recipe. The first time I cooked it, it was so rich that we could barely eat more than a small sliver at a time, so I made a few modifications for tonight’s attempt. The ingredient amounts in the recipe were quite vague, for example, it called for “a small packet of feta.” This time I used half of the smallest packet of feta I could find, and that was well and truly enough. There is also supposed to be some parmesan cheese mixed into the shortcrust, but this time I left it out. Finally, I cut back on the overall amount of olive oil used in cooking the filling, as last time the base was so soggy it barely held together.

Overall, it was a much better effort than my first attempt at the recipe. It was certainly one of my better attempts at making shortcrust pastry! It was still a little softer on the bottom than I would have liked, but I guess that’s going to happen with a free form pie because the crust isn’t blind-baked.

I’m also starting to appreciate just how much difference the quality of ingredients really makes. With a family of four on a single wage, we started switching to generic brands wherever possible in an effort to down-size the grocery budget. “Flour is flour, isn’t it? How can you go wrong with basics?” Apparently, very!

After I made the decision to work towards becoming a pastry chef I started doing quite a bit of baking, but I was constantly disappointed with my results. Recently I’ve gravitated back towards paying a little more for brand name ingredients, and the results are starting to show. I’m now using a special purpose cake, biscuit and pastry flour, and I used a brand name butter for tonight’s pastry as well. I didn’t do anything else any differently, so I have no doubt whatsoever that using better quality ingredients has paid off.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Hello World!

Three years ago today, I was exactly forty weeks pregnant with my first child and desperately not wanting to go into labour. “When’s your baby due? 1st of August? Oh, horses birthday!” No offense to those who share their birthday with the horses (and Happy Birthday if you do!) but I was so fed up with hearing that comment throughout my entire pregnancy that I just didn’t want it to happen.

So on this day in 2006, I was sitting at home doing as little as possible, not wanting to move for fear of bringing on contractions. Not so the 6th, when overdue and over being pregnant, I went for a walk to try to hurry things along a little. It worked a treat, and on the 7th of August, my husband Rohan and I welcomed our gorgeous little boy Cameron into the world. A year and almost eight months later, we were blessed again with the arrival of our beautiful baby girl Rebecca (born squarely on her due date – I have no gripe with the 29th of March!) and our family was complete.

I was an industrial chemist until a month before Cameron was due. I’d worked in a coal testing laboratory for almost twelve years, which was probably about three or four too many. I was no longer happy working in the industry, so I stayed at home to be a full time mother after Cameron was born. The only question that remained was, what do I do with the rest of my life once the kids grow up? Late last year I decided that Pastry Chef was the way of the future, and more recently, I’ve developed an interest in cake decorating.

With Cameron’s third birthday rapidly approaching, and his birthday cake to be my first serious attempt at decorating since I began to explore the world of edible art, now seems like as good a time as any to start documenting my quest to become a pastry chef slash cake decorator. This will be where I record my experiences and experiments, my success stories, and hopefully not to many failures. Here goes!