"I cordoned myself in the kitchen, every day of my waking life, for the next couple of months. And as my baked goods elevated from charcoal to edible, ambition reared its head."
It was 2015 and Adam Levine was crooning about “Sugar” while gate crashing random people’s weddings in Maroon 5’s music video. I was standing outside a pastry shop, with the same inclination to trespass, but for actual sugar, not a metaphor.
My baby was crying, I wasn’t sleeping, and I really wanted that macaron displayed in the front window of the extremely busy shop full of patrons happily eating macarons.
Not entirely sure if there’s a clause, in any rule of law, that would excuse breaking and entering in the pursuit of a sugar fix, I went home that day spouting melodramatic vows of learning to bake my own French cookies as God is my witness. Hey, hormones, you know.
So while I am well-versed and highly experienced in eating pastries and other sweets, I never had any formal education when it comes to food production. My degree is in Fine Arts with majors in Painting and Sarcasm.
But any dessert junkie worth their salt (or sugar in this case), would find ways to fulfill their utmost craving. So I did. I cordoned myself in the kitchen, every day of my waking life, for the next couple of months. And as my baked goods elevated from charcoal to edible, ambition reared its head. I did not just want to make pastries and cakes. I wanted to make pastries and cakes like the pros. I wanted hashtag homebaked, but I also wanted hashtag pastry elite. This is where decorating comes in - to eat with your eyes, before you eat with your mouth. An adage I took to heart when attempting to create pastries that anyone would like to sink their teeth in. Or gate crash pastry shops and weddings.
Here is a list of what works for me when decorating pastries and cakes. It is by no means extensive, but everyone has their own processes and quirks. I am sharing mine, with the hope that it would help you find your own.
Social Media - Instagram has made it so easy to stalk baked goodies. You type “buns” in the search box, and while you get the occasional photo of a gym bunny’s butt, you do get a plethora of steaming hot bread in various environments, photographed in different angles, dramatically enhanced with both natural and artificial light. Sometimes you get a dinner roll on a table, with a cat in the background, shot with a mobile phone. But the point is, inspiration is a mere click away. You can follow any chef’s account and obsess about their work, without getting slapped with a restraining order.
Baking Shows - There’s nothing more exciting than the brutality of subjecting contestants to a time crunch. In addition to the visceral need to stand out and come up with something cool, the pressure of appearing on National Television, witnessed by thousands of viewers sometimes culminates in unorthodox and inventive food artistry.
Knowing this, if you can’t handle the heat, maybe stick to YouTube videos - the fluffier ones with calm and soothing background music.
By the way, the keyword here is inspiration not copyright infringement, you with me?
The Grocery Store - Troll the aisles of your local store. You never know what might set off that light bulb inside your head. I have used Fun Sticks biscuits to accent a petit gateau, and painted Maltesers balls with edible gold dust to top off a mousse tart.
Check your equipment - What tools, cutters, stampers, or pans do you have at home? Just lay out what you have on a table and decide what you can and can’t use.
Staples in the pantry - Chocolate is not the be-all-end-all of patisserie froufrou, but it comes close. There are a multitude of ways you can use it. You can either pipe it in thin curls, spread it on transfer sheets, mold them into shapes, or simply break into pieces.
Use edible gold leaf sheets to put on a touch of shine. Don't go overboard, less is more. The aim is to brighten up your creations, not replicate the sun.
Garnishing with seasonal fruit is a good way to pop some color and complement the flavor of your baked goods. And if not in season, freeze-dried is always another option.
Nuts are one of my favorite things to use in beautifying cakes. They are cheap, easily accessible, and delicious. But keep in mind people with allergies; your baking is supposed to give people a taste of heaven, not deliver them there.
Your Backyard/Garden - Herbs and plants like mini-basil and thyme are nice additions to freshen up a tart. Edible flowers look elegant on a cake, just make sure they are actually consumable. After all, you want to bring joy in people’s hearts instead of food poisoning in their guts.
I like to sketch potential designs on paper. It doesn't have to be a full on rendition, simple geometrical shapes to execute an idea of basic composition and layers should suffice. When I have time, I flesh out colors with colored pencil. This is a personal preference, not mandatory. I don't like working blindly, a guide assists me in working efficiently.
While in the process of baking, I either choose to follow the design, or not. Some layers might change because it doesn't work out or I changed my mind. No biggie, the important thing is, the building blocks have been formed.
Left-over layers and ingredients are an opportunity to free-style. Experimenting with cake cut-offs and extra icing or ganache lets out your creativity without fear. You are not limited by the desire to be precise. There’s no itch to bring out the framing-square and make sure that you are glazing that mousse cake at the exact incremental angle. Or maybe that’s just me. It’s a sickness, I know. Where was I? Yes, there are no mistakes to be made, only new and awesome avenues to explore. I tend to play around with plated desserts and verrines (fancy wording for food in a jar) with remaining pastry and cake parts. Bonus: No waste.
It is the most cliche, and yet the truest way to get better at decorating. Unleash your inner Amaury Guichon or Dinara Kasko, and tread where bakers fear to tread. If a new trend seems too daunting to attempt yourself, upskill with short courses or workshops. I love going to these events because I always meet new people with the same mindset and appetite for everything pastry.
If you are too shy to go to classes, be tenacious at home. Sure, there will be disasters and you might come up with odd pairings, or you might think it is hopeless. Times like these, remember somebody invented the cronut and people thought it was a great idea.
On this note, I will end with another cliche - have fun!