Helen was gracious enough to answer questions posed to her by readers and the staff about how to make beautiful, cute and cuddly things out of fondant.
What tips do you have for a new creator just starting to work with fondant?
Don’t get cross with yourself if things don’t go right the first time. Enjoy the experience of trying a new skill. Get used to the texture of fondant, attaching pieces together, the textures you can create with the basic tools and other tools you might have in your kitchen. Working with fondant can be so rewarding but it can also be rather frustrating at times.
How does a person who isn't particularly good at sculpting learn to work with fondant? Are there any projects that make sense for beginners?
I think it's important for a beginner to practice when there isn’t any pressure to create something for an occasion. The whole idea is to enjoy the experience and learn a new skill along the way. Start with something that is straightforward, such as penguins – simple classic shapes, not too much modeling as such, but extremely rewarding at the end. Build up slowly working through the models, following the ability guide on each model. Don’t worry about fine details, work on the basic shapes but being neat, rubbing off finger marks and smudges. Build up your skill and your own style.
What's a simple way to apply your techniques to a DIY wedding cake?
Well, this really depends on the length of time you have! If you are in a hurry I would suggest going for the bride and groom figures, dress them in the clothes of the recipient, but sit them on the edge of the cake — you don’t need to wait for them to dry! If you are worried about modeling then go for the bride and groom doves or do a boy and girl elephant, one with a top hat and one with a veil! Don’t worry about fingers on the figures, just leave them as whole hands and you could do this all in a day. If you have more time, you could stand your figures up, drying between each stage. Make sugar roses to go around the base of each cake or put wires in the roses and attach together in a bouquet to place on the cake with silken ribbon inserted into the arrangement.
What are the ideal conditions for working with fondant?
Ideally the temperature should be around 68 degrees Fahrenheit, but it's not so much the temperature as the humidity that causes the problem. The more humid, the stickier the paste is (while you can reduce this with the addition of confectioner’s sugar or cornflour).
I was in Mississippi this summer and wanted to make and decorate a cake for the neighborhood since they were throwing a cookout. The fondant was less than impressive in 90 percent humidity. It didn’t affect the taste but didn’t look too good!
The best work surface, I have found, is an acrylic board. There are white or green boards produced for this purpose although it doesn’t have to be anything special, just something that can be cleaned and is smooth and ridge free. It will also save your worktops from damage when using tools such as sharp knives, etc.
Is it possible to freeze fondant?
I'm afraid that it isn’t possible to freeze fondant. It's not so much the freezing as the defrosting that causes the trouble. The defrosting cake will turn to mush with the moisture trapped under the fondant along with the fact that the fondant will "sweat," damaging the surface. The same thing will happen if you put a fondant-covered cake in the fridge. The moisture attacks the surface of the fondant, causing it to become damp, colors will run and the cake will be ruined.
What tips do you have for someone learning how to use a piping bag?
First, prepare the filling for piping carefully, make sure there are no grains of sugar that could block the piping nozzle. Start by piping something such as buttercream onto cupcakes. Fill the bag halfway, twist the bag behind the buttercream to keep the bag closed, and hold this in one hand while holding the bag in the other. The skill is to squeeze the bag with one hand while keeping the pressure on the top of the bag. The pressure must be constant as this gives you the uniform piping speed. Practice with different nozzles, you can get some amazing results that look so professional!
How much time do you think a decorator should spend working with a piping bag to master the various piping techniques? Are any of them easier or harder to become proficient at?
I think piping buttercream is a quick and easy skill to achieve — the results are immediate, you can see quickly whether you are squeezing too much or too little. Piping with chocolate or royal icing is not as easy and this does require a great deal of practice, particularly with royal icing, to get straight lines, snail trail, shell borders, etc. For the general sugar artist, it's something you pick up as you go along making cakes. I don’t do a lot of royal icing piping, it’s a more traditional technique that would be frequently used on wedding cakes and today's modern bride tends to prefer more contemporary decorations. Floating collars and extension work is extremely time consuming and requires a lot of skill and practice. However, some piping skills such as shell borders and snail trails are still used frequently to neaten bases of cakes, and of course piping lettering is a must.
What's the difference between working with gum paste and fondant?
Gum paste is a much stretchier, more elastic paste, it will dry completely so that if you eat it, it will be crispy. It is excellent for structural items such as the legs of the bride or groom or the roses. Gum paste can hold its own shape. Fondant is softer, it covers cakes and makes models that don’t need support. It won't dry out completely. Gum paste is easier for the beginner as it is more forgiving and can be handled for longer, although it starts to dry out sooner than fondant.
Sometimes fondant looks great, but doesn't taste great. How does a baker make sure that the icing tastes as good as it looks?
I have to be honest, I generally buy my fondant ready made. There isn’t a lot you can do to the ingredients of a fondant because if you fiddle around with them too much you will lose the consistency of the paste and it won't dry. That would be dreadful! I think if I was making a fruit cake I would add rum to the almond paste layer. The best way to make sure the fondant tastes as good as it looks is not to apply it too thickly, and make sure you smooth it well once applied to the cake using a pad of paste. This will polish it and remove any blemishes.