Monday, July 02, 2007

The Iron Curtain birthday cake: or My adventures with Russian-themed sugarcraft

There was a 50th birthday celebrated recently within the extended family. Turned out that the birthday girl originally wanted to hold the celebration courtesy of Queensland Rail and have us all truck along from Hamilton down the Cleveland line for a few hours, but that didn't work out. In lieu of on a real train, the party was held at a restaurant near a train station, and the theme morphed (you know how that happens) into trains = famous trains = the Trans-Siberian Railway = Russia = Russian history.
Cut a long story short. I got the call.
You know the call?
"I was wondering..."
Fine, I said. Make a birthday cake, got it. Any particular requests?
"Well, actually, yes. There's this theme: Russian railways and communism".
Thus, this is how I ended up scouring the internet, boning up on my knowledge of glasnost, perestroika, Lenin, Anastasia and so on (themed trivia nights are notorious on such occasions).
Eventually I came up with a simple, hopefully foolproof plan for making this cake. It would be plain, simple, relatively classic in design, and I would try out something that I'd never tried before: painting sugar fondant.
So I started making the little tiles about a week in advance. In hindsight I should have measured them for ideal dimensions beforehand, but as it turned out they all fit on the cake just fine. I used Orchard White and Chocolate Icing to do all the decorations on this cake. No shame in using bought prducts, especially for something that is likely not to be eaten, but just admired and picked at.
I learned from this activity that the Orchard chocolate icing is only available at Coles, who carry both types, but Woolies only have the white. Note for the future.
Tiles were as follows: matryoshka doll, hammer and sickle, Russian flag, yellow communist star, railway tracks, Siberian Alps, relevant initials, a "50" and a bunch of red and yellow stars.
To make the tiles, I rolled out the fondant, cut out some tiles with a sharp knife and then VERY VERY CAREFULLY painted each one with food colouring. They didn't bleed too much at all, happily. The brown colour was done with Parisian essence (note to self: this one is going to taste like crap- make sure it goes to some relative I don't like).
I laid them on a tray lined with baking paper and put them in a corner to dry. A few days later we had that big rain period, and I got totally depressed when all the little tiles went floppy and wet in the awful humidity. In a last attempt to save them, I threw them in the fridge (which did the trick) and luckily, when they came out of the fridge, the condensation didn't make them run at all. Probably because the colour had been soaking in for a few days already- no idea. I was just really happy that they were all OK.
Anyway. Two cakes, one chocolate and one vanilla, quite dense. I cut the vanilla in half and layered the chocolate in between, smooshing with various icings as I went. I painted the whole thing with warm jam, rolled out the chocolate fondant (using olive oil: powdered sugar will discolour the bastard. The oil gives it a lovely sheen, too) and draped it over. There were a few puckers down the sides, but nothing as crappy as my previous attempt. Thank Irwin for that. Had to trim the excess fondant and tried to tuck the dodgy edges under a bit. As it was you couldn't really tell.
Made a glue from two beaten egg whites with a little sugar and salt, and glued on the tiles.
Used a little bit of red icing gel to tidy up any dodgy bits, and done!
Not perfect, not great, but definitely educational for me, as I got to do something totally different and to learn how to drive sugar fondant a little better.

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