Sunday, 10 March 2019

It's a bit like being at the dentist!

That’s probably not how you would expect me to describe your wedding cake consultation is it?  But it really is.  I will encourage you to eat lots of cake, and whilst you are busy eating it, I will be asking you lots of questions!  Just like when you’re at the dentist, it will be difficult to answer the questions!  😊

Seriously, what can you expect at your consultation?

Firstly, I hold the consultations in my quite small studio.  That is why I will generally ask you to limit the consultation to two of you only.  I can, by prior arrangement, accommodate a third person, like your Mum if she is the very kind person paying for your cake and wants to have an input.  As the space is small it really isn’t suitable for children, so I do ask you please to leave them with Granny for a while if possible. 

I always offer at least four different flavours of cake for you to try.  Usually there will be two of my more popular flavours and very often I like to throw in a wild card flavour!  This month I have given all the couples Pina Colada cake to try, and they have all absolutely loved it with about six couples actually ordering a tier of Pina Colada.  I don’t normally offer fruit cake or carrot cake, but I can do that by prior arrangement and if enough notice is given.   I will also serve freshly brewed coffee, tea or water to drink. 

And then, it is really a case of deciding how many portions of cake you will need and therefore how big the cake will be.  When we know the size of the cake required, we can talk about a design.  I will ask you about the colour scheme of your wedding, about your flower choices, etc.   If you have seen cakes which you like elements of please do bring along the pictures to show me.  It’s also very helpful if you have any colour swatches and pictures of flowers from your florist.

The consultation normally takes about an hour. 

After the consultation I will prepare a full quotation for you, detailing all the elements of the design we have agreed.  I will give you a really rough sketch (and I mean really rough 😊) if I think it will help you to picture the design.  This will all be emailed to you, usually within a day of our meeting. 

I always try to stress that if the quotation is more than you expected, that you should tell me.  It may be that the design can be adjusted to fit your budget, or I can give you a design that will fit your budget.  A good rule of thumb is ‘the simpler the cake the lower the price’.  If you want a cake festooned with sugar flowers it will obviously be very much more than a naked style wedding cake with minimal decoration. 

Quotations are valid for two weeks after they are issued.  

This doesn’t guarantee that the availability for your date will remain, but I will notify you if I have other interest in the same date in the interim.  Your cake is confirmed as soon as the reservation deposit is paid.

It’s all very painless, and that’s where it might differ from going to the dentist!

Sonja x

Tuesday, 12 February 2019

Five go to Wales!

Once upon a time five cake-making friends, Kimmy, Jojo, Suzanne, Jo and Sonja, went to Wales on a big adventure.  They took a picnic and lashings of ginger beer……

Well actually they didn’t, but they may have drunk lashings of wine! 

On Friday, myself and four friends went to Cardiff to attend and compete in the Welsh National Cake Show and Competition.  We spent a lot of time on Friday evening, in the pouring rain and gale force winds playing car Tetris.  It wasn’t an easy job to fit five competition two tier cakes and our bags safely into one car, but we stowed bags everywhere and had a very uncomfortable journey!  The rain lashed down all the way, and the very strong winds made it quite tiring to hold the car in a straight line.  At one point, as we crossed the Severn Bridge, it looked like we might actually be blown into Wales with one particular gust! 

We arrived in Cardiff at about 8.30 p.m., quite a bit later than we hoped.  When we found the hotel, we started to unload all the cakes and baggage and attempt to get to the hotel without being blown over (it was a walk away).  Sadly, as Kim took her beautiful wafer paper decorated creation from the car a strong gust took the box and the cake ended up in two pieces with quite a bit of damage.  But she was stoic, and hid her upset very well.  

We decided that we needed to attend to our hungry bellies before doing anything else! So a very nice dinner was enjoyed by all, with Kim and myself proving to the folks of Wales that us English girls can also drink like fish! 

When we returned to the hotel Kim set about repairing her entry.  After another drink in the bar Jojo and Suzanne decided it might be an idea if they finished their entries!  Jo and I were quite fortunate, and were able to retire to bed earlier than everybody else! 

I’d like to say we were up with the larks on Saturday, all bright eyed and bushy tailed, but I can’t!  It was more a case of us emerging one by one in various states of blearyeyedness. Nevertheless we enjoyed a lovely breakfast before battling the incredible galeforce winds again and indulging in another game of car Tetris before setting off for County Hall. 

Cardiff County Hall played host to the inaugural Welsh Cake Show and Competition, the love child of Martyn and Carmel. It was evident just how much love and attention they had given to the organisation, from the little personal message written on the back of my ticket, to the fact that every certificate was presented personally and not just handed out.  The competition was by the far best organised competition in my experience, nothing was left to doubt. Other larger competitions could learn a lot from them.

We set up our competition entries on the tables with a mixture of nerves and excitement.  Even Kim had managed to rescue her beautiful entry and repair it.  Once you get the competition bug I don’t think it ever leaves you.  Although competitions are stressful and nerve-wrecking, they are somehow still fun and exciting.  Kim and Jo were our competition virgins on this trip.  But they’ve got the bug so bad they are already fixing up the next one. 
Judges Paul & Agnes studying my cake!

We had a few hours to peruse the show whilst the judging was being done, and before the results were announced.  There were lots of vendors there demonstrating and selling a wide array of cake tools and ingredients.  But we had to curtail our spending, mindful of the third game of car Tetris yet to be played.

And I’m very pleased to say the cake ladies of Hampshire did very well, bagging two silvers and two bronzes.  Everybody in Wales was very welcoming, and nobody moaned that we had crept into Wales, nabbed their awards, and crept out again.  Furthermore, we’re going to do it all again next year…..if they will have us!  And we hope to stay longer so we can see a bit more of the beautiful city of Cardiff.

Next stop Birmingham....Cake International in November is calling!

Kim from Kimmy Cakes
Bronze Award

Jo from Cakey Heaven in Fleet

Suzanne from Ditsy's Cakes in Andover
Bronze Award

And me....
Sonja from Little Cottage Cakes
Silver Award

Jojo from Jojo's Cupcake Madness
Silver Award

Friday, 1 February 2019

What else do you do on a snowy day!

It snowed all of last night, and most of today.  The kids all got a day off school/college.  They rushed out to build a snowman (once they’d got up!) and that was it.  We’re bored with it now!  But it has given me an opportunity to write another little blog update. 

That’s both of my New Year’s resolutions still on track….a miracle indeed! 😊 My personal resolution was to lose some weight, ideally three stone!  Well, after falling off the wagon a few times, and either drinking too much or eating too much, I still somehow managed to lose a smidgeon under half a stone in January!  I’m counting that as a good result.  I’m also still going to two fitness classes every week, a NIA class and a Zumba Gold class.  That’s not bad for someone without rhythm and with two left feet. 😂

Apart from boogieing my fat away in January, I’ve exhibited at one wedding fair, at the very lovely Trunkwell House.  It was incredibly busy, with so many newly engaged couples turning up to look at the venue and to meet a huge selection of wedding suppliers.  I am looking forward to meeting many of them again over the next couple of months for your wedding cake consultations. 

I have made a few birthday cakes and a christening cake too, January has not been idle.  I even did my tax return with a week to spare.  Wedding cakes begin again in March.   

February will see me exhibiting at two more wedding fairs – The Lismoyne Hotel in Fleet on the 3rd February and The Casa Hotel on the 16th February.  Please do come along to one of those if you are looking for wedding suppliers.  I also have two full days of consultations, having added another date due to popular demand.

I have extended my wedding cake offer until the end of February because that was so popular.  A three-tier naked or semi-naked cake for just £280 if the deposit is paid by end of February.  Details below. 

I showed off some wedding favour cookies at Trunkwell House.  These are now available to buy, designs and colours will be to suit you.  I will be making some more examples over the next few weeks to show off on my Facebook Page. 

Which brings me to Valentine’s Day.  I will be making a set of Valentine’s Day Cookies which you can win in a free draw competition.  So keep an eye on my Facebook Page.  The competition will be open to anybody who can collect the cookies from me, or lives in the local area. 

100 Orangutans and 100 palm trees will also be making an appearance. All to be revealed at the end of the month. 😃

And the most exciting news is I’m off to Wales next Friday to compete in the Welsh National Cake Competition.  Fingers crossed I can produce a piece worthy of some award.  It’s a bit of a roadtrip with some of my cake sisters; Jo from Cakey Heaven in Fleet, Sue from Ditsy’s Cakes in Andover, Jojo from Jojo’s Cupcake Madness in Southampton and Kim from Kimmy’s Cakes, also Southampton based.  It will be a laugh if nothing else, but let’s hope we bring some awards back to Hampshire. 

That’s a little update on my January, and what’s in store for February. 
Sonja x

Tuesday, 8 January 2019

Confessions of a lazy blogger!

Happy New Year Everybody! 

This would seem like an appropriate time to talk about good intentions, and how sometimes good
intentions fall by the wayside!  Back in 2016 when I set up this blog attached to my website, I had so many good intentions to keep it going by regaling you all with tales from the little cottage, but I cannot hide the fact that I have been an abject failure!  I am going to try again and try harder!  I promise!  So here goes with my first post of 2019!   Notice I said 'first'....

Firstly, thank you, thank you, thank you!  I owe you a debt of gratitude.  You, and all my other lovely customers, have helped make 2018 the most successful year yet for Little Cottage Cakes.  I made more wedding cakes in 2018 than in any other year, and it didn’t stop there.  I made many other celebration cakes and cupcakes too.  This week is the second anniversary of having my new studio, which was built as I had outgrown my kitchen.  At some points this year it felt like I had also outgrown the studio! 

De Vere Horsley Estate

I have delivered wedding cakes to some wonderful venues in 2018, from the grandeur of the De Vere Horsley Estate and The Orangery at Kew Gardens, to uniquely special back garden marquees.  Some have had beautiful home-made decorations and home-grown flowers from Granny's garden to decorate, and some have chic and exquisite decorations. I just love seeing them all, and seeing the huge range of colours, design ideas and sheer creativity of my customers.  Your weddings are all so different, yet the one thing all these venues had in common, was that they were filled with love, laughter, family and friends……and obviously cake!  😊
The Orangery at Kew Gardens

The cakes I made have been big and small, elaborate and simple, each one crafted to the taste and style of the couple getting married.  Some have challenged me more than others.  Kirsty and Mick’s Pool and Golf themed hidden reveal cake will stay in my memory for a long time.  It is a highlight for me to make such a uniquely personal cake.  And Sophie and Hunor’s all chocolate cake challenged me more than I could ever have imagined!  I had to deliver this chocolate extravaganza to a marquee on the hottest day of the hottest summer.  I think even Hades would have found it hot.  We all know that the combination of heat and chocolate don’t go well together!  I won’t bore you with the details but it started to melt, once alerted I rushed back, took it away again, re-ganached it and brought it back when the temperature had cooled a little and the couple were ready to cut it.   I do say on my website that it is my job to make sure that my clients do not have to worry about the cake on their wedding day, so true to my word, to this day Sophie and Hunor are unaware of the ‘issues’.  On the plus side, I actually got to see them cut the cake, which doesn’t happen very often.
Kirsty & Mick's cake

The summer of 2018 was a very challenging one for cake-makers.  Our product is not very good at withstanding such hot temperatures, and sometimes the venues we deliver to are old buildings without the luxury of air-conditioning.  It has caused me, and other cake-makers, to make slight adjustments to cakes to ensure they stay upright and perfect for your celebrations.  To that end, I also invested in air-conditioning for my studio.  Please don’t blame me if we never have another hot summer! 

I’m nearly always asked what the most popular flavours for cakes is when couples are trying to decide the flavours for their wedding cake tiers.  There do seem to be flavour fashions. 
At the height of fashion in 2018 were salted caramel, cherry Bakewell, lemon, chocolate and traditional vanilla.  Good old-fashioned fruit cakes are making a reappearance.  I made a few in 2018, and have orders for five so far in 2019.  Fruit-cake is one type of cake that we don’t have to worry about in hot weather, so I am personally pleased to see it making a comeback!

I learned a few new skills in 2018, making sugar orchids and chrysanthemum and learning how to decorate sugar cookies with royal icing.  I’m looking forward to putting all my new skills to use this year. 

So, here we are in January.   How did that happen?!   I have a few wedding fairs to attend and hope to see some of you there.  The first one for me is beautiful Trunkwell House on 27th January (details available from Berkshire Wedding Fairs) and then the week after, on 3rd February I will be at Lismoyne Hotel in Fleet (details available from Prestige Wedding Fairs).   I will also be at Sandford Springs and Casa Hotel as I am preferred supplier to both these venues (dates to be confirmed).

My diary for this year is filling up quickly, with May virtually fully booked.  If you do have requirements for cake please contact me sooner, rather than later, to avoid disappointment. 
I have lots of lovely wedding cakes booked in. 

I’m particularly looking forward to making another three hidden reveal cakes, where the front gives
Protea Flower
the appearance of a traditional wedding cake, while the back hides a clue to the couple’s interests.   And you all know how much I love a sugar flower, so you can expect to see lots of those too, and I have the challenge of making a South African Protea flower! 😊

My chosen charity for this year will again be The Brain Tumour Charity.  I hope to announce a few fund-raisers over the year.  Despite losing my beloved Ian to a brain tumour in October, I will continue to raise funds to help others, as he helped me, especially with regard to funding my new studio and providing constant business guidance, both of which I will be forever grateful for.

I am hoping to add a page to my website with links to other wedding suppliers and venues that I work with and am happy to recommend.  When I have that completed I will share the link via Facebook and Instagram.

I am travelling to Cardiff in February with three of my cake making sisters.  We are all entering the Welsh National Cake Competition.  I will hopefully have more success than I did at Cake International in Birmingham! 

And most exciting of all……I am hoping to add another product to my portfolio.  I can’t say too much yet, watch this space.  There might be some freebies and competitions when I am ready to launch.

Thank you for taking the time to read my little update.  Now place your bets as to whether you think I can reform and be a good blogger in 2019!

Friday, 29 July 2016

This is my superpower.....what's yours?

Although it is a pretty super power that I have, it’s not magic and it’s certainly not quick!  In the past few weeks a few of my Facebook followers expressed an interest in getting an insight into the process, so here is a little explanation. It will also explain why wedding cakes are seemingly expensive.

This cake that I made was all one flavour, vanilla sponge with a tangy raspberry buttercream filling, a white chocolate ganache shell and sugarpaste covering. This actually simplified the process slightly.  Sometimes my customers like to have a different flavour sponge and filling for each tier of their cake, and who can blame them, however this adds time to the baking process.

It actually took six hours of lining baking tins, weighing ingredients, mixing, baking, washing up….then more lining tins, weighing ingredients, mixing, baking and finally washing up to get to this stage.  All the sponges baked.  But they still don’t look like they would make that beautifully symmetrical and level cake do they?

Once all the sponges are baked they have to be sliced to level them, the rounded tops need to come off…… at this point I admit I used to eat a fair amount of those offcuts!  But I am reformed….two stone lighter than a year ago and shunning those offcuts!  But it’s not just a case of slicing the tops off, every tier of the cake needs to be exactly the same depth after it has been cut and filled, so a ruler is involved.  This job requires absolute precision.   As I am a bit of a perfectionist, this is a challenge I enjoy.  Look how level all my cut sponges are….accurate to the millimetre!

Once cut to the right sizes, then they are filled.  Once they are filled the level of each cake is checked.  I use a spirit level for this. You’re quite right my spirit level is rather big!  I am pleased to say I do have a new smaller one now.   

It is very important to make sure, at every stage, the cake remains level.  If it is not level, even by millimetres, it will make the whole wedding cake lean once it is stacked.  It will also be unstable.  Believe me a few millimetres will show in the end result.

The cakes are then filled and trimmed.  Once the cake has been filled it can either be covered in a layer of buttercream or ganache.  This is required to make a smooth base to put the sugarpaste on….and of course it makes the cake even more delicious.  This cake was covered in white chocolate ganache.  

Here is a picture of the first application of ganache, once this was set I went over with another thin layer to smooth it out (no picture of that though).  The base has to be smooth before the sugarpaste can be added.

So all this cutting, filling, levelling, making the ganache and ganaching the cakes took another five hours.  The hours are adding up now.  We are already up to 11 hours.

A further two hours later and the cakes are all covered with sugarpaste and dowelled.  The dowels are put in the cake to support the tier above.  Every dowel has to be cut to exactly the same size so that the weight of the cake above is supported equally, and level.  The trusty spirit level comes into play here again. 

Talking of the trusty spirit level….a fantastic wedding cake artist recently gave me a very useful tip:  Always check the surface you are working on with your spirit level first, especially if you are stacking the cake on site!  If you’re work surface is not straight, your cake will never be straight.  It’s obvious when you think about it really, but I admit I had never checked before.

Now we are up to 13 hours and we have a basic white iced, stacked wedding cake.  There’s a chance there are some more speedy workers than me, so perhaps an hour or two could be shaved off that?  Some cake makers might also buy in ready-made sponges and cut out the baking bit. 

This particular cake was decorated with tropical sugar flowers which I had made the week before.  Sugar flowers take a long time to make because there are several processes to go through, and at the end of each process we have to allow drying/setting time. Each petal is made separately, allowed to dry, dusted with colour, steamed to set the colour.  Once dry the petals can be assembled into flowers, stems taped, and posies made.  Although I didn’t record the amount of time it took to make these, I would estimate about 8 hours, spread over a few days.  

There are a few other little details that perhaps took another hour in total, like covering the horrid silver cake board with matching sugarpaste, trimming the cake and board with ribbons, etc. 
So the actual production of this cake took 22 hours.  But that isn’t the whole picture.  I will have spent time sourcing and buying the ingredients, sourcing the ribbon and food colourings/petal dusts to get the exact colour the bride wanted, and of course I spent a couple of hours delivering the cake and setting it up.  This was a two-person job too because a four tier cake is very very heavy.  Our new total now is 25 hours, and of course some petrol for the car.

So there we have it, I used my super power to turn sponges into a beautiful elegant wedding cake. 
The big question is how much I should be paid for my superpower?   Even at minimum wage of £7.20 per hour, the labour element on this cake is £180.00.  The ingredients and consumables cost around £85.00. That’s £265 without covering any of my businesses costs. 

My business costs include the following:   petrol for the car; electricity to mix, chill, bake, dishwash, lighting; heating oil to heat my hot water; public liability insurance; specialist tools and equipment; telephone; internet; stationery, printing; marketing, wedding fairs, etc.  So to cover all these things which are difficult to cost exactly per cake, I add a percentage to each cake and call it profit.    A while ago I had a heated debate in a cake forum about why you should add a business profit element to the cake price.  My response was, if you are employed by a company they don’t expect you to pay for their electricity, hot water, insurance etc. from your wages, it is paid for by the company from the profit they make.  This same principle applies to my business. My minimum wage would become even less if I had to deduct all these costs from it too!

Another cake forum debate is whether this superpower is a skill worthy of more than minimum wage?  I think it is.  What do you think?

I hope this has given you an insight into the processes and why wedding cakes are expensive.  It is far more than sugar, flour and eggs!  And hopefully, it will have helped some other cake makers starting out in business to understand the process of costing a wedding cake. 

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

All in just two years!

Wow, what a lot has changed in two years!  Exactly two years ago today, on the 5th April 2014 John and Jackie got married.  We’d been friends for years before that, and Jackie had been our daughter's favourite teacher, so they have a special place in our hearts.  When they announced some months beforehand that they were getting married, after a fairytale romance, I enthusiastically offered to make their wedding cake.  My business was in its infancy and I’d never made a wedding cake before.  They eagerly agreed, the deal was done……and yes, I had moments where I deeply regretted making the offer.

The wedding cake is the centrepiece of the Reception.  Everyone will look at it.  Everyone will watch as the Bride and Groom cut it ….. there’s no hiding place.  If the cake is rubbish, everyone will know.  I lost many nights sleep worrying about it and when I did sleep I had all sorts of dreams encompassing just about everything that could go wrong.  John rather helpfully (not) kept reminding me that Mr. Kipling would be on hand if it all went wrong.

But they trusted me and there is no way I would let them down.  So I set about learning as much as I could about how to build a wedding cake, one that would get from my home in Hampshire to the wedding venue in Oxfordshire, in one piece. 

Gosh, when I had finally made the cake I was sooo proud of it!   And I think I had every right to be proud of it.  Now, two years later, I realise it wasn’t quite as smooth as it could have been, and the placement of the flowers could have been better….but on the whole I think I did an amazing job…even if I say so myself.

It did something else for me too, it gave me the impetus to keep going and to make more wedding cakes, and to prepare myself and my business to take more on in the future.  I love making wedding cakes and so I know this is the direction for my business.

In the intervening two years I’ve learned lots of new techniques, some via courses and some by studying at home.  I really wanted to make some wedding cakes that would be different, that would stand out from the crowd.  Although I had attended courses to learn how to make sugar roses and peonies which are by the far the most popular flowers on wedding cakes, I spent months teaching myself how to make tropical sugar flowers (I bought a fantastic book by Alan Dunn to help me). 

I created my ‘tropical sugar flower cake’ as my first entry into the Cake International Competition.  I wrote a post about this last year, you can read here.  This won me a Certificate of Merit from the judges, which I was thrilled with. 

Having well and truly caught the competition bug, I decided to enter the Spring Cake International Competition.  In March this year I created my ‘beach theme’ wedding cake.  I’d bought a course on how to achieve the aged painted wood effect and thought it would be perfect for this cake.  It is a very labour intensive process but the results are worthwhile.  I hope to incorporate the wood effect in other cakes in the future.   I was delighted to earn another Certificate of Merit for this cake too.

But the ‘icing’ on my cake journey so far was winning the Bronze Award for my ‘Rainbow Daisy Cascade’ design, also at this Spring's Cake International competition.  I absolutely loved it because it was so different from the pastel roses, peonies and lace designs we all know and love.  It is vibrant and bold.  At the competition I was able to hear some of the feedback from the public and it was all so positive towards this rainbow cake. 

So it’s been a wonderful two years from making Jackie and John’s cake to winning the Bronze Award.  I thank Jackie and John for allowing me to start with their cake, it was the first and most important step on this exciting journey.  

Where will the journey take me next……silver and gold awards at November's international cake competitons....hopefully….but most of all I look forward to making your wedding cake, making it the centrepiece of your Reception and something you and I can both be proud of.

I already have some exciting wedding projects in the pipeline.  I'm especially looking forward to making Claire's wedding cake in July.  Her 'coral' colour scheme and beautiful barn venue in the same village as mine is very exciting.  


Wednesday, 11 November 2015

The trials and tribulations of a competitive cake maker

I have written this post about my recent foray into the world of competitive cake-making.  I am hoping that it will encourage fellow cake-makers to have a go themselves.  It is a 'warts and all' account of my personal experience.  If any of my friends, cakey or otherwise, are reading, you never know you might get a mention.  If any of my lovely customers are reading this....STOP HERE!  And if my therapist is reading this.... yes, there's still work to be done! 

The balmy days of June seem such a long time ago, but that is when I finally decided to enter a cake competition for the first time.  I chose the biggest and best competition to enter, Cake International, held at the NEC in Birmingham last weekend.  Crazy? I might be, considering my propensity to self-doubt.  It wasn't until early July that I actually plucked up the courage to seal my fate, and press the 'ENTER' button. The hotel was booked before I had actually pressed that button!

Courage was something I needed because I really didn't believe in myself, I didn't believe I had the right to a place alongside the country's top cake makers.  In previous years, I have spent hours looking at all the entries, admiring the skill and artistry.  Something quite ordinary happened a couple of years ago, but something that has had a profound effect on me.  I was invited to join a Facebook group for Hampshire Cake Makers.  Eeeek, some of my real cake heroes were actually in this group.  The wonderfully talented Kelly Hallett of Kelly's Cake-Away; the amazingly brilliant wedding cake designer, Emma Waddington of Gifted Heart Cakes; the beautiful and talented Sam Stringer of Treat Me Sweet; super lovely Joanne Cox of JoJo's Cupcake Madness; lovely Jade Thomas of Jade's Iced Gems; the hilarious and irreverent Jill the Cakemaker, to name but a few of the 40+ ladies that form this group.  Far from being competitive, the ladies in this group have been so encouraging and supportive, about things inside and outside the cake world.  They encouraged me to have a go and enter, suggesting that I had a rightful place in the competition.  I am really grateful to them for their continuous support.

Which class to enter was the next question.  I decided on a "A Wedding Cake of Three or More Tiers'.  I think it turned out to be a wedding cake of three or more tears!  The rules were quite simply explained as:

"Style and covering of competitor's choice - royal icing, sugarpaste, chocolate or other coating. Wired sugar flowers and foliage, ribbons and artificial stamens are permitted, but must not penetrate the surface of the cake unless a posy pick is used. Dummies are permitted. All display drapes must be contained within the permitted area. No height restriction. To fit within a base area of 48cm (18 inches)."

Sounds simple doesn't it?!  I just needed a design.  I hoped to make something a little out of the ordinary.  I've always been a lover of tropical places, of course the sunshine helps but the riot of colours in their flora and fauna is a major attraction.  I discussed my ideas with my lovely friend Sarah whilst on holiday in Spain.  She is also a cake-maker, owner of the Little English Cake Company, based in the Murcia region of Spain. Strangely we became friends before either of us were cake makers. I really valued her opinion.  We decided, over a bottle of vino, that such vivid flowers needed a simple cake to show them off.  And so I started sketching, with this being my final sketch.  I always find it interesting how close an actual cake is to the initial sketch.  Sometimes it's nothing like it as I change my plans and the design evolves along the way.  But this one is remarkably close.

Not having a clue how to make these flowers, I bought Alan Dunn's book "Tropical and Exotic Flowers for Cakes".  This book is a wonderful guide to making these very specialist flowers, however I think it's fair to say you need to have some experience of making sugar flowers before embarking on these.  I am so glad I invested in this book.  I had the pleasure of talking to Alan Dunn himself about my cake during the exhibition. 

Having convinced myself I might actually be able to do this.  I ordered all the supplies I needed.  I actually felt a bit excited when everything arrived and I unpacked the boxes.  I had the dummy cakes, loads of flowerpaste, a ton of sugarpaste, all the wires and tapes, and just about every shade of petal dust known to mankind! 

So with six weeks to go, I started making leaves and petals, hundreds of them!  I didn't have any specialist cutters so they were all hand-cut from paper templates I made.  Because I was doing a little bit here and there....after all I had weeks to go :)  ....this seemed to take forever!

In fact, at the outset I decided to record exactly how many hours this cake would take me to make.  I am confident that this is a design that will appeal to many brides-to-be.   Therefore I thought it would be useful to know how many hours it took in order to quote for it in the future.  Fortunately, now that I have done it once, it won't take so long next time.  Would anyone like to guess how many hours this took from start to finish?

With the petals all made and dried, the messy part began, dusting all the petals and leaves with petal dust to turn them into all their beautiful colours.  Every day my hands would end up a different colour, prompting me to try and keep my hands in my pockets at school pick up time. The deep, deep pink of the Cordyline leaves produced the worst staining to my hands and my work surface.  (I hear you, but I just can't do this delicate work with gloves on.)  After dusting each piece, it then has to be steamed to set the colour.

Everything was going swimmingly, and then for some reason, with three weeks to go, I had a major 'wobble' ....confidence seeping out of every pore!  On this occasion it took a few very wise words from Sarah in Spain to get me back on track, coupled with constant words of encouragement from the ever supportive lovelies known as Joanne, Sophie and Ellie.  I realised just how lucky I am to have friends that always know the right thing to say. 

As if self-doubt wasn't enough, I have this terrible 'trait' of being able to produce my best work whilst careering towards the time's up buffer.  I really wish it wasn't this way, it's just so stressful!  So in my final week I knuckled down, put in three full 8-hour days to get it finished.  I had amassed a huge number of leaves and petals and set about assembling all the flowers, the branches of leaves and strings of berries and buds.  The final day was spent making the bouquets and assembling the cake.

And here it is.  A riot of colourful Birds of Paradise, Zantedeschia, Cordyline, Ixia buds, Devil's Ivy, Piper Nigrum, King Tillandsia and Lollipop vines.

Having assembled the cake, I stood back to admire it and then had the realisation that I now had to transport it safely to Birmingham, a two-hour drive away.  Yes, I really should have considered this much earlier in the process, probably even at the design stage! Lessons have been learned.  I consoled myself with the fact I had made spares of each and every leaf, petal, berry and bud.....luckily!

The day before setting off for Birmingham I tried to wrap my precious cake in bubble wrap.  This broke the tips of some of the very delicate petals.  So I had to use some of the spare petals and re-do a couple of the 'bouquets'.  I decided to transport the cake as it was in the back of my car.  It arrived in one piece....that was until I got it out of the car.  Holding my prized possession I reached up to get the boot lid to pull it down and the cake gently tipped towards me slightly...just enough to crack a few more petals.

Having never entered the competition before I was unsure of how and where I could rectify this.  I had all my remaining spares and my emergency repair toolkit.  I needn't have worried so much though.  There were tables laid out all around the hall for us poor cake-makers to 'fix our issues' and reassemble as necessary.  The tables were full of us, and equally full of the wise ones who had decided to assemble their masterpieces on site instead.  As long as you allow enough time it's fine.  Everything has to be done and in place by 8.45 a.m., luckily I arrived at 7.30 a.m.  Unfortunately a few people had to receive the dreaded 'damaged in transit' sign to display. 

With my cake all fixed I had to set it carefully down in my allotted space, and leave my 'baby' there.  I was now at the mercy of the inscrutable judges!

My fabulous friend Ellie from The Mummy Diary joined me for the day.  She didn't say it, but I'm sure she was fed up with constantly being led back to the competition area so that I could check on my baby, unconsciously hoping each time she would reassure me that I deserved my place at the table.  Each time she graciously did this, without groaning once!

Despite these constant checks we did manage to see everything at the Exhibition, not spend too much money and attend a workshop with famous cake designer Lindy Smith.  We learned how to use the stencilling technique to decorate cookies for Christmas.  We both enjoyed it and had a laugh, mostly at my expense!  We even managed to fit in a bite to eat and a bottle of vino....or two in Ellie's case!

The next morning I received a text from Kelly, who had got back to her 'baby' super early, to say I had been awarded a Certificate of Merit from the judges.  I'm really pleased with this for my first ever entry.  I have definitely got the bug and so you'll see a piece from me at Alexandra Palace in April, and I will be back at Birmingham in November too.  I'm just trying to convince Sarah to pop back from Spain to join me at Ally Pally in April.
My lovely friend Kelly got 'Gold' and, beautiful Sam got 'Silver'.  Another Hampshire cake maker, Niki Tompkinson, got 'Bronze', all three in the wedding cake category.  And the fabulous JoJo, who submitted two entries into the cupcake class, got 'Gold' and 'Silver'.  A very successful competition for the Hampshire cake ladies.  Unfortunately talent isn't contagious.  However, they have given me something much better, they have given me the ability to believe in myself.  There's nothing better than praise and encouragement from your peers.

I can't say it wasn't nerve wracking, but I hope I have encouraged you to take the plunge, not put you off. 

It was a wonderful experience for me all round.  It was great to spend the weekend with special friends, old and new.  It was a truly memorable weekend, one that I will always remember, and one that I very much hope to repeat.