Teacher: Anne Jones @whateverbakesyourfancy
Lesson: How to decorate a cake
“Don’t worry” said Anne, “if it goes wrong you can just smash it up and start again”. Comforting words to three cake decorating novices stepping up to three perfectly moulded Christmas cakes, sitting on a pristine kitchen work surface.
Anne Jones is a professional baker and former home economics teacher. As she explained: “I’ve seen my fair share of baking disasters, and taught students who’d rather eat the sugar paste than work with it, so there’s no need to feel any pressure”. The key, according to Anne was just to have fun.
And what could be more fun than a Christmas cake topped with Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, battling it out for America’s future in a Scandinavian pine forest? Or such was the thinking behind Nick’s creation.
Anne shows Alice from teach us how to roll icing
An example of Anne Jones' cakes shown to teach us
Matt and Alice went down a slightly more traditional path, opting to top their cakes with reindeer, teddy bears and stars. By breaking her instruction down into manageable chunks, Anne made working with sugar paste relatively easy. The teddy bear was no more than just a few balls of icing, and even something as intricate as a pretzel sleigh took less time than we’d imagined (especially with the help of Jane, Anne’s assistant for the day).
The real key was in icing a good base: rolling out just enough to cover the sides, sticking it to the cake with vodka (see below for why vodka works best) and smoothing the whole thing down with warm hands. With Anne and Jane’s help, we created the perfect bases for our creations, and assembly took no time at all. For everyone except Matt that is, who was left to work out still a way to connect his reindeer to his pretzel sleigh by himself, while Nick and Alice asked Anne how/when/where and why her passion for cake making began. (Spoiler alert: it has nothing to do with the Great British Bake Off…)
What’s your day job?
I currently work as a baker for the National Trust, three days a week. I had a serious job until I gave it up to take a patisserie and confectionery course last year. It had always been my hobby, but I decided to get qualified because the time came to take it more seriously.
What have you taught us today?
I taught you how to fondant ice a cake. You did a base ice on a small christmas cake and then we had fun modelling with sugar paste, making figures and various bits and pieces.
What level are you at?
I’ve done a Foundation Master’s course in it but, more importantly, I’ve been doing it for 25 plus years. For the first probably 20 years, I was self taught so I’ve spent a lot of time playing and fiddling with things, learning by making mistakes.
How and when did you start?
I had a friend who had to make two wedding cakes in a very short space of time and needed some help. She didn’t have long enough to make all of the sugar flowers, so she asked me if I would help to do some basic stuff in return for a lesson. That’s what got me started and from there I made my daughter’s Christening cake, which really got the ball rolling.
Why are you passionate about it?
Sugar paste is a bit like playdough, so it’s great fun. You just fiddle until you get it right, and whenever it goes wrong you smash it up and start again. I love making a cake and hearing people say, ‘she loved it so much she burst into tears, or ‘they thought it looked so nice they couldn’t bring themselves to cut it’ (to which I always respond with ‘you must, as I’ve put loads of effort into what’s inside too)!
What’s the best cake you’ve ever made? Or at least the one you’re most proud of?
The copy of the P and O Ventura cruise ship I did was a mega challenge. It was green with two tiers, one of which had loads of sugar flowers and became a real labour of love. There’s no point making a cake to look stunning if it tastes dreadful. I always try to make sure my cakes taste as good as they look, because if it looks fantastic and you cut it open and it tastes like sawdust, it’s just so disappointing. It’d be like opening a beautiful Christmas present to find something awful inside.
Have you done much teaching like this?
I worked for 10 years in a secondary school, teaching groups of 15-year old girls what I’ve taught you today. They used to do it as part of their Duke of Edinburgh qualification.
Can anyone learn to do it?
Yes, as long as they keep practising. I once made a bride and groom but didn’t get them right until the third try. It’s all about practise and wanting to fiddle – anyone who wants to fiddle will be good at this. It can be very time consuming but also hugely therapeutic, if you put the radio on quietly in the background.
How long would it take us to be good?
I’ve been doing it for 27 years, so about that long!
How were we today?
Brilliant! Very up for it and you gave it all a good go. I’m really impressed – well done!
What other skill do you wish you had?
I’ve always wanted to try blacksmithing because it runs in my family. Unfortunately, my mother was an only child so it died with her, despite having been brought through her family for years. It’s a skill I’d love to reexplore and relearn this skill, just like you’re doing.
How would you go about learning to be a blacksmith?
I don’t know. I think there’s somewhere near here that does day courses but I think I’m probably getting a bit old and knackered now. You have to be really strong to lift the metal and all that stuff. I don’t know though… maybe one day!
Can you tell us one interesting tip that people might not know about cake making?
You can use water to stick sugar paste, but water will also dissolve it because it’s an element of the sugar paste. Vodka will make surface go sticky so it holds the pieces together and then it will evaporate off without leaving a mark (or taste).
The teach us team's cakes
The teach us team with Anne Jones and Jane
Christmas cake decorations made by the teach us team
What we learned
- Vodka is better than water for sticking icing to cakes because it doesn’t get consumed by the icing as easily, and eventually dissolves to leave no taste
- Using hands to smooth down the base icing will give a shinier finish
- It’s possible to buy spacers for your rolling pin to give a uniform thickness