On the menu for Week 4:  cake decorating.

Before I begin my summary of Saturday’s class, I wanted to answer the question that I’ve been asking for the last week (and many of you as well):  Why are we using clear artificial vanilla extract in class?

My instructor explained that we use this product in class because it’s less expensive. He was very careful to point out, however, that pure vanilla extract is by far the superior product and encouraged us to use the pure extract in our baking at home. This has prompted me to send a little note to the course administrators urging them to switch to pure vanilla extract even if it means paying more for the course to offset the higher cost of pure extract.

Saturday’s class was most enjoyable as we learned about and practiced cake decorating. We began by preparing a batch of royal icing, which was to be our "practice material" for the day. The recipe for the icing consists of cold water, high volume meringue powder, icing sugar and glycerine.

Meringue powder is a white powder that’s made of dried egg whites. Unlike powdered egg whites, meringue powder also includes sugar and gum. Glycerine is a thick, clear syrup that helps to keep the icing from drying out. While the resulting icing tasted exceedingly sweet, I must admit it was thick, shiny and definitely easy to work with.

For our piping exercises, we used both a plain tip and a star tip. We spent almost two hours practicing rosettes, shells, hearts, crescents, lady fingers, flat spirals and swans’ necks. As our instructor came around to inspect our work, the very first thing he said to me was, "Slow down!"

In true Cream Puff style, I rushed to begin piping the different shapes and didn’t pay attention to how poorly I was holding my piping bag. Instead of holding the bag with both hands and pressing gently, I was squeezing from the top and making a big mess. Once corrected, I immediately noticed how much easier it was to pipe shapes.

When the piping portion of the class was over, we practiced icing or "masking" cakes. Masking a cake means covering the cake with an even layer of icing that’s as smooth as possible. We used styrofoam cakes to practice on and we also used rotating cake stands. Our instructor recommended using a flat palette knife as opposed to an offset one. I’d always used an offset knife but found the flat palette knife much easier to handle. I felt that I had greater control when spreading the icing.

We started by piling icing on the top of the cake and then spreading it in an even layer across the top with the excess icing pushed to the sides. We then worked the icing down the sides of the cake, adding more icing as needed. While it was tempting to pack on the icing, our instructor warned against this explaining that icing is a compliment to a cake, it shouldn’t be the only thing that people taste.

Once I was happy with the sides of my cake, I used the palette knife to finish off the edges of the top of the cake. Sweeping the knife towards the centre using an upwards motion, I was able to create fairly clean, crisp edges all along the cake and remove any excess icing at the same time. The final touch was the use of a completely new (to me) baking utensil … a cake comb.

A cake comb is an odd-looking utensil that has teeth (not sharp) all along its edges. As the name suggests, you "comb" the utensil around the sides of the cake, in one smooth motion, to smooth out the icing. It took some practice, but overall I was pleased with how my cake looked.

We were able to take our icing home with us to continue practicing. I forgot the icing in my baking kit so it stayed in the car for all of Saturday and most of Sunday. I retrieved the icing from the car and lo and behold … it was still moist! I found it slightly disturbing that an "edible" product could live in the trunk of my car for more than 24 hours and still look the same as it did when it was freshly-made. I guess that’s the meringue powder and glycerine effect for you.

One last note before I go. I’d like to thank Gastrochick for alerting me to the fact that my little blog was mentioned on Epi-log, which is the blog of editor Tanya Wenman Steele on Epicurious. I assure you that I was a blushing Cream Puff for all of Friday … and for the entire weekend for that matter. Epicurious is, and has been for many years, the premiere food website for me. And I’m not just saying that. My thanks to Ms. Steele for the nod!