adjectiveNORTH AMERICANinformal

adjective: persnickety

  • requiring a particularly precise or careful approach.adjective: pernickety

not macaron

Let’s clear up something first.  Macaroons are coconut cookies shaped like a pyramid and sometimes dipped in chocolate.


Macaron (emphasis on that “ron”, comprendre?) are almond meringue sandwich cookies usually color coded to their intense filling.  Perhaps you’ve eaten a few?

I wanted to write a post about my trials making macaron.  Macs are persnickety to produce, but when done correctly, are a symphony of taste and texture.  Like anything made poorly or without care, your success in producing them and your resulting taste response may be along the lines of “meh”.  Outright frustration may ensue.

This is really just random thoughts on my project with my recipe if you’d like to give them a whirl.

Macaron, along with puff pastry and tempering chocolate, represent a sort of black belt of pastry production.  They are things you need to learn by doing.  The first law of macaron is you will not make a good macaron on your first try.  They will be delicious but frankly they won’t be right. Accept this and approach this recipe with patience and inquisitiveness and the rewards are great.  Are you impatient?  Go to Ladurée.


I made twelve batches of these cookies in my ovens before hitting upon the right temperature/ mixing technique. A Google search will return many blogs devoted to troubleshooting macaron baking.  The issue is the foot.  The bottom of the cookie.  See that bubbly ring around the base of the cookie?  That and a flat bottom are what you are after.  A foot that doesn’t stick to its baking surface and a macaron that is just shy of baked crisp is the gold standard.

Ready to bake?


First, ditch the Silpat silicone baking mats.  Heresy I know, but trust me.  Reach for old school parchment paper and draw some circles on the underside the size you’d like your cookies to be.

Mix your batter.  The mixed batter should be elastic and enough air should have been knocked out of it through mixing that a ribbon should disappear on a three count.


Bang and rest. (The cookies, you’ve a sick mind)  Pipe your cookies and then bang the sheet on the counter once or twice. You’ll see large air bubbles pop on their surface.  Then let the macs rest before baking.  How long?  Just until your finger doesn’t stick to them when pressed lightly.  About 30 minutes. Got a humid day?…  good luck with that.

Bake your macs.  Commercial deck ovens have top heating elements and bottom heating elements which can be controlled independently.  During my training, our macs were baked with 100% bottom heat and 0% top heat.  They rose and formed a perfect foot consistently and perfectly EVERY SINGLE TIME.  Ordinary home convection ovens aren’t so simple.  Natch.  Baked too high, the macs will soufflé off the parchment and be hollow under their shell.  The main problem with too low heat is the foot will stick.  Did I mention I made 12 batches?  I found 265°F to be a perfect temperature for my home convection fan ovens. When baked properly, the macs should have the slightest bit of moisture left in them.

Sandwich your mac with whatever floats your boat. (Jams, buttercreams, curds, pastry creams etc) But here’s the thing, you absolutely MUST, at the very least, MUST chill them in an airtight container overnight or better yet freeze them for a day or two to allow them to age.  The cold rest assures a crunchy exterior and a chewy inside.  Just do it. There’s magic in the chill.

Here’s my recipe:

120g skinless sliced or slivered almonds

200g confectioners sugar

50g granulated sugar

3 egg whites at room temperature

1  In a food processor fitted with the blade attachment, process your almonds and confectioners sugar for a full minute.  Sift the resulting powder to remove the larger unpulverized almond pieces.  These can be reprocessed and resifted if you’d like. Discard what remains in the sifter.

2  Whip your egg whites with the wire whip on a stand mixer on high for about 15 seconds until frothy then lower the speed to medium and allow to whip until soft peaks form.  Begin adding the granulated sugar a bit at a time, raise the mixer speed and whip the whites just to firm peaks.  Add any paste food color at this point.  Do not use liquid food color, you have been warned.  Then whip on high to incorporate the color and maximize the stiffness of the whites.  They should just begin to lose their sheen but should not be in any way grainy.

3  Fold the almond mixture into the egg whites.  Fold together long enough that a ribbon of the batter disappears into itself on a three count.

4  Pipe circles of the cookies onto your prepared parchment and give the sheet pan a bang on the counter to displace large air pockets.  Allow the unbaked macs to rest uncovered until they lose their stickiness and a bit of their shine.

5  Bake the macs at 265°F for 15 minutes.  Turn the sheet pan and bake an additional 15 minutes.

Allow the shells to cool before removing from the parchment and sandwiching with your favorite filling. Allow them to age in the cooler.

So, did they stick to the parchment or are the feet otherwise imperfect?  Eat your mistakes. Try again, rinse, repeat.


“That’s a wedding cake?”

I’m never sure how to take that statement.  A wedding cake is the cake you serve at your wedding.  No more.  No less.

Victorian mechanical?


Flappers and gangsters?


Nightmare Before Christmas?


Yes.  These were all wedding cakes.

Simple and elegant never go out of style, but sometimes it’s nice to surprise your guests. Be fearless.


My Favorite Flavor

It’s orange!  I love orange anything, but I find it difficult to reproduce its bright acidity in a buttercream.  You could use regular, navel oranges, but the blood oranges have a higher acidity level and then there is the color.  The resulting buttercream is a beautiful orange shade.  Don’t leave out the Tang powder.  Tang is primarily orange oil and adds a little zip to the finished product.

I’m also one of those people who adds vanilla to everything, but this is one of those rare occasions where vanilla is unwelcome.  Vanilla makes the resulting buttercream more of a “creamsicle” flavor.  Yes, that isn’t bad, but the orange flavor is much more pure without it.

This is a Swiss meringue buttercream enough to fill and frost an 8″ cake.

2 cups blood orange juice

5 egg whites (150g)

3/4 c plus 2 TBSP sugar (175g)

1/4 tsp cream of tartar

pinch of salt

1 lb (45og) unsalted butter at room temp

1/4 tsp Tang powder

2 tsp orange zest from a navel orange

Reduce the orange juice over medium-low heat to 1/2 a cup.  Don’t be tempted to raise the heat… the juice can caramelize quickly and you’ll ruin the flavor.  Set aside to cool.

Heat the egg whites, sugar, cream of tartar and salt over, not touching, a pan of boiling water.  Stir frequently until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture is just hot to the touch.

Mix the egg whites on a stand mixer with the wire whip on medium speed until the mixture is cool to the touch.  Reduce speed to low and add the butter a little at a time until fully incorporated.

Whisk in the cooled blood orange juice, the zest and the Tang.




Modern Fairy Fantasy

We jumped at a chance to enter a local cake design competition. The evening’s theme was “Fantasy Wedding” and design was left open to interpretation. We came up with “Modern Fairy Fantasy”. Every decorative element is a form of sugar and handmade in our shop. We also wanted a classic wedding cake feeling.



We knew from the beginning we wanted a tall, “Platinum Wedding” fantasy cake and the inclusion of fairies seemed a natural fit.

Our original sketch featured a tree acting as a support and a stylized lotus on top. These are all symbols of life.

This is my friend Jeff cutting the tree support.


To the original idea, we added a sugar flower separator and topper for color.



The hand-wrought columns also gave us a chance to add an unusual detail to the underside of the top tier.

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To paraphrase JRR Tolkien, the cake grew in the making.

Facts and figures:

–       handmade and custom colored sugar flowers include yellow roses, wine colored ranunculus, phalaenopsis orchids in 2 sizes, mimosa, coral peonies, antique green hydrangea, yellow Dutch tulips, and coral fly-away parrot tulips

–       custom molded borders with 4 different hand-painted tiles on the square tier

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–       6 handmade fairies plus a fairy “bride and groom” (not shown) for the very top

–       hundreds of sugar press flowers hand strung to form garlands encircling the bottom tier


–       approximately 500 servings

–       roughly 68 inches tall to the top of the flowers

–       5 separate cakes form the bottom tier. 7 other tiers of cake in 5 shapes above the tree. Although partially obscured by the stylized lotus petals, the top tier is hourglass shaped

–       120 hours of work by 3 people before we stopped keeping track


I personally want to thank the following people for all their mad craft skillz, love and support:


Carrie, Anna, Jeff & Christa, Lillian, and Tami… you all got me through! Special thanks to Erin for that glass of wine that time…


Just caramel.

Trends come and go, but caramel should ALWAYS be salted.

I was trained to always add salt, preferably fleur de sel, to caramel.  It tastes so much better.  Keep in mind your goal is to enhance the flavor, not to taste salt.  I think this is where many get this trendy flavor wrong.

Here’s a recipe for caramel suitable to flavor your favorite swiss buttercream. It can be turned into a sauce by using double the cream.


4 cups sugar

2 cups water

2 cups heavy cream

1 tsp salt, preferably fleur de sel

2 tsp vanilla extract


Heat the cream to near boiling and set aside.

Add water to a heavy bottom 3 qt saucepan, then add the sugar.  Bring to a boil over high heat, and boil the mixture until a deep mahogany color.  If the sugar is too light, the caramel will be sweet and insipid.  Allow the mixture to get too dark or smoke and the resulting caramel will be bitter and acrid.


Once the mixture is a deep mahogany color, remove from heat and carefully, SLOWLY add the cream.  The mixture will bubble furiously, don’t panic.  Continue to add the cream in a steady stream, pausing if necessary.  Allow the mixture to settle down and then add the salt.  Return the pot to medium heat and briefly  boil the mixture while stirring.  This will dissolve any hardened sugar bits.


Allow to cool a bit and add the extract.  You are done.


Transfer to a container and store refrigerated.  This is a very thick caramel which when rewarmed a bit in a microwave is suitable to flavor  buttercream.  A thinner consistency can be achieved by using more cream during preparation.



Enough with the styrofoam.

Imagine two cakes.

Cake 1 is carefully decorated with sugar roses, hand-painted ivy, orchids, hydrangea, button mums, tree peonies, freesia and sweet pea, totaling roughly 30 hours to create, assemble and color. 75 servings of cake are then baked, filled and finished with buttercream before being coated with fondant, decorated with hand-cut lattice and swags, and artfully combined with the hand-made sugar flowers.

Cake 2 looks identical to Cake 1 except instead of cake, the inside of Cake 2 is styrofoam. Often called a “display” cake, this option is commonly believed to save you money.

But consider this…

Cake 2—the styro-cake—is decorated identically to Cake 1, complete with sugar roses, hand-painted ivy, etc. The decoration for the styro-cake requires the same 30 hours to create, assemble and color. The styrofoam, purchased for an additional cost, is coated with the same amount of fondant, lattice and swags as Cake 1.

However, remember Cake 2 is styrofoam. Serving guests styrofoam is generally frowned upon. As an extra step, you need “back-up” sheet cakes to serve your 75 hungry guests. These cakes are filled and finished with buttercream (as they should be).

I’m left to wonder, which ordering option should cost more? Put another way, why would the assumption be made that Cake 2—a styro-display cake and “backups”—would cost less than Cake 1 when it requires MORE work to produce?

I’ve chosen an extreme example to illustrate a larger point about saving money when ordering an artisanal quality cake. You want your wedding day to be everything you’ve ever dreamed of, but there are certainly other ways to save if you’re on a budget. For example, do you really need the dessert service offered by your venue in addition to your cake? A quality cake in a favorite flavor is really all the dessert you need. Also, less elaborate designs will cost less overall.

Whatever cake design you choose, please, skip the styrofoam.



A look back…

I’m often asked if I have a favorite cake.  Many designers and creative types will tell you their favorite project is the one they are currently producing.  After all, it’s hard not to see these projects like your kids and who can pick their favorite child?  BUT, if I had to pick a favorite cake from all of 2011, it would be the tilted cake with fresh flowers (yes, fresh flowers) shown below made in April of last year.

If you know me or my business, you know I enjoy making all of our flowers from sugar, and the flowers for this cake could have been sugar. I rarely, if ever, add fresh flowers to a cake.  The bride was the soon to be sister in law of a friend and colleague who was her florist, so I couldn’t say no, right?

The sole condition for using fresh flowers on the cake was to make something wild… the bride was game.

Many cakers make tilted cakes, and they present their own set of challenges, however the difference here was we needed to use Oasis floral foam between the tiers to keep the flowers from wilting.  This was not easily accomplished, but I think the result is spectacular. I’m proud of this cake not only for the design, but for the challenge of its construction, which I have not seen with fresh flowers.

This special wedding was held in a rustic barn (see the concrete block walls?)  The flowers for the cake, tables and flatbed truck were provided and arranged by Laura from Savannah’s Garden.

PS The groom went into the woods to cut a base for the cake… this is actually the second base he cut… the first one had split!


I was there when…

Nature’s infinite variety can vex even the most skilled sugar crafter. Or so you would think. Does this real peony look like it could be made in sugar? Do you know where this is headed?

I recently had the luck to learn a variety of sugar flowers from the best in the business, Ron Ben- Israel of Ron Ben- Israel Cakes

The class learned a variety of flowers and coloring techniques.

Ron provided real Amnesia roses for the class to inspect before teaching us his rightly famous sugar spiral rose.

Ron is a patient teacher and inspiration to anyone who knows the term “sugar paste”.  So it was a special treat to see the creation of a sugar “feathered peony”.  It’s unknown if anyone has previously attempted this delicate flower in sugar.  Who would try?  While the plethora of individual sugar pieces for this peony variety were created in plain sight by Ron over the course of the class, this sugar beauty magically appeared on the last day to everyone’s amazement.  Wow!  I can’t wait to see one pop up on one of his creations.  I was there when…


Shake it, baby.

We love making tilted cakes.  They’re  so unexpected and hip.  The hand painted  black and white zebra stripes and acid green ruffles make an outrageous design that looks like it could dance right off the table.  Originally conceived as a Sweet 16 cake, this would be great for any milestone birthday or even a wedding. If you are bold.


Emily and George: June 12, 2010

Rhinestone studded monograms are beautiful and can complement a number of styles. However,  I always want the cake to present as a complete package, so I  was  delighted to make a monogram to match this modern cake.  The pattern was copied from the beautiful invitation and recreated as fondant appliqué.  The bride and groom’s initials were created in red gumpaste  to match the cake design. A rhinestone monogram would have been out of place.

Thank you Emily and George!  This was fun to make!

emily and george cake

george and emily cake