I like to try new cake decorating techniques, and this year I’m using Mexican paste. It’s surprisingly easy to make and to work with, if you don’t mind remortgaging your house to pay for the gum tragacanth that gives it the right texture. I expect the stuff is dirt-cheap elsewhere in the world, but here the price was shocking (about $10 per tablespoon).
Great fun to work with, though. I’ve already gotten my money’s worth in entertainment.
Combine 227 g (8 oz) icing sugar (confectioner’s sugar) and 1 Tbsp (15ml) gum tragacanth in a bowl. Add 2 Tbsp water. Stir until it becomes crumbly and damp. Turn out of the bowl and knead until pliable. Place in a plastic bag and leave at room temperature for 12 hours until firm. When you’re ready to use it, break off a small piece and knead until softened.
The paste can be moulded into shapes, or rolled thin and cut with cookie cutters. It works a lot like modelling clay, though it tends to stick. I rolled mine out on a non-stick baking sheet, and would have appreciated a non-stick rolling pin, too, but with care I managed with an ordinary wooden rolling pin. I picked up a cheap set of fondant shaping tools that proved very helpful for producing the shapes I wanted.
After you’ve made your shapes, you need to let them dry and harden for about 24 hours. Then they can be painted with paste food colouring thinned with gin. You can also knead food colouring into the paste.
Once the paste hardens it is quite tough, but thin pieces are brittle (reminds me of unfired ceramics). I didn’t plan very well for my leaf and flower stems. I made the leaves and flowers, and only considered what I was going to use for stems after they’d dried. In hindsight, I should have attached the stems while the paste was still pliable. Nothing a little gingerbread icing, used as glue, couldn’t fix.
So, where was all this sugary sculpture heading?
My brief was an alpine scene atop chocolate cake.