Vegan Fondant on a Vegan Chameleon Cake

April 7, 2011
chameleon cake with vegan fondant

Chameleon birthday cake decorated with vegan fondant

Fondant is what you see on tv in all the cake and baking competitions. Typically it is rolled out and draped over the cake, where it creates a velvety-smooth appearance. It’s made from gelatin, corn syrup, powdered sugar, and gums. The consistency is a lot like play dough, and you can roll it out or mold it into shapes.

It’s notoriously finicky to work with. It hates humidity and heat. Since it’s primarily made of powdered sugar, when there is moisture in the air, it absorbs the moisture, becoming sticky, wet, and eventually melting.

You have to work fast with it, since the heat from your hands causes it to soften and tear. It rips easily and gets cracks in it. It picks up on any little dings, dents and mistaken finger pokes or marks.

In fact, it’s such a pain, it’s a wonder people work with it at all. But in a cool, dry, temperature-stable environment, you can get gorgeous results with it.

You need to use a base layer of frosting over the cake, to make the fondant stick. Traditionally this is buttercream. This year I opted to use a coconut milk and cornstarch mixture, like haupia, a thick pudding, which worked fine. You can also make a buttercream frosting by substituting vegan margarine for the butter. I’ve done that in the past, and it works great.

But the birthday girl thinks buttercream is a bit too rich, so I skipped the added expense and went with the coconut milk frosting instead. You don’t taste the frosting much anyway, since the fondant is sickly sweet and will overpower any frosting flavor.

Use a sturdy cake that will hold up to the weight of the fondant, which can end up quite heavy with several layers. And be sure to design your cake so it is structurally sound.

This was a vegan chocolate cake baked in a loaf pan. I kept it in the refrigerator overnight. Then I sculpted the base form before covering it with frosting and letting it harden in the refrigerator. Finally, I covered it with the fondant base layer and decorations.

I recommend you do not eat the fondant, although almost half the guests did. It’s just so sickly sweet. If you pull it off the cake, however, the frosting comes off with it, so you might serve a bowl of frosting on the side, so those people who remove the fondant aren’t stuck with just plain cake.

You can use commercial gel colorants, but the thought of making a vegan cake full of FD&C Color Number This, That, and the Other was gross and pretty much defeated the purpose. So I put on my thinking cap and used natural colorants that I had in my pantry.

The base fondant color turned out white, even with the addition of vanilla extract, so that was one color. To make yellow, I added powdered turmeric. Powdered annatto or achiote seed gave me a gorgeous orange.

I wasn’t quite as successful using my powdered green drink supplement mix to get a green. It ended up being more of an olive color, which was still nice, just not bright and colorful green like I had hoped.

colored vegan fondant

Vegan fondant colored naturally: with turmeric, annatto, and green drink powder. The white is the plain base fondant.

The fresher these powders, the brighter the colors you’ll get. Basically, whatever color it looks like in the jar or package will be what you end up with when you mix enough of it with the fondant.

Because I was using an obscene amount of powdered sugar (2 pounds for one recipe!) I started adding cornstarch towards the end, instead. I don’t know how much this affected the texture and ability to work with the fondant. It seemed to make it less sticky.

The mixture will harden up overnight, so resist the temptation to keep adding sugar until it stops sticking. You can’t take it out, and adding too much makes it crack when you try to roll it out.

So stop mixing when it becomes a solid mass that you can work into a ball, even if it still sticks a bit. Wrap it in plastic and leave it on the counter overnight.

The next day, when you go to work with it, you’ll need to use powdered sugar as dusting, so it doesn’t stick to everything. I also used cornstarch for dusting, which seemed to work well.

However, the fact that this was humid Honolulu, AND it was raining both days I made this, spelled disaster for the cake. The longer I tried to work with it, the stickier and meltier it got. I gave up halfway done and put the cake with fondant into the refrigerator, even though I’ve read you shouldn’t refrigerate it.

The next day, I finished it, but the whole thing ended up oozing, melting, and turning to pools of bright orange and mustard yellow liquid where the cake touched the board. Sigh.

chameleon cake face

You can see around the eye especially how the fondant is melting and blending together.

Oh well. At least we could get an idea of what it would have looked like with ideal climate and working conditions. And I don’t know how much of the problem was due to the fact that I changed the original recipe and instructions (from Mission:Vegan) slightly.

Instead of shortening, I used canola oil. And I used cornstarch instead of powdered sugar toward the end. My guess is that those things didn’t make that much difference. The rain and heat were bigger factors.

And although it was a huge pain to work with this fondant, I have to admit, it was still a lot of fun, especially in the beginning, when things were going along okay and the cake started to look cool. I hadn’t had that much fun making a cake since…well, one year ago, when I made a birthday cake for my friend’s last birthday!

Vegan Fondant Recipe

1/4 cup water
1-1/2 teaspoons agar powder
1/2 cup corn syrup
1-1/2 TBS glycerin (you can buy this at any drug store)
2 TBS canola oil
1 tsp vanilla
2 pounds powdered sugar
gel color OR
natural powder colorants:
for mustardy yellow–turmeric (buy this cheaply where Indian ingredients are sold)
for orange–annatto or achiote powder (available at Latin groceries or where Filipino foods are sold)
for olive green–green drink powder

In a small pan, heat the water and agar, stirring, until the mixture comes to a boil, or the agar powder has all dissolved.

Add this to a bowl with the corn syrup, glycerin, shortening, vanilla, and about half the powdered sugar. Mix completely.

Continue adding powdered sugar until the mixture starts to form into a ball. Knead it as you would bread dough. Stop even though it is still a bit sticky.

Wrap in plastic wrap, put into a plastic bag, close tightly, and leave out overnight.

The next day, separate into smaller portions. Keep the unused portions tightly wrapped.

Knead in colorants as desired to get the color you want. I used about 1 TBS powder for every 1/2 cup of fondant to color.

Use powdered sugar or cornstarch to keep the mixture from sticking as you roll it out on the counter.

Apply the fondant to a cooled and frosted cake which has been in the fridge so the base layer of frosting has hardened.

To make your decorations, roll out fondant and cut it with a knife. Use a tiny dab of water as glue to make it stick to the base layer of fondant.

You can also roll it into balls to make eyeballs, etc. or ropes. Basically, the same stuff you’d do with play dough. Use chopsticks, the back of a knife, and other things to make lines and holes as desired.

When done, cover the cake with plastic wrap and store in a cool, dry place until it’s time for your party.

You can also dust the fondant with powdered commercial dusts, like metallic gold and silver edible dusts, although I haven’t tried this yet. Watch any of the professional cake makers on tv for more ideas and inspiration. Their stuff is amazing, and I have even more respect for their work, now that I’ve tried doing this myself and seen how tough it is.

One of the judges, Kerry Vincent, is often criticized for being a stickler. She says things like, “Your fondant work was very sloppy. There were lots of cracks in it.” But she knows and respects good work, because she has done this herself.

So if you’re finding fault with my fondant work, oh well. Everyone’s a critic. I too wish it had been better, but I did the best I could. Go make some cake, frosting, and fondant for yourself, and see what you can come up with.

I’d love to see what you end up with. Feel free to contact me, and we can commiserate together! Hahahaha.

How to Thicken Soup

December 30, 2010

It’s soup season! The cool weather screams for some warm, liquid nourishment. But sometimes you make a soup and it ends up thinner than you’d like, and you want to fix that. How to make soup thicker? Here are some soup thickening agents you can use.

Add or subtract
You have the choice of either adding a thickening agent to the soup, or subtracting some the whole ingredients already in the soup to make it thicker.

Some ingredients make creamy, thick broths as they cook down. These include lentils, split peas, and mung beans. As long as you don’t add too much water, you’ll end up with a thick, hearty soup. So you can start with those to ensure a thicker finished product.

Blend or mash some of the soup
To “subtract” ingredients, take some of them out and blend or mash them, to create a thicker texture. No need to remove them from the pot.

You can use a potato masher and smash some of them. Leave some of them whole, to get nice texture. I do this with a Portuguese Bean Soup recipe I make. Without mashing, I get a watery broth with chunks of potato, carrot, and beans. After I mash part of the soup, I get a thick, creamy mixture loaded with beans, carrots and potatoes. Delicious!

You can also use a blender to blend part or all of your soup. This works especially well if you have a starchy ingredient in your soup, such as potatoes or pumpkin. The starch creates a velvety texture.

When you add hot foods to a blender, NEVER put the lid on completely, without leaving room for the air to escape. This can cause your blender to explode, spurting hot soup everywhere.

ALWAYS take the lid, or at least that center section out, and cover it with a cloth or towel. Or leave the lid ajar. I do this and also cover it with a towel, just to be safe.

Use a starch slurry
A slurry is a mixture of starch and water. You can use any number of starches, including cornstarch, flour, potato starch, rice flour, arrowroot, or tapioca starch. But the properties of each differ. For example, a flour slurry will end up with a cloudy or opaque soup. Cornstarch slurries end up clear or translucent.

To use a slurry, blend the starch with a small amount of COLD water until it is dissolved. Then add to your soup and stir constantly until the soup boils and the mixture thickens. Often it will thicken even more as it cools.

You can try something like 2 Tablespoons of cornstarch in 1/4 cup cold water. Or about 4 Tablespoons flour in 1/2 cup water. See if that is enough. If not, repeat until it is thick enough.

Since you just diluted the soup, taste it and adjust the seasonings, if necessary. And I recommend taking notes every time you make a new recipe. Nothing is more frustrating than cooking something, and not taking notes, since you figure you’ll never make it again, and having it turn out so delicious, you WANT to make it again, but you didn’t write anything down or measure as you go! (It’s happened too many times!)

Use a cooked roux
Roux is the classic thickening method used in Cajun and Creole cooking in Louisiana. Gumbo gets its thickness and flavor in large part from the roux.

Basically, equal parts of fat and flour are used. Fat can be lard, bacon fat, shortening, oil, or butter. The mixture is cooked and stirred for up to several hours. It must be watched carefully so it doesn’t burn. The starches in the flour brown and produce a rich flavor and dark color.

Each cook will have a special mixture and procedure to make their dishes shine in their own fabulous way. Some people make the roux in the oven, but however you make it, patience is required.

Those are the basic soup thickening agents you can use. Now that you know how to thicken soup, you’ll be able to fix your too-watery concoction the next time it happens.

Getting Started With a Vegan Diet

December 20, 2010

There are growing numbers of people these days who are turning to meatless diets because it’s healthier, for them and for the planet, not to mention the animals whose lives and suffering are spared. But if you haven’t gone meatless before, or are used to vegetarian food based on lots of dairy and eggs, how do you make the transition? Here are some tips for getting stated with a vegan diet.

Find some good recipes
Probably the biggest stumbling block for people is figuring out what the heck they can eat. When I became a vegetarian over 25 years ago, I started out eating just salads, which got very limiting and boring very quickly. So I had to start creating my own recipes.

The internet has made access to literally millions of vegan recipes a possibility. Find a website or a cookbook author whose recipes you like, and start expanding your repertoire of dishes.

Curries, stews, and stir fries are easy to make and usually pack a lot of flavor. They can often be made using inexpensive ingredients, too.

Find a veganized version of something you love
Twenty five years ago, there were no vegetarian options in grocery stores, like there are now, and you were lucky to find vegetarian food in any restaurant, unless you ordered side dishes of French fries or salad.

These days, you can find great options everywhere. Even mainstream grocery stores carry vegetarian frozen and canned food.

Find something you like, in a veganized version. Maybe you can find canned chili beans or a fake burger that is really tasty. Keep some of them on hand so you will always have something you enjoy and can fall back on for a meal in a pinch.

Try food from different cultures
Many people think vegan or vegetarian food must be tasteless, and that you need chicken broth or pork fat to make a dish taste good. Try the Roasted Vegetable Soup recipe or any Malaysian recipe on my blog to end that argument for good!

Expand your culinary borders and try food from other countries. Many of them have thousands of years of history with vegetarian food. For example, Buddhists in many countries, including Japan, China, Malaysia, India and Thailand, have meatless (and in most cases, vegan) traditional dishes that the entire population enjoys.

Try removing the animal products from something that’s pretty close
Chances are, you already have something in your repertoire that is almost vegan, like a bean burrito or pad Thai. Take out the animal product and see if the new version tastes good without it.

Don’t expect it to be the same. There is no substitute for steak, period. But you may find that it’s good without, or you can substitute something vegetable or grain based in its place.

Use some soy cheese in place of the regular cheese in your burrito. Use seasoned cubes of tofu in place of the shrimp in pad Thai. You might be pleasantly surprised.

It may seem like a daunting task in the beginning, but stick with your decision to change your diet. After a while, you are likely to feel better and will get more used to your new way of life. Use these tips for get started on a vegan diet, and you will be on your way in no time flat.

How to add interest to your rice

February 12, 2010

red cargo rice

Red Cargo Rice

I find it hard to eat plain rice any more. I’m not a rice snob; I can still eat rice at every meal! I have just gotten used to variety.

But if you think rice is boring and want to know how to make rice more interesting or flavorful, here are some ideas.

Try these tips for a change of pace with rice:

My favorite: mix half brown and half white rice, or two thirds brown and one third white. This way you get whole grains from the brown, stickiness from the white. I HATE rice that falls apart, white, brown, or otherwise!

Red Cargo Rice
Found in Asian groceries or anywhere you can find imports from Thailand. Here in Honolulu, I can find this at Marukai, the local Asian Grocery, and in Chinatown. It looks like brown rice that has a red-dirt kind of tinge to it. Sold in vacuum-packed, rectangular plastic bags.

Barley looks like brown rice but adds a fabulous chew. I like to do 1 part white, 1 part brown, 1 part barley and cook in the rice cooker as you normally would.

This does tend to fall apart more than white/brown or other rice combinations, but I love the chewiness.

Fragrant rice
Try adding one part jasmine, basmati, or other aromatic rice to any other combination. The fragrance while the rice cooks is reminiscent of popcorn, nutty and mouth-watering.

I can find brown jasmine rice at Marukai, the Asian Grocery, and in Chinatown, also sold in vacuum-packed, rectangular plastic bags.

Are you confused about the different types of rice?
What’s the difference between long and short grain? Which rice to use for fried rice? Find out more about thedifference between rices at this post here.

How to keep your knife sharper longer

February 2, 2010

I watch the food shows a lot. One thing that irks me to no end is watching people use their knife to scrape food off a cutting board. This dulls the knife prematurely. Knives are for cutting, not scraping.

Instead, try this quick and easy method: flip the knife over and scrape with the spine. It’s works just as well, and your knife will stay sharper longer.

A Quick Knife Cutting Tip

January 26, 2010

Knife danger
One of the biggest dangers when using a kitchen knife is having the blade slip and cut you. This often occurs when a piece of food gets under the knife tip, so when you rock the knife forward as you slice or chop, it slips.

To prevent this, here is a quick tip that can help:

Angle the top of the knife away from you. If you’re right handed, angle the knife to the right. If you’re left handed, angle the knife to the left.

Why does this help?
As you cut, the pieces of food tend to stick to the knife and get pushed upwards, eventually falling over the top of the knife. By angling the top away from you, they fall away rather than onto what you are still trying to cut.

This makes for faster chopping or slicing, plus reduced danger of knife slippage on a piece of food at the tip.

Try it and see! Just a slight angle will do.