Sophia Lindsay once toyed with salt dough, moulding figurines from soft dough before painting, cooking and polyurethaning them.
Now she's a grown-up mum of one playing with icing and enveloping cakes in confectionary layers with details ranging from blousy blooms to cute cartoon characters.
It's just a hobby but in the two years she's produced a stack of fancy cakes for weddings, birthdays and other special occasions.
Friends and family put in requests; help by buying ingredients, and Sophia does the rest. Usually they'll suggest something and then she lets her imagination ramble.
It began with a birthday cake for daughter Frida when she turned 1 in 2010.
Sophia baked the decadent chocolate cake that forms the basis of many of her cakes and fashioned a caterpillar cake based on the children's book The Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle.
The cake was smothered in white icing before Sophia divided it in parts and hand-painted the caterpillar's multi-coloured body. The result was a hit.
She kept on pottering in the kitchen. Tinkering among the pots and pans isn't a drag for this highly creative 24-year-old who studied fashion design for three years at Whanganui UCOL.
Her mother Jenni Lindsay made many of her daughter's clothes when they were growing up, and is clever in the kitchen. Each year Sophia wanted a different brown or chocolate cake - one year it was a hedgehog, another year a Brown-Eyed Girl record.
Sophia describes her family as a "learning-how-to-do-it family". Older sister SallyMay teaches art and photography at Inglewood High School and younger sister Rosie, who's studying early childhood in Wellington, is terribly fond of fashion. Rosie's 21st birthday cake was a stack of edible suitcases - including one with crocodile skin details. When Rosie heads home for the weekend she brings several suitcases of clothes with her, confides Sophia.
Sophia's partner is Mikaere Gardiner, the street artist who was outed as the mastermind behind the unauthorised Eno collection last year.
The couple share an old cottage in New Plymouth full of creative tools - paint pots, brushes, canvases, boxes of icing colours, piles of fabric and interesting old furniture.
Sophia paints and sews, and next month will launch a range of children's clothing called Frida & Fauna.
Her first high-pressure cake was for her sister's wedding in October 2010. She and mum Jenni had attended a cake-decorating course run by Wendy Harland before tackling the three-tiered creation.
There, Sophia learnt, among other things, how to make flowers using petal cutters. That was useful, although now she prefers making petals with her fingers because she likes the natural, less uniform look that is produced.
SallyMay's cake was covered in cream icing and topped with cherry blossoms. At its base was a wreath of willow. The details were exquisite. Sophia talks of dabbing coloured gelatin at the ends of edible stamens to create tiny dots of pollen.
A second wedding cake was for a Te Kuiti friend. Also three- tiered, the friend requested a vintage, floral look featuring the colour duck-egg blue.
Sophia built her layers: a creamy bottom tier boasted a quilted effect that was achieved by gently pushing a pattern wheel - a tool she uses for sewing - across the icing.
Another tier was the pastel shade of duck egg blue and a third tier coloured dusky pink. A large open magnolia flower sat on the top, while sitting among the layers were a string of pearls, ribboning and small roses.
Sophia assembles wackier cake decorations. A former boss leaving to work on a farm received a cake surrounded by strips of grass. A friend's daughter was smitten with a cake that featured cartoon character Smurfette perched on top. Another time, Sophia decorated a chocolate cake to resemble a roll of beef with a marbled pattern of red and cream, enclosed in string. Placed in a roasting dish, it was so real that a butcher friend at the same birthday event urged her to put it in the oven so that it would cook in time.
Sophia laughs at the recollection. She gets huge satisfaction from creating realistic sweet treats. "I think I like constructing things and making them look real."
Completing them can take up to a week of evening work, because Sophia has a day job as a mother and shop worker. One wedding cake, covered in shells and sandy texture, was time-consuming.
"They do vary [in terms of time] but I don't mind that. I don't want to give anything away that I'm not happy with. I get a lot of satisfaction of just being proud of how they look."
She could produce more, but that would require a commercial kitchen and she'd rather retain cake decorating as a creative outlet.
"I'd like to get a space but I'm concentrating on the fashion label so this is more of a hobby.
"I really enjoy playing with icing, with the prettiness of it."
There's challenge involved - it's not all plain sailing, emphasises Sophia.
"I have a moment when it [the final look] will come to me, close to the finish line, but they take a lot of thought to get to that point."
She uses a range of icing and colourings. Sometimes the icing will be a buttercream icing made with lashings of butter and icing sugar, other times she buys Petinice icing from the supermarket and moulds decorations.
The food colourings range from gel to liquid to powder colourings. Edible gold dust and stars also feature in her decorating palette.
Then there are metal nozzles, which Sophia uses to pipe icing in opulent swirls across the top or between layers.
She has many different shapes and sizes. These are often placed at the pointed tip of piping bags. She recommends buying disposable bags, which can be reused several times if washed in warm, soapy water.
Sophia fills her bags by placing them upside down in glass. This is done once the bag's tip is cut and the nozzle placed inside.
"The glass gives you an edge to push against and spread the icing evenly inside."
Twist off the end really tightly, she suggests, and then apply to the cake.
Sophia fizzes with creative ideas. Her children's clothing label is modelled on an old- fashioned style she describes as classic and comfortable. Beautiful clothes, she says, that can be worn everyday, not saved for "good".
Floral cushion covers and old tablecloths, pretty shiny pinks, durable linens - these are remade into loose shirts, trousers, capes, elastic skirts and tailored shorts for youngsters aged 1 to 5 years.
"They're classic with nice shapes and simple fabrics . . . not really fitted clothes but clothes that are well-made and fall easily. Like the old-fashioned play clothes."
They will be on sale at local shop Kitschy Koo from September.
Sophia's decorating tips
Let cake rest for a while, particularly if you're sandwiching two together.
Important to let the icing set.
Temperature affects icing and hands. If you're moulding decorations ensure hands are not too warm.
Make practice cakes at home so if friends ask you to do one, you've already had a trial.
Use cornflour on the bench and rolling pin when rolling out icing to ensure it doesn't stick.
However, too much cornflour can make icing hard and dry so speed is important.
When rolling out icing, keep gently spinning it around to prevent it sticking.
Ensure you are light handed with a rolling pin - glide it along rather than roll.
Bubbles in an icing can detract from the smoothness. Any obvious ones can be lightly pricked with a pin and the area lightly blended with a moist finger.
Decorate in good light so imperfections can be spotted.
Imperfections can be hidden with strategic placement of decorations.
Decadent Chocolate cake
The following is Sophia's favourite recipe courtesy of a Red Cross cookbook
125g soft butter
2 cups each of sugar and sifted flour
cup of sifted cocoa
2 tsp each of baking soda and vanilla essence
1 cup each of sour cream, plain yoghurt and strong black coffee
Heat oven to 170 degrees Celsius and grease and line a cake tin. Place all the cake ingredients into a large bowl in the order listed. Mix with an electric beater until well combined. Pour into a prepared tin and bake for between 60 and 75 minutes or when a skewer poked into the centre comes out clean. Cool in cake tin. Sophia says the cake tends to creep away from the edges when cooked. It's a moist cake that keeps well, with a texture much like a sponge. When mixing the cake will be liquid and wobbly, she says.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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