One of the perils of having to follow a strict cinnamon & benzoate-free diet is how to cope with special occasions. Sit down meals, buffets etc. are one thing but celebration cakes e.g. for birthdays, baptisms, or as in my case, a wedding, can easily become a bit of a nightmare.
The best advice I can offer is: if it’s someone else’s occasion, take the cake politely, wrap it up in a serviette or napkin and give it to someone else when you get home. There’s nothing else for it – it’ll probably be rich fruit cake and even if it isn’t, the marzipan and/or icing will likely be stuck down with apricot jam.
If it’s your own occasion, however, you have the chance to make a celebration cake that you can enjoy in safety. If you’ve never made (and more specifically, decorated) a formal cake, don’t take on too grand a design, and if possible, practice a time or two beforehand.
The cake itself:
Go for a sponge cake. They are relatively easy to make and a variety of safe flavours can be incorporated. Use either EU-produced or unbleached flour, real milk & butter (or tried & tested, safe, dairy-free alternatives), golden caster sugar or brown sugar and free range eggs.
A useful scale of quantity is: to each egg, use 2 ounces of butter, 2 ounces of sugar and 4 ounces of self raising flour, with a tiny drop of milk if necessary to moisten. Flavours that can be added include: real vanilla extract, carob powder, or (if you can tolerate them) citrus juices & rind.
Don’t try and make a deep cake & slice it across the middle – make two or more in sandwich tins and layer them. This takes the stress out of trying to slice a cake evenly. If you only have 1 tin, you can make your layers over a couple of evenings – don’t forget that sponge cake freezes well if wrapped.
The sandwich filling:
Butter cream, made from a blend of butter or a dairy free alternative, mixed with icing sugar and a drop of vanilla extract, is a sure winner. Don’t try and use some sort of syrup as a jam-alternative as it’ll just soak into the cake and make it sickly and overly moist – just use the buttercream by itself. A buttercream recipe can be found at www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/2451647/buttercream.
Marzipan and icing:
Marzipan is usually safe out of the packet, containing nothing more than almonds, sugar and syrup. Simply roll it out with icing sugar and use a dot or two of extra buttercream to stick it to your cake sides. It’s possible to use syrup but you have to heat it up, and work fast, or else it’ll just soak into the sponge and be of no help in keeping your marzipan still.
If you’re going for rolling icing, be aware that many of the manufactured packets contain sorbate preservatives and usually have ‘flavourings’ listed on the ingredients too. It is possible to make your own – it’s known as fondant icing in recipe books – and a recipe for it can be found here: http://allrecipes.co.uk/recipe/8413/rolled-fondant-icing.aspx?o_is=LV. If you’ve already coated your cake with marzipan, wet the surface to enable the rolled icing to stick. Otherwise, use buttercream or a little hot syrup to get it to stay still on your cake.
Royal icing is easier to make, just icing sugar and a few drops of water (put the icing sugar in the bowl first and add the water 1 teaspoon at a time). It does not roll, however, and is easiest to use when a rough surface, e.g. a snow-peak covered Christmas cake, is desired. It can be smoothed out using a palate knife dipped in warm water but this isn’t easy on the top, and can be very challenging indeed for the sides of the cake.
Size, layers, & tiers:
Make sure, first and foremost, that the cake tin you pick fits in your oven. I find that a tin around 25 centimetres/10 inches in diameter is the biggest I can comfortably work with. A loose bottomed or spring-sided tin is easiest to get the cake out of – otherwise, line it well with lots of baking parchment or paper, or else it may be hard to get your cake out in one piece.
If the cake is much more than 6 inches/15 centimetres deep, it’ll be hard to cut, so keep this in mind when making your layers. Three layers is probably the maximum workable depth, with each cake around 2 inches deep.
If each individual cake layer comes out of the oven with a domed rather than flat top, you’ll have to slice some off to level your cake out. Put the sliced side inwards to spread with buttercream, and use the underside of the baked layer to be the top, level, section of the cake – this gives it a neater appearance and makes it easier to ice and decorate.
Tiers are much harder to make than they appear and can topple easily if not secured. And, they tend to be very heavy and can result in the bottom tier of a sponge cake being badly squashed. If you need far more cake than one tin can provide, it will be far easier to make square cakes and tile them on an extra-large cake board rather than trying to stack or tier them.
In my experience the vast majority of ‘edible’ decorations have preservatives, colourings, flavourings etc. of one sort or another in. They are thus unsuitable for the vast majority of us.
Food colourings too can contain preservatives and even if you are okay with artificial colourings, you may still react to the other ingredients. If a coloured icing is desperately required, try using natural colours e.g. carob for brown or a little beetroot juice, boiled until concentrated & used instead of water to mix the icing, for pink.
Non-edible decorations, e.g. toys or things designed for craft projects, will often be safer to use as it will be obvious that they need to be removed before eating. If they are brightly coloured or made of metal or paper, check beforehand that they won’t leave any residue or ink when dampened (put them on a blob of prepared, damp, icing for a day or two and see what happens). Don’t insert non-food safe items into the cake or stick them directly onto the main icing layer – instead, use a separate blob of royal or fondant icing to stick them to the top or sides of the cake, and peel the blob away before cutting.
If you’ve used royal icing and need to hide the cake sides, a variety of cake ribbons can be purchased. If you’ve made a deep cake, you may have to get several ribbons and layer them. Use royal icing or cocktail sticks to fix them securely.