My Nanna, Joan Kazakoff, was a cake decorator, who used to teach decorating at the local tech and in her younger days made and iced wedding, christening, birthday and all kinds of cakes professionally. Nanna had a remarkably steady hand and always made everything look easy, from kneading hard plastic icing to very intricate lacework.
In her last few years, not in the best of health, Nanna let myself and my sisters loose with her decorating tools and oversaw us decorateing a couple of cakes for special family occasions. In our family there was a cake made by Nanna for literally every special occasion – Christmas, birthdays, christenings, communions, weddings…everything. Among other things, Nanna made the cake for my Mum and Dad’s wedding, which was decorated with the same pattern as my Mum’s silk wedding dress, posted over in a sliver of fabric to my Nanna in Perth and then replicated in secrecy so that Dad wouldn’t see it before the wedding. Grandad packed that cake carefully in wooden boxes which he made to fit, then they drove it across the Nullabor to Victoria for the wedding in 1981, with the final assembly of the layers completed in Vic.
So over the years we picked up a few tricks from her, though I cannot profess to have any real knowledge about decorating. Although Nanna was ill in the last few years, I wanted to have a wedding cake that was of a style Nanna would like and I knew that we would pretty much need to do it ourselves, under guidance from Nanna, Grandad and my Dad, because Nanna was no longer up to it.
I had a few ideas in mind – I wanted 2, maybe three layers. Not square. Layers set on top of one another, rather than lifted on glasses or pedastals or anything like that. The cake was intended as the dessert for our guests and if we could come up with something other than fruitcake, but something dense enough to still support the weight of layers and plastic icing.
I wanted something fairly simple, decoration-wise, perhaps a ribbon between the layers, perhaps some fresh flowers around the cake. Having said that, I’d done enough cakes of my own (by which I mean, maybe 2 or 3) to know that plain and simple is easier said than done with plastic icing. If you knead too slowly, the icing dries out and cracks. If you roll it out too thin, the icing cracks. If your cake is lumpy, so will your icing be lumpy. If you’re not meticulous as you lay it over the cake, you can get crumbs stuck in your icing, which you can’t pick out without leaving dents in the icing. So plain and simple = mistakes visible to all and sundry, a plain and simple signpost to a cake made by an amateur.
Nonetheless, we were determined.
Nanna passed away about 6 months before the wedding.
So now we definitely had to do the cake ourselves! And it would (all things being well) hopefully be a tribute to Nanna. I planned to have a picture of Nanna on the table with the cake, preferably the picture that is the family’s favourite, a kind of glamour shot in black and white, taken I think in the 1940s. And I wanted to arrange a few novelty teaspoons on the table too, as a further memento of Nanna, since she had for years kept an enormous collection.
Shortly before the wedding, I saw a picture of a cake with some art deco motifs around the edges. Not too ornamental, fairly simple, and with tinted icing to accent the shapes. Great idea! I also asked Grandad to dig out Nanna’s cake tins for me and it turns out that she had a set of three hexagonal tins, which would be perfect.
The final product was less than ideal, in that finishing the cake was a bit of a final-week rush. For example, we had not found the time to play with recipes, so we stayed with the tried and true fruitcake recipe (which it’s fair to say, Nanna would have preferred!) Fruitcake would have been better made weeks, even months in advance, but too bad. Grandad, who has helped Nanna with hundreds of cakes over the years, had his own tricks to help us out (we baked in his kitchen, using the old wood-fired stove). For example, dropping the cake on the floor before it goes in the oven helps the mix to settle into all the corners of the tin. A couple of days later, we returned to Grandad’s house to work on the decoration. We raided Nanna’s decoration cupboard for her tools and set to work.
First, make sure your layers are even on top. You work on the underlying decoration layer by layer. Paint a sugar syrup over the cake. If necessary, make a small snake of icing to tuck under the edges of the cake if the bottom is not quite even on the base. Roll out the plastic icing, enough to go over the sides and top of the layer and deep enough not to crack. Pick it up on your forearms and lay it over the cake gently to make sure it’s centred. Use something that looks like a wooden trowel to help you smooth over the top edge without cracks, corners or lumps. Don’t pull too much or it will crack. Use the side of your hand to tuck the bottom in close to the edges of the cake. Cut roughly around the edges to remove the excess, then cut in close with a smooth butter knife, but don’t go too close or you’ll have gaps to cover up. Onto the next layer. But first, (another tip from Grandad) push a few peices of dowel through the cake and find a small wooden board (smaller than the layer to go above) to sit on top of the first two layers – both items to help bear the weight evenly. Same again to the final layer.
Next come the decorations. The art deco motifs were to be only on two layers, on each face of the hexagon. Pale blue and white, made from thinly rolled and cut plastic icing. I chose to do some small shells around the bottom layer, with some silver painted accents. Dark teal blue velvet ribbon around the next layer, then shells around the top layer. The dark teal blue and pale blue in the icing was to match loosely the new colours I knew the hall had been painted. I hope Nanna approved up there.
On a final note, Robert’s ‘Grandma Achill’ from Ireland, Bridget Patten, also passed away the week before the wedding. The cake table therefore became a tribute to both grandmothers. We placed photos of both on the table, with candles and flowers. The whole thing really came together perfectly in the end.
Rest in peace, Nanna Kazakoff & Grandma Achill.
Important Note: all wedding day photos courtesy of Absolute & Alive Photography. Thank you Piotr for the beautful images of our day. By way of further clarification, the grainy, dodgy photos of the wedding preparations were taken by me or my husband, not by our professional!