Shabby chic or pretty in pink? Survival tips for cake decorating

[Click on the link below to listen to an audio version of this post.]

You know that moment, in your kitchen, after you’ve spent God knows how long putting together a creative dessert — an idea, a vision of something meant to be spectacular — and you realise you are in the midst of a massive Pinterest fail?

I hate those moments.

My husband has joked with our friends that, on occasion, I won’t serve a dish, or will start completely over on a dish that has not met the expectations of my Type A personality. Between us, it’s not a joke. And I’m pretty embarrassed about it. I don’t know if it’s my mother’s Japanese perfectionism coming to haunt me, or if I’m really just a stickler when it comes to how my food looks. But let’s face it, in the world of cake making, oh heck, in the world of anything making for me, appearances are important. I don’t want it to just taste great. I want people to want to taste it because it happens to look amazing.

So now that I’ve admitted to being a culinary cake snob at best, let me emphasise that after months of my own cake making attempts here in Basel, after months of pushing myself to figure out the 101’s of fondant and frosting, I’ve learned two things. First: it is not easy. It requires a heck of a lot of patience and time, and even when everything appears to be working in your favour, the chances of your cake imploding are always there. Second (and this is the comforting one): when you realise Pinterest is about to credit your culinary implosions with its longevity, you still have a choice: work harder to make it pretty and pink, or give up and turn it into shabby chic.

Don’t believe me? It’s okay. For this blog post I thought it would be nice to speak with a professional who could help folks get the most out of their cake making experience.

Vanessa Mercieca-Jacobs, Basel-based owner and creator of the Red Cake Tin, was that person. I invited Vanessa to my home earlier this year, and with a cup of tea in hand, the Maltese native explained to me how when she moved to Basel, she began baking as a way to connect with her community; meet neighbours, make friends and so forth. One day, she made a batch for her husband to bring to work.

“And he came back and he said ‘everyone is saying I should retire and promote you as a baker and make you open your shop and make millions off your back’. And I was like yeah right,” she joked.

The seed was planted. Fast forward several years later, she’s now a successful bespoke baker, providing birthday cakes, holiday cookies and other treats to folks in the Basel area.

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When I asked Vanessa how she came up with the name, the Red Cake Tin, she nostalgically explained…

“Red because that’s my favourite colour. And a cake tin is because growing up my grandmother would always have cake tin or a drawer full of sweet things. I thought everyone should have a cake tin. In my case, a red cake tin. And that’s how I ended up with the name.”

Vanessa had several tips for me. Returning to the first issue on hand, she agrees that not only is the shabby chic look in at the moment, but it’s also a lifesaver for when things don’t go as planned.

“It doesn’t need to look good,” she says. “Even if it’s messy, it’s still an organised mess.”

An organised mess. I love this term.What a great way to bring comfort to folks, like myself, who occasionally freak out when things don’t work out perfectly.

This was great news for me, especially as I had just recently made a birthday cake for a friend.  My original plans included making a chocolate cake with a super sleek ganache frosting. I had read about how smooth ganache goes on cakes. Unfortunately, water seeped into mine while I was making it and left it spotted. The solution? I made an extra glaze and let it drip over the sides to cover up the spots as best I could.


This was a bit better, but you could still see some of the lighter spots the water had created. I thought: “I can do more”. So I grabbed some wax paper, smeared some melted chocolate on it, covered it with another piece, rolled it up and secured it with clothes pins, and popped it in the fridge to set.

The result? Really cool chocolate shards, which looked great on top of the cake, especially in a high mound atop some leftover frosting.


With these new additions, my water spots became less noticeable, dare I say, even added to the colour balance of the cake?

IMG_7291Vanessa was spot on: planned or unplanned, shabby chic works.

Another useful tip from Vanessa included making sure to “crumb coat” your cake. That means applying an initial layer of buttercream to your cake and popping it in the fridge until it hardens.

“And when you put [on] another layer of buttercream,” says Vanessa, “all the little crumbs will not get stuck to the outer layer of buttercream. It gives it more of a polished finish.”

Also, for all you busy folks who think you have to bake your cake the night before a party to keep it fresh, think again. Vanessa says that a freshly baked cake has a longer shelf life than you would think, especially as the fondant or buttercream coverings act as a moisture sealant. Instead, she says to give yourself time to make your cake. If the birthday party is on Saturday, bake the cake Thursday night, decorate on Friday, and devour it the next day.

“It’s actually not that great to bake a cake and decorate it straight away, especially if you are putting things on top of the cake,” she says. “Because the cake needs to firm up. And if you bake it and decorate it straight away, it is more likely to collapse, or it might not collapse straight away but then you put something on top, you think ‘Oh it’ll be fine’ and then it breaks.”

Vanessa admits that developing her decorating skills took time and a lot of practice. And rightfully so, she takes pride in her work. Today, she says she sometimes does a double take at some of her cakes. At first glance, she says they may seem simple, “but for me they are so creative. And for me to be able to do that, I’m like ‘Whoa I made that!’ I’m very proud of what I do now. It’s great.”

I love those moments. When you stand, head held high, starring in awe at your accomplishments. Everyone should have those. Our struggles keep us grounded, but our accomplishments…those help us take off again.

I had one of those in-flight experiences recently with a baby shower cake I made for a friend. The theme was princess, and I really wanted to challenge myself and get my fondant skills under better control. And so YouTube video after YouTube video, I read up and watched how to lay fondant, how to pull, ever so slightly, at the edges so that the creases fall under the cake.


Speaking of which, Vanessa adds that when it comes to fondant, don’t stress. Even if you get a tear in your fondant covering, there are plenty of ways to fix it. Make a flower and place it over the tear, for example, or make a bow slightly larger so that it covers all the cracks.

With my cake, I also read up on how to make pedal shapes out of flower cookie cutters. It took some practice (and many mess ups), but eventually I started seeing the shapes come together.


What started out as an idea, began to take form, slowly, and carefully. I also read up on how to make a tiara out of fondant


Who knew that a circular canister could be such a useful tool? That was a cool project.

In the end, I was thrilled with this cake, especially the bottom flower petals that were so much easier to put on than I had originally anticipated. Lots of time, lots of patience, but I think I got pretty close to my expectations at the end.


For the record, I nervously sent a picture of this cake to Vanessa after our interview, and to my relief, she approved.

Vanessa was fantastic to speak with, and not just because she liked my cake. Here is a woman who grew up baking, but never intended to become one, and this is the part I find fascinating: She was, and still is, a scientist at heart. Prior to moving to Basel, she was a science, physics and chemistry teacher. So cool, right? I love this balance, only because anyone who bakes understands the specificity that goes into it – the precise measurements, the balance between wet and dry ingredients, and so on. It is, in its own right, a science.

As a last bit of refreshing advice to folks wanting to perfect their cake decorating skills, Vanessa cautions folks not to take things too seriously.

“I like making it look pretty, but then I think at the end of the day somebody is going to be eating these.”

The point Vanessa is making is that baking is something to be enjoyed.

“It’s about being creative and not taking it too seriously.”

And she’s right. Life is busy enough when you are just trying to make the inside of it function the way you want. I know this stands in sharp contrast to how I started this post, but looks, be it in life, in love, and in baking are not everything. Important to some extent still, but not everything. Sometimes, focusing on what is inside is really what counts. After all, that’s what mom always told us, right?

Vanessa’s visit with me was eye opening. I’m finding myself having more confidence to challenge myself, because I suppose I’m getting more comfortable with the idea that at the end of the day, I can mess up and still turn it into something inspiring. 

An organised mess, if you will.

Cake Tips from the Red Cake Tin:

  • DONT over bake: If a recipe calls for 30 minutes in the oven, check it at 25.
  • DO crumb cake when possible: Make some buttercream, frost a bit lazily, fridge to set, then frost seriously.
  • DO stick with what you know: If you have a cake recipe that you trust and know well, use it.
  • DO use the shabby chic method or even the naked cake method when you feel that things aren’t working out as planned.
  • DO have fun learning new methods from YouTube or other social media sites.
  • DO use strategically placed bows, cutouts and cake toppers to hide imperfections. Even fruit toppings work great in hiding what lies beneath.
  • DO give yourself time to decorate your cake: If a party is on Saturday, bake the cake Thursday night, decorate on Friday, and enjoy on Saturday.
  • DONT take things so seriously: Remember. At the end of the day, a cake is meant to be eaten, not simply admired.




The gift of the Irish gab — chocolate stout cupcakes



Click play to listen to an audio clip of this blog post.

As of last night when I first settled down to write this post, my son had not stopped talking for approximately 12 hours.

This is not a joke, folks. With the exception of sleeping and the time it takes for him to chew his food and drink a beverage, silence in our house is unheard of. This kid has something to say about everything in his path. And fear not. If you don’t answer him, he doesn’t mind. He’s perfectly happy answering his own questions; a quick upwards thrust of his pointer finger, a raised eyebrow-induced “ah, yes” response, and on he goes to the next tangible thought waiting patiently inside that cute little head of his.

In the weeks since Aidan has developed this amazing talent, I’ve realised two things.

First, I love listening to his mind work. The way he connects his own imaginative stories with what he’s experiencing in the real world is both inspiring and entertaining. Conversations about trees, for example, lead to conversations about apples. Apples lead to fruits; fruits to bananas; bananas to monkeys (or minions); monkeys to funny sounds; funny sounds to inappopriate bodily noises, and so on. Though I do usually stop him at this point, as I question whether he’ll jump from words to action in this specific situation.

Second, after 12 hours straight of his nonstop chatter, I have a headache like no other. The muscles in my lips are also unable to produce audible responses beyond: “Because it is, Aidan, that’s why” or “Mmhmm. That’s nice”.

It’s not hard to locate the source of how Aidan came to possess such raw verbal talent. Full disclosure: As a child, I may have been a bit of a gabber…

Ah man. I need to confess that I just snorted aloud at the thought of publishing that sentence as is. I can’t possibly write that in good faith. Scratch that.

Fuller disclosure: my younger brother did not learn to speak properly until he was nearly six years’ old because I answered for him every single day of his life. Right. That sounds more like it.

So yes, I admit that Aidan likely inherited my “charm” as a conversationalist. But let’s be real. Amidst the swirl of Aidan’s impressively diverse genetics pool, he didn’t stand a fighting chance in the “let’s play the quiet time game”. For in addition to my own chatter box tendencies, Aidan also carries with him the gift of the Irish gab.

Living in Switzerland, Stephen and I constantly talk (no pun intended) about how Aidan will connect with his world as he gets older. As a multicultural family connected to the United States, Ireland and Japan, we often wonder just how passionate Aidan will be in representing these cultures as an adult.

To this end, my husband has been amazing at making sure Aidan knows that in addition to where we live now, Ireland is also his home.

Every St. Patrick’s Day, Stephen brings Aidan along on a celebratory journey paying tribute to Ireland’s foremost patron Saint, along with everything else that defines this country; things like loyalty, lush green landscapes, and of course, a bit of Irish luck.


Due to my attempt at alliteration, I couldn’t find a creative way to squeeze in “and a pint of Guinness to wash it all down.” I also didn’t want my readers to think my husband shares Guinness with his three-year old son on any occasion. But there you go.

Without further ado, I’d like to introduce you to what I think is a pretty unique St. Patrick’s Day recipe — chocolate stout cupcakes. Found on the creative blog theculinarychronicles, this recipe takes baking with beer to a whole different level. Now I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a Guinness fan. Every time we visit Ireland, I take a sip out of Stephen’s, and each and every time, I’m somewhat disappointed that my taste buds continue to reject this unique stout.

Luckily for me, the taste of Guinness in this recipe is minimal. You get a pinch of its nuttiness, but that’s about all. So what’s the point of adding it? Moisture, moisture, moisture. It’s very similar to adding a cup of coffee to chocolate cake and never noticing the flavour once everything is baked. What you do notice is a dessert that is rich in everything else.

I followed this recipe to a tee. Guinness, sugar, cocoa powder and more…


Needless to say, they turned out exactly as I had hoped. A bit of Irish buttercream frosting on top, and we were set to go.


For the topping, I played around with a bit of green fondant, some heart-shaped cookie cutters, stick shapes to bring them together, and a bit of drying time (once you add a dab of water to bind the backs). Viola, an Irish shamrock to top.



And there you have it. Irish cupcakes, to be enjoyed by all, including those less inclined to order a pint of Guinness at the local pub. I swear one of these days I’m going to love this drink.

Now, for those of you who may be thinking “why put so much effort into a holiday that is not really yours?”, allow me to explain in more detail why this holiday is still important to me.

Sure, I married an Irish man and my son is Irish by birth. Very obvious factors. The reason I feel pride on this day, however, goes far beyond these two males in my life.

I’ve moved a lot in my life, from Chicago to Iowa to New York to Washington DC to Japan to Hong Kong to here. My mother no longer lives in the same house or neighbourhood in which I grew up. Nor do my siblings. We are bound by blood, by our past, and by our love for one another. But we are not bound by location. We haven’t been for a very long time.  Given how rare an occurrence it is for all of us to be together, home for my family seems to float somewhere between our yearly (if we’re lucky) reunions and group video chats.

Our definition of “home” is simply something that exists amongst us. And I love that.

I’m not Irish. But in the sense that I’ve just described above, Ireland has also now become somewhat of a second home to me. It checks all the boxes of what I believe a home should feel like. It is a place of comfort. A place where the family I married into come together. A place where people depend on each other, support each other, and make time for each other. And that, my friends, is why I bake these on St. Patrick’s Day.

Home is a feeling, be it in a Skype conversation or on Yellowbatter Ave in my husband’s hometown. It’s not a permanent place. It travels as you travel. And if you’re lucky, it rests where you sleep soundest.

Sleep well, my friends. And enjoy the cupcakes.

(Visit the theculinarychronicles for the full recipe and instructions)

Me and my minions


Aidan, like most kids his age, loves Minions. And who wouldn’t? This animated film is just about the cutest children’s flick I’ve seen in ages. Though admittedly, I can’t decide which I enjoy more: Minions, Inside Out or the Toy Story series.

Children’s films have changed since I was young. No longer do the stories focus on the damsel in distress. The female characters are stronger. They are more independent. And where a love story exists, the happy-ever-after message focuses elsewhere. Frozen’s happy ending was about sacrifice and love of family. Brave’s was about personal growth and self discovery. Minion’s was about following, without regard, despicable people. Okay, so not the best message. But at least it wasn’t about rescuing the helpless princess, am I right?

There’s another reason I enjoy watching these new films with Aidan more so than the traditional Disney flicks that – once upon a time – enchanted my own youth.

And it’s a purely selfish one.

To the parents who have not yet watched their favourite Disney movie with their children, listen very closely to what I’m about to tell you: Don’t do it. You may not think there is any harm in watching The Little Mermaid or The Lion King with your little one. Why shouldn’t they enjoy that magical moment when Arial and Prince Eric kiss? Why shouldn’t they dream about the adventures of young Simba?

I’ll tell you why. Because after you watch it with your child, you are going to watch it again. And again. And again. Because that is how toddlers do everything.

“Again, momma. Again, momma. Again, momma.”

Your favourite Disney movie is about to become your worst nightmare. Picture the 1993 comedy Groundhog Day, except you already know all the lines and you don’t have the  humorous banter of Bill Murray and Chris Elliott to get you through it.

After watching her 35-plus times, IN A ROW, Arial and I no longer friends. She is now nothing more than a bratty 16-year old girl whose father needs to give her a good kick up her $^#$%. Running off with some stranger she just met?

In the words of a witty high school friend of mine whom I shared this story with prior to this post: “No, Arial. I do not want to be part of your world.” Thanks for that laugh, Mike.

In short, parents, do yourself a favour. Watch the crap out of the new films. Who cares if you end up hating those. It’s the ones you grew up with that you should hold dear to your hearts, and away from your child’s until they are old enough to spell repetition 10 consecutive times.

But I digress. As you can probably tell, it’s been a long day. As I write this, my son is fast asleep on the couch, milk bottle dangling in hand, cheeks still chilled and rosy from the two-hour long walk through the forest we just returned from, minion hat still on his head.

For three days now, Aidan has been asking me to carve a scary pumpkin for him. He loved Halloween last October, especially when we spent an afternoon carving his first jack o’lanterns.


Months later, he still hasn’t fully comprehended that when they began to rot I had to throw them out.

It didn’t help that when Aidan came home from school that day and they had mysteriously “disappeared”, I may have blamed it on our very wonderful cleaning lady. To this day, he thinks she threw them out by mistake. In my defence, I had dinner to make, and simply could not be bothered with the spin and drop tantrum that I could see manifesting beneath him, smoke and all.

One day he’ll understand.

Today, I needed a pumpkin. Obviously, since the fall season and its colourful assortment of pumpkins is about eight months away, the only thing I had to work with at the store was butternut squash.

Scary pumpkin was not going to happen. But minion pumpkin? That, we could do.


This is a pretty self explanatory project. Butternut squash, some paints, and off you go…

Add to that a household hunt for suitable goggles, in our case black felt, two milk bottle caps for the two-eyed minion, and a mini coke can for the one-eyed one – the bottom carved out and bent inwards until only the silver is showing, like so….


Some paint, some drying, some more paint, some more drying, a handy glue gun, and a good long walk in the park to let it all dry, and viola, minion complete.


There are about 500 google images of these little guys if you are looking for inspiration on how to paint them. Pick the one you like and go with it.

And importantly, have fun. While you still like them of course:)

Later in the evening, Aidan made me put them near the candles so they could be “scary minions.” Not sure if the effect was quite what he was looking for, but it’ll have to do for now…

IMG_7031Perhaps this time around I’ll suck it up and tell Aidan the truth about what happens to butternut squash minions when they begin to rot. I’m pretty sure I’ve used my cleaner card a few times too many in the last year.

All the same, we lived happily ever after…

On being healthy – fruit & date pizza for toddlers

IMG_6755My motto for the start of 2016 is much like everyone else’s. Eat healthy, think healthy, be healthy. I’ve been trying my best to balance what I think works well for my personal well being. So much so that this year my New Year’s resolution is fairly simple:

Don’t diet. Continue reading

Celebrating the “training” years

IMG_5954Let’s not beat around the bush. It’s been a long, long, long time since my last post. So much has happened since last June when I temporarily retired my full-time mother status and crawled, much like an infant learning to walk, back into the corporate world.

I admit, shamefully, that I’ve ignored this site. Not because I couldn’t think of anything to post. And not because I didn’t come prepared with a back-up collection of recipes ready for my readers. I truly intended to continue posting, albeit less often, while working.

So what happened? To take a cue out of my blog title, I simply ran out of time. Continue reading

Sitting with a slice — fresh blueberry pie

IMG_0166“Naomi. Will you just sit down.”

This has been a common phrase in my house for as long as I can remember. There’s always been a pull in me, a lasso if you can imagine it, taking me from one thing to another.

When I was a toddler, it got me lost. All the time, much to the dismay of my mother.

As a child, it took me to intensive dance classes, to neighbourhood softball games, and anything that would wear me out enough so that I would sleep at night. Occasionally, it also took me to the “yellow” line in the playground of Harnew Elementary School, where naughty children who perhaps couldn’t sit still (or listen, so I’ve been told), stood. Continue reading

Mushroom & Basil Orecchiette with Truffle Oil

IMG_4906When in Rome, do as the Romans do. No better an adage describes surrendering yourself to the cultural surprises, culinary traditions and all, of a foreign country. This is especially true when you’re on holiday and wanting a little guilt-free indulgence.

Should I have that extra glass of wine? Should I really be having a huge cup of gelato in the middle of the day? Oh go on…

When it Rome, right? Continue reading