In the kitchen with Fiona Cairns
In the Summer issue of Baking Heaven we caught up with 2011's Royal Wedding Baker Fiona Cairns. Here you can read the interview in full...
When did you first begin baking?
My first memory of baking was making Viennese Whirls with my mother from my Hamlyn Children’s Cookbook. I must have been about 10 or 11. My mother used to bake a lot when I was a child.
What do you enjoy most about baking?
To me, baking is about much more than just making a cake – I take pleasure in the process behind baking a cake, the time it takes to create something to share with others. It’s the process of giving and sharing that makes baking so popular, I think. Baking and cake decorating is also a fantastic way to be creative, and can be enjoyed by people of all ages.
What made you decide to set up your own cake company
I started the company after I made a batch of miniature Christmas cakes for friends on one skiing trip. We all had to take a present that we’d made, instead of buying one. These first cakes were baked in baked bean cans and I decorated them myself. At the time there wasn’t anything like them on the market and my husband Kishore suggested I set up a business. That was where it all began... and we still make miniature fruit cakes to this day!
How do you come up with all the designs for your cakes?
The designs are very much driven by the seasons as well as fashion trends. We are quite unique in that we design different ranges for our clients every season, while we still retain a few favourites as a core range. We now have a design and new product development team at the bakery, which allows us to keep up with the demand from our clients. We have designed well over 50 different sets of fairy cakes for the Jubilee alone!
Do you prefer designing big cakes or cupcakes?
Decorating big wedding cakes is very different from cupcakes. I like the intricate work of making sugar flowers or delicate piping work to create features on the cake. However, cupcakes and fairy cakes can be really good fun to make. The decoration can be especially effective if you carefully choose a range of complementary colours and decorations.
What would be your top tip for anyone just starting to bake?
My top tip for baking would be the three Ps – Practice, Passion and Patience! There are some really fiddly methods to get used to in baking and decorating cakes, but once you persevere the hard work pays off. My other top tip would be to always use the best ingredients you can afford. After all, a cake can only be as good as its constituent parts.
What's your all-time favourite recipe?
I have favourite cakes depending on the time of year – I think baking is very seasonal, even though it may not seem so when you first think about it. I might enjoy a dark, sticky ginger cake or fruit cake on a rainy winter afternoon, but in the summer I’d much prefer a light sponge cake decorated with fresh fruits and flowers. One of my all-time favourites though is fresh shortbread. I have a recipe I’ve been using for years and years, and I always make sure I have a batch ready at home.
Have you ever had any baking disasters over the years? If so, how did you save them?
There have been quite a few stressful experiences, but one of the most memorable was an earring falling into the cake batter. I managed to rescue it with the help of a metal detector!
Your cakes have a great reputation and Sir Paul McCartney even asks you to make his Christmas cake every year. How did you first manage to get your cakes into the limelight?
Our first client was the Conran shop who asked us to make 50 miniature Christmas cakes in 1985. I approached them and remember going to London on the train with one miniature cake in tow! We found out soon after that they wanted to stock the cakes, and we were contacted by Harrods soon after that. The business then took off and we now sell to Harrods, Selfridges, Waitrose, Sainsburys and Le Bon Marche in Paris. I think one of the main reasons that our cakes are so popular is because we are constantly reviewing our ranges and coming up with new designs. Our cake designs are very innovative and you can usually find something a little out of the ordinary in our collections.
You've also released the books Bake & Decorate and The Birthday Cake Book – how do you decide which of your recipes to include in each book?
Bake and Decorate and The Birthday Cake Book are very different books. Bake and Decorate gives the reader the option to use very delicious, simple recipes, and each cake is accompanied by an optional decoration scheme. The Birthday Cake Book is full of more extravagant cakes, suitable for people ages one to 100 – there’s a fairy castle cake that's perfect for a little girl, or hand painted Russian Dolls which are filled with a lime and vodka syrup. In the book planning process I come up with hundreds of different ideas, then whittle them down to the best and most innovative recipes. There are so many baking books out at the moment that you have to offer something a bit different in each and every recipe.
You were asked to design and make the Royal Wedding cake in 2011, which must have been a great honour. How did you become involved in this?
Being asked to create the Royal Wedding cake was a fantastic honour for the company. We were told that the couple were fans of our fruit cake, but we didn’t expect to be asked to make the cake! My husband received the phone call , asking us to make the cake just as we were finishing the last photo shoot for the Birthday Cake Book. It was a moment I’ll never forget.
Was it a tricky process designing such a large cake?
None of us had ever made anything like it before and constructing the cake was a real architectural project. The cake was over 1 metre tall and weighed close to 100kg! It took us three months to complete the whole cake. We made over 900 sugar flowers in total. A team of seven took the cake to Buckingham Palace and we were given a room above the kitchens to put the different layers together. It took three days.
Do you have any other books or projects coming up in the future?
We set up an online shop in May where customers will be able to order a range of celebration cakes, teatime treats, books and gifts and have them delivered straight to their door. There is also a new book in the pipeline for Autumn 2013, which will focus on seasonal baking. In 2011 we launched the bespoke cake department, which is already busy with wedding cake orders! We have a range of wedding cakes in Waitrose, but until now we haven’t had the facility to sell cakes direct to the customer. It’s fantastic to be involved in the planning of someone’s special day.
For more information on Fiona Cairns, visit...