Sugar Flowers vs Fresh Flowers, 101

*Sigh* It never ceases to amaze me how much misinformation is constantly published by big, authoritative magazines & blogs when it comes to wedding cakes. Seriously, do they even ASK a real living breathing cake artist anything before they publish their ‘advice’?
This comes from the latest issue of The Knot Texas edition. There is NO greater force in planning weddings than The Knot. And I love them. But sometimes I just want to scream.  I constantly see the suggestion of using sheet cakes in the back to ‘save money’–that’s so wrong but a whole other topic I can get into later. I just saw this one this morning & it’s an important topic, so I thought I would write about it today.
knot 101 list
Overall, the Wedding Cakes 101 list is pretty good. Basic & not a lot of substance, but at least somewhat accurate. Except for one major thing: they said sugar flowers are made using ‘food coloring & a sugar syrup that hardens’??? Um, no. Not even close. They are made from either gumpaste, which is a sugar based dough made with gum tragacanth which hardens to a porcelain-like, delicate form. Or perhaps they are made from fondant, with a stiffener added, such as the gum tragacanth which then basically makes it a gumpaste, or something like tylose powder which is a drying agent that helps the fondant dry to the hardness level needed to hold the shape of the petals. No syrup anywhere to be found. They can also be made from wafer paper, or even a special bean paste!
Sometimes, yes, a drop of food coloring is kneaded into paste to color the petals, but even that is rarely all that is done. Most flowers are made either white or a very pale pastel, & then painstakingly hand-dusted with edible petal dusts in layer upon layer of color, to create the natural shading that you would see in nature. Occasionally we airbrush them, if that is appropriate to the flower, as that also achieves a lovely natural shading, but not as well as the dusts do.
In nature, flowers & leaves also have many more colors than just the pink, lavender, yellow, red, etc. There are always elements of green, & other shades, even in ‘white’ flowers. Leaves usually have elements of aubergine & brown tones as well. Accurately layering these colors along with the main colors of the flower is what sets sugar flowers apart in their beauty & often mind-boggling realism. The flowers & leaves are then steamed, or dipped in a special culinary solution to seal them & set the dusts so they don’t shed all over the cake.
This is also why sugar flowers are quite pricey. Just one flower can take hours of creating & shaping sometimes hundreds of petals. They must dry fully, sometimes in several stages as the flower is built. Then each of those petals must be hand-dusted in the various layers of color as described above. Here is an example of antique roses I made for a birthday cake. These 3 roses alone took me more than one day to complete, counting drying time.
sarah's birthday
The huge advantages of sugar flowers is that they are completely edible (although you don’t want to eat gumpaste, lol) & food safe. They also can be created to the exact colors, sizes & styles needed for a cake. Say you want tree peonies for your New Years Eve wedding…not gonna happen with fresh flowers as they are WAY out of season…but can be achieved in sugar.
An example is an incredible cake we made a few years ago. The bride had her heart SET on blue Morning Glories. Well, it’s physically impossible to use fresh Morning Glories–they are called that for a reason! They only open in the morning for one day, close when the sun heats up, & wilt quickly after picking them. So we made over 125 Morning Glories for the large cake, plus the leaves, & wired them all into vines to be draped all over the cake. It was gorgeous! It also took us (two people) working over 100 hours (!) to create them, even though they are very simple flowers & leaves, in that amount, it’s a long process!
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Funny story about the Morning Glories, too. I was sitting on my couch (I was a home baker at the time) working on dusting several colors of blue & purple to create the gorgeous shading. My husband walked in from work, took one look at me, & burst out laughing. He told me I needed to go look in the mirror right now. I looked like a Smurf! The dust flies everywhere, & I guess I had absentmindedly touched my face a few times also, because I was coated in blue! And by breathing it, I was snorting blue out of my nose for quite a while too! LOL!
The disadvantage to the sugar flowers is, of course, cost. Fresh flowers are always the most cost-effective option, as often the florist can just leave left over flowers from the bouquets & table arrangements to use on the cake. These are gorgeous also, & a vast majority of our wedding cakes use fresh flowers. BUT, it is imperative that the fresh florals used are food safe & non-toxic! For example, did you know that beautiful calla lilies are so poisonous they can kill a child or a pet? From
“Human Poisoning
Eating any part of a raw calla lily can lead to symptoms such as diarrhea, stomach pain, intense burning sensations, and swelling of the throat, tongue and lips. North Carolina State University describes the plant as highly toxic, warning that it may be fatal if eaten. If you are concerned that you or someone you know may be experiencing poisoning symptoms from a calla lily, call The American Association of Poison Control Centers’ free 24-hour Poison Help Line at 1-800-222-1222.
Pet Poisoning
Calla lily is listed by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals as being toxic to both dogs and cats. Pets may develop symptoms such as oral irritation, excessive drooling, vomiting or difficulty swallowing. Like humans, they may experience severe burning and irritation in the mouth, tongue and lips.”
Many other flowers are also toxic, including the ubiquitous baby’s breath & hydrangea. These ‘can’ be used, provided the stems are completely sealed with no chance of contaminating the cake. Whoever is placing the flowers needs to be sure they are sealed properly. We avoid toxic flowers whenever possible, but we’ve used them successfully when no other option was available. And many flowers are coated in pesticides as well. It’s always safer to go the sugar flower route for these!
It’s not unusual to see florists just popping flowers into cakes without treating the stems at all, or encasing them in something to prevent sap leakage. To be fair, the florists are AMAZING at floral arranging, but they can’t be expected to be well-versed in food safety & handling. It’s not their area of expertise. They cannot be expected to know the ins and outs of food safety. So I’m NOT bashing florists at all! I LOVE the ones I work with! They are experts in their realm, for sure! Of course, using all organic, edible flowers is the best solution to fresh florals, but it’s rarely feasible. So if you’re planning to use fresh florals on your dream cake, be SURE they are handle & inserted in a food safe manner!
Fresh flowers can definitely be spectacularly gorgeous! Just be informed of your options!
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