Sunday, April 1, 2012

Day 108: A Day of Fucus, Fondant, & Wedding Cake


Fucus is a genus of brown algae or flat leathery fronds found in intertidal zones of rocky seashores. Most of us know it as seaweed, and many of us have at least heard of the medicinal and nutritional properties of this abundantly natural super food.

Fondant, not to be confused with fondue, is that melting, white stuff found inside of a York peppermint patty, a mixture of powdered sugar, water, and sometimes gelatin, flavor extracts, and color. It’s the pink or orange tinted goo crawling from the cheap, half-eaten chocolates in the bottom of your heart-shaped Valentine candy box. You won’t throw it away, at least not for a month or so. You save it, just in case a chocolate craving leaves you desperate enough to eat the crap. I know all about this too well. Six weeks post-Valentine’s Day, four bitten and discarded fondant candies in a nest of waxy, brown wrappers rest patiently in my pantry for such dire moments.

I would venture to guess that most of us have eaten fondant more than a time or two, even if we didn’t know the name. I also assume that most have consumed some sort of seaweed, maybe in the form of sushi, or as carrageenan, a polysaccharide-rich food additive derived from red and purple seaweed and commonly used as thickener and emulsifying agents in ice cream and salad dressings.

Consumption of seaweed dates back to at least 5th century China. The medicinal use has only a slightly shorter history. Yet even after all these years, there is still much to learn of its wonders. In 2005, scientist discovered the bacteria hosted on fucus fronds had the capability to kill the MRSA superbug. Amazing. And one cannot walk into a decent supplement or health food store without seeing the latest capsulized kelp peddled to treat a myriad of ailments from diabetes, goiter, hypothyroidism, constipation, depression, and obesity.

Too much fondant may make you fat and elevate blood sugar, while fucus may make you thin and treat diabetes. I think it’s high time to combine the two – a seaweed Valentine confection. Yum. But that’s not really what I was working on today.

I was multi-tasking, and the kitchen was a wreck for it. Today found me elbow deep in a sink full of fucus fronds, while powdered sugar dusted my hair, eyelashes, and overalls. Both fucus and  fondant proved messy and ambitious undertakings, especially at the same time.

I gathered close to 10lbs of fucus during an early low-tide, then soaked, rinsed, and trimmed it before arranging on screened shelves to slide into my food dryer. I love dried seaweed as a snack food, especially the bladder wrack variety with its bunny-ear shaped puffs that pop on the tongue when dried.

I don’t love fondant. Apart from Valentine candy and the occasional peppermint patty, my experience with fondant has been purely commercial, that was until my siblings elected me to handle the anniversary cake for my parents’ 50+1 celebration.

My folks decided to wait an extra year before throwing down the golden gauntlet of marital bliss. Waiting the extra year pays tribute to a long-standing joke. It was my Grandma Crawford who first espoused that the marriage would only last one year. Each anniversary, my parents make a toast to just one more year. On April 21st, we will celebrate that first year plus an additional 50.

I have no idea how many people will attend the event. My parents are popular folk deeply entrenched in community. On the safe side, I want a cake that will feed at least 250. I checked bakery prices first and learned that wedding-type cakes run anywhere from $2 to $12 a slice. Even if I go cheap, which is not really like me, I’m still looking at $500 for a cake.

The can-do voice inside of me, that same voice that started this year-long killing spree said, “Make the damn thing yourself.” And of course I listened. Among the many things I’ve learned in this past 100 and some days is that I’m capable, capable of feeding myself, capable of foraging, capable of digging, cooking, cleaning, and killing wild food. I’m growing confident in my ability to self-sustain. I’m sure the hell not going to let cake kick my ass on the quest to master self-efficacy.

And yet there is one small problem. It’s the same problem I run into again and again on this adventure. It’s an issue of skill, or more appropriately, skill sets I lack. Oh, I’ve made dozens of birthday cakes, everything from a cinnamon Red-Hots spewing volcano to chocolate-mint ice cream cakes. But I’ve never piped frosting roses or pumped perfectly sculpted borders.  

I am a researcher, and that is where the process began. I examined hundreds of Google wedding cake images and watched UTube videos. I don’t know what people did before the Internet. Cakes I admired the most, the ones I found to be modern yet classic and esthetically pleasing, were finished with a thin layer of rolled fondant and embellished with fondant flourishes. As I watched the videos of professional bakers manipulating fondant into flowers, I thought of Play-Doh. In my 25 years of parenting, I’ve mastered the art of Play-Doh sculpture.  I knew I had found the answer to the sag in my decorating skills.

My main goal was to find a fondant recipe that actually tastes good. I need the consistency and workability of modeling clay, but I don’t want that sickening sweet gunk that makes me want to shave my teeth.

Marshmallows. When it comes to fondant, I’m a cheater, a bit of a short-cutter. Instead of boiling sugar to the softball stage and working in more sugar to reach desired consistency, I learned that a 16 ounce bag of melted mini-marshmallows, mixed with 2 tablespoons of vanilla extract, 2 tablespoons of water, and about 2lbs of powdered sugar makes a quick and pliable dough that tastes good enough to eat, almost like marshmallow peeps. I practiced by whipping out a few dozen realistic looking calla lilies and leaves. It was easy. My years of Play-Doh history are really paying off.

My fondant flowers tasted decent, considering my former despise for the foodstuff. But by the end of the day, the sugar overload did me in. I felt sticky, icky, hyped-up, and in desperate need of a toothbrush.

 A hot shower, Colgate, a pint of homebrew and a bowlful of dried seaweed revived the fragile homeostatic balance. My cake decorating confidence is still shaky. But I'm thinking that I might be able to pull off this latest sustainability stunt. It's risky, given the importance of the event. But even if I fail, my folks will appreciate the effort. They are Do-it-Yourself types and my role models for all things of love, marriage, and gutting a deer.

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