It was at the Spring Convention of the British Origami Society at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge in 2000 that I was able to add another extraordinary foldable material to this list. I was astonished to find that to celebrate the convention, one of our members, Mandy Weaver of Newark had been presented the Society with a special iced cake that she had made.
I was mystified that anyone could possibly fold such an intractable substance as icing sugar, but at the recent convention at Nottingham, Mandy produced another cake and I was able to ask her about her skills.
This time the cake was on the theme of Robin Hood, who features strongly in the traditions of Nottingham. The sponge cake, which had a sweet creamy filling, was coated in a beautifully marbled green and white icing (representing the greenwood). On the top sat small puppet-like seated figures of Robin Hood, Will Scarlet and Friar Tuck. These figures were not themselves constructed by origami, but they were surrounded by trees plants and other simple figures which were made by ordinary folding techniques them was a series. I did not, however, see a crane of flapping bird this time although there had been one on the cake Mandy made for the Cambridge convention.
I thought that the flapping bird on the cake at the Cambridge convention might have been faked in some way and asked Mandy if she really could fold a flapping bird from icing sugar. She assured me that indeed she could, although it was not at all easy. She used what is called fondant Icing, which she said was made from icing sugar, liquid glucose and white of egg. To this, she adds gum tragacanth.
Fondant icing contrasts with another kind of icing called royal icing, which is softer and used for coating the cake and for piping designs. This kind of icing is made from egg whites and icing sugar. It would be much too soft for folding, but because it contains white of egg, it dries hard.
Mandy told me that fondant Icing is drier and stiffer than royal icing and is more like pastry, so that it can be rolled our like pastry. It is usually used for making cake decorations such as icing sugar flowers. Ordinary fondant icing doe not have gum tragacanth, but its addition makes it possible to roll it out the icing very thinly. Nevertheless, it remains very difficult to fold and Mandy told me that was rather like wet folding paper.
As for many of us, Origami is not Mandy's only hobby. She is also a cake decorator and is member of the British Sugarcraft Guild. Sugar craft is very popular in England and in most towns there are shops that specialise in selling materials for cake decorating. One day it suddenly occurred to Mandy that she might be able to combine her cake decorating skills with her origami. Her experiment worked and that is how the idea of the origami cake came to be born and with it a completely new kind of origami.
I spent a little time on the Web researching icing sugar and cake decoration and discovered that there were many sites. I found that styles and traditions differ in different countries. In particular, there are different recipes for both royal Icing and fondant icing. Fondant Icing, in particular is made in different ways, but fondant icing does not usually contain gum tragacanth. The classical fondant icing is made in France by a highly skilled process by boiling sugar, water and glucose together to 240 degrees Fahrenheit. It is a very critical process and the site where I read about it warned that it should NOT be attempted by inexperienced pastry chefs without the appropriate supervision as the might burn themselves badly. There is also, however a cold process and I understand that Mandy uses a less demanding method.
Gum tragacanth is interesting in itself. it is likened to gum arabic, which is used as an adhesive suitable for paper and which has an ancient history. The gum is exuded by plants of the genus Astralagus of the Leguminosae (the Pea Family). One of the species is Astralagus gummifer.. Like gum arabic and also frankincense and myrrh it grows in the Middle East. Most gum tragacanth used to come from Iran and probably still does. There is also an inferior substitute produced in India. Rather in the manner of natural rubber production, the stems of the plant are scarified to encourage the gum to be exuded. Gum tragacanth is clearly the key element in making a thin sheet of icing that can be folded in the manner of origami. One of the components dissolves to form a colloid, while another component swells up in water to become a viscous gel. It is this viscosity that makes the rolled fondant icing foldable. The gum is used not only in fondant icing, but also in sauces and confectionary and also in cosmetics and pharmaceuticals
Further wanderings around the Web told me about the origins and history of the wedding cake and how it has developed its own traditions around the world. In Japan, for instance, the wedding cake, as in the West, forms the splendid focus of the wedding reception. In Japan, however, the cake is artificially made from board or card and only a section of it is real cake. This is the part the bride and groom cut for the wedding photographs. During World War II, when cake ingredients and sugar were rationed, wedding couples in Britain also had to be content with white-coated cardboard cakes. But today, as In other countries, a real fruitcake, supposed to be symbolic of fertility, is cut up and distributed to the guests, who rapidly devour it, and it is accompanied by a class of champagne, with which the bride and the groom are toasted. At the Nottingham Convention, when the time came, there was no hesitation in cutting up and devouring the origami cake, but unfortunately there was no champagne and at the end of the proceedings, Robin Hood , Will Scarlet and Friar Tuck were left sitting somewhat forlornly on an empty plate.
I wonder what happened to them!
We must all be grateful to Mandy Weaver for her imagination and her diverse skills. Perhaps other paperfolders would like to follow her example. They could always join the Sugarcraft Guild.