Who needs Mary Berry when we’ve got Mrs Pinney?

December 03 2015

FIRST, a confectionery confession: I have never watched a whole episode of The Great British Bake Off.


Linda Tanner learns some tricks of the trade from one of east Bristol’s cupcake queens

FIRST, a confectionery confession: I have never watched a whole episode of The Great British Bake Off.
It’s not that I am not interested in cake – far from it – but I have always struggled to see its creation as a spectator sport.
I get the competitive element. My mum is a WI stalwart so I know all about the cutting comments from village show judges - and the hard-won praise.
I understand the pride in the finished product, too. I have, over the years, produced some passable efforts for family and friends’ birthdays, from a Watford football club badge to a turreted fairy castle.
But the process is inevitably messy – no less so now than when my three daughters were little and were “helping” me - and not one anyone would want to watch. My husband, in particular, recoils from the clouds of cornflour and icing sugar and the stickiness on every surface.
Not any more though, now I have been to a workshop at Mrs Pinney’s Pantry. Thanks to her tips involving Trex, Tylo and muslin, there’s a fair chance our kitchen will avoid being sugar coated for Christmas and beyond.
What’s more, my festive cakes will be adorned with decorations that are recognisably Santas, snowmen, Rudolphs etc, rather than random lumps of fondant topped with Smarties.
That’s the hope anyway! And even if my confidence proves misplaced, I had a lovely afternoon with three other women in Mrs Pinney’s beautiful kitchen learning how to use silicone moulds, stencils, plunger cutters and embossers. Impressive huh?
Mrs Pinney, aka Sheila, started her cupcake decorating workshops and demonstrations business  three years at her home in North Common.
The career change – she had previously worked as a PA to police major crimes investigators – came after she took a cake decorating course with a friend to cheer herself up after surgery “and that was it – I was hooked”.
It also fitted in with looking after her small son and her two older children. The business took off after The Grand Appeal asked her to make and decorate cakes for their Gromit trail two years ago and her link with the Bristol Children’s Hospital charity continues this year with Shaun the Sheep.
The workshop began with tea in china cups served by Mrs Pinney, immaculate in her handmade vintage-style dress and red lipstick. She, meanwhile, was whizzing up a huge batch of buttercream in her KitchenAid (whoops, better not admit I only have a jumble-sale handmixer).
It was a very different way of spending Saturday for me; I’m usually glued to the radio, following the (often depressing) football scores.
Sheila doled out the fondant and explained how adding Tylo powder strengthened the icing and helped it set. The powder can also be mixed with water to make edible glue. Who knew?
The next revelation involved Trex (other vegetable fats are no doubt available). Grease your hands with this white substance, which I remember my grandma using for baking, and the fondant will not  stick to you. The same applies to cutters and moulds.
Finally, my practice of panicking and pouring excessive amounts of cornflour on to the work surface when rolling out fondant is not only ineffective but will make the icing more difficult to use. A light dusting, applied through muslin, is the answer, I discover.
I’ve never been brave enough to use flower and modelling paste before. I’ve seen it in the icing shop - it’s the stuff they use to make flowers for wedding cakes. Sheila explained that mixing it 50:50 with fondant is a good solution for many decorations, especially those with intricate detail. Good news, as the only cutters I possess apart from a couple of holly leaves are some snowflake ones I bought on impulse last year and haven’t yet tried out.
So off we went, experimenting with the various devices. It turns out you don’t need to be particularly artistic, just enthusiastic. The stencils and moulds allow you to create some amazing effects. We each made a quilted dome, a stencilled bauble, three cake toppers and more decorations than we could possibly need.
Mrs Pinney came quickly to the rescue when things went awry. My Rudolph looked a bit like me after a glass of wine – very red in the face – but Sheila turned him over and his nose and other features were soon much more sober.
Eventually it was time to try buttercream piping, which many find daunting. We learned a few tricks for filling the icing bags and creating a two-tone effect, and each had a go at piping a Christmas tree and a rose. Some of us – OK, me – had to have two efforts at a tree but it didn’t really matter too much how it looked as it was mainly a vehicle for some of the trimmings made earlier, plus lots of edible glitter.
Our cakes were boxed up and we were ready to leave. Four hours had flown by and I’d barely given a thought to the football scores. That’s what I call a result.
It was also a lesson. I’ve always found making cakes therapeutic but icing them rather stressful. That’s because, as in many areas of my life, I don’t allow enough time for the fun part. Maybe I should take more notice of Mary Berry after all.