January 18, 1998


by Sheryl Julian and Julie Riven

Ursula Kreutz Argyropoulos is tucked away in an oversized basement storeroom in the New England building in the Back Bay, making gum-paste flowers for wedding cakes. Nothing about the room looks or feels like a bakery. The cakes are made in a commercial kitchen, several floors up. This is the flower workshop; huddled over her workbench, Argyropoulos might be setting diamonds. Gum paste requires that sort of attention.

Argyropoulos builds her flowers on wire stems, setting them to dry in Styrofoam blocks, then wrapping several stems together to give the flowers some dimension. “Gum paste is almost identical to what Necco wafers are made of,” she says. “I just don’t add the flavors, It’s been around for a long time.”

When it was popular in Europe, 200 years ago, gum paste was known as pastillage, and only the most skilled pastry makers used it. Antonin Careme, 18th century chef and patissier to nobles and royals, “used it to build big structures as centerpieces,” Argyropoulos says. Gum paste and other sugar confections fell out of favor when sugar became expensive during the First World War.
Bakers in this country usually work with the classic royal icing, a mixture of sugar and egg whites that, when formed into flowers, doesn’t have the lifelike quality of gum paste. Gum paste is an ordinary composition that contains powdered sugar, gelatin, water, sometimes glucose or egg white, sometimes shortening, and some form of gum. The gum makes the paste malleable, so it’s easy to work with; when the paste sets, it has the texture and crispness of a Necco wafer.
Argyropoulos grew up around bakers during her childhood in Aachen, Germany; her aunt and uncle owned a bakery (he was a Konditormeister, or “master pastry chef”). She spent many years in their shop, then worked as a baker in hotels and restaurants around Philadelphia. She moved on to Newbury College, in Brookline, 13 years ago, where she taught classic European dessert making until recently.

While teaching, Argyropoulos read about gum paste and took it up out of curiosity. “I wanted to see what I could do with it,” she says, “and I got hooked. The more I worked with it, the more I wanted to.” In New York, several bakers began working with gum paste 10 years ago. “Now it’s the thing that has taken over royal icing,” she says.
In her workroom at Art of the Cake, Argyropoulos’s shop on Clarendon Street, in Boston, styrofoam blocks hold freesia stems, tea roses, calla lilies, and pansies. “I buy the flowers, pull them apart, and put them back together to see how to make them,” she says. “Or you can get a good garden book.”

Argyropoulos makes her own gum paste, though it’s available in powdered form and ready-made at cake-decorating stores. Her cakes are made from the traditional genoise, the simple, buttery sponge cake that all European bakers use, then layered with all kinds of flavorings and butter-cream frosting, covered with butter-cream and then a coating of rolled fondant, to give it a smooth, satin finish.

The gum-paste flowers go on last, each leaf and petal formed separately. “It’s a little like jewelry making,” says Argyropoulos, “and also like working with modeling clay.”
Because of the artistic quality of the cake, she doesn’t want her brides to remove the top layer for freezing, so she tells them to go ahead and cut the cake and serve it all. If they want, she’ll make them a tiny replica for their first anniversary.

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Gum Paste Pansies and Marzipan Fruits