THE ICING ON THE CAKE
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.
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.
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.”