Since making a certain royal wedding cake earlier this year, Fiona Cairns has found herself in the baking spotlight. She tells Sarah O’Meara what it was like working with Kate Middleton and when she found time to write her Birthday Cake Book, out this month.
When the news came, Fiona Cairns was standing in the hallway of her Midlands home arranging miniature blue waves around a Pirate Galleon Chocolate Cake.
“The camera clicked and I thought: ‘Oh good, the photo shoot will soon be over, I’ll be able to pop the champagne and everyone will go home’. And then my mobile rang...”
There’s still a nervous tremble in her voice, when Fiona recalls the day her husband relayed that crucial message from Clarence House.
All thoughts of taking photos for her latest Birthday Cake Book fell away as she heard those three little words: They’ve chosen us.
“I’ll never forget that feeling. I was very excited and also worried, because it’s such a big responsibility.”
Fiona and a select small baking team treasured the news they would be producing the wedding cake for the soon-to-be Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in secret, as they liaised with the royal couple. They even hid their work from the rest of the staff, revealing only that it was an ‘important commission’.
“It was an amazing adventure”, says the former pastry chef whose factory produces 120,000 cakes a year, selling to Harrods, Selfridges and Waitrose.
Like any modern bride, Kate took control of proceedings from an early stage, says the cook, and luckily her desires chimed with Fiona’s talents.
“It was a dream brief for us, and very much Catherine’s, right from the very beginning. She’s very creative. We were given some lace, which we assumed was the same as the dress, so the flowers on the cake matched her gown.”
Fiona, who makes Paul McCartney’s Christmas cake every year, spent time with Kate Middleton and her staff, ensuring every detail was perfect, before beginning the construction of the cake.
An interior architect was employed to work out the structure of the creation, made up of 17 cakes and eight tiers.
“It was the biggest cake I’ve ever made,” says Cairns, her voice, quivering.
“One of the most hairy moments was getting it from its little room to the Picture Gallery on a trolley. I ended up carrying the middle sections, so they didn’t get bumped,” she says, letting out a little nervous laugh.
Considering the floral cardigan-wearing mother-of-two looks looks as sweet and light as one of her cakes, the mental image of her lugging kilos worth of fruit cake up the stairs of Buckingham Palace, while dodging DJs carrying massive amplifiers ready for the disco, is rather wonderful.
“I have recovered now, but it did take a long time. Looking back, I still can’t believe it happened,” she says.
But whether you’re cooking for the future Queen or your mum, great cake making relies on a few key ingredients.
“Firstly, you have to want to it. And it’s better to do something really simple, that you’re capable of, than attempt something difficult. Either the love - or stress - will come through!
“Secondly, make sure you’re making something not just for yourself. Think about the recipient.”
Fiona’s daughter Tara turns 16 in a few weeks, and naturally her mum will be making her a dream dessert: “A few years ago I baked Tara a chocolate sweetie castle and she wants that again. At 16, you’d think she’d have grown out of it, but she wants to recapture that magic moment when she first saw all those sweets!”
Here’s one of Fiona’s birthday recipes to try...
Allergen-free chocolate cake (serves 12)
l Ingredients: 140ml sunflower oil, plus more for the tins; 360g self-raising flour; 60g cocoa powder; 2tsp baking powder; 1tsp salt; 400g golden caster sugar; 2tsp vanilla extract; 4tsp white wine vinegar; 400g raspberries; Icing sugar, to dust
l Preheat the oven to 170C/Gas Mark 3½. Oil two 23cm cake tins and line the bases with baking parchment.
l In a large bowl, sift together the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder and salt. Stir in the sugar. In another bowl, measure the oil, 400ml water and vanilla extract, then add to the flour mixture, stirring in the vinegar last of all.
l Pour the batter into the prepared tins and bake for 30-35 minutes, or until a skewer emerges clean. Leave for a few minutes in the tins, then run a knife around the rims and turn out on to a wire rack. Remove the papers and leave to cool completely.
l Put one cake on a cake stand or serving plate, and top with most of the raspberries. Place the other cake on top, and scatter with the remaining raspberries. Sift over an even layer of icing sugar to serve.