Q&A with Fiona Cairns, cake designer

Fiona Cairns, whose new cookbook Bake & Decorate: Tea Time Luxury is out now, supplies cakes to Waitrose and Selfridges and has made cakes for the likes of Sir Paul McCartney and Bono. How does she do it? Find out here.

Q&A with Fiona Cairns, cake designer

You worked in graphics before you became a pastry chef; what stimulated this change in career and what advice would you give to people wishing to do the same?

When I got married I decided that I wanted to learn to cook, so I enrolled on a course and loved it so much and afterwards I started working at Hambleton Hall. It was the height of nouvelle cuisine so everything was highly decorated. My advice to people wishing to do the same would be to have a passion, be prepared to work hard with very little pay for a while and to set yourself very high standards.

You’re an established cake designer and this is your first book; how does it feel to see your recipes in print?

It is incredibly exciting seeing the recipes in the book, it has been a huge learning curve and I have very much enjoyed seeing the process from start to finish.

How did you decide which recipes to include?

In the book there are really old favourites including my original delicious fruit cake recipe with which I started the business, making miniature cakes. As well as classic old favourites I have included a few exciting contemporary ideas.

Do you have particular favourites in the book?

I particularly like the ‘Star Anise, Almond and Clementine Cake’; and the ‘Pistachio and Orange Blossom Cake’; both of which are deliciously moist and drizzled with a flavoured syrup.

Some of your recipes incorporate flowers, birds, insects; are you inspired by nature?

I have always been inspired by nature and it was my inspiration when I used to do illustrations; so I suppose that it is hardly surprising that they appear on the cakes! In the summer I adore growing flowers, and you’ll find that throughout the book many of the edible ones from my garden have been used to decorate the cakes.

Your designs are very creative; what else inspires you?

Everything and anything inspires me, as well as nature I always look out for current fashion trends, magazines and photographs. Each year I go to India and the strong colours found there on textiles, fabrics etc inspire me. I always come back with a collection of Sari bejewelled ribbons in my suitcase which I then use to decorate the cakes.

Some cake designs can be intimidating to the average cook; would you say all of the recipes in your book are achievable or are some best left to experienced bakers?

There are recipes for every level of competence in my book. Most are very achievable if the instructions are followed carefully but I would advise to start with the more simple ideas.

What advice would you give to novice bakers when baking and decorating cakes?

Simplicity is the key; do not be too ambitious. Stick rigidly to the rules when baking and remember that uncomplicated ideas can be equally as stunning.

Your company produces cakes for Waitrose and Harrods amongst others. What is it about your designs that appeal to high end retailers?

We sell to Selfridges, Harrods and Waitrose, amongst others. Our cakes are consistently of high quality in both taste and design and we have a reputation for very close attention to detail. We have always been known as a luxury brand with an innovative approach, ever changing our ideas which our customers have grown to expect.

You’ve also made cakes for celebrities – can you tell us what cake you made for Bono and how Sir Paul likes his Christmas cake?

I have previously made many Christmas cakes for quite a few celebrities including Bono. Sir Paul’s bespoke Christmas cake varies from year to year; it is always a three tiered design and usually proves quite a challenge!

What is the most unusual or most creative design you have been asked to do?

There have been many challenges since the business began so it is difficult to choose just one! While still on my kitchen table, right at the beginning I made the Conran Shop’s first birthday cake to celebrate its first year in the Michelin building. The cake was decorated with the Michelin man motif from the building (smoking a cigar!)

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