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Ask the Expert: Karen Vazquez

Our expert this month, Karen Vazquez, has been in the sugar art industry for over 24 years. Mixing both her ‘old school’ knowledge with her recent experiences. The Renshaw Ambassador answers your cake decorating questions with her innovative top tips. Find out more information on her cakes at

Fondant colouring

Q: What is the best way to achieve a pearl effect?

A: I hand colour the decoration using a mix of pearl lustre dust and lemon extract. It dries fast and I can add more lemon extract on a clean brush and wipe if I make a mistake that needs to be removed. You can also, for the most part, remove any areas you painted pearl using a brush with shortening and wiping off. This last method works only if the mistake appears not to be lighter in colour, more of a soft pearl rather than a striking, deep pearl colour.

Q: What is the best way of adding shine to fondant?

A: Some bakers prefer to use the steamer method, others place the cake inside a cooler to add shine. I like a more controlled method in which I am not hindering the strength of the icing since I am already surrounded by very hot, humid weather. When needed, I will use equal parts corn syrup and clear alcohol (i.e. vodka, grain alcohol, Everclear) mix. I simply brush on the cake and let dry overnight. If the coat applied was not too thick, this should do the trick. If too thick, you may need more than a couple of overnight hours for it to dry. You can also use a PME glaze spray for a softer sheen or even brush your cake with shortening. But this last technique doesn’t do the trick for long (at least not in my studio) as the icing absorbs it, leaving it looking like before… with a matte finish.

Q: What is the best way of colouring a large amount of fondant?

A: I prefer mixing the colour into a small ball about 1g. For example, once I know how many drops of colour it took to turn that white ball into the desired tone of teal I wanted, I multiply those drops by 20g. If it took two drops of teal to help make my 1g of white the desired depth I need, I know that means I am going to need 40 drops to make 20g. If I know I need 150g to cover my cake, I know I will need 300 drops of colour which equal about a full tablespoon of colour per every 150g of white fondant. So if I run out of colour, I know that if I need to make half more, all I have to do is measure 75g of white icing and when I add half a tablespoon of colour, I am going to be left with the exact same colour I started with and ran out of.

Gel Colours

Q: What is the best way to paint with gel colours?

A: Great question! I personally dilute these in lemon extract rather than vodka. Lemon extract has a high content of alcohol which makes your creation dry faster, helping keep your fondant from melting and forming little clumps of sugar which you can end up dragging as you reapply colour. Lemon extract works great but it just means you need to work with a mask as the smell is quite intense. It is also fast and precise and this medium is a bit steep in your pocket since it costs more. The good thing about it is that if you make a mistake, for the most part, you can fix it or erase it by applying more lemon extract with a clean brush and wiping it away. If you choose to use vodka or Everclear, know that the alcohol portion will evaporate and in the end, will be safe if used on a child’s cake. They both work pretty much like the lemon extract but the smell, cost and aftertaste will be less than with lemon extract. It is basically up to you as a decorator which method of these three you feel more comfortable with.

Piping Tips

Q: I find it difficult to paint over piped decorations, do you have any tips?

A: I have a great tip… I colour my royal icing a similar colour to that of what I am painting over. Almost a caramel colour or light brown if I am painting it gold or a medium grey if I am painting silver. For pearl, I just leave it white.


Q: What is the easiest way of putting lights in cakes?

A: It depends on the design that you are trying to accomplish. If as part of the front or back lights of a cake in the shape of a car, I would recommend battery run LED lights dipped in a safe for cake beeswax material sold by Chef Nicholas Lodge. This beeswax helps protect your cake against cross contamination. I personally prefer NOT to use them but if your cake must have these, use them in faux parts or place against items you will NOT be offering for consumption. Remember to explain these mechanisms to your customers and offer your customer a cake release form where they sign agreeing that you will NOT be held liable in the event they are mishandled and particles are left in contact with your cake.

Black Buttercream

Q: What is the best way to make black buttercream?

A: I personally make black buttercream two ways, one using chocolate as my base and one using gel food colourings. I do ask the customer ahead of time if they enjoy the taste of chocolate flavour, if they say no, I offer my ‘non-chocolate’ base recipe. For the easiest way to make black buttercream, I use a dark or Dutch base chocolate mixed in my vanilla recipe. For this, you can either use a chocolate syrup or a chocolate powder. Whichever you choose to use, keep in mind how the liquid or dry ingredients of these are going to affect the consistency and overall outcome of your icing. When I use chocolate, I get it to the darkest tone of brown, then I add a black gel base colour (a bit at a time) until I am satisfied with the final tone of black, its flavour and consistency. If this option were to make your base icing turn a greenish type of black, just add red gel (a bit at a time) until it stays black. Allow this recipe to sit out for at least half an hour before using as it does take time to show their true colour when exposed to our environment. If your customer does not like chocolate based buttercream for this technique, you can mix in red with green (which makes brown) and add black gel food colouring to accomplish a true, dark black. Again, if it turns a bit on the green side, add more red to it. Whichever recipe you choose to use, please store in the darkest part of your kitchen, away from light. If placing inside a box, I personally cover any box windows with paper to prevent light from coming in and affecting the black colour.