Pastillage is often confused with gumpaste, the sugar and gum traganath blend used to mould flowers and leaves for wedding cakes. While the two are similar, the techniques used in pastillage are quite different. Because it’s a form of Rolled Fondant that lacks the softening ingredients, such as glycerine, found in other fondants, it dries very fast and quite hard, making it suitable for such decorative work as ribbons, 3D shapes and forms such as monograms, heraldic devices and boxes all of which can be cemented to a cake’s top layer with fondant ‘glue’.
The advantage of pastillage lies in its stability – its dried form is relatively strong and durable so it forms an ideal base for more delicate and fragile work. This means that a pastillage base is often used by the best confectioners and decoraters but completely obscured by additional layers of work such as gumpaste, pulled sugar and blown sugar. It’s so versatile that you can sand off its edges, incise designs into it and paint it with a variety of stains and colours without altering its basic strength, although traditionally it’s left white.
It’s important to bear in mind that pastillage is quite definitely a decoration, rather than an edible item. It’s not toxic or dangerous but many recipes contain vinegar, so you might not want to eat it! Most people asking for a pastillage decoration will want to keep it, at least for a while, and under an air-excluding glass cover pastillage keeps for many years.
Uses for Pastillage
A common use for pastillage in the past was moulded items shaped in preformed moulds and pressed out to form the top of a celebration cake or dessert. In France, preformed wedding cake toppers were pressed into moulds and then the name of the bridge and groom were hand-iced on top.
One of the regular appearances of pastillage today is on cruise ships, where stunning displays of pastillage work are commonplace as part of the midnight buffets. Pasty chefs will retrieve and re-use those pastillage forms for several cruises in a row.
In modern confectionary work it’s become more common to hand shape pastillage, for example when making free form ribbons to drape along the side of a cake stand, but it’s important to remember that the working time with pastillage is short as it crusts very quickly.
Another fairly contemporary use is to create pastillage ‘cups’ or ‘’bases’ to support the display of petits fours where it works especially well as it doesn’t take up humidity from other foods placed on it.
Many pastry chefs and decorators have a ‘secret’ recipe of their own, which is based on their experience of working with pastillage, but this basic recipe is the foundation of them all.
- 500g (1lb 2oz white icing sugar
- 1 medium egg white
- 2 gelatine leaves
- 1 tablespoon lukewarm water
- Few drops of lemon juice or white spirit vinegar
- 25g (1oz) of cornflour (optional)
Sieve the icing sugar into a large bowl, making a well in the centre. Soak the gelatine and then and the cornstarch. Make a well in the middle. Soak gelatine, in the water then gently heat the egg white in a small double saucepan or bain-marie, paddling it with your fingers to check temperature. Once it becomes lukewarm, pour in the gelatine and the tablespoon of water, still stirring with your fingers until the gelatine is dissolved.
Pour this mixture into the well in the icing sugar and add around six drops of lemon juice or vinegar before mixing to form a fondant-like paste.
Wrap the paste immediately in cling film or it will begin to dry and crackle – remove the amount you need to use and roll out gently using cornflour to stop it sticking.
You have around 20 minutes to work with pastillage before it begins to dry. Cut or form it into the desired shape (or roll and lay it into lightly cornfloured moulds) and then place on greaseproof paper sprinkled with cornflour to dry for 24-48 hours.
At this point, you can sand it gently to remove imperfections and glue flat sections together to form a 3D shape using edible glue. Store finished forms in airtight containers in a cool dark place for up to 28 days.