Gum Paste Dishes

My hope to build a castle out of gum paste has had to be deferred. Five kilos of gum paste to try and get one that would hold up like the modern stuff, and not a single one would work right. F-I-V-E. That’s over ten pounds. That’s more than eight hours of time just in hand-grinding the cinnamon for three of the batches. It’s brought my carpal tunnel back in a major way.

I’m going to try again in the summer space between rainy seasons to see if that helps any. However, the research on sugar paste’s historical usage is the same regardless of what shape the final project takes. No sense tossing aside all the reading and writing just because I can’t make a giant, intricate project of doom.

Now I’m making dishes out of gum paste for my competition project! They were all the rage at fancy continental dinner parties in the late medieval period. Guests could eat from them, then smash their dishes and nibble on the shards. These dishes were painted like pottery dishes, according to descriptions. Since no sugar paste plates remain, it seems logical that I should paint mine like ceramics from museum collections.

Ceramic deep dish from Manises, Valencia, Spain. 1430-1440. White tin glaze decorated with bronze and blue pigment. The Cloisters Collection at The Met.

Behold! The glory of Spain’s Hispano-Moresque lusterware from the latter half of the 15th century. (I have a Pinterest board of it if you want to see more.)

Plate with the Name "Maria", c. 1437 Spain, Valencia, 15th century tin-glazed earthenware, gold lustre, Diameter - w:46.70 cm (w:18 3/8 inches)
Plate with the Name “Maria”, c. 1437 Spain, Valencia, 15th century tin-glazed earthenware, gold lustre, Diameter – w:46.70 cm (w:18 3/8 inches)

Everything gold or orange on these dishes was done with powdered bronze. This was also a budget flat gilding technique used in scribal work, and the effect is wonderfully close to shell gold at a fraction of the price. Mix the powdered metal with water and gum Arabic – voila! Golden paint! These are stunning in person. We saw some in Paris this summer, and they’re decorated on both sides with vines, floral motifs, animals, family crests, and sometimes a monogram or a few words in Gothic calligraphy.

I made a plate out of period gum paste a couple of weeks ago, in a final attempt to make the blasted recipe work for me. Here it is after I tried to gently lift it from the waxed paper it was resting on. The good news is that it is delicious, so the tasting samples for judges won’t be a total failure.

I give up.
It still didn’t dry to a hard paste – more like dried frosting or glaze. I give up.

Here’s the exterior of my trial bowl. Don’t worry, y’all – it’s in progress. I’m using powdered bronze and powdered cobalt pigment. The paint gums up as you use it, since it reconstitutes the sugar paste beneath. You have to be really careful not to accidentally touch what you painted a few minutes ago, or it will peel off in a strange, mucous-y, plastic strip. Once it’s dry, it doesn’t rub off, even if I rub it kind of hard. I plan to seal it with egg white glair, once I finish painting the whole thing.

Meet Leona Roar, who is using his double-jointed skills to pop and lock through the stars...
Meet Leona Roar, who is using his double-jointed skills to pop and lock through the stars…

My final project is a plate (may show the bowl, may not), which is still drying. I hope it shrinks as it dries evenly. The bowl had problems with that, maybe because I mashed the excess paste around the curves into the rim to try and make a smooth transition from bowl to flared rim. Getting the rim evenly round was surprisingly hard, and then it pulled in at places a little as it dried. Now, it’s rock hard, and I’m not sure how to even it out in a medieval way. Maybe take a rasp to it?


Adventures in redacting recipes

I’m working on a kingdom A&S project right now. It’s a sugar sculpture. Sugar work is something I have experience with and don’t do so that people don’t ask me to make cakes for every occasion. I’ve been warming back up to it thanks to my best friend’s project on Ottoman confections (which got a perfect score at Gulf!).11074716_10205184105256011_1497385687515779760_n I’ve been making flowers to get back in the groove before delving into period recipes. Medieval tables would have been graced with sugar sculptures in the shapes of familiar objects (gloves, keys, a shoe), fruits and spices, buildings, animals, tiny people, and more. There was even a trend in the Renaissance to make plates and goblets of sugar paste (called sugar plate) that would be painted like majolica, eaten off of, then smashed at the end and eaten. It dries that hard.

These are made with sugar paste or gum paste, which dries rock hard over a few days. You can then color them with powders or even a little pigment mixed with gum arabic and some alcohol or water. The medieval recipes are pretty much the same as modern ones, except most modern ones use Gum-Tex or tylose powder in place of gum tragacanth. Even the methods for working with gum paste are the same, though the advent of silicone baking supplies has certainly made life better when it comes to molding shapes and adding textures.

We haven’t done a big competition project together, blog people. Get ready to learn about how Peeps rolls in project mode. I’ve been doing all the research late into the night reading and learning. There are maybe two days in the last two weeks that I haven’t worked on this. I’m and re-reading while I eat breakfast and lunch. I got out the big mortar whose pestle is literally the size of a baby’s arm so that I can hand grind and sift ingredients. I hunted down the right kind of cinnamon and sugar and spices and fruits. I put on my art bandoliers, locked and loaded my research binder, and I got ready to rumble.

Here’s one of a couple of recipes for the stuff from The Second Part of the Good Hus-wives Jewell, 1597 by Thomas Dawson:

 “Take Gumme and dragant as much as you wil, and steep it in Rosewater til it be mollified, and for foure ounces of suger take of it the bigness of a beane, the iuyce of Lemon, a walnut shel ful, and a little of the white of an eg.  But you must first take the gumme, and beat it so much with a pestell in a brasen morter, till it be come like water, then put to it the iuyce with the white of an egge, incorporating al these wel together, this done take four ounces of fine white suger wel beaten to powder, and cast it into the morter by a litle and a litle, until they be turned into the form of paste, then take it out of the said morter, and bray it upon the powder of suger, as it were meale or flower, untill it be like soft paste, to the end you may turn it, and fashion it which way you wil.”

Dragant is tragacanth. You reconstitute it in rosewater then beat it so that it’s a smooth gel, then blend it with lemon juice, egg white, and powdered sugar. Once it’s a sturdy dough, you turn it out onto a board dusted with powdered sugar and knead it until it’s elastic and not too soft (like stretchy playdough). People’s notes expand this to go with a pound of powdered sugar (a box), so the “size of a beane” of gum trag turns into a teaspoon.

Not too hard, right? I’m making a building, so I mixed a bunch of cinnamon that I ground up into mine to give it a sandstone color. Adding spices, finely ground herbs, and flowers is a period way to tint your gum paste. I should be good to jump into project land. I even have two forms of gum trag going – one finely ground then reconstituted (so expensive! it must be great!), the other from the raw lumps of gum that I found at my local Indian market for a reasonable price (Krishna Mart Grocery, I love you). A teaspoon of ether of them will take enough water to fill a coffee mug 3/4 of the way with gel.

So after I spend two hours grinding up four oz. of cinnamon bark in a mortar and pestle, spend another hour hand mixing this paste that is taking more, and more, and MORE sugar to deal with alllllllll the trag gel, my arms are noodles. Sad little arm noodles who stupidly did this after arm day at the gym. I seal it up, make a little test disc to dry overnight, and call it a day. It wasn’t as elastic as it should have been. For the teaspoon of expensive powdered gum that I reconstituted, I wound up using close to a kilo of sugar to make a paste. I should have used…oh….1/6th of that at the most, more like 1/10th. But I live in a humid place now, and that makes things weird when sugar is involved.

This morning? I have a delicious, cinnamon candy that is absolutely not suited to sculpting. It’s the consistency of something between helva and divinity. I phoned a friend.

Turns out, that beane or teaspoon of gum trag you’re supposed to use? That’s once it’s reconstituted. So I added 36x the amount of gum I needed without the corresponding increase in egg and acid to make the paste stretchy and supple and dry solid. Ugh. Three hours of arm torture for nothing.

Start. Again. Today.