Some talented folks in the pastry world build their entire careers around the art of creating flowers out of gum paste. While studying pastry at the FCI, I had the opportunity to learn the basics of gum paste flowers from a master of the craft, Ron Ben-Israel. It was inspirational to learn from Chef Ron, and though I chose a very different career path, I'm happy that I have the skill of making gum paste flowers in my back pocket. It's come in handy more than once since graduation.
Gum paste is a sugar dough from the same family as rolled fondant that is used to create brittle sculptures for decorating cakes. It's made from confectioner's sugar, gelatin, Gum Tragacanth (or Gum Tex), liquid glucose, and water. Unlike fondant, gum paste stretches very thin and dries without cracking, which makes it great for creating dramatic, delicate flower petals. It's brittle when hardened, which also makes it useful for decorators, because there is no worry that flowers will melt or bend once they have set. While the product itself is technically edible, most decorators fill their creations with wire and other structural non-edibles, rendering it dangerous to consume. It's not that tasty either way.
Making gum paste is not the easiest of tasks. To make paste that looks smooth and even after hardening, you'll either want to buy the pre-made kind or invest in the special ingredients that you'll need to make it yourself. You can find gum tragacanth and liquid glucose on the Internet, or check your local cake supply store. Working with gum paste involves allowing days between steps for drying, so you may want to eliminate an extra day to make the stuff by using the pre-made.
In addition to needing special ingredients, making gum paste flowers also requires a number of tools, including a grooved board, a foam pad, shaping tools, wire, and a special rolling pin, plus the gel dyes and luster dust to really bring the flowers to life with color and shading. If you're interested in learning more about gum paste, I recommend taking a class at a cake shop or culinary school where the tools are provided to get a taste of what it entails before investing in your own tools (Amazon is a great source for tools, as is eBay, and NY Cake Supply).
For decorators, the challenge of creating the most realistic flowers imaginable keeps them coming back for more. Chef Ron said that his creative process often involves dismembering live flowers to understand the shape each individual part, then recreating them a petal at a time out of gum paste and reassembling the flower as a sugar likeness. Regardless of your strategy, it's important to remember that each part of the flower needs time to dry fully before assembly or coloring, and drying takes days. This means that your average flower can take over a week to complete, which definitely makes me appreciate the cost of wedding cakes that involve gum paste these days.
Click through the slideshow to learn the process of creating a few simple flowers using gum paste.