(This article appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)
Director of Culinary Industry Development
Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts
Pastry chefs are industrious professionals when it comes to creating solutions for complex problems. Don’t have a stencil for a showpiece? No problem, we make one out of poster board or foam core. Need a special mold for an entremet? No problem, we make it from silicone. Pastry chefs pride themselves on creative engineering and often look to other art forms or professions for inspiration. Many of us answer, “architect or carpenter” as the profession we might have chosen if it were not for pastry. With that mindset, many of us have spent a lot of time looking for inspiration and engineering solutions in hardware and art supply stores.
In the past, to create stencils for cakes, decorative chocolate and sugar showpieces, I have used elaborate tracing and cutting procedures or an image projector that would take hours to accomplish. When I owned my pastry shop, it was challenging to have a solution for cake inscriptions or cake toppers that could be customized and ready for walk-in customers. To address this, we prepared pre-made chocolate plaques with piped inscriptions that were nice, but were often difficult to replicate in a production scenario.
Recently, I picked up a craft cutter machine that has improved my process for custom cake toppers, inscriptions, molded chocolates and showpiece work considerably. There are several stencil cutting machines available; mine is made by Cricut and costs around $200. I should point out that this is not new technology, but it has become more affordable and accessible than in the past. Craft cutting machines are capable of cutting highly detailed patterns from a number of materials including vinyl, cardstock, acetate, pet-G plastic, paper and foil. The machine’s software can interpret numerous file types including jpeg, gif, png, bmp, svg and dxf. This flexibility creates opportunities to use pre-made, downloaded patterns or to create your own custom designs.
The stencil-making process for airbrush applications involving sprayed cocoa butter, water or alcohol based colors is similar to the techniques used by artists in the creation of fine art or automotive detailing. The materials typically include a low-tack vinyl, frisket film or transfer tape and masking paper to protect surface areas around the application. If you don’t have an airbrush, good results can be accomplished using a foam sponge to stipple the cocoa butter over the stencil. This step-by-step process outlines the techniques used to create a cocoa butter spray stencil and chocolate transfer using acetate or guitar plastic. Craft cutters are used to cut craft tape stickers for molded chocolate applications, and with a few adjustments may be used to create elaborate stencils for water based color on pastillage, sugar, fondant and other edible mediums.
The equipment and supplies needed for preparing the stencils include a craft cutter or vinyl cutting machine, standard grip cutting mat, low tack vinyl, transfer tape or frisket film, metal rulers and an exacto knife.
Apply a piece of low-tack vinyl with the paper backing to a standard grip cutting mat. Use a ruler or straight edge to ensure there are no air bubbles under the vinyl. Be sure to line up the vinyl with the grid lines provided on the cutting mat.
Choose a design or create your own and upload the image into the software that supports the craft cutting machine. Adjust the size and position of the design according to your project being sure to leave enough space around the edges for overspray. Remember to reverse or mirror the image if your design is to be transferred with chocolate. Feed the cutting mat and vinyl into the machine and start the cutting process.
Once the stencil is cut, remove the cutting mat from the machine. Transfer tape or frisket film is critical to keep the stencil together when the vinyl backing is removed and applied to the spraying surface. Apply a pre-cut piece of transfer tape or frisket film over the vinyl stencil using a straight edge to flatten and remove air trapped between the two materials. Now remove the vinyl and transfer tape from the mat by flipping it over and peeling back the cutting mat, being careful not to tear the backing paper.
Carefully remove the backing from the vinyl at an angle to prevent lifting smaller pieces of the design. Avoid touching the tacky vinyl surface which can leave fingerprints that will transfer onto your finished pieces.
Apply the vinyl stencil to the surface intended for spraying. For this example, I used acetate plastic secured to plexiglass using low-tack painter’s tape. Note: For larger sheets, a small amount of water or oil helps to secure the acetate to the plexiglass and prevents it from lifting when tempered chocolate shrinks. Press out any air bubbles, making sure the stencil has stuck securely to the acetate. Remove the transfer tape at an angle, being careful not to lift any of the stencil with the tape. If this happens, firmly press the vinyl back into the pattern using the transfer tape and continue peeling at a horizontal angle.
Using a pick or the point of an exacto knife, remove the pieces of the pattern intended for an application of spray. Use paper to protect the areas around the stencil from overspray.
The equipment and supplies needed for stencil spraying are: an air compressor, high-quality airbrush, acetate plastic, plexiglass or other portable flat surface, cocoa butter and chocolate. Alternatively, a foam sponge may be used to apply cocoa butter to a stencil.
For cocoa butter spray stencils, use the airbrush to apply tempered cocoa butter to the design being careful not to overload the stencil. To temper the cocoa butter, heat to 115-120℉/46-49℃ and cool with agitation to 80-82℉/26-28℃. It is convenient to heat the cocoa butter in the microwave using reduced power and shake the bottle during the cooling process. Pre-warm the airbrush for the best spray results. For this project, Chef Rubber Gold Luster cocoa butter was used.
Sprayed stencil with vinyl
Finished sprayed stencil
Carefully peel the vinyl stencil away from the acetate to reveal the sprayed pattern.
Spread tempered chocolate over the stencil at the desired thickness. Tip: use rulers to create a uniform thickness and to protect the cocoa butter stencil during the chocolate spreading process. Mark the rulers where the chocolate is to be cut. For this application, Cacao Barry Guayaquil 64% chocolate was used for its fluid viscosity and easy tempering characteristics.
Allow the chocolate to set partially before cutting. Cut the chocolate using a premade pattern being sure to line up the cuts with the marks on the rulers. Remove the rulers, apply parchment and weight the decorations with another sheet of plexiglass or sheet pan. Chill the decorations for 10-15 minutes or leave to crystalize at room temperature overnight. Leaving the chocolate on the plastic longer produces a higher level of shine.
Carefully remove the acetate sheet from the chocolate decorations.
Final chocolate decoration
Photos by Chef Frank Vollkommer
About Frank Vollkommer