One of the first things that I did when I arrived at MBA school was to brag to my new friends about my cake-making prowess. Naturally, my bravado was met with a request for a birthday cake. At this point I had known the birthday girl for all of two months. Not having that much to go on in terms of personalizing the cake, I decided to make a glowing jellyfish, based solely on the fact that she had happened to mention a recent trip to the aquarium.
The plan was for me to serve this cake during class at our Arts Administration Seminar, which meant that I had to transport it from my apartment to school. Naturally, I responded to this requirement by making a cake based on one of the most delicate, ethereal creatures on earth.
Because I wanted the jellyfish to glow from within, my first step was to make a hollow dome of hard sugar to serve as the bell of the jellyfish through which the light would shine. This marked my second attempt to make such a sugar dome (the first being the Cyndi Lauper cake) and it remains a very difficult thing to accomplish (or at least a very difficult thing for me to accomplish.) I used a metal bowl as the mold, covered with tin foil because I wasn’t confident in my ability to release the sugar from the bowl otherwise. The problem with tin foil, of course, is that it doesn’t lie perfectly flat and thus has a tendency to form ridges that get stuck in the sugar and have to be carefully pried out with tweezers and/or melted out with a wet paintbrush. The other huge problem that I always have in making sugar domes is that melted sugar, being a liquid, has a strong tendency to flow down the side of the bowl and thus form a deformed letter “o” with a bowl in the middle, rather than a dome. I counteracted this downward tendency by continually pulling the sugar back up the side of the bowl with a spoon until it cooled and hardened enough to stay in place. As you can imagine, this didn’t result in the pristine, glasslike surface that I would have liked, so I had to settle for a streaky, lumpy jellyfish bell.
Next, I needed to get my glowing mechanism functional. My plan was very simple – put some Christmas lights between the cake on the inside and the sugar dome on the outside, forming the bell of the jellyfish. Obviously, in order to have some sense of the jellyfish floating gracefully in the ocean, I would need to raise this bell up on a pedestal from which the arms and tentacles could descend. I bought an acrylic cake stand that consisted of a round acrylic plate that sat atop a 6″ diameter acrylic cylinder. In order to run the Christmas lights down from the bell, I drilled a hole in the top plate. This also allowed me to wad some of the Christmas lights inside the cylinder so that the tentacles would also glow from within. The strand of Christmas lights was too long for me to fit all of them into the cylinder and I still needed a way to get the plug out of the cake and into the outlet, so I mounted the acrylic cake stand onto a silver tray, which I also drilled a hole in so that the Christmas lights could come out the bottom of the tray. Then I took the remaining Christmas lights and taped them to the bottom of the tray, carefully, so that it was still able to sit relatively stably. This had the pleasant effect of making the cake appear to be floating on a bed of light, as if, perhaps, some phosphorescent fish were swimming around in the depths below.
To make the acrylic cylinder look more like a life form and less like an architectural necessity, I piped vertical stripes of royal icing all around it, using a big round tip. I think it was a #8. Because I was going for an organic look, I deliberately let some of the lines curve and slump a bit.
There wasn’t a whole lot of room for the actual cake, but fortunately it only needed to serve eight people. I made a 6″ round cake, carved it into a hemisphere and covered it with fondant. The cake fit easily into the center of the circle of Christmas lights, and I slathered on a whole mess of royal icing to conceal the green cord. I plopped the sugar dome over top of everything and more or less had a proto-jellyfish. But it still needed a lot of work.
For one thing, I wasn’t happy with an all-white jellyfish, though in retrospect, it may have maintained a more ethereal quality with a more muted palette. Instead, I piped on a bunch of bright red and blue piping gel and painted the royal icing around the cylinder with food coloring to match.
At this point it looked more like an eerily glowing mushroom than a jellyfish. I needed life. I needed movement. I needed fondant tentacles. I had the good sense to leave these mostly white, with just some blue and purple edging and red accents on the tips, which certainly kept them more ghostly than they would have been with more color.
My next problem was that the acrylic circle of my cake stand was about two inches bigger in diameter than my sugar dome, so I needed some way to conceal the overhang. I used a big star tip to pipe a sort of elongated inverted shell border around the perimeter of the dome. Apparently the inverted shell border is a bit of a go-to decorating technique for me when trying to conceal imperfections. I went on to use it again on my nephew’s first birthday cake, with similarly unimpressive results. I also went in around the base of the cake with piping gel tinted blue to indicate water.
My jellyfish still looked too static for my taste, so I made some wispy royal icing arms to set round the edge of the bell. I attached them to the cake before I realized that would doubtless break during transport so I took them back off and painted them with some blue and green luster dust. I guess because I had the luster dust in hand I went a little shine-crazy at this point, slinging utterly garish amounts of blue, purple, and gold luster dust all over the place. Sometimes I just lose control of my paintbrush.
I had a bit of trouble transporting the cake to school because I drive a little pickup truck, which is great for buying lumber and for piling all your stuff in the back and moving across the country, but not very good for transporting cakes. Obviously it would be unwise to just chuck the cake into the bed, so I had to put it in front. Sadly, it wouldn’t fit in the footwell, so I had to put it on the passenger seat, which, being designed for human butts, not for cakes, is neither flat nor level. I also had to drive down my driveway, which was both steep and bumpy. The upshot of all this was that the cake got knocked around a bit in transit and I had to make some repairs on site, as well as attach the wispy arms around the perimeter.
In conclusion, this was by no means my greatest moment as a cake decorator, but my friend still seemed to appreciate it.