Housewarming Cake

This housewarming cake was made to celebrate (somewhat belatedly) the new
house that Barbara May and her husband purchased and Barbara Jo moved into
with them to play with their son and mooch off of their groceries.

Slightly less than a year after we moved into our new house, my sister,
her husband, and I decide that we were finally ready to have a
housewarming party, which naturally provided me with a perfect excuse to
overdo the cake.

I wanted to convey the idea that, of all the buildings in all the world,
we had found the perfect house for us, so I designed a cake that was made
up of a collection of small buildings that, when properly lit, cast the
shadow of our house on the wall.

The first problem, of course, was to find a light source that cast a
sufficiently defined shadow on the wall. After initial tests with
household clip lights and powerful flashlights, it became clear that I
really needed a bona fide theatrical lighting instrument. So I bought
myself a mini-ellipsoidal pattern projector. Which means that I need to
build a puppet theatre, now that I have such a nice light for it.

With my light source in hand, I now needed to figure out what the
silhouette of our house actually looks like. I think it has a relatively
distinctive silhouette (at least distinctive enough that our guests at the
party were able to convincingly pretend that they recognized it.) To
insure accuracy, I took a photo of the front of the house and traced that,
deciding at the same time which features to include and which superfluous
features to ignore. When I was happy with my drawing I blew it up to the
full size that I wanted the shadow to ultimately be.

I now needed a full scale foam core mockup of the cake, positioned
precisely the same way relative to the wall and to the light source as the
finished cake would ultimately be. I set up a table in my studio, with the
image of the desired silhouette taped to wall behind it and my light
source clamped to a book shelf across the room. So as to be able to
precisely position the completed cake buildings the same way relative to
one another as the foam core mockup, I designed a base for the cake that
would include a 1″ grid to which I could align all my pieces. In order to
insure that I would be able to recreate the setup in the dining room for
the party itself, I took precise measurements of the relationship between
the cake base, the lens of the lighting instrument, and the wall.

From there it was largely a process of trial and error, creating one
building at a time in just right size, shape, and position to block out an
incremental portion of the light to create the house’s silhouette. I also
had to keep myself cognizant of the fact that I needed to incorporate some
buildings that were actually large enough to contain some cake. Otherwise
I would just be making a big gum paste city, which would have been a big
disappointment to our guests.

With the foamcore mockup complete, I then had to translate that into a
complete set of Bristol board templates which I could use to cut out the
gum paste. In the interests of not getting massively confused, I numbered
all the buildings. If I recall correctly, there were eleven distinct
buildings, several of which I divided into substructures which I labeled
with letters. Remarkably, my labeling system actually worked – at no point
in the process did I wind up with a carefully cut out piece of gum paste
and no idea what to do with it.

I also made the cake base at this point, which consisted of a piece of
3/8″ foamcore covered with fondant, into which I etched lines on a 1″
grid. I then painted it like a parti-colored sidewalk and sponged on some
royal icing for texture.

Finally I was ready to start creating the actual gum paste buildings,
rolling out the gum paste and cutting it out with an X-acto knife using my
Bristol board templates. Because there were so many pieces, it was quite a
time consuming process, but it all went very smoothly, expect that I
didn’t have nearly enough flat surfaces in my studio to set all my pieces
to dry. I really need one of those flat racks. Maybe I should build one
instead of whining about it.

My plan was to do most of the color by hand, but I started out with a few
different colors of gum paste – grey, blue, and pink – to get a different
color base to build up from. My plan was to ultimately end up with a wide
variety of architectural styles, thereby driving home the concept that,
while we had essentially infinite choices of house, we culled the choices
down to the perfect one.

As I was cutting the gum paste pieces, I also beveled the corners, in the
hopes that they would then fit together in nice corners, rather than
having more visible seams. For the most part this worked well enough that
I was at least able to hide any imperfections with a little strategically
placed royal icing.

With the basic gum paste shapes cut out, I set about embellishing them
(variously with bricks, stones, adobe textures, wood panels, metallic
windows, neo-classical columns, and even a nice little caryatid that I was
rather proud of) and painting them.

Assembly was a rather finicky project, because I had to make sure that the
shadows lined up appropriately with my shadow sketch, while slotting
little slivers of cake into every available divot, some only a 1/2 inch thick.
The only real problem I had was with the roof of one of the buildings
wanting to cave in under the weight of the smaller buildings on top of it,
so I had to disassemble it, shove in some foam core supports, and
reassemble.

Once I had all the pieces together, I added some additional bricks and
such to cover up messy seams, and then did some airbrushing, in attempt to
unify the scene.

Because I was making it, it naturally ended up looking like a bit of a
post-apocalyptic wasteland, an effect that was astronomically amplified
once I had placed all of my little, white, unintentionally zombie-like,
royal icing figures around the scene.

As a backdrop to project the shadow onto, I covered a sheet of foamcore
with a vaguely cloudy-ish grayish-blue piece of fabric. Remarkably, I was
able to move my entire cake/lighting/backdrop setup from my studio to the
dining room without any detrimental effect on the projected silhouette.
Truly, I wouldn’t have been at all surprised to have moved it and then
been utterly unable to recreate the shadow effect that I had achieved in
my studio.

In many ways, this was not my most dynamic cake, as it didn’t really do
anything, or at least there was no dramatic moment in the party at which
it did something that it hadn’t already been doing before – casting a
shadow on the wall behind it. But I like to think that it had a certain
finesse to it, a certain quiet dignity that was appropriate to the
occasion. Plus I enjoyed how, as we cut it up to eat it, it became ever
more and more a diorama of catastrophic destruction, with the shadow
crumbling right alongside its more solid counterpart. Also, the royal
icing zombies made great garnishes for the slices of cake and everyone had
a good time making the shadow of a little stuffed praying mantis menace
the shadow of the house.