Raven Pumpkin

In my 11th consecutive year of entering the Pumpkinmasters carving contest, this is the pumpkin that finally won me the Grand Prize! Inspired by the ravens at the Tower of London, I think it represented my most effective use of textures to date.

Spider Cupcakes

The spider cupcakes were my first commissioned baking project for my nephew’s preschool, to be part of the bake sale at their fall carnival. My goal was to show off and entertain myself while not traumatizing the children or horrifying the parents.

It wasn’t actually a Halloween carnival, but it was in October, so I figured that gave me license to make something a bit spooky, though the fact that the audience was two-to-five-year-olds placed some obvious restraints on what I could get away with. Because my time was also fairly limited I decided to go with the restrained elegance of a basic spider and web design.

I made the webs freehand with white royal icing from a medium-sized round piping tip. As I learned from the snowflakes on the Season of Love Cake, little kids love crunchy royal icing candy. At first I tried a few methods of making curved webs – piping them over bowls and such – but the results weren’t particularly inspiring, so I decided just to make them flat, which was much easier.

For the spiders, I was going for something leaning towards refined and arty (as opposed to ugly and scary or goofy and cartoony). I decided on a simple two-color palette. The dominant color was a deep grey-purple, highlighted with yellow. In the interests of maintaining a clean, elegant look I went relatively minimalist with the spiders. Each one was made up simply of two balls – one for the cephalothorax and one for the abdomen – plus, of course, eight legs. I made all these pieces out of gum paste. For the heads and bodies I started with three equal sized pieces – two purple and one yellow. I placed the two purple pieces on either side of the yellow piece and rolled the whole thing into a ball, resulting in purple spiders with irregular yellow stripes down their backs. For the legs, I just put a piece of yellow alongside a piece of purple and rolled them into very thin, striped ropes, which I cut to length and bent at the knee.

Before I even made the cupcakes, I was able to assemble the spiders on the webs. I’m pleased to say that I went to the trouble of tinting the royal icing that I used to stick the spiders together the same purple as the gum paste. I often find myself to be too lazy to tint my royal icing adhesive appropriately, and I always regret it. The key to assembling convincing spiders is to remember that the legs are attached to the cephalothorax, not the abdomen.

With my spiders settled comfortably on their webs, it was time to make cupcakes. I used some special Halloween cupcake paper cups for most of them, but I ran out and had to use plain silver for the rest. My initial plan had been to frost the cupcakes with buttercream icing the color of fall leaves, and then texture it like a leaf by gently pressing it with a piece of lettuce. That way (I thought) it would look like the spiders had spun their webs in a tree covered with fall leaves. It didn’t work at all. The buttercream just stuck to the lettuce and rather than nicely textured, it wound up bumpy and ugly. So I gave up on that idea and just piped the icing in a swirl with a big star tip and then plopped the spider webs on top, which looked fine. Frankly, even if my plan to make the leaf texture had worked, it wouldn’t have read very well through the spider web anyway.

The cupcakes were very well received when I dropped them off at the preschool. I’m told that they were even sold for more money than the standard cupcakes at the bake sale. It’s nice when I’m able to combine my love of showing off my cakes with something that actually benefits other people.

Robot Baby Cake

Barbara Jo made this creepy robot baby cake for our little friend Isaac’s second birthday party. Nobody requested this, she came up with this one on her own.
Watch the robot baby kicking on YouTube
…and it’s sound-activated!

My little friend Isaac has a room entirely decorated with space robots
(plus the giant stuffed spider I made him when he was born, which sort of
fits in with the decor if you assume it’s a giant stuffed SPACE spider.)
His wall is covered with framed robot pictures, intermingled with
illustrations from children’s books about space travel from the 1950’s;
the hooks on his door are made of wooden stacking robot toys; and the wall
over his crib reads “Blast Off!” His mom even turned his diaper pail into
DiaperBot! He lives to serve humanity and devour and vaporize our dirty
diapers. At least until he rebels against his human masters and destroys
us all. And after a few months of eating diapers, who can blame him?

So when it came time to make Isaac’s second birthday cake, what could be
more appropriate than a robot cake? And naturally a robot cake ought to do
more than lie there like a pile of hardware. It ought to do something. But
what? Unfortunately I don’t know anything at all about robotics, in spite
of having taking a brief Kinetic Art class, in which we made a vibrating
spider out of a motor, a paper clip, and an Altoids tin. So I turned where
everyone turns when they need robot construction kits – the internet. I
purchased two – one for a line-following snail robot and one for a
sound-activated walking robot (clap once, it starts walking; clap again,
it stops walking.)

As it turns out, robot kits supplied by the internet are really lame.
First of all, they teach you absolutely nothing about robotics. The
circuit boards are pre-assembled, so all the “assembly” that I got to do
involved zip-ties and plastic pop-rivets. Not really very educational.
Also, the snail robot couldn’t carry even so much as a cupcake, so it was
essentially useless to me. The walking robot, however, had more potential.
It clearly wasn’t strong enough to make the entire cake walk (which would
have been cool) but, by laying the robot on its back I was able to achieve
a nice kicking and flailing motion. “Aha!” I said to myself, “I can make
that look like a newborn baby robot, lying on its back and kicking its
adorable little aluminum arms and legs !” Some of you might be tempted to
argue that a newborn baby robot cake might be more appropriate for a party
for, say, a newborn baby, as opposed to a party for a two-year-old. Well,
you’re right, but I didn’t have time to learn how to make a toddling
robot, so a newborn baby robot was really my only choice.

First I created a dowel framework that would support the body of the robot
while leaving the legs free to flail. Then I rolled out a big sheet of gum
paste, to be cut into the various metal plates. Once the gum paste dried
enough to be rigid, but not enough to make it impossible to cut, I cut out
arms, legs, hands, and feet and attached them to the robot’s little legs
with a bit of royal icing.

Barbara May (ably assisted by her two-year-old son) kindly baked the cake
for me. I started out with two 9″ square cakes, which I cut up and
reassembled into a small body section, to be mounted on top of the robot
base, and a head, to sit adjacent to the robotic body. I covered both of
these with a layer of fondant (which actually took a couple of tries – the
first time out I made both the body and the head too big, so I had to peel
the fondant off, recarve the cakes, and recover them) and mounted them in
the appropriate places on the cake board.

In order to hide at least the majority of the plastic robot mechanism, I
cut rectangles of gum paste and assembled them around the cake and the
base of the robot. I wish that I had thought to make the body of the robot
more human and anatomical because then I could have made it kind of a
Matrix-style cyborg-y baby trapped in a metal cocoon, but I didn’t think
of that until it was too late. I also made a face plate and mouth plate to
put on the head, along with a little pair of circular ears.

At this point, it was about 1:00 in the morning on the day of the party (I
got a really late start on this cake – sorry, Isaac!), so I was really
rushing to add all the additional details. As a result, I was
unfortunately unable to put as much care and detail in as I would have
liked, and I also didn’t have time to let the gum paste tubing dry
sufficiently so it turned out pretty wilted. The cake did end up with an
interesting steam punk vibe about it though, with all the royal icing
rivets. I confess that I couldn’t resist adding a little gum paste belly
button rivet and two subtle little gum paste testicles. Evidently no one
noticed, because no one at the party commented on it, which is probably
just as well, since it was a pretty juvenile thing to do.

In retrospect, maybe I should have left the cake white rather than
painting it, because it looked a lot cleaner unpainted, but I suppose that
might have made it seem unfinished. I was going to paint the entire thing
silver, but I didn’t have enough silver luster dust (I was using luster
duster dissolved in gin, because I didn’t have any vodka [alcohol works
better than water because it dries faster due to the alcohol content.] If
you’re thinking I was totally unprepared for this cake project, you’re
right – sorry again, Isaac.) so I painted the outer plates silver and the
inner “skin” areas gold. It still looked a little too monochromatic, so I
added some shiny blue and red accents.

At this point I realized that my cake seemed to be leaking brown sugary
goo. I had refrigerated and thawed the cakes a few times over the course
of the day, because cold cakes are firmer for carving and fondant
smoothing. As I said earlier, I messed up the fondant covering, so there
were several trips in and out of the refrigerator. Apparently in my
refrigerator this generates humidity or something and breaks down the
icing enough to cause the cake to leak, slowly but continuously. Well, now
I know not to do that again. Fortunately, in this case, it wasn’t that
bad. The leakage didn’t get anywhere near the electronics, so it didn’t
interfere with the robot’s functionality. In fact, the little trickle
emerging from the corner of the head looked like an oil leak, so it
basically worked with the overall concept.

The cake was a hit at the party, especially with my 2-and-a-half-year-old
nephew, who enjoyed clapping it on and off. Later in the party, he
inadvertently turned the cake on by shrieking in rage that he was not
permitted to play with the birthday boy’s new toys (because the birthday
boy was currently playing with them himself.) I think we all know what
that frustration feels like. We left the party early.