Flying Saucer Cake

I began this cake flush with the success of my recent Tardis cake. I received a bit of a comeuppance.

The occasion for the cake was my friend Isaac’s third birthday party. (You may remember Isaac from his second birthday cake and his first birthday cake.)

My goal in this design was to evoke the classic B-movie spaceships from the 50’s and 60’s (the title of the party’s evite was “Plan 3 from Outer Space”.) As I had so recently completed the Tardis cake, I was still interested in cakes with mirrors, LEDs, and visible interiors. I also wanted to personalize the cake, by including Isaac (in alien form), abducting his parents (in human form). So I designed a classic silver flying saucer with round portholes around the sides that would look into the lighted interior rooms of the ship, where alien Isaacs would be doing things that human Isaac loves to do – eating pretzels, climbing on unsafe things, splashing in a pool, and playing with trains. The entire ship would be mounted on a turntable, so it could slowly rotate. The turntable in turn would sit on a clear acrylic tube, representing the ship’s tractor beam, within which I would enclose gum paste figures of Isaac’s parents, in the process of being sucked up into the ship.

To make the rooms inside the ship, I started with two pieces of foam core – a 14″ diameter circle for the bottom and a 14″ diameter 2″ ring for the top, so that I would later be able to put the cake inside. I split the space into eight equal slices with gum paste dividers, each with a row of white LEDs on top and bottom. I backed every other space with mirror, so that when their corresponding portholes were backed with mirrored window film and the LEDs were lit, they’d be mirrored ad infinitum within the ship, creating a spacey infinite corridor. For one of these spaces I used red LEDs instead of white, as that was where the conical thrusters would connect to the ship, thereby evoking a combustible power source.

The remaining four spaces became the rooms for the alien-Isaacs. Because I was going for a little-boy’s-birthday vibe combined with my 60’s B-movie vibe I painted one room aqua, one lime green, one orange, and one yellow. These are all also colors that Isaac’s mother has used to decorate their house. Then I appliqued each room with various gum paste squares and circles, painted silver.

I made the aliens out of gum paste, serpentine with green skin and one big eye. To make them reminiscent of Isaac, I gave them puffy cheeks and little shocks of blond hair.

For the portholes, I used a template to cut out gum paste rectangles with windows in them, and draped them over custom forms to dry. The thrusters were also gum paste, wrapped around cones to dry, and then coated with royal icing for a sort of corrugated steel texture. Once the portholes dried, I used royal icing to stick sheet gelatin window panes to the back and, in the case of the portholes in front of the mirrored room, a layer of mirrored window film.

My sister kindly baked the cakes for me. There was space inside the perimeter defined by the rooms to put a 3″ tall 10″ diameter cake.

To make the tapered upper section of the ship, I started with a 10″ diameter cake on top of a 14″ diameter cake. I carved these into a truncated cone, 3″ high, tapering from 14″ diameter at the bottom to 6″ diameter at the top. To get the appropriate architectural feel, I covered the cake with a layer of fondant and then the fondant with 16 pre-made gum paste trapezoids. Then I dropped this whole section on top of the cylinder with the rooms.

For the very top of the ship, I carved some 6″ round cakes into a hemisphere and covered that with fondant. I mounted this cake onto a foam core circle in which I had embedded a ring of LEDs and mounted it on top of the other cakes.

With the main body of the cake assembled, I needed to get the base together. I embedded a ring of green LEDs into the plywood base to illuminate the tractor beam and then set about creating the people being abducted. I started with a wire armature and built up the figures in gum paste around that.

Once the figures were complete I installed the acrylic tube around them and then glued a turntable to the top of the tube. I had considered mounting the turntable at an angle, but I decided that might make it too hard for the turntable to rotate, so I kept the turntable level. As it turned out, I needn’t have worried because the moment that I transferred my cake to the turntable it became clear that the turntable was nowhere near powerful enough to turn such a heavy cake. And thus my cake became stationary. Actually the turntable wasn’t a total waste, as it still allowed me to turn the cake manually. This was convenient, since the cake was designed to be viewed from all angles, but it certainly lacked pizzazz.

With the cake mounted on the base my flying saucer still needed to taper at the bottom. Unfortunately, it proved to be far too difficult to attach the gum paste pieces that I had created for the bottom of the flying saucer and by this time it was so late that the royal icing would never have had time to dry. So I was forced to hot glue my Bristol board mockup to the bottom of the turntable. I don’t like using non-edible materials any more than necessary, but in this case I felt that it was just too late to do anything else.

In fact, by this time it was about 5:00 am the morning of the party and it was too late for a lot of things. I had planned to finish all the edges very cleanly and wind up with a very polished final product that would live up to the standard that I set for myself with the Tardis Cake. Sadly, at 5:00 am, this was not meant to be. The best I could do was to whip up a few fondant ropes to cover the most egregious seams, slap a coat of silver luster dust on everything and go to bed. I was not thrilled with the results. I’d like to claim that it was some sort of homage to the shoddy special effects that we all love so much in our B-movies, but the sad truth is that it was just poor time management.

The next morning I just had time to cover the plywood base with a layer of pressed sugar and make it to the party in time to help hang up the decorations. The cake did make the car trip with no untoward effects, but there evidently was a lot of moisture trapped in the acrylic tube because the figures’ gum paste limbs softened and wilted, so where their arms had meant to be pulled upwards by the inexorable force of the tractor beam, instead their arms curved despondently towards the earth.

I actually don’t mind an occasional failure. When you’re pushing the boundaries of a medium you have to expect a few unsuccessful trials. This failure irked me however, because in this instance my failure was not due to excessive ambition but to deficient planning. I view the first type of failure as an inevitable result of man’s eternal striving to better himself, but the second is merely the inevitable result of opting to watch America’s Next Top Model instead of working on the project at hand.