When it came time to design my nephew Sam’s second birthday cake, I turned to Sam’s older brother, Nathan, to help me conceptualize the cake. Sam, while remarkably verbal for a two-year-old, still cannot be relied up to respond to specific questions in a direct manner.
At first, Nathan suggested various vehicle-based concepts because Nathan loves vehicles. Eventually, I was able to convince Nathan that we should base the cake design primarily on things that Sam likes, which may not correlate directly to things that Nathan likes. At this point, Nathan came up with the idea that Sam might like a duck cake, which I thought was a very good idea. Sam loves animals of all kinds. After further discussion, I suggested that we should make a cake based on the TV show Peep and the Big Wide World, which could include not only Quack (a duck), but also Peep (a chick) and Chirp (a baby bird). Since Quack is very much attached to his pond, I decided that it would be fun to make Quack float in a lake of blue Kool-Aid. As it turns out, blue Kool-Aid is difficult to find, but Gatorade makes an absolutely disgusting flavor that was the perfect color for Quack’s pond, so I used that instead.
This is almost the first cake I’ve made that was primarily landscape-based, rather than primarily object- or character-based. Each major character in Peep and the Big Wide World has a special landscape feature with which he or she is associated. Quack has his pond; Chirp perches in her big tree; Peep lives in an old tin can. I also decided to include “the most beautiful flower,” because I really like that episode, and a caterpillar. The caterpillar is a minor character in the show, but Sam had recently said “caterpillar,” which he pronounced something like “patta-putter,” when I was reading to him. I thought this was absolutely adorable and I hoped that, if I put a caterpillar on his cake, he might say it again.
All of this required a great deal of advance work in gum paste and in chocolate. Most of the gum paste work was fairly conventional – cutting leaves and flower petals out of gum paste and draping them over various things to get graceful curves. The can was easily accomplished by wrapping gum paste around an actual tin can.
I was quite proud of Chirp’s tree. Rather than making the tree out of gum paste or fondant, I decided to make it out of chocolate. While I have taken classes in chocolate-work and I frequently make truffles and such, this was my first attempt at making anything this big out of chocolate, at least since the white chocolate rib cage of the Thorax Cake. The first step in casting the tree was to cut the basic shape out of foam core. Then I made a soft bed of cocoa powder by sifting it into a baking tray. I pushed the foam core positive into the cocoa powder to make the negative mold, then piped tempered milk chocolate into the depression in the cocoa powder. Then I flipped the piece of foam core over and did the same thing again to make the other side of the tree. Once those pieces had set, I glued them together with more milk chocolate. After carving off the excess cocoa powder and smoothing out the rough edges with a knife, I was really pleased with the result. And, as it turns out, properly tempered chocolate is much more rigid than my usual building materials of gum paste and fondant. I’m going to have to start incorporating chocolate into my cakes more often.
To create the pond, I bought a big bowl. Then I cut a piece of ½” foam core with a hole in the middle to sit on top of the bowl to support the cake for the land. I also bought a little pump and put it into the pond. The idea was that, if the water was moving, Quack would float around the pond, rather than remaining stationary.
Sculpting the cake into a scenic hilly landscape was easy. Rather than attempting to cover the entire thing in a single piece of fondant, I decided to cover it in a patchwork of various shades of green. This didn’t perfectly mimic the landscape of the show, but I felt that it still captured the cartoony effect.
Installing the tree went remarkably well. I cut a big hole in the cake, poured tempered chocolate into it, and then stuck in the tree. A little more chocolate easily adhered the leaves. It worked perfectly. Have I mentioned that I need to use chocolate more often?
At this point in the project, two days before the birthday party was scheduled, Sam came down with a truly unfortunate case of croup. Sam and his parents spent the day before what was supposed to be his party at the hospital and I spent the day that I had planned to spend finishing Sam’s cake watching Nathan and reassuring him that Mommy and Sam would be home soon. Obviously, we cancelled the party. But it was too late not to finish the cake, and the point of the cake was largely to amuse Sam and Nathan, rather than our guests, so I decided to finish the cake anyway, even though there was no longer a party at which to serve it.
I had hoped to make Chirp and Peep entirely out of cake, but I discovered that it is basically impossible to make a sphere out of nothing but cake. So I cut some Styrofoam balls in half, covered them in tin foil, and used those for the bottom half of Peep and Chirp, with only the top half made of cake. I was quite pleased with how well I did in covering 3” diameter spheres in a smooth layer of fondant. I also think I did a pretty good job of capturing Chirp’s characteristic expression of frustration and exhaustion after she has failed in an attempt to fly.
For Quack, the major problem was, of course, how to make him float. My plan was to make the bottom half of Quack out of buoyant foam and the top half out of cake. The first thing I discovered was that, if you make something egg-shaped (ie. Quack) half out of lightweight foam and half out of heavyweight cake and then place it in water, it will immediately flip over so that the heavy cake part is underwater. No good. I addressed this problem by gluing a lot of heavy steel nuts to the bottom of the foam, so that the bottom of Quack outweighed the top. This worked, up to a point, but it also necessitated a higher proportion of foam to cake to make up for the increased weight. Quack ended up only about one quarter cake and three quarters foam.
I also conducted some experiments on the soluability of fondant in water and I discovered that if I coated the fondant covering Quack in Crisco I could reasonably expect him not to dissolve for at least a quarter of an hour.
Assembling all the cake elements proved more problematic than I had anticipated for two reasons. First, my plan to stick the gum paste flower and the gum paste milkweed plant for the caterpillar directly into the cake utterly failed to account for the fact that moist cake rapidly erodes the structural integrity of gum paste. In the end I did manage to get the flower standing, but the caterpillar’s plant was ultimately a lost cause and he wound up just perched on a clump of grass.
Second, I had planned to assemble the cake while Sam napped and my sister took Nathan out to the museum. As Nathan proved to be utterly uninterested in the museum that day, though, they came home early. At first, this was delightful, as he immediately ran up to the not-yet-completed cake and yelled, “I love it!!!”
Unfortunately, this was also the moment at which several pieces of the cake started to fall apart. Peep fell off her can. The flower and the milkweed plant began to collapse. I began to freak out. So we spent the next hour or so forbidding Nathan from approaching the cake. “It’s very, very fragile!” “Please be careful!” “Oh, stay behind the train table, please!” The poor little guy just wanted to look at it. Nathan, I’m sorry. I should have been more concerned with you than I was with the cake.
Sam woke up at about the moment that I finally managed to get the cake assembled and properly accessorized with gum paste rocks and gum paste tufts of grass. Because I was convinced that several components were about to collapse, we rushed to serve the cake, making this an extremely short-lived object, even by cake standards.
I slightly overfilled Quack’s pond with Gatorade, so that when I actually put Quack in the pond and turned on the pump to agitate the water, it overflowed a bit onto the floor. Other than that, Quack’s floating worked remarkably well. He was a little askew, but he definitely floated, and we were even able to light the two candles that I had adhered to his feet. Remarkably, the bit of cake inside of Quack even remained undamaged and edible.
Poor Sam was probably still recovering from his croup and had just woken up, so he didn’t seem terribly impressed. I’m not sure he understood that it was cake until I dissected Chirp and actually put the cake in front of him. Then he was happy. Sam loves cake. After he finished eating Chirp, he even asked, very sweetly, for “more cake, please?” Happy birthday, Sam!