My niece Alex’s specifications for her fifth birthday cake:
“I want a Banshee cake. And one switch will make the lights turn on and one switch will make the wheels turn and one switch will make the mouth open and close.”
Given her previous four birthday cakes, this is a reasonable request, though as you’ll read later in this account, I only managed to deliver on one of the switch operations. Of course, when I made her other birthday cakes, I was living in the same house with Alex. But now, while Alex still lives in California, I am in grad school in Madison, Wisconsin. Fortunately, my spring break aligns fairly well with Alex’s birthday, so I was able to be there for her party, but this meant that I had to make the cake in Wisconsin and then bring it with me to California on the airplane. One thing this forced me to do was to scale the cake such that it would fit in the overhead bin of an airplane, so Banshee was the smallest cake I’ve made in quite a while.
Banshee, of course, is a big work machine that appears at the end of Mater and the Ghostlight, which is an extra short on the DVD for the movie Cars. In fact, Banshee is not even in the short itself; he pops onto the screen only after the closing credits. He appears for all of twenty seconds and you only see him from one angle, which means that I had no idea, from watching the short, what the back half of Banshee looks like. Fortunately there is also a toy version of Banshee, so I bought one, planning to use it as a model for the cake and then give it to Alex for her birthday. However, since I failed to inform my sister and her husband that I had this toy for Alex, they bought her one as well. I gave mine to my little friend Isaac (age 4), who is also a huge Cars fan, so it actually worked out well for everyone.
My first step was to create the electronics. By this point, I’m pretty adept at putting LEDs in my cakes, so the lights were easy. I reused the LEDs that I originally bought for the Tardis Cake. To make the wheels spin, I used a motor that I last used to power Big Rig on Alex’s fourth birthday cake, transferring power to the axles via rubber band drives. I still think it would have worked if my rubber bands had been slightly shorter. Rather than just make the mouth open and close I decided that the whole cake should rise and fall as well, so that Banshee looked like he was breathing, as he does in the movie. So I made an eccentric cam, hooked up to a motor that I had from powering Melvin the cement mixer’s drum, also on Alex’s fourth birthday cake. So as the cam rotated, it was meant to raise and lower the front end of Banshee’s body, which was anchored at the axle for his rear wheels, while simultaneously pushing his jaw up and down. If my motor had been strong enough to actually do this with the weight of the cake on it, it would have been really cool.
Before I made anything in edible materials, I made a full scale mockup of the entire cake in Bristol board. Then I cut it apart to use as a pattern to make the entire exterior of the cake out of gum paste. One nice thing about Banshee is that he only requires two colors of gum paste – construction vehicle yellow and old, dirty metal grey. This helped the gum paste cutting stage to go by fairly quickly. The most tedious part was making the approximately four hundred and twenty little truncated pyramids for the treads of the tires.
Once all the gum paste was dry, I assembled substructures as much as possible with royal icing. Because I was going to be transporting this cake across the country, I used more non-edible supports than I might have normally.
The tow hook and the scoop, for instance, we assembled around brass rods. Incidentally, although I’m breezing over all this in a paragraph, in reality I spent about a month on this stage of the project.
Two days before my flight to California I baked the actual cake. Because I wanted to be sure of a very stable cake for transport I used a chocolate ganache filling, rather than a buttercream. I made three separate little cakes – one for the bottom of the cab, one for the top of the cab, and one for the dumper bed in back. I covered them in fondant because you don’t want gum paste directly in contact with the cake because icing softens the gum paste.
Cake assembly went well. Only a few gum paste pieces were inexplicably the wrong size, but I was able to shave them down to size with a minimum of trouble.
Much more problematic than assembling the cake was packing the cake for travel. This was the first time I had ever tried to move a cake except by car so I was nervous. I had to use basically every inch of my two carry on allotment. For my main carry on I made a foam core box that was about 9”x14”x15” to carry the cake. I also needed to use my extra briefcase carry on allotment to bring Banshee’s scoop arm and tow hook, as well as all the components that made him more than 8 ½” tall. Terrified that my pieces would break en route and I wouldn’t have a cake to give to Alex, I spent at least six hours making boxes, carefully packing components, padding, etc. It was time well spent.
The trip was probably the most stressful flight I have ever endured, with the possible exception of the first solo plane trip I ever took when I was sixteen and flew from Michigan to California to visit my sister in her first year at Stanford. Initially, I had imagined that I would relax once I successfully got the boxed cake through security. This turned out not to be the case.
Security screening went pretty well, although I was so nervous that my hands were shaking. If I hadn’t been allowed to take the cake on the plane, it would have been game over. Fortunately, I was flying out of the Madison, Wisconsin airport, which is by far the most laid back airport I’ve even been to. The only other airport I’ve been to that even comes close is in Paro, Bhutan, an airport so remote and exclusive that only two airplanes are allowed to land there. I got to the airport about three hours early to be sure to have plenty of time to get through security. Obviously, they needed me to open the boxes, but the security personnel were very respectful of the cake’s fragility and complimentary of its appearance. After they swabbed my hands, the cake boxes, and the switches I was cleared through security and safely on my way.
At this point I realized that I couldn’t relax because I was traveling by myself and didn’t want to take my cake into the bathroom with me to pee. Fortunately, I ran into a friend in the airport bar whose flight to Albuquerque had been delayed, so she was able to watch my cake while I ran to the ladies’ room.
Getting onto the plane was also terrifying because the first leg of my itinerary was Madison to Chicago, which is a short commuter flight on a very small plane. When the gate attendant in charge of gate checking carry ons came around the gate area, he told me that I would probably not to able to fit both of my carry ons onto the plane, which to me would have been a complete disaster. However, after a half hour of sitting in the gate area in terror, I was able to stow the cake under the seat in front of me and my other item in the overhead bin. I cannot tell you how relieved I was that this worked out.
In Chicago, I had to carry the cake from one end of the airport to the other to get to my next gate, but at least it fit more easily onto this plane than the last one. A flight attendant even saw it in the overhead bin and offered to put an ice pack on the box to keep the cake cool.
I arrived in California late Friday night and the party was scheduled for Sunday afternoon. On Friday, all I could do was open the box to verify that the cake hadn’t completely collapsed before I fell asleep. I spent Saturday playing with the kids, so I didn’t get to unpack the cake completely until Saturday evening after the kids went to bed.
Amazingly, the cake came through the journey completely unscathed. Literally only one piece broke, and it was a piece that I had extras of, so it didn’t even matter. Even in my best case scenario, I had expected to have to effect at least minor repairs. I was completely flabbergasted by how well the cake traveled.
I spent Saturday night completing the assembly of the cake, installing the hook and the scoop, and adding finishing touches to the paint job. I also used some pressed sugar colored with brown food coloring for dirt on the teeth and in the dumper bed, where I also installed the five candles.
The party was fantastic. Our friend Sara brought awesome Cars decorations and balloons. My sister had invited Alex’s entire preschool class plus several other friends, so there were about 20 children. I’m not sure how they even all fit in the house.
Sadly, Banshee’s wheels didn’t spin (I think the rubber bands weren’t tight enough) and he didn’t go up and down (I think the cake was too heavy for the motor), but otherwise he was very well received. The most important thing is that Alex was happy. Happy and full of sugar.