Norbert(a) Cake

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We’re all Harry Potter all the time at our house these days. So for his 8th birthday Sam wanted a cake of Norbert hatching out of an egg on Hagrid’s table. Here is what the scene looked like in the movie.

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The thing about baby dragons is that they’re mostly wings. So in order to have enough actual cake in the body to serve the guests, I had to make the cake pretty huge. That base is a 3-foot diameter plywood circle, covered with wood-grained fondant.

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The cake is stacked and sculpted onto a foam core base, supported underneath with aluminum straps, then covered with a mix of fondant and modeling chocolate. I started with a light skin-toned base and airbrushed the colors on top. Sam even helped me sculpt some of the details.

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The wings began with a wire armature, covered with gum paste. The membrane is made of gelatin. I’m particularly pleased with the airbrushed veins.

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My absolute favorite part about the whole cake, though, is the string of drool hanging from her mouth. It’s piping gel with a strand of sheet gelatin in the middle for structure.

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To make the egg shell, I draped gum paste over an oversized plastic Easter egg, then Sam helped me to break into pieces and place it around Norbert like he had just hatched out of it.

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The dishes are also made of gum paste. I formed them over a lovely set of china that my sister’s mother-in-law gave her. Obviously, it needed the finishing touch of a little piping gel tea residue in the teacup.

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The treats on the dishes are rock cakes and treacle fudge that Sam and his mom made from recipes in The Unofficial Harry Potter Cookbook. We have also made the pumpkin pasties recipe from this book and all the recipes have turned out great. Highly recommended.

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Inside, the cake is chocolate with chocolate buttercream icing. Sam helped me make that, too. For once, the amount of cake that I made was appropriate to the size of the party.

First piece is for Sam

After the party, I tweeted photos of the cake to J.K. Rowling and she not only liked it, she retweeted it! As a result, my tweet is currently at over 965,000 impressions and 15,500 likes. Based on the replies, Harry Potter fans are some of the nicest people in the world.

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Update: It’s now at over 1,000,000 impressions!

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Cars Pit Crew Cake

My little friend Isaac really likes the pit crews from Cars. Fortunately, if there is one thing I’m good at, it’s making anthropomorphic vehicles out of gum paste. Over the years, I’ve had a lot of experience.

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Because I also like to build automata, I decided to make the pit crew dance.

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I really wanted to make it voice activated, with a headset like the pit crew boss. I have successfully made a voice activated automaton before, but for some reason I couldn’t get this one to work so I had to settle for a switch. In the end, the switch was probably better because it was easier for Isaac to use than the voice activation would have been and he really enjoyed turning it on and off while carefully examining the mechanism.

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The actual cake is the tires behind the pit crew. They’re a basic sponge cake with a raspberry or blackberry jam filling, with modeling chocolate treads, dipped in dark chocolate.

Cake covered with sculpted modeling chocolate and dipped in dark chocolate

They were kind of like really fancy Donettes. Which is to say they were fabulous. If I do say so myself.

History of Life Wedding Cake

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This is the third wedding cake that I have ever made. Which means that, amazingly, there are three couples in the world with that level of trust in me.

The bride is in law school and the groom is a paleontologist. The wedding was on September 3, which is the anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Paris, which, as everyone knows, if the treaty that ended the American Revolutionary War and in which Britain recognized the United States as an independent nation. Just kidding, I had no idea what the Treaty of Paris was; I had to google it.

This is the design we came up with.

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Each tier represents an era of the evolution of life on Earth – Paleozoic, Mesozoic, and Cenozoic. The tiers get progressively shorter as you move up the cake, to suggest the shorter duration of each era. The overall shape is meant to evoke this kind of spiral shape that is often used in images describing the history of life.

Each tier has a “couple” on it, as well as other iconic forms of life from that era. The Paleozoic tier has a couple of trilobites.

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The Mesozoic era features a Tyrannosaurus Rex chasing a fleeing pair of pterosaurs. Note the T-Rex’s feathers.

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And the Cenozoic era tier has a megatherium (which is kind of giant prehistoric ground sloth) and a couple of hyaenodont skeletons (the groom’s PhD dissertation centered on hyaenodonts).

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On top of that tier walks a couple of Australopithecus, which I’m told is something that the groom has been imagining on his wedding cake since he was a little boy. It’s inspired by these fossilized footprints that suggest that an Australopithecus might have walked next to each other, hand in hand.

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The cake is covered with a mix of fondant and modeling chocolate and all of the figures are sculpted out of modeling chocolate colored with powdered food coloring. I made all the large figures in advance, over forms made to mimic the curvature of the cake tiers. That way I could make them well in advance and bring them in my carryon, since I had to fly cross-country for the wedding. (I didn’t fly with the whole cake. I arrived three days early and rented an Air BNB with a full kitchen to do the actually baking and assembly.

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For the smaller fossils and bones at the base of each tier, I made molds out of food-safe silicon, so that when I assembled the cake I could just push some fondant into the mold and stick it on the cake.

Of course, Australopithecus would have been nude and the couple understandably didn’t want exposed genitalia on their wedding cake. They also wanted to incorporate the Treaty of Paris, so I was delighted to discover that the Treaty of Paris has a nice blue ribbon at the bottom, running underneath the signatories’ seals. So I made a replica of the Treaty of Paris for the top of the cake with a long ribbon on the bottom to wrap around the couple’s inappropriate bits. Although if you look closely at the above photo before I put the ribbon in place, you’ll see that I couldn’t resist making the Australopithecus couple anatomically correct.

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It’s made of edible wafer paper with the actual text of the Treaty of Paris hand painted with food coloring. Of course it’s not the entire text, as the treaty is far too long for that. Using images I downloaded of the actual document, I photoshopped the signatures onto the bottom of the first paragraph. Then I printed it out at the actual size I needed for the cake. I turned this into basically edible transfer paper by coating the back of the paper with powdered food coloring. I put this on top of the wafer paper and transferred the text onto the wafer paper by tracing the printed image with a toothpick. Then I went back over the traced text with paste color and a detail brush. To get the graceful curve, I lightly sprayed the back of the wafer paper with water and then set it over and under a couple of rolling pins to dry.

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The lowest tier and the dividers between the evolutionary era tiers are encircled with books, which are meant to bring in the bride’s studiousness. They also offered a great opportunity for personalization as the bride and groom sent me a list of all their most influential books. The dividers between the tiers are quite small and made so that they can be popped into place to conceal the cake’s internal support. Those books are just gum paste with the titles painted on.

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The books on the bottom tier are much larger and can be seen from the top as well as the sides, so they required more detail to be convincing. So I made pages out of wafer paper and stuck them together with piping gel. Once that was dry, I wrapped each book in a gum paste cover and then painted the title onto the spine. In most cases, I was able to find real cover art from the book to base it on.

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Inside, the cake flavors are vanilla, orange, ginger, and chocolate in alternating layers to suggest different strata of dirt. We wanted people to be able to have an archeological experience while eating the cake, so I buried chocolate fossils inside each layer. I made custom molds for the fossils, based on sculptures that I did representing various fossils that would have been common in each of the cake’s eras. With these molds, I cast the fossils in white, milk, and dark chocolate and then embedded them in the cake layers as I was stacking this cake. Then as the guests ate the cake, they got to excavate their chocolate fossils.

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The drive from the Air BNB was about half an hour and not over the greatest roads. I enlisted the bride’s brother to help me deliver the cake, since he has an SUV with enough space. He is a former Army Ranger, yet apparently still found the pressure of the drive terrifying. I don’t blame him. I hate driving with cakes. We arrived at the venue without incident, though.

One of the groom’s paleontology friends created a museum card to accompany the cake, explaining all the different fossils, inside and out. He even gave a little introductory speech before they cut the cake. And apparently some of the groom’s paleontology colleagues even said my T-Rex was one of the best reconstructions they have ever seen in any medium. But, really, this photo is the best part.

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Love Makes the World Go Round Cake

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My friend’s granddaughter’s birthday party theme was Love Makes the World Go Round. So I came up with this cake, which is meant to suggest the earth traveling around the sun on an outer space cake board.

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The color is all hand painted. The sun came out looking maybe a little more like a giraffe than a sun, but at least the overall effect is fun and colorful.

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The earth is mounted on an aluminum strip that rotated freely around the post supporting the sun, so you can make the earth orbit around the sun.

Terraria Celestial Event Cake

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Nathan, for his 10th birthday, requested a Terraria celestial event cake, with a four-sided pillar, each side of which corresponds to a phase of the celestial event – Nebula, Stardust, Vortex, and Solar – and includes the appropriate monsters.

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Fortunately, after Sam’s last Terraria cake, I am expert at painting pixel-y gum paste Terraria characters. The guy on the side is Nathan’s avatar, with a Horseman’s Blade, which he specifically requested.

Nathan's avatar with giant sword. Note the individually hand-painted pixels.

The tower is cake, mounted on a pipe connected to a bevel gear, so that the cake can be turned with a crank.

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Hand crank

I wanted to make the backdrop change color to correspond with the celestial event phase, so I made a light box like the one I made for the Terraria Blood Moon Cake. Inside are strips of LED tape in pink, yellow, blue, and green. When the cake turned, a strip of copper tape on the gear created electrical connections that lit the appropriate color LEDs as each side of the pillar came to the fore. It quite well at home, but the party was outside on a sunny day, so with that much ambient light the color change was virtually imperceptible.

Pink is the Nebula Pillar

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Blue Stardust Pillar

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As usual, I made about four times as much cake as the party required.

Inside is vanilla layer cake with buttercream icing

 

Terraria Blood Moon Cake

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For Sam’s 7th birthday, he wanted a Terraria blood moon cake. Apparently, when there is a blood moon, a lot more zombies come out and there are some kinds of zombies that only appear in the blood moon. So we settled on a design where the moon changed from blue (regular moon) to red (blood moon) and a bunch more zombies rose up out of the ground.

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The characters are handpainted gumpaste. The blood moon zombies are all mounted on metal tubes that are attached to a little platform. The platform is lifted by fishing line attached to a wooden dowel, so that when the dowel is pulled out, the zombies rise up for the blood moon and when the dowel is pushed in, the zombies sink into the ground for the regular moon.

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Sam also wanted his Terraria avatar and the guide NPC, so I included a little house made of gingerbread where they can hide from the zombies and mounted them on a track so they can walk back and forth.

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The backdrop and the moon are light boxes with lids of plexiglass covered with fondant. Inside, are rows of red LEDs and rows of blue LEDs. The LEDs are wired through the platform that raises and lowers the zombies, so that the blue LEDs light when the platform is down (regular moon) and the red LEDs light when the platform is up (blood moon).

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Inside Out Cake

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This Inside Out cake was for my friend Isaac’s ninth birthday, which is why it’s in the shape of the number 9.

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The number 9 itself is mostly foam core covered with gum paste, because I needed room to embed LEDs and I didn’t need very much cake because they party was pretty small. 20151011 Inside Out cake DSC_1143

The memories around the edge of the 9 are gelatin bubbles, which are made by dipping partially inflated balloons, coated with shortening, into melted gelatin. They’re surprisingly sturdy once dry and technically edible, though it’s a little like eating plastic.

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Each memory bubble contains a picture of the birthday boy, at ages from infancy to now, printed on edible wafer paper and each one has an LED behind it.

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The figures are made of modeling chocolate with gum paste hair and clothes. They are made over a wire armature attached to a motor, so that they can spin joyously around.

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The actual cake is the memory balls in the middle of the 9, which are cake balls dipped in royal icing and then in colored piping gel. I was trying to make cake that was easy to pick up and eat with no utensils, because the party was outside. But I didn’t leave enough time for the piping gel to dry, so they wound up extremely sticky and messy to eat. Still tasty, though.

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Clash of Clans Cake

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For his 9th birthday, my nephew had very specific requirements – a Level 6 Clan Castle from Clash of Clans with an Archer Queen and Barbarian King as well as archers and barbarians. This is actually a fairly reasonable cake request, especially since Clan Castles are nice and square, and therefore quite conducive to being sculpted in cake. I, of course, decided to make it more difficult for myself by trying to make the archers and barbarians march in and out of the castle.

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I think I actually built a pretty cool turntable mechanism out of 5-gallon buckets and rubber bands, but sadly once I got all the weight of the figures on it, it didn’t really turn. Oh well.

The characters, made of gum paste, are on a turnstile

I also had more problems than usual with getting the figures put together. Partially this was because I just didn’t have enough time so the gum paste wasn’t totally dry, but I also had problems with royal icing that just didn’t want to dry. I still don’t know exactly what the problem was. I think I must have mixed it wrong somehow because I’ve never had that problem before. I had so much trouble attaching the Barbarian King’s hand that I ultimately had to leave it off and add some red royal icing so it looked like his hand had been chopped off in battle.

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By the time we got the cake to the park for the party I was pretty frustrated, but I did eventually get all the figures standing up. I had to prop some of them up with bits of foam core concealed under green royal icing so that they wound up looking like they were knee-deep in unusually large tufts of grass.

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The kids loved it, though, which is the important thing. The best part was after the cake was served when a bunch of the kids dismembered and reassembled the figures like a bunch of miniature Doctor Frankensteins.

Archer Queen's head on Barbarian King's body

Enderman Cake

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For Sam’s 6th birthday, he asked for an Enderman cake (from Minecraft, of course). He specified that it should have a Minecraft backdrop and that it should be holding a cake saying “Happy Blockday Sam.”

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For some reason, I found it impossible to locate square candles, so I had to make my own by melting down round candles and pouring them into square molds.

The legs and arms are wood, the head, body, cake, and big grass blocks are cake. There are LEDs behind the eyes, which are covered with several layers of wafer paper and then a layer of purple gelatin sheet. Everything is covered with gum paste plaques. To get the crucial minecraft pixel texture, I cut stencils for every color and airbrushed them. The Enderman only took eighteen separate stencils; the cake took eight; the grass blocks took fifteen (five for the tops, ten for the sides).

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The backdrop is foamcore covered with gum paste. In Minecraft, Endermen can teleport, so I tried to accomplish that by cutting out Endermen shapes in the foamcore before it was covered in gum paste and putting LEDs inside. That way, when the lights went on and off, Endermen appeared and disappeared. It worked pretty well, except that Endermen are supposed to be black and, of course, these Endermen had to be white, so they were sort of reversed ghostly Endermen. To paint the backdrop, I needed twenty-four additional stencils.

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I was up all night decorating, so I was still awake when Sam woke up at 6:30 am and saw the finished cake for the first time. He was super excited and even more so when I showed him how to operate the teleporting Endermen.

The party was at Kidizens, a Lego play place, and we invited Sam’s entire kindergarten class, plus several other friends from his old preschool. The party was an absolute madhouse and a huge success.

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Darth Vader Cake

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Icing Smiles is a great not-for-profit that arranges for volunteer cake decorators to provide special cakes for critically ill children and their siblings. This is the first cake that I’ve had the opportunity to make through them. I actually was pretty nervous about it, because this is the first cake I’ve ever made that wasn’t for family, friends, or a nationally televised competition.

I’m told Moises was really happy with it, so I’m happy, too.