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.

*wedding cake sketch 6_29_16

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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Chocolate Rattlesnake Dragon

dragon


This was made as a Christmas present for Barbara May and her husband, Large Bear. The body is made of forty-seven chocolate cups with eleven different fillings, arranged randomly, so biting into each segment is an adventure, since there’s no way of knowing what flavor it will be.

This was made as a Christmas present for Barbara May and her husband,
Large Bear. The body is made of forty-seven chocolate cups with eleven
different fillings, arranged randomly, so biting into each segment is an
adventure, since there’s no way of knowing what flavor it will be. Maybe
there’s some sort of gambling to be done here. Someone call Vegas.
Speaking of which, I have a great idea for a restaurant in Vegas in which,
for a fixed price, you get a pull on a slot machine to determine what
you’re going to get for dinner. The first reel could be the drink, then
the appetizer, the side dish, the main course, and dessert. You might end
up with lobster; you might end up with a BLT. Wouldn’t that be fun?

Getting back to the dragon, the eleven filling flavors were golden sesame,
ginger, citrus zest, green tea, red wine, wasabi, peanut butter,
peppermint, coffee, orange, and cherry.

Why a dragon, you ask? Well, I reply, because that’s what occurred to me.
I had another idea first, involving a demonic Santa Claus playing God,
holding up a DNA strand covered with the screaming heads of tormented
elves, but I didn’t think I’d have the time to do it right. It’s too bad,
because that would have been more Christmas themed. Maybe next year.

Initially, I was planning to make the body out of candies made in several
sizes of peanut butter cup molds. This fell through because the peanut
butter cup molds I ordered over the internet didn’t arrive at my apartment
in New York until after I left to spend Christmas at Barbara May’s house
in California. I therefore had to run around to candy supply stores
looking for usable molds. What I found (at Michael’s) were molds for those
little chocolate cups that you’re supposed to fill with mousse or
raspberries. It was actually a blessing in disguise, as these worked
better than the peanut butter cup molds ever would have. They’re big
enough to fit a good amount of filling and they’re proportioned really
well for snake segments. Peanut butter cup molds would have resulted in
much squatter, less graceful snake. Of course, I now have a bunch of
peanut butter cup molds and nothing to do with them.

filled cups

The first step was to make all the fillings, except peanut butter, which
comes ready made in a convenient jar. I recommend using some kind of
natural peanut butter. I used Trader Joe’s.

The peppermint, coffee, orange and cherry centers were made of center
fondant, which I’ve made many times before. My recipe comes from The
Practical Candymaking Cookbook, which I highly recommend, though I believe
it is now out of print. The fondant is basically sugar, milk, and butter,
cooked, then worked on a marble slab to get the right texture. I then
flavored it with candy oils (except for the coffee, for which I used
instant coffee as flavoring) and colored it with paste food colors.

The golden sesame, ginger, red wine, wasabi, citrus zest, and green tea
were much more of an adventure, because instead of a recipe, all I had was
a brochure from a high end New York candy store, which I got at the New
York Chocolate Show. It had descriptions of the candies, but it wasn’t
like a real recipe. For instance, all the instruction I had for the ginger
candy was, “Milk chocolate blended with gin-flavored ganache and ginger.”

The golden sesame and ginger have a milk chocolate ganache base, which is
made by boiling cream, pouring it over chopped milk chocolate, and
whisking them together. For the golden sesame I added finely ground golden
sesame seeds and a splash of brandy and for the ginger, finely chopped
ginger root and a little gin. I determined the proportions by taste and
then wasn’t smart enough to write them down, so I won’t know any more the
next time I make them than I did this time.

The red wine and wasabi start with a dark chocolate ganache base, made the
same way as the ganache with milk chocolate. I then added red wine and
wasabi powder (because I couldn’t find fresh wasabi root) to taste.

Finally, the citrus zest and green tea are based on white chocolate
ganache, flavored with orange zest (from Barbara May’s own orange tree)
and gin and with ground up green tea.

They all wound up tasting very good. I was particularly pleased with the
ginger, red wine, and citrus zest. The only major problem I had was that
the white chocolate-based flavors and, to a lesser extent, the milk
chocolate-based flavors, were more liquid than is ideal for rolling
truffle centers. This actually was no problem at all for this project, as
I could just pour the liquid into the mold, but I was also using these
ganaches to make rolled truffle centers, both for standard truffles and
for the shrunken head truffles that I made Mom and Dad for Christmas. I
think I could solve this problem next time by using less cream to make the
initial ganache out of milk chocolate and white chocolate. See, I did
learn something by making these, even if I didn’t have the sense to write
down my recipes.

With the fillings done, I was ready to make the chocolate cups themselves.
The first step was to fill the mold with dark chocolate, and then set it
in the fridge for one minute, so a thin, hard shell formed. Then I poured
out the excess chocolate and set the molds back in the fridge to harden.

Once the chocolate shells had solidified, it was a simple matter to pour
the fillings in and then pour another thin layer of chocolate on to seal
off the top of the cup. Shaking the mold a bit helps to settle the
chocolate on top into a flat surface. Then, back in the fridge they went
to harden.

Now the fun part begins! It was time to begin adding the artistic details.
For this, I found it best to use melted dark chocolate mixed with just a
smidge of corn syrup. This gives the chocolate just a little more solidity
so it holds its shape better. It also imparts to the chocolate a lovely
dark sheen. The only drawback is that too much corn syrup will cause the
whole batch of chocolate to seize up and become totally useless. I’ll only
admit to that happing to me twice.

I put a batch of this dark chocolate / corn syrup combo into a pastry bag
with a #4 round tip and piped little dots of chocolate around the top and
bottom of each cup. These made a nice visual division between the segments
of the snake and also kept the cups from touching each other except around
the perimeter, making it possible to break off a cup to eat without
extensive damage to the neighboring cup.

Once those dots were dry (Another advantage to the corn syrup addition is
that it makes the chocolate set up much more quickly.) I joined forty-six
of the cups into twenty-three pairs, by sticking the wide ends of the two
cups together. The remaining single cup was for the back of the head.

I was finally ready to arrange the snake on the gold foil covered
cardboard cake circle I had designated as the snake’s home. I chose to
arrange the snake in a spiral, with the tail to be placed on the outside
of the spiral and the head rising up from the center. This part went
quickly, as it was a simple matter to stick the segments to each other and
to the base with a little chocolate. I had to prop the head up on a few
containers of luster dust until the chocolate that was holding it in place
dried.

closeup

Next, the hard parts – the face and the tail. Actually, the tail wasn’t
all that hard. I made all of components of the head and tail on a piece of
parchment paper, and then stuck them to the snake with a little more
chocolate / corn syrup. The tail consisted simply of a series of rings of
decreasing size. I believe I piped them with a #6 round tip. Once these
dried, I stuck them together to form the rattle, and then stuck the whole
thing onto the last segment of the body.

The head was more complicated. The basis was the same as the tail – a
series of consecutively smaller rings, though these shrank in diameter
more rapidly than those that formed the tail, resulting in a squat, round
head. The holes in the center of the rings formed a mouth. I also made
many whiskers of various sizes and shapes – some s-shapes, some curlicues,
some simple swooshes.

Once all the components dried, I was ready to decorate the head. I started
with the larger whiskers and worked my way down to the smaller details,
basically making it up as I went. I was very happy with the result. While
I was at it, I also reinforced many of the connections between the
segments to make sure nothing came apart.

I applied the finishing touches with white chocolate – teeth, eyeballs,
accents on the tips of the hair and beard, and little spikes on the
rattle.

full view

Once it was wrapped I was a little nervous about the head collapsing, but
there was nothing I could do at that point (except unwrap it to double
check, then rewrap it, which I only did once) but I was worried for
nothing. In fact, it was quite sturdy. Unfortunately, Barbara May and
Large Bear were leaving for Hawaii in two days, so they couldn’t eat the
dragon right away. We stuck him in fridge to await their return.

Shrunken Head Truffles


These candies were made as a Christmas present for Mom and Dad. They’re more just really small heads than actual shrunken heads. The original idea was to see whether the facial expression had a noticeable impact on the eater’s enjoyment of the candy. Is it more pleasant to eat a happy face or an angry face?

OK, so I wasn’t really going for the wild native tribe punishes the
self-righteous white man type of shrunken head, but that would be cool,
too, wouldn’t it? These were more just really small heads than actual
shrunken heads. My original idea was to see whether the facial expression
had a noticeable impact on the eater’s enjoyment of the candy. Is it more
pleasant to eat a happy face or an angry face? Does an excited face taste
better than a sad face? In other words, does the emotion evinced by the
candy translate into an equivalent emotion felt by the consumer? I still
think this is a interesting idea to explore, but I don’t think this
project furthered my research much, mostly because creating a specific,
distinct expression on each face turned out to be much more difficult than
I had imagined it would be. I basically wound up just gong with whatever
face emerged of its own volition. One of the truffles wound up looking
like a retarded vampire.

My plan was to make two truffle heads of each of six flavors – two based
on dark chocolate (red wine and wasabi), two based on milk chocolate
(ginger and golden sesame), and two based on white chocolate (citrus zest
and green tea). I got these flavors from a brochure for an upscale New
York chocolate shop, which I got at the New York Chocolate Show. I didn’t
really have recipes, just descriptions, so I had to guess at all the
proportions. For instance, all the instruction I had for the ginger candy
was, “Milk chocolate blended with gin-flavored ganache and ginger.”

All the truffles start with a ganache base, which is basically just
chocolate (dark, milk, or white) mixed with hot cream and whisked until
smooth. To these ganaches I added red wine, wasabi powder (I couldn’t find
any fresh wasabi root.), finely chopped ginger root with a little bit of
gin, ground golden sesame seeds and a splash of brandy, orange zest (from
an orange from Barbara May’s own orange tree) and gin, or finely ground
green tea.

They all wound up tasting very good, particularly the red wine, ginger,
and citrus zest. I did, however, have a problem with the consistency of
the white chocolate-based flavors and, to a lesser extent, the milk
chocolate-based flavors. They were much thinner than the ideal for rolling
truffle centers. I think I could solve this problem next time by using
less cream.

The white chocolate-based flavors were so thin that I couldn’t make them
into hand-rolled truffles and would up using some nice molds I had lying
around. I poured melted white chocolate into the mold, then set it in the
fridge for one minute so the outer edge would set a bit. I then poured out
the excess chocolate and set the mold back in the fridge to set. After a
few hours the white chocolate shells were hard enough to pour in the
citrus zest and green tea fillings. I then piped a layer of white
chocolate on top of the filling with a #6 tip to seal off the tops. I put
them back in the fridge and, once the white chocolate was set, those
candies were done.

The milk chocolate-based and the dark chocolate-based ganaches were thick
enough that I could roll them into centers, about 3/4″ in diameter. I
dipped these into tempered chocolate, corresponding to the chocolate used
for the ganache centers. I then chose the nicest, roundest ones to draw
faces onto.

At first I tried piping features on with straight chocolate. This proved
problematic because the chocolate was too thin, making it difficult to
create any detail. So I tried an experiment. Modeling chocolate is a
putty-like compound made by mixing chocolate with corn syrup. It can be
sculpted like clay or rolled out like dough. I thought that if I added
just a smidge of corn syrup to my chocolate, I could make something in
between modeling chocolate and regular chocolate, which would be thin
enough that I could still pipe it with a pastry bag, but thick enough that
it would hold its shape. The results of the experiment were as good as I
could have hoped for! The chocolate / corn syrup combo not only held its
shape better than the regular chocolate, it also set up faster and had a
lovely sheen to it. The only drawback is that this can only be done in
small batches because eventually it will harden inside the pastry bag and
become unusable. There’s also a danger of adding too much corn syrup to
the chocolate, which results in the whole batch seizing up into a useless
lump.

With my new discovery in hand, I piped facial features onto two of each
dark chocolate flavor and two of each milk chocolate flavor. Naturally, I
used milk chocolate for the milk chocolate truffles and dark chocolate for
the dark chocolate truffles. At this point I did try to shoot for specific
facial expressions, but to a large extent the chocolate simply did what it
would. I think I could do better in controlling the chocolate with a
little more practice.

With the major facial shapes done, I added hair, facial hair, and eyebrows
using dark chocolate on the milk chocolate truffles and milk chocolate on
the dark chocolate truffles. I then used white chocolate for details like
eyes and teeth. It was at this point that one of them emerged as a vampire
because the perimeter teeth came out longer than center teeth.

For some reason, one and only one of them developed blooms, a surface
discoloration to which poorly tempered chocolate is prone, so he appeared
to have some sort of skin condition on his forehead.