Demolition Cake

The Demolition cake was created by Barbara Jo for her truck-obsessed nephew’s third birthday party.
Watch the destruction on YouTube (part 1)
… and part 2

Most people would tell you that a 3-year-old’s birthday party is likely to involve quite enough carnage and demolition without any help from the cake. I am not one of those people, especially since my 3-year-old nephew Nathan in extremely passionate about demolition, construction, and more or less anything that involves big machines.

So I thought that a wrecking-ball cake would be ideal for his demolition-themed birthday party (if that isn’t bowing to the inevitable, I don’t know what is.) Of course, a wrecking ball cake that didn’t actually wreck anything would be utterly pointless, so my first step was to come up with a good, working wrecking ball mechanism. I was concerned that if I made a wrecking ball that simply sat next to the cake that it was intended to wreck, the composition wouldn’t be unified enough. I also didn’t want to have to make an entire crane to support the wrecking ball. So I came up with a plan where a wrecking ball would rise up out of a circular cake and spin around in a complete circle, knocking down a series of gum paste buildings around the perimeter. This concept was also nicely in keeping with my series of self-destroying cakes, previous examples of which include the Melting Head Cake, the Fountain Cake, and the Self-Digging Cake for Nathan’s second birthday.

The wrecking ball mechanism consisted of a brass tube attached to a hobby motor, which spun inside another, larger-diameter brass tube. The hobby motor was encased inside a piece of PVC tubing, so that the cake (with a pre-cut hole in the middle) could just be slipped around it. The spinning tube had a hole drilled in the tip, to which I could tie a little piece of wire, the other end of which would ultimately be attached to the wrecking ball.

I went through a few iterations of wrecking ball tests. My first plan was to make the wrecking ball out of hard candy, embedding the wire in it when I poured the sugar. They turned out OK, but then I got worried that the sugar ball might shatter when it hit the cake and I also bought a silicon sphere mold that resulted in sugar spheres that were altogether too big and heavy for the power of the motor. My next idea was to make the wrecking ball out of marshmallow, on the theory that marshmallow would be tough enough to break the cake but spongy enough not to shatter. This turned out not to work at all, as homemade marshmallows are significantly poofier than commercial marshmallows and couldn’t wreck their way out of a wet paper bag. Proving that old axiom that the third time is the charm, my third idea was modeling chocolate. This way I could roll balls of modeling chocolate to whatever size I desired, then punch holes through the center to attach the wire. This worked well, except that on my first try I only ran one wire through the middle of the modeling chocolate ball, and when I
turned the wrecking ball on the wire just sliced right through the chocolate and the ball went flying. I found out, however, that if I distributed the wires at four points around the ball the centrifugal forces were dispersed enough that the ball stayed intact. I also covered the ball with a layer of royal icing and a dusting of powdered colors to make it look more iron-like.

With wrecking ball methodology ascertained, the next step was creating and decorating the cake base. The bottom of the base was a simple plywood circle, but I also needed to layer some foamcore on top of that to hide the battery, wires, and switch for the wrecking ball. To get a little color into what promised to be an otherwise fairly drab-colored cake, I painted yellow and black caution tape stripes on the plywood. I then put a smaller circle of foam core over top of this, with appropriate holes for the battery and such, and covered that with a tiled pattern of marbled fondant. Actually, I did this twice because I didn’t like my haphazard arrangement of shades of grey the first time around, so I tore it up and redid it with a much more careful pattern.

Now having a base for my cake, I set about making the sides and top. For the top of the cake, I made a circle of marbled fondant with a pre-cut hole in it for the wrecking ball. By letting this dry for a week, I wound up with a nice rigid circle that would give me a much cleaner, more architectural finished cake than I would get by covering the cake with soft fondant after it was baked. This resulted in me making the interesting discovery that blue food coloring turns green when exposed to sunlight. Fortunately, it still looked OK with the rest of my cake color scheme (at least it was a cool, grayish-green) but hopefully this can help prevent potential problems in the future. For the sides of the cake I made a series of very dark blue and purple gum paste rectangles, which looked fine, but, due to the massive quantity of food coloring involved, tasted revolting. Perhaps next time I should start with chocolate fondant.

Now all I needed was something for the ball to wreck. In order to get something that would shatter nicely, I opted for skeletal buildings made of gum paste, rather than trying to smash through actual cake. I still wonder if that was a bit of a cop-out. I made a series of eight skeletal framework buildings of increasing height. I calculated that, in total, they required just over 300 feet of gum paste strips. It was a bit of a time-consuming process because I first had to roll out the gum paste, then cut it into strips and use a bit of brass tubing to create a riveted texture. Once the gum paste dried, I could cut it to the appropriate length, and then stick three pieces of each length together with royal icing to made “U-beams”. (I thought about making I-beams, but decided that would be more difficult and wouldn’t look as good.) After the U-beam royal icing dried, I used more royal icing to put the pieces together into each of the three sides of each of the eight buildings. I then had to wait for that to dry again before I could stick the three sides of each building together. In other words, I spent about two weeks every day after work hunched over my table sticking tiny grey bits of gum paste to other tiny grey bits of gum paste. Whee!

Once the buildings were done, I had to make the expanded steel (by which I mean royal icing) inserts to go between the gum paste girders. Fortunately, this went a lot faster than the gum paste project, even considering that I was also piping lots of royal icing chain link fence that was ultimately destined to go around the perimeter of the cake. I used a #2 and a #1 piping tip, so my hand did get a little sore, but
that’s to be expected.

Once the royal icing was dry, I just peeled it off the wax paper and stuck it into the holes of the gum paste buildings with a little more royal icing.

At this point it seemed that I really should make some actual cake to include in my cake. This was probably the easiest actual cake I’ve ever made, since I actually wanted it to be round, which just so happens to be the shape of normal cake pans. So, for once, no cake carving, no giant pile of gooey cake scraps, just some torting and filling, and making sure that I would up with a cake the correct height to fit with the premade buildings. I did have to cut a carefully angled hole in it to accommodate the wrecking ball mechanism, but compared to my usual practice of carving cakes into the shapes of rats and human heads and such, it was quite easy.

With the cake in place around the wrecking ball, it was very quick work to slap my pre-made top and sides on and place my eight building around the perimeter. I also flung some edible glitter on the sides to give it a little more sparkle.

From there it was a simple matter of placing the fence pieces, and strewing a few broken bits of girders and such about to give it more of that “in the process of demolition” feel. In retrospect, it might have made a stronger artistic statement if I had started with a complete building and wrecked that, rather than starting with an already wrecked building and simply wrecking it more.

At this point it occurred to me that, as I was making this cake for a three-year-old’s birthday party, it might be a good idea to incorporate some birthday candles into the design. Considering that they were a complete afterthought, I thought they turned out rather well. I encased the three candles in various heights of leftover gum paste girders and stuck them to the chain link fence, right behind the switch that turned on
the wrecking ball.

To bring the whole composition together, I added some black food coloring shadows into the seams between the buildings and the cake itself and I added some bright yellow highlights to the buildings, which picked up the yellow paint on the bottom base.

The finishing touch – little royal icing people watching from outside the fence. I like to make my sugar crowds along the same lines that I make my scale figures when I draw set sketches for the plays I design, keeping the people blank, white, and anonymous so as not to distract attention from the scenery or the cake which is the true focal point of the piece. In cake form, this tends to give my crowds a bit of a zombie-horde feel, which, as you can probably guess, I really enjoy.

The presentation of the cake at the party went quite well. Nathan was excited about tuning on the switch, but he’s sort of a cautious guy, so he also kept turning it off and his friend Noah would turn it back on. So the destruction proceeded a bit in fits and starts, but eventually the ball reached full speed and full destructive capability. I wish I had made the wire on the wrecking ball just a tad longer, because I think it would have made the destruction more impressive, but all in all I was extremely pleased. And Nathan looked delightfully like an angelic little blond Godzilla gnawing on the broken girders.

Circulating Heart Cake

Some variation on a bleeding heart cake is a relatively standard feature of our annual Pumpkinfest. This year, I was trying to make a cake through which “blood” (cranberry juice) would continuously and visibly circulate.

Watch on YouTube

Concept: A cake, shaped like a heart and covered with fondant, sitting on top of a platform elevated above a reservoir full of cranberry juice. In the reservoir, a pump attached to a tube leading up the side of the cake to pump the cranberry juice up and over the cake. To contain the juice and insure that it spread nicely over the surface of the cake, an isomalt (sugar substitute) shell, also in the shape of a heart, placed over the cake, leaving about an eighth inch of space for the juice to flow between the cake and the outer shell. In the opposite side of the elevated platform from the tube, a series of holes to drain the juice back into the reservoir and begin the whole cycle all over again.

Step 1: Make an isomalt shell shaped like a heart. At first, I had hoped to find something that was already in the shape of a heart, cover it with tin foil, and pour isomalt over the top. I wanted to use isomalt rather than sugar because it’s more transparent. Unfortunately, in spite of having access to numerous seasonal Halloween stores, I was unable to locate anything that was a) accurately heart-shaped, b) big enough that I would be able to get sufficient cake for our guests inside, and c) able to resist the heat of liquid isomalt. I therefore had to make my tin foil heart mold from scratch. I started with a cereal bowl, upside down, and built up the rest of the heart shape around the bowl with wadded up tin foil. To get as smooth a surface as possible to pour over, once I had a shape I was happy with, I spread one final layer of tin foil on top and smoothed it as much as I possibly could. As you may recall from my description of the jellyfish cake, the problem that I often have with pouring sugar or isomalt over tin foil is that the little ridges of the tin foil get stuck in the solidified sugar and are very tedious and nerve-wracking to remove with tweezers and a damp paintbrush.

I put this tin foil heart onto a silpat mat and melted down my isomalt. In my earlier discussion of the jellyfish cake I described some of the problems that I have with making sugar domes. All of these problems apply equally to making isomalt hearts. I was also a little disappointed that the isomalt hardened somewhat cloudy, I think because I was working air into it as I pulled it back up the sides of my tin foil heart to prevent it from all pooling at the bottom. I was hoping for a transparent heart, but I had to settle for cloudy. I also think that there’s something wrong with the bucket of isomalt that I have, because it always come out sort of yellow, when isomalt is supposed to be perfectly clear. At least the heart released from the tin foil better than any of my prior tin foil sugar projects.

Step 2: Make an elevated platform, pump, and reservoir assembly. Rather than purchasing any new equipment for this project, with just a little glue and a few additional holes drilled, I was able to repurpose some of the acrylic circles and tubes from the Triple Animal Cake and the pump and tubing from the Fish Fountain Cake. I used a cake tin for the reservoir. Not the most aesthetically inspired choice, perhaps, but highly functional and readily available.

Step 3: Make a heart-shaped cake. Internal-organ-shaped cakes being something of a specialty of mine, the carving went pretty quickly. I covered it with white fondant – a much thicker layer than usual, as I wanted it to be able to stand up to the juice running over it without dissolving away and exposing the cake – then sculpted in some of the major features, like the divisions between the chambers. Then I moved it onto the acrylic platform, and positioned the tube tight up against it. To get some additional detail (though I wasn’t overly concerned with extreme detail, since the whole thing was going to be under my isomalt shell) I piped on royal icing and shaped it with a slightly damp, soft paintbrush. I also covered the tube with royal icing, both to hold it in place and to camouflage it. I painted the cake with brighter colors than I might have ordinarily, because I wanted them to read through the translucent shell.

Step 4: Attach the isomalt shell. Unfortunately, once I plopped the shell over top of the cake, it looked more like an amoeba than a heart. I hadn’t planned to decorate the top surface of the shell, because I wanted it to be as see-through as possible, but I felt that I had to do something to make it more identifiable. So I went over the top surface of the isomalt with royal icing details and texture, and then painted the surface with some reds and blues. This did make it look marginally more like a heart, but it also made it much more opaque, which proved to be unfortunate when I got around to plugging the pump in.

Step 5: Fill the reservoir with cranberry juice, cross your fingers, and plug in the pump. Because my isomalt was cloudy from the get-go and because I had further opaqued the surface with royal icing and food coloring, the pumping action, while technically successful was exceedingly subtle. I’m pretty sure that if I hadn’t explained it to everyone, no one would have had any idea what the cake was or what it was doing. I tried to capture it on video, but all you can really see is the juice venting down the side and back into the reservoir. (Which, by the way, I really should have directed out the aorta.) The video is further compromised by the fact that my camera was in the process of kicking the bucket resulting in a distinct horizontal line across the frame and the fact that there was a toddler screaming in the background. Please enjoy.

Conclusion: I still believe that there is potential in the concept of a cake with fluids circulating inside, but I think it requires either a) a different form factor, b) a more competent isomalt handler, or c) both.

Raven Pumpkin

In my 11th consecutive year of entering the Pumpkinmasters carving contest, this is the pumpkin that finally won me the Grand Prize! Inspired by the ravens at the Tower of London, I think it represented my most effective use of textures to date.

Spider Cupcakes

The spider cupcakes were my first commissioned baking project for my nephew’s preschool, to be part of the bake sale at their fall carnival. My goal was to show off and entertain myself while not traumatizing the children or horrifying the parents.

It wasn’t actually a Halloween carnival, but it was in October, so I figured that gave me license to make something a bit spooky, though the fact that the audience was two-to-five-year-olds placed some obvious restraints on what I could get away with. Because my time was also fairly limited I decided to go with the restrained elegance of a basic spider and web design.

I made the webs freehand with white royal icing from a medium-sized round piping tip. As I learned from the snowflakes on the Season of Love Cake, little kids love crunchy royal icing candy. At first I tried a few methods of making curved webs – piping them over bowls and such – but the results weren’t particularly inspiring, so I decided just to make them flat, which was much easier.

For the spiders, I was going for something leaning towards refined and arty (as opposed to ugly and scary or goofy and cartoony). I decided on a simple two-color palette. The dominant color was a deep grey-purple, highlighted with yellow. In the interests of maintaining a clean, elegant look I went relatively minimalist with the spiders. Each one was made up simply of two balls – one for the cephalothorax and one for the abdomen – plus, of course, eight legs. I made all these pieces out of gum paste. For the heads and bodies I started with three equal sized pieces – two purple and one yellow. I placed the two purple pieces on either side of the yellow piece and rolled the whole thing into a ball, resulting in purple spiders with irregular yellow stripes down their backs. For the legs, I just put a piece of yellow alongside a piece of purple and rolled them into very thin, striped ropes, which I cut to length and bent at the knee.

Before I even made the cupcakes, I was able to assemble the spiders on the webs. I’m pleased to say that I went to the trouble of tinting the royal icing that I used to stick the spiders together the same purple as the gum paste. I often find myself to be too lazy to tint my royal icing adhesive appropriately, and I always regret it. The key to assembling convincing spiders is to remember that the legs are attached to the cephalothorax, not the abdomen.

With my spiders settled comfortably on their webs, it was time to make cupcakes. I used some special Halloween cupcake paper cups for most of them, but I ran out and had to use plain silver for the rest. My initial plan had been to frost the cupcakes with buttercream icing the color of fall leaves, and then texture it like a leaf by gently pressing it with a piece of lettuce. That way (I thought) it would look like the spiders had spun their webs in a tree covered with fall leaves. It didn’t work at all. The buttercream just stuck to the lettuce and rather than nicely textured, it wound up bumpy and ugly. So I gave up on that idea and just piped the icing in a swirl with a big star tip and then plopped the spider webs on top, which looked fine. Frankly, even if my plan to make the leaf texture had worked, it wouldn’t have read very well through the spider web anyway.

The cupcakes were very well received when I dropped them off at the preschool. I’m told that they were even sold for more money than the standard cupcakes at the bake sale. It’s nice when I’m able to combine my love of showing off my cakes with something that actually benefits other people.

Robot Baby Cake

Barbara Jo made this creepy robot baby cake for our little friend Isaac’s second birthday party. Nobody requested this, she came up with this one on her own.
Watch the robot baby kicking on YouTube
…and it’s sound-activated!

My little friend Isaac has a room entirely decorated with space robots
(plus the giant stuffed spider I made him when he was born, which sort of
fits in with the decor if you assume it’s a giant stuffed SPACE spider.)
His wall is covered with framed robot pictures, intermingled with
illustrations from children’s books about space travel from the 1950′s;
the hooks on his door are made of wooden stacking robot toys; and the wall
over his crib reads “Blast Off!” His mom even turned his diaper pail into
DiaperBot! He lives to serve humanity and devour and vaporize our dirty
diapers. At least until he rebels against his human masters and destroys
us all. And after a few months of eating diapers, who can blame him?

So when it came time to make Isaac’s second birthday cake, what could be
more appropriate than a robot cake? And naturally a robot cake ought to do
more than lie there like a pile of hardware. It ought to do something. But
what? Unfortunately I don’t know anything at all about robotics, in spite
of having taking a brief Kinetic Art class, in which we made a vibrating
spider out of a motor, a paper clip, and an Altoids tin. So I turned where
everyone turns when they need robot construction kits – the internet. I
purchased two – one for a line-following snail robot and one for a
sound-activated walking robot (clap once, it starts walking; clap again,
it stops walking.)

As it turns out, robot kits supplied by the internet are really lame.
First of all, they teach you absolutely nothing about robotics. The
circuit boards are pre-assembled, so all the “assembly” that I got to do
involved zip-ties and plastic pop-rivets. Not really very educational.
Also, the snail robot couldn’t carry even so much as a cupcake, so it was
essentially useless to me. The walking robot, however, had more potential.
It clearly wasn’t strong enough to make the entire cake walk (which would
have been cool) but, by laying the robot on its back I was able to achieve
a nice kicking and flailing motion. “Aha!” I said to myself, “I can make
that look like a newborn baby robot, lying on its back and kicking its
adorable little aluminum arms and legs !” Some of you might be tempted to
argue that a newborn baby robot cake might be more appropriate for a party
for, say, a newborn baby, as opposed to a party for a two-year-old. Well,
you’re right, but I didn’t have time to learn how to make a toddling
robot, so a newborn baby robot was really my only choice.

First I created a dowel framework that would support the body of the robot
while leaving the legs free to flail. Then I rolled out a big sheet of gum
paste, to be cut into the various metal plates. Once the gum paste dried
enough to be rigid, but not enough to make it impossible to cut, I cut out
arms, legs, hands, and feet and attached them to the robot’s little legs
with a bit of royal icing.

Barbara May (ably assisted by her two-year-old son) kindly baked the cake
for me. I started out with two 9″ square cakes, which I cut up and
reassembled into a small body section, to be mounted on top of the robot
base, and a head, to sit adjacent to the robotic body. I covered both of
these with a layer of fondant (which actually took a couple of tries – the
first time out I made both the body and the head too big, so I had to peel
the fondant off, recarve the cakes, and recover them) and mounted them in
the appropriate places on the cake board.

In order to hide at least the majority of the plastic robot mechanism, I
cut rectangles of gum paste and assembled them around the cake and the
base of the robot. I wish that I had thought to make the body of the robot
more human and anatomical because then I could have made it kind of a
Matrix-style cyborg-y baby trapped in a metal cocoon, but I didn’t think
of that until it was too late. I also made a face plate and mouth plate to
put on the head, along with a little pair of circular ears.

At this point, it was about 1:00 in the morning on the day of the party (I
got a really late start on this cake – sorry, Isaac!), so I was really
rushing to add all the additional details. As a result, I was
unfortunately unable to put as much care and detail in as I would have
liked, and I also didn’t have time to let the gum paste tubing dry
sufficiently so it turned out pretty wilted. The cake did end up with an
interesting steam punk vibe about it though, with all the royal icing
rivets. I confess that I couldn’t resist adding a little gum paste belly
button rivet and two subtle little gum paste testicles. Evidently no one
noticed, because no one at the party commented on it, which is probably
just as well, since it was a pretty juvenile thing to do.

In retrospect, maybe I should have left the cake white rather than
painting it, because it looked a lot cleaner unpainted, but I suppose that
might have made it seem unfinished. I was going to paint the entire thing
silver, but I didn’t have enough silver luster dust (I was using luster
duster dissolved in gin, because I didn’t have any vodka [alcohol works
better than water because it dries faster due to the alcohol content.] If
you’re thinking I was totally unprepared for this cake project, you’re
right – sorry again, Isaac.) so I painted the outer plates silver and the
inner “skin” areas gold. It still looked a little too monochromatic, so I
added some shiny blue and red accents.

At this point I realized that my cake seemed to be leaking brown sugary
goo. I had refrigerated and thawed the cakes a few times over the course
of the day, because cold cakes are firmer for carving and fondant
smoothing. As I said earlier, I messed up the fondant covering, so there
were several trips in and out of the refrigerator. Apparently in my
refrigerator this generates humidity or something and breaks down the
icing enough to cause the cake to leak, slowly but continuously. Well, now
I know not to do that again. Fortunately, in this case, it wasn’t that
bad. The leakage didn’t get anywhere near the electronics, so it didn’t
interfere with the robot’s functionality. In fact, the little trickle
emerging from the corner of the head looked like an oil leak, so it
basically worked with the overall concept.

The cake was a hit at the party, especially with my 2-and-a-half-year-old
nephew, who enjoyed clapping it on and off. Later in the party, he
inadvertently turned the cake on by shrieking in rage that he was not
permitted to play with the birthday boy’s new toys (because the birthday
boy was currently playing with them himself.) I think we all know what
that frustration feels like. We left the party early.

Housewarming Cake

This housewarming cake was made to celebrate (somewhat belatedly) the new
house that Barbara May and her husband purchased and Barbara Jo moved into
with them to play with their son and mooch off of their groceries.

Slightly less than a year after we moved into our new house, my sister,
her husband, and I decide that we were finally ready to have a
housewarming party, which naturally provided me with a perfect excuse to
overdo the cake.

I wanted to convey the idea that, of all the buildings in all the world,
we had found the perfect house for us, so I designed a cake that was made
up of a collection of small buildings that, when properly lit, cast the
shadow of our house on the wall.

The first problem, of course, was to find a light source that cast a
sufficiently defined shadow on the wall. After initial tests with
household clip lights and powerful flashlights, it became clear that I
really needed a bona fide theatrical lighting instrument. So I bought
myself a mini-ellipsoidal pattern projector. Which means that I need to
build a puppet theatre, now that I have such a nice light for it.

With my light source in hand, I now needed to figure out what the
silhouette of our house actually looks like. I think it has a relatively
distinctive silhouette (at least distinctive enough that our guests at the
party were able to convincingly pretend that they recognized it.) To
insure accuracy, I took a photo of the front of the house and traced that,
deciding at the same time which features to include and which superfluous
features to ignore. When I was happy with my drawing I blew it up to the
full size that I wanted the shadow to ultimately be.

I now needed a full scale foam core mockup of the cake, positioned
precisely the same way relative to the wall and to the light source as the
finished cake would ultimately be. I set up a table in my studio, with the
image of the desired silhouette taped to wall behind it and my light
source clamped to a book shelf across the room. So as to be able to
precisely position the completed cake buildings the same way relative to
one another as the foam core mockup, I designed a base for the cake that
would include a 1″ grid to which I could align all my pieces. In order to
insure that I would be able to recreate the setup in the dining room for
the party itself, I took precise measurements of the relationship between
the cake base, the lens of the lighting instrument, and the wall.

From there it was largely a process of trial and error, creating one
building at a time in just right size, shape, and position to block out an
incremental portion of the light to create the house’s silhouette. I also
had to keep myself cognizant of the fact that I needed to incorporate some
buildings that were actually large enough to contain some cake. Otherwise
I would just be making a big gum paste city, which would have been a big
disappointment to our guests.

With the foamcore mockup complete, I then had to translate that into a
complete set of Bristol board templates which I could use to cut out the
gum paste. In the interests of not getting massively confused, I numbered
all the buildings. If I recall correctly, there were eleven distinct
buildings, several of which I divided into substructures which I labeled
with letters. Remarkably, my labeling system actually worked – at no point
in the process did I wind up with a carefully cut out piece of gum paste
and no idea what to do with it.

I also made the cake base at this point, which consisted of a piece of
3/8″ foamcore covered with fondant, into which I etched lines on a 1″
grid. I then painted it like a parti-colored sidewalk and sponged on some
royal icing for texture.

Finally I was ready to start creating the actual gum paste buildings,
rolling out the gum paste and cutting it out with an X-acto knife using my
Bristol board templates. Because there were so many pieces, it was quite a
time consuming process, but it all went very smoothly, expect that I
didn’t have nearly enough flat surfaces in my studio to set all my pieces
to dry. I really need one of those flat racks. Maybe I should build one
instead of whining about it.

My plan was to do most of the color by hand, but I started out with a few
different colors of gum paste – grey, blue, and pink – to get a different
color base to build up from. My plan was to ultimately end up with a wide
variety of architectural styles, thereby driving home the concept that,
while we had essentially infinite choices of house, we culled the choices
down to the perfect one.

As I was cutting the gum paste pieces, I also beveled the corners, in the
hopes that they would then fit together in nice corners, rather than
having more visible seams. For the most part this worked well enough that
I was at least able to hide any imperfections with a little strategically
placed royal icing.

With the basic gum paste shapes cut out, I set about embellishing them
(variously with bricks, stones, adobe textures, wood panels, metallic
windows, neo-classical columns, and even a nice little caryatid that I was
rather proud of) and painting them.

Assembly was a rather finicky project, because I had to make sure that the
shadows lined up appropriately with my shadow sketch, while slotting
little slivers of cake into every available divot, some only a 1/2 inch thick.
The only real problem I had was with the roof of one of the buildings
wanting to cave in under the weight of the smaller buildings on top of it,
so I had to disassemble it, shove in some foam core supports, and

Once I had all the pieces together, I added some additional bricks and
such to cover up messy seams, and then did some airbrushing, in attempt to
unify the scene.

Because I was making it, it naturally ended up looking like a bit of a
post-apocalyptic wasteland, an effect that was astronomically amplified
once I had placed all of my little, white, unintentionally zombie-like,
royal icing figures around the scene.

As a backdrop to project the shadow onto, I covered a sheet of foamcore
with a vaguely cloudy-ish grayish-blue piece of fabric. Remarkably, I was
able to move my entire cake/lighting/backdrop setup from my studio to the
dining room without any detrimental effect on the projected silhouette.
Truly, I wouldn’t have been at all surprised to have moved it and then
been utterly unable to recreate the shadow effect that I had achieved in
my studio.

In many ways, this was not my most dynamic cake, as it didn’t really do
anything, or at least there was no dramatic moment in the party at which
it did something that it hadn’t already been doing before – casting a
shadow on the wall behind it. But I like to think that it had a certain
finesse to it, a certain quiet dignity that was appropriate to the
occasion. Plus I enjoyed how, as we cut it up to eat it, it became ever
more and more a diorama of catastrophic destruction, with the shadow
crumbling right alongside its more solid counterpart. Also, the royal
icing zombies made great garnishes for the slices of cake and everyone had
a good time making the shadow of a little stuffed praying mantis menace
the shadow of the house.

Enterprise Cupcakes

The Enterprise cupcakes were made for the wedding reception of two friends who are (obviously) big fans of the show. As am I. I decided to go with the original Enterprise both in honor of the significance of the institution of marriage – you don’t want to commemorate such a monumental event with some Johnny-come-lately 1701-D – and because it’s simpler to sculpt.

I don’t recall exactly how many of these I made, but it was a lot. I decided that the most efficient way would be to make molds. I started by sculpting clay versions of the top half of the saucer section and one of the nacelles. I made molds of these with Model Magic. I know, it’s not technically food safe, but it is non-toxic. I figured that if it won’t make toddlers sick if they eat it, it wouldn’t be detrimental to fondant through some brief physical contact.

Once the Model Magic molds dried it was a simple matter to press some fondant into the mold and pull it right back out, now shaped like a piece of the Starship Enterprise. I could have gotten more detail with a more rigid mold, but for the most part it worked well.

I used gum paste to create the thin quadrilaterals that connect the nacelles to the body of the starship. Once all the pieces were dry, I painted everything with silver luster dust mixed with vodka, then I used blue, orange, and pink luster dust to indicate the various lights and windows and such. Fortunately my sister helped me with a lot of this, since it was quite time consuming and I was working under the gun. The last touch was to paint on the name and number of the vessel. I went with the USS Dalton, in honor of the couple, and NCC 06 17 08, in commemoration of the wedding date.

My sister was kind enough to bake all the cupcakes that were to become the little starships, and run to Michael’s to purchase a bunch of little white boxes and some tissue paper to put inside. After that, all that was left to do was assemble the disparate pieces into little starships.

I assembled each starship in place, in the box. After frosting the top of the cupcakes with buttercream, it was easy to plop the saucer section down on top. It was a bit trickier to assemble the nacelles. I used royal icing to stick the gum paste pieces to the bottoms of the nacelles, then more royal icing to stick the gum paste pieces to the bottom of the box next to the cupcake. I used a wadded up piece of tissue paper to simultaneously fill the empty space in the box, conceal the big blob of royal icing supporting the nacelles, and prop up the nacelles until said royal icing dried.

For the tops of the boxes my sister made some little royal icing Federation logos and labels with the wedding date, and, of course, that staple sentiment of all sappy Star Trek events, “Live long and prosper.”

True to form, we wound up with way more cupcakes than there were guests at the reception, but otherwise they were a great success.

I was also able to use the same clay positives that I had made for the cupcakes to make a rubber mold for a two-part plastic cast of the starship, which I sprayed silver and presented to the couple as a keepsake. The nice thing about the plastic was that it picked up the detail that I was unable to capture in fondant.

Digger Cake

The digger cake was for my nephew’s second birthday. I figured that two was old enough that I should make the cake relate to his interests, but young enough that I still had majority creative control.

Testing the mechanism on YouTube
…and digging out the first piece

My nephew loves trucks. Excavators were an early favorite. So when it came time to make his second birthday cake, I thought he’d enjoy a cake with a digger built right in. To amuse myself, I decided to make the cake shaped like a giant face, rising up out of the dirt with the digger coming out of its mouth. I liked the idea of gouging out the cake’s cheek with a big metal scoop.

The first order of business was to make the scoop. I purchased some plans from somewhere on the internet and adapted them a bit to suit my own needs. I needed the digger to be able to reach all parts of the cake, so it had to spin 360 degrees and it had to move from the perimeter of the cake to the center.

Basically, the mechanism I came up with consisted of a 1″ ID steel tube 4″ long, mounted to a heavy wooden base. Nested inside that tube was a length of 1″ OD aluminum tube about 1′ in height. This inner tube had a notch cut into the top so that the digger arm could slide up and down within it. Then a bolt ran through the top of the tube and through the aluminum bar that formed the main arm of the digger. This arm had a track cut in it so that it could slide in and out, closer to and further from the digger’s pivot point. Connected to this digger arm was another handle, connected in turn to the scoop itself, so that it could be used to rotate the scoop up and down.

As soon as my nephew saw the scoop he was determined to master its use, which actually required a fair amount of manual dexterity. Since manual dexterity is not a strong suit of most not-quite-two-year-olds, he had some initial trouble and got very frustrated the first day, but he was determined and within a few days he was using it like a pro. Then I had to reclaim it so that I could actually use it for the cake.

I used chocolate cake, of course, since that way it would look like dirt when we scooped it up. I started with some oval cakes and carved them into a big, sort of cartoonish, oversized face shape. Since it was for a child’s birthday party and it was going to be gouged out with a metal scoop I didn’t want it to be 100% realistic. That seemed like it would be too macabre for the occasion.

Because I wanted it to be easy to dig, I wanted to ice the cake with standard buttercream, rather than fondant, which I thought would be difficult to tear through with the scoop. So I used a nice thick coating of buttercream icing and smoothed it with a damp paintbrush. For the eyes, I made some little gum paste half spheres and cut out the irises so I’d have somewhere to stick the candles. With those in place, I piped more buttercream on to get the details of the eyelids, lips, and nose.

Then, to make it look like the face was rising up out of the dirt I made a batch of pressed sugar, which is just regular white sugar with a bit of water mixed in thoroughly. It can then be pressed into a mold, or, as in this case, shaped by hand. I used it to build up a hill of sugar around the face. For good measure, I put a few blobs of dirt onto the face itself, as if the face had just risen from the earth and hadn’t yet shaken off the detritus.

My next step was to airbrush the face. I started by putting in some blue veins as an undercoat, then built up shades of flesh tone, red, and brown, then some dark purple for shadows. I wasn’t altogether happy with how the dirt looked, so I sprinkled on some brown sugar to give it more variety and depth.

I hadn’t masked off the gum paste eyeballs, so I had to carefully wash off the airbrush color with a damp paintbrush. For eyebrows and eyelashes I piped on some royal icing detail, then painted in irises, painted the eyebrows and lashes, and painted on some white highlights on the eyes and lips.

With two candles stuck through the eye holes and the aluminum digger planted in the mouth, I was done.

My nephew loved it, and even helped use the digger to serve our guests. And once the cake was gone, he still had a digger to use in his sandbox.


My nephew Nathan loves trucks. Obviously, he needed a sandbox to use his trucks in. So I decided to build him one for Christmas.

My main goal was, of course, to build a functional sandbox that Nathan would enjoy playing in. My secondary goal was to build a bizarre sandbox that would amuse me and confuse his friends’ parents.

In researching sandboxes on the internet, I learned exactly three things. One, it’s nice to have a place for grownups to sit while the kid is playing in the sand. Two, sandboxes need a cover so they don’t get soaked in the rain or used as a litterbox by local cats. Three, sandboxes need drainage for when you inevitably forget to put the cover on before it rains. (My sister, another friend, and I were discussing the sandbox project in the ladies room at an antique show. As we left the bathroom, an unknown woman in one of the stalls yelled desperately after us, “Drainage! Your sandbox needs drainage!!!”)

We decided that, based on the space available in our yard and the estimated number of children who would be playing in it, 4′ x 7′ would be the appropriate size. The design that I came up with was based on the human circulatory system. I’m not sure exactly why I thought this would be a good subject for a two-year-old’s sandbox, although Nathan actually does enjoying looking through Grey’s Anatomy, which is no doubt why I chose the cover of Grey’s Anatomy to work from. As a nod to Nathan’s interest in trucks, I made it sort of a cybernetic circulatory system, with wheels in place of the heart and a rather extraneous steering wheel.

Step one was to build a base that would allow for sufficient drainage. I used half inch plywood on a 2×4 frame, with three-sixteenth inch holes drilled in it for drainage at regular intervals.

I built the frame around the base out of 1×12, with profiles cut into it so as to suggest the shape of a man’s torso with arms out and fists pressed together. The front of the frame was formed by the forearms and fists meeting in the middle. The sides sloped up to form the upper arms. I put in plexi cutouts in the sides so I could cut away the opening under the upper arms. My hope was that this would emphasize the arm shape and provide a neat little glance into the stria of the sand in the box. The back of the frame was the actual torso, so in addition to the frame, I cut a piece of 1x to suggest a cross-section through the shoulders, which also functions as a seat.

That was all the structure I was planning, but my brother-in-law pointed out that a sandbox designed to be used with trucks really ought to include a ramp. So I came up with one that flipped in and out and cut some curves into the sides so it would look less incongruous. It wasn’t perhaps as integrated with the overall design as it might have been, but experience has proved that it was, indeed a worthwhile addition.

After a few coats of clear sealant (I had decided to stick with a natural wood look), I lined the inside of the sandbox with a couple layers of landscape cloth, so I would still have drainage without the sand leaking out the holes I had drilled. I then laid down a layer of that springy stuff that goes under carpets to keep them from sliding around. I thought this would make a nice soft bottom for the sandbox, but I had to remove it after a few months of sandbox use, because it kept collecting sand underneath it, so that the functional sand depth kept dropping.

To complete my torso concept I painted the head onto the canvas that was destined to be the underside of the sandbox cover. Instead of skin, I gave it a woodgrain effect so it would appear more continuous with the wood of the sandbox. Then, using the cover image of my Grey’s Anatomy book, I painted in veins and arteries.

Once the paint was dry, I sewed the canvas underside together with the blue vinyl I had bought for the upper side of the cover. With the lid complete, I was able to position it on the back of the sandbox. Where each painted vein or artery on the cover met the back of the sandbox, I drilled a corresponding hole through the seat and screwed in a length of plastic tubing as a continuation of the vein or artery through which sand could be poured.

The last step was adding the wheels – three in the vicinity of the heart, eight little casters indicating the fingers (which have proved to be utterly useless), and an arbitrarily placed steering wheel in the upper right arm.

As of this writing, it has now been 17 months since I made this sandbox and Nathan still plays in it literally every day, so I would say that it has been a very successful present.