Zebra Cupcakes

When I asked my nephew Sam what he wanted for his third birthday cake, he immediately responded, “Zebra cupcake!”  I have no idea where he got this idea, or what exactly he thinks a zebra cupcake looks like.  To my knowledge, he has never seen anything that could reasonably be called a zebra cupcake.  I tried to encourage him to elaborate on the idea of a zebra cupcake, but he wasn’t very forthcoming.  So I was left to interpret his request as best I could.

I don’t quite recall my thought process, but I ultimately decided to make zebras riding a big ferris wheel with a lion jumping up to try to get them.  Mostly, I probably just wanted to see if I could make a ferris wheel.  Initially, I had considered making the ferris wheel motorized, but after consulting Sam’s mom and his big brother, Nathan, I decided that Sam would like it more if he could operate the ferris wheel himself with a hand crank.  Based on the usual size of cupcakes, I calculated that, in order to accommodate the sixteen cupcake cars that I planned to make, the ferris wheel would need to be about two feet in diameter.

I was at a little bit of a disadvantage in building the ferris wheel because I was visiting my sister and didn’t have my jigsaw with me, so I had to come up with a way to build a ferris wheel with a minimal number of cuts.  I began by making each of the sixteen spokes out of brass strips joined by brass tube and steel wire, scratching the heck out of my fingertips in the process.  I joined all of these together, using lots of tiny bolts and quart paint can lids as the hubs.  On the perimeter of the wheel, I connected the spokes with more brass strips and more teeny tiny bolts.  Unfortunately, I didn’t get the two halves of the hub aligned exactly perfectly, so the spokes wound up a tiny bit torqued.  It didn’t ultimately impact the functionality of the wheel, but I’ll know to pay more attention to that next time.  You know, the next time I make a zebra cupcake ferris wheel.  Though the lesson would probably be applicable to other African animal cupcake ferris wheels as well.

For the frame to hold up the ferris wheel, I used half-inch aluminum channel, bolted together and embedded in the wooden base.  To my surprise, the wheel turned perfectly as soon as I mounted it in the frame and attached the crank handle.  The next challenge, though, was to make the cars work.

I really wanted people to be able to pick up the entire cupcake car and eat the entire thing.  So I made basically little wire rings to set the cupcakes in.  Obviously, these had to spin freely so that the cupcakes stayed upright all the way around the wheel (this being the essence of a ferris wheel).  This would have been very easy if I had kept the strips connecting the spokes back from the end of the spokes about an additional half an inch.  As it was, I had a bit of a struggle to keep the rings from catching on the brass strips, but in the end I managed it.  One more thing I’ll know to do differently the next time I make a cupcake ferris wheel.

In order to make the cups themselves edible, I poured candy melts into silicone cupcake cups.  For many years, I have been vehemently opposed to candy melts because I think they taste disgusting and the colors they come in are generally not in tune with my aesthetic, but my sister gave me that trendy little cake pop kit for Christmas, and I wanted to try out some of the techniques.  I have been confirmed in my belief that they taste disgusting, but I suppose that they do have their uses.  After all, I use fondant, too, and that doesn’t taste very good either.

I let Sam pick out the colors of candy melts that he wanted for the cups and he chose pink and baby blue.  Much like candy melts in general, this is basically the exact opposite of my aesthetic (and, as my sister pointed out, made it look a bit like a baby shower cake) but, hey, it’s his birthday.  Who am I to argue?  I gave the cups a second coat of candy melt on the inside to give them added structural stability and to make sure that the weight of the cupcake was concentrated in the bottom so they wouldn’t flip upside down.  I dipped the top edge in white candy melt to give them a decorative rim that would also serve to hold them in the wire rings more effectively.  I then attempted to ameliorate the pastel-ness of the cups by giving them distressed black streaks in some of the flutes of the cupcake cups.  I told myself I was striving for a vaguely Victorian steam-punk aesthetic.  I’m not sure that I entirely got there.

A few days before the party, I made a very important discovery.  Sam’s grandparents gave him an awesome set of Little People animals for his birthday, which he absolutely loved.  He even refused to eat dinner because he was too busy playing with them, which, coming from Sam, is a huge complement.  He pulled the giraffe out of the bag and proudly exclaimed, “Zebra!”  Uh oh.  I remembered that Sam does not always differentiate between zebras and giraffes.  So I pulled out the zebra and the giraffe and asked him which one was a zebra cupcake.  First he pointed to the giraffe.  Then he pointed to the zebra.  So I decided to hedge my bets and make both zebra and giraffe cupcakes.

For the cake recipe, I used a new marbled olive oil cake recipe.  I had initially chosen this recipe because the marbling resembled zebra stripes.  It actually turned out to be perfect because the marbling, both in color and in pattern, is about halfway between a zebra and a giraffe.  It also turned out to be quite delicious.  Generally, when I’m making a cake, the last thing I want to do is eat cake, but I snacked on this cake the entire time.

Once the cupcakes were baked, I used essentially the cake pop technique to add zebra and giraffe heads to them.  This involves crumbling up cake and mixing it with frosting to make a thick paste and then shaping it as desired.  To make the zebra heads, I did this directly on top of the cupcakes.  Because the giraffes needed long, thin necks, I made them separately then popped them in the refrigerator to harden up enough that I could then embed them in the cupcakes.

I dipped the zebras in white candy melts and the giraffes in yellowish candy melts.  Once this hardened, I peeled the paper off the cupcakes and set the cupcakes in the candy melt cups.  Then I used food coloring and candy melts to paint on the patterns, mouths, and eyes.  I tried to make them look smug about the fact that the lion couldn’t reach them.  I think that next time I should make the eyes more prominent by using something three-dimensional like a candy sprinkle.  I also added candy melt ears, manes, and (in the case of the giraffes) horns.

To make the lion look like it was in mid-lunge, I made a base for it using brass strips and foam core so that only the back two feet would be touching the ground.  I bolted this to the cake base and built the lion on top of it.  I wish that the base had been a little bigger, because I couldn’t really place the lion in the way I would have liked.  He wound leaping more alongside the ferris wheel than at the ferris wheel.  I also wish I had waited until the cake cooled completely before I put it on the base, because then I would have had less trouble with the cake melting the icing and sliding on the base.  After I carved the cake and added a little mass with some of the cake pop goo, I used buttercream icing for the fur and candy melt for the ears and tail.  In the end, I wasn’t particularly happy with the way the lion turned out.  It was more awkward than scary, but not cartoony enough to be fun.  Just as I was feeling most disappointed in how the lion turned out, Sam woke up and saw it.  He gave a squeal of unmitigated delight and yelled “A lion!”  So apparently, my lion wasn’t such a failure after all.  For days after the party, Sam wandered around saying, “I ate the tail!”

At an early point in the process, I had planned to dip the entire ferris wheel in candy melt.  Fortunately, I gave this idea up before I tried it, as the results would doubtless have been disastrous.  However, I also couldn’t leave it entirely unadorned.  For one thing, it clashed with the baby shower pink and blue cupcake cups.  For another, Nathan pointed out to me that ferris wheels are colorful.  So I decorated it with red, blue, and yellow candy melt squiggles and dots.  I was reasonably pleased with this effect and Nathan also gave it his stamp of approval.

The final touches were to decorate the base.  By this time it was the morning of the party and I had been up all night working on the cake.  So the base sort of got short changed.  I threw down a layer of pressed sugar dirt and then brushed on some different shades of brown food coloring.  I didn’t have my airbrush with me, so the results weren’t as subtle as I would have liked.  I also tried something new to make the savannah grasses.  I used puff pastry, brushed with green food coloring, and cut into grass shapes.  In the end, it looked more like french fries than grass, but it was still a fun experiment.

Right before the party, I set all the animals in the ferris wheel.  I had to make a few tweaks to get them all to rotate freely, but all in all it really worked remarkably well.  Only one zebra fell out in the process, but I had extras, so it wasn’t a problem.

The party was great.  All the kids took a turn spinning the ferris wheel and they were all very serious about not spinning it too fast. I served the lion to the adults, because it didn’t have candy melt all over it.  The kids, of course, loved the candy melts.  In fact, Nathan ate only the candy melt portion and ignored the actual cake.  Of course, I still have no idea what Sam actually imagined that zebra cupcakes are, but he seemed pleased with what I came up with, which is really all that matters.  And now he has a two-foot diameter metal ferris wheel to treasure forever.

Mater and Lightning McQueen Cake

For my little friend Max’s second birthday cake, the only guideline that his parents gave me was that the party was Cars themed.  So I asked my five-year-old nephew for his expert advice on designing a Cars cake.  He suggested that I make Mater and Lighting bumping tires.  What he meant by this was the Cars equivalent of the fist-bump.  So the idea that I came up with was a scene wherein Lightning and Mater had just made a cake for Max and decorated it with oil (because that would be delicious to a car).  Of course, Mater and Lightning probably haven’t had much experience with making cakes and decorating for parties, so they’ve made a bit of a mess of things, with oil spills and torn streamers.  My plan was to have Lightning hanging from birthday streamers wrapped around telephone poles, as if he’d gotten himself tangled while hanging them.  This was, of course, meant to be reminiscent of the scene in Cars where Lightning gets tangled in the telephone wires.  In the end, this didn’t work out, but I still think the cake overall was a success (and that, next time, I could make the hanging effect actually work).

As with many of my cakes, I made a lot of gum paste pieces in advance, especially for Mater’s bed and tow hook.  And, of course, I made fondant tires, which are coming to be quite a specialty of mine.  I was especially pleased with Lightning’s tires, once I painted “Lightyear” on them.

I made the telephone poles out of aluminum rod covered with fondant and I made a wooden base for Lightning with brass strips bolted to it, with which I planned to hang Lightning from the telephone poles.  This meant that I had to make Lightning’s entire undercarriage, since it would all be visible.  I’m not sure whether Lightning’s undercarriage is ever visible in the movie, but I found a Lightning toy that had a fairly detailed undercarriage for me to copy.

With the advance work done, it was time to make the cake.  I tried a new marble cake recipe because Max’s mother told me that she likes marble cake.  I think it was a tasty recipe, but, oddly, it was a little more challenging than a monochromatic cake to carve.  The two colors made the shape of the cake a little harder to perceive as I was working on it.

The little birthday cake was pretty easy, even though I actually don’t do very many simple stacked cakes because they don’t generally interest me.  I did a simple buttercream icing on it, and textured it a bit with a spatula.  I was striving for that fine line between making the cake look like Lightning and Mater didn’t have much experience making cakes and making the cake look like I didn’t have much experience making cakes.  I think I walked the line relatively successfully.

Carving Mater and Lightning went well, again using toys as helpful models.  After a quick crumb coat, I was ready to cover them with fondant.  Then the challenge was to get all the details on, since both Lightning and Mater have very specific paint jobs.  (For those Cars aficionados out there, I went with the original Cars Mater and Lightning, as opposed to the Cars 2 Mater and Lightning, having ascertained that Max hadn’t yet seen Car 2 yet.)

Mater, of course, is so rusty that you start with the brown and then add the patches of blue and green paint on top.  I assembled his bed and tow hook with royal icing, which took a bit of time, but it wound up sturdier than I was afraid it might be, which is good since I had to take the cake on a two hour drive to get to the party.  I applied white gum paste for the eyes / windshield and blue-grey gum paste for the side windows and then added some extra brown gum paste trim.

To paint the blue and green, I used white food coloring mixed with paste colors.  The nice thing about this was that when I then went in with more white to write the text on Mater’s doors, it created a little dark shadow around the letters, where the green paint pulled very slightly away from the brown fondant underneath.  This helped highlight the text really nicely.  Then I went in with some darker brown to make the rusty parts more interesting before adding the final details like the lights on his head and his one headlight.  The most important touches were, of course, his big white gum paste buckteeth, which, looking at them now, I think I made a little too small.

For Lightning, I made templates for all of the decals, and then cut them out of white gum paste and applied them.

I think I did a decent job painting in all the colors, though I wasn’t entirely happy with the Rust-eze sign on his nose, since the brushstrokes were still fairly evident.  This is probably the sort of project where the ability to print edible images would really come in handy.

At this point, I made my attempt to hang Lightning.  At first, this seemed to go fairly well.  The poles were strong enough to hold him up and he seemed fairly stable.  Unfortunately, after hanging there for a little while, he began to separate from his base and fall forwards.  Fortunately, I noticed this and was able to catch Lightning before he did an actual header down from his perch.  At this point, I decided it would be a lot smarter of me to take him down and put him on the ground – although I do maintain that, given another chance, I could have made this work.

With all three cakes – Mater, Lightning, and the birthday cake – in place on the base, it was time for final touches.  The fist-bumping tires read well, I thought.  I used piping gel colored black to write “Happy Birthday Max” on top of the cake, as well as to glob big oil drips all over the cake.  I also added oil tracks crisscrossing the board, as if Lightning and Mater had tracked it around while setting up for the party.

The very last touch was the addition of the streamers.  To give them the look of two colors of streamer wound together, I rolled out two very thin pieces of gum paste and them stuck them one on top of the other and rolled them once to stick them together before cutting them to width.

I am sad that I didn’t manage to get Lightning to hang from the telephone poles, because I think that would have been super cool.  But Max (and everyone else at the party) seemed to really like the cake.  Like all children (at least in my experience), Max for some reason especially enjoyed the fondant tires.

Sneetch Cake

I have been looking forward to seeing my nephews perform in school plays since before they were born.  Finally, my dream has come true.  At his pre-K graduation, my nephew Nathan appeared in their stage adaptation of Dr. Suess’s The Sneetches.  My completely and totally unbiased expert opinion is that Nathan was clearly the best Sneetch in the bunch.  To celebrate his accomplishment, I decided to make him a Sneetch cake.

It would have been fairly easy to make a Sneetch sitting down, so of course I didn’t go that route.  I wanted to make a standing up Sneetch because it would give me the opportunity to try one of the copper tubing armatures that I always see on Food Network Challenge and Ace of Cakes.  I chose to attempt the pose of a proud newly-starred Sneetch thrusting out its belly.  Ultimately, I’m not convinced that I fully achieved the balance and expression that I was looking for in the pose, so next time I’ll have to take a little more care with the shape of the armature.

I’m not really sure if I made my armature according to industry best practices, but it seemed to work.  I used 3/8” copper tubing, which was relatively easy to bend.  I don’t think it would have supported a much larger cake, especially as the tight bends tend to get rather weak.  I used ¼” plywood to make the circles to support the butt and the head and then I bolted the whole thing to a ¾” plywood circle for the base.

At this point, prior to the actual performance of The Sneetches, I knew nothing about the play except that Teacher Christine was playing the role of Sylvester McMonkey McBean and that it involved playing with a ball.  So I decided to have my Sneetch twirling a ball on his finger.  Nathan and I have also been playing with a motor recently as part of a kit of science experiments related to light.  The idea is that if you stick a circle of paper colored, for instance, half blue and half green onto the axle of the motor, when it spins the colors will blend together and you’ll see cyan.  My thought was that if I made the ball red, blue, and green and got it to spin fast enough, then the colors would blend in the eye and look white – or at least yellowish grey.

To make this happen, I wired up a little hobby motor and soldered a circular brass platform to the top of it to hold up the cake ball.  Because the cake ball was going to be pretty small, I just duct taped the motor to the top of the copper tubing arm.

The only gum paste pieces that I made in advance were the nose / beak (I’m not sure of the exact anatomy of a Sneetch), the eyes, and the ball, which I formed around a 3” diameter rubber ball.  Actually, because I have two nephews I, of course, had to buy two rubber balls.

The crux of anything Sneetch-related is, of course, the belly star, or lack thereof.  My plan was to attempt to use a technique that I saw Mary Maher use on Last Cake Standing – glow-in-the-dark piping gel.  By painting the star with club soda, which contains quinine, which fluoresces under blacklight, and implanting a blacklight in the base of the cake, I hoped to be able to make the belly star appear and disappear like in the story.

The first step in bringing this idea to life as to test the club soda.  I tried a couple different ways of incorporating the club soda into piping gel, as well as just painting with the pure club soda.  The most effective glow turned out to come from the star painted solely with the pure club soda, but overall it wasn’t really as impressive as I hoped that it would be.  But I went ahead with it anyway, by cutting a hole in the cake’s plywood base and sticking my blacklight bulb in underneath.  I frankly wasn’t confident that the effect would be anything to write home about, but it was the best I could do for a first try.  I covered the base with brown pressed sugar to simulate the Sneetches’ beaches.

Because I was trying to keep the cake small, I started with just six 6” round cakes – 4 for body and two for the head with enough scrap left over for the ball.  I torted and filled them using a white chocolate ganache because I wanted to make sure that the cake had the stability that you get from such a firm frosting.

After I carved the cake into the basic shape, I tried out another a new technique that I saw someone do on Food Network Challenge.  I don’t remember who I saw doing this, but I think they called it “spackle.”  Basically, you take the cut-off scraps of cake and stir it into some icing so that it makes a pretty thick paste.  Then you can use the spackle to really smooth out the surface of the cake and fill in any gaps.  I found that it worked perfectly to round out the curves of the head and the butt underneath the plywood bases and to fill in the seam where the body cake was notched out around the copper backbone.

For the fur / feathers (again, I’m not sure what kind of animals Sneetches actually are), I decided to used piped buttercream.  I don’t generally use a lot of buttercream.  I think I may be using a substandard recipe because I often have trouble with my buttercream breaking down.  This time was no exception.  My buttercream started out at the right consistency, but with the heat of my hand it rapidly got too liquidly in the piping bag.  So I didn’t get the definition I was looking for in some of the Sneetch’s coat.

On the belly area, I used a gum paste panel instead of the buttercream so I would be able to paint on the club soda star.  This gave me a little trouble in blending the belly into the rest of the body.  I’m still not 100% happy with the result, because real Sneetches’ bellies aren’t discernibly different in texture from the rest of their bodies, but I think I did a tolerable job of keeping it from being too jarring.

The ball went together quite easily.  I made the ball itself in two halves of red gum paste and then hid the seam with a green gum paste stripe.  For the blue to complete my attempt at RGB color mixing I added blue stars.  I fully expected Nathan to criticize my color choice because in my carelessness I had reversed the colors of the ball as seen in the book.  In the book, it’s a blue ball with red stars.  Nathan is normally a stickler for this kind of detail, but he must have really liked the cake because he actually didn’t even mention the ball colors.  I also fully expected that my color mixing wouldn’t be fully successful because I didn’t have the food colors that I really needed.  I didn’t have royal blue, so I had to use sky blue and I didn’t have emerald green, so I had to use kelly green.

At this point I also realized that I had constructed the spinning mechanism in such a way that not only would the ball spin, but also the finger that it was sitting on.  Oops.  Obviously this was unacceptable, so I had to whip up a little gun paste sleeve to conceal the spinning tube underneath the ball.

For the Sneetch’s other hand, I wanted to make a sign that said “Congratulations Nathan.”  I decided to make it out of chocolate because chocolate tastes good and it’s fairly easy to stick to things securely.  To get a Suessian wood grain, I started by pouring a dark chocolate base and then drizzling milk chocolate grain over the top.  Right before the chocolate finished setting up I cut it into the stereotypical broken wooden sign and post shapes.  Then I flipped the pieces over and drizzled the milk chocolate grain onto the other side as well.  I was pretty pleased with the effect.

I carved the lettering in with a small kitchen knife and then attached it to the Sneetch’s left hand with a little more tempered chocolate.  I had a moment of panic when I was convinced that it was too heavy and was going to crash down and ruin the entire cake.  I needn’t have worried.  Really, the sign was the sturdiest thing on the entire cake.

For the final details, I used a combination of gum paste and dark chocolate tinted with black food coloring.  The only thing I really wasn’t happy with was the shape of the eyes.  Real Sneetches have eyes that are slightly taller than they are wide.  Mine wound up wider than they were tall, which made my Sneetch look slightly untrustworthy.

We served the cake at a very small graduation party.  Nathan was delighted, though he was also deeply concerned with the effects.

When we plugged in the blacklight it got very hot, which began to melt the pressed sugar above it.  So Nathan spent the entire few minutes that the blacklight was on begging us to turn it off, apparently under the impression that it might melt the entire cake.  The star did show up a little bit in the blacklight, but it certainly wasn’t an attention-grabbing effect.

The ball spun well, though not fast enough to fully blend the colors the way that I had hoped.  Again, Nathan was deeply concerned, this time because the ball’s rotation shook the entire cake on its thin little legs.

Nathan’s little brother Sam was especially delighted with the cake ball.  For days after he ate it, he kept asking us, “Where’s-a cake ball?”  and we had to keep reminding him that it was in his tummy.

Torchiere Wedding Cake

So far, two couples have had the courage and/or the lunacy to trust me to design and make their wedding cakes.  The first was the Seasons of Love Cake, which my sister and I made back in 2004.  This is my second wedding cake.

My friends were getting married at the Orpheum, which is a beautiful old movie theater from the 20s, so I was thinking art deco; I was thinking stage lighting; I was thinking theater curtains; I was thinking dusty elegance and timeless romance.

What I came up with was this bizarre art deco torchiere cake.  Both this and the Seasons of Love Cake had aspects of balance and defying gravity about them.  I didn’t really do this on purpose, but maybe it tells you something about how I see marriage – delicate? precarious? buoyant? at risk of collapse?  I’m not sure.  I’m also not sure why it’s in the shape of a human arm, except that it let me hang the little tiny wedding cake from the wedding ring finger.  Apparently I just like making cakes in human form, whether appropriate to the occasion or not.

To make the arm strong enough to hold the cake, I started with ¾” steel pipes bolted to a 24” diameter solid wood base.  I bolted little wood and foam core bases to the steel pipe to support the flame cakes and installed eyebolts to support the hanging cakes.  To make the torchiere light up, I ran a strand a Christmas lights around all the little bases.  In retrospect, it would have been better if I had used smaller lights, as I did have some difficulty later on masking the lights with the gum paste leaves.

I thought about making the arm out of white modeling chocolate, because I thought that would be the easiest to sculpt, but I was afraid that the silver airbrush color wouldn’t show up as well on that as it would on some other materials.  Then I thought about making it out of fondant, but I thought that would be too heavy to stay up on the pipe.  So I decided to form the shape of the arm out of rice cereal treats and then cover it and put in the details with royal icing.

Rice cereal treats always wind up being more difficult to work with than I expect them to be.  I had a lot of trouble getting them to stay in place, to the point where I briefly feared that I might have to resort to a non-edible material instead.  Eventually, though, I figured out how to hold them in place with aluminum foil until they firmed up.  Then I carved them down to shape and slapped on a coat of royal icing.  In retrospect, I would have been better served by a more carefully applied coat of royal icing.

Once that coat of royal icing dried, I sanded the rough edges, a process that would have been much easier if I had given more attention to the first coat.  Then I applied a second coat, this time carefully smoothing it with a damp paintbrush.  I found that I needed to install some small aluminum tubing to get the fingers to hold their shapes.  I also sanded this coat of royal icing with a fine grit sand paper after it dried.  I then went in one more time to create the details of the bone structure and skin folds.  I made the fingernails out of gum paste, a technique that worked well for me on the Killer Rats Cake.  This time I had a little trouble because the royal icing had dried too much to let me really sink the nails into the nail beds, so I had to add some more icing over the top of the nails to marry them to the fingers.  As a result, the fingertips wound up perhaps a bit bulkier than ideal.  Apparently the arm was wearing acrylic nails.

To mask the central support pipe, I used some pieces of foam core covered with fondant to create a fluted hexagonal column.  I also made some stylized art deco leaves out of gum paste to cover the lights at the bases of the flame cakes.  Then I got busy with the airbrush spraying the arm, the column, and the leaves silver.  I also added a little gum paste wedding ring to the ring finger that would support the hanging mini wedding cake.

The next step was to make the fondant curtains.  I had expected this to be a challenge, and I was right.  Unsupported fondant drapery is difficult under any circumstances because it’s hard to drape the heavy fondant realistically without the weight of it ripping itself apart.  This fondant drapery was especially tricky because I wanted it to have the worn velour texture of old theater curtains.  To accomplish this, after I rolled out the fondant, I moistened the surface and then coated it with an even layer of granulated sugar.  So not only was I worried about getting a natural drape, I also had to be careful not to damage the sugar texture.  Because I was applying the drapery to the arm and the column that had already been airbrushed, there was also the risk that I would mar the paint job if I moved the fondant drapery around too much.  In the end, it worked out pretty well, though, and I was able to wrap some tin foil around to hold the fondant in place until it set in place.  I also draped some fondant over the foam core bases that I had made for the four hanging cakes.

Another problem with my sugar fabric texture technique is that it has a tendency to get sugar everywhere.  So from this point forward, my apartment was covered with a fine layer of stickiness.  My good friend Angie came to stay with me for a few days for the wedding and she made a valiant effort to keep the mess under control, but I still had to loan my slippers to my other friend Jenn when she came over to visit so that her stockings wouldn’t get covered with sugar.

With the torchiere structure in place, it was time to bake the cake.  It needed to serve about 150 people, so this was the biggest cake I have made thus far.  I actually rather dramatically overbought on ingredients because I thought that the cake recipe I was using made only six cups of batter when, in fact, it made ten cups of batter, so I didn’t have to make nearly as many batches I thought I would have to make.  I believe that in the end I made 11 batches instead of the 16 I had initially anticipated.  It’s perhaps just as well that I underestimated the yield of the recipe, as I also underestimated the number of eggs that it takes to make up a cup of egg whites.  I bought eggs thinking that it would take 6 eggs per cup, when it actually took 8 eggs per cup, so in this case my miscalculations almost cancelled each other out and I had about the right number of eggs.

With a truly massive pile of cake baked, I was ready to begin assembly.  First I put together the nine smaller cakes – 5 for the flames, and 4 for the hanging cakes.  Three of the hanging cakes were pretty easy because they were round.  The fourth was a little tiny three-tiered cake.  The only request that the brides had made of me was that there be a mini wedding cake, because one of them loves miniature things.  This cake was so small that there actually was only cake in the lower two tiers.  The top was just fondant wrapped around the central tube that all the hanging cakes needed in order to attached the chain to the base.  The flame cakes took a little longer to assemble and carve because they were tall enough to require internal supports and their shape was a bit complicated.  Once all the cakes were carved, I covered them with fondant.  Not to brag, but I was pretty pleased with how well I did covering such small cakes.

The majority of the cake went directly onto the base around the central column.  Basically, I just made a big pile of cake and carved it into an organic pyramid shape.  To cover it, I used the same sugared fondant technique that I had used for the rest of the drapery.  Rather than trying to cover such a big cake with one enormous piece of fondant, I did it with a number of smaller trapezoidal pieces, which worked out quite well.

At this point I wasn’t happy with the way that the flame cakes looked.  For one thing, a few of them did have imperfections in their fondant, but more importantly, they didn’t have the sense of movement and life that I had been hoping for.  After a bit of experimentation I found that I could kill both birds with one stone by adding a layer of royal icing, striated and textured with a damp paintbrush, which gave them more flow.

Then it was time to paint.  The colors for the wedding, to the extent that there were any, were grey and a sort of muted yellow.  So I tried to tie in with this by making the structure silver and the curtains a dusty yellow-gold.  After masking off the arm, column, and base with tin foil, I sprayed a layer of yellow, then just a smidge of red, some gold for shine, and finally some bronze to add a sense of age.

The flames took quite a few layers of color.  I’m still not sure that I didn’t overdo it a bit.  I think I did yellow first, then orange, then red, then blue, then bronze, then gold, then finally silver.

Instead of painting the hanging cakes, I just adorned them / concealed their imperfections with some black fondant details.  To tie them in with the rest of the cake, I textured the black fondant with the same granulated sugar technique, and then highlighted the texture by brushing on a bit of silver luster dust.

I put just a little more color into the cake by adding dusty rose royal icing fringe to the hanging cake bases and to the drapery, as well as some fondant ropes and tassels.  Once these dried, I painted a little bright red and a touch of blue onto them.

I wasn’t planning to actually install the flames and the hanging cakes until the cake was at the venue, but I did attach some of the gum paste leaves around the Christmas lights that would be under the flames.  I could only attach about half of them, because I needed one side to be open in order to place the flames.  This made me rather nervous because I had some trouble getting them to stick and had to create elaborate tin foil supports to hold them in place until the royal icing dried.  I also had trouble with the royal icing sticking because I had made it a little too thick.  So I was scared that, if I had that much trouble at the venue, I wouldn’t be able to get it all together in time.

Even though the venue was less than two miles from my apartment, transport was hair-raising.  At first I had for some inexplicable reason imagined that I could transport the cake in the front seat of my pickup.  Since the cake was two feet wide, three feet long, and about two and half feet tall, apparently I was temporarily insane when I was picturing sticking this thing in my passenger seat.  My friend Alejandro very kindly volunteered to come pick up the cake in his SUV, though I don’t think he really knew what he was getting into.

The cake literally came within inches of not fitting in the back of his SUV along all three dimensions.  On the top, there was not even a quarter of an inch of clearance.  All I can do is thank my lucky stars that it made it in.  The only reason that I didn’t make the cake six inches longer is because that was the size that the steel pipe came in.

I actually didn’t ride in the car with the cake on the way to the venue, because I wanted to have my truck there as well, but fortunately Angie was able to go with Alejandro, so he didn’t have to face the nerve-wracking ride alone.  I can now admit that I was terrified that something would go wrong on the way over, though of course I didn’t say this to Alejandro until the cake was safely at the venue.  All sorts of horrific scenarios were running through my head.  The royal icing arm might crack.  The fondant curtains could rip.  All the leaves might break off.  The entire cantilevered arm might collapse somehow.  I packed two huge bags full of repair equipment and supplies to cope with any eventuality.

Of course, none of these dire events happened, or even had any real likelihood of happening.  The cake got to the Orpheum with no problem whatsoever.  A passing stranger even helped out by holding the door as Alejandro and I carried it into the venue.

This is the first time that I’ve ever completed a cake in the midst of professionals setting up a wedding venue.  I was feeling very insecure about having that many people around while I was working, but Angie kindly hung around and kept me company and distracted me with stories about her love life.  The assembly actually went quite smoothly and fairly quickly.  Really it was just a matter of dropping the flames onto their bases, sticking on a few more leaves, and aging the silver leaves with just a touch of black powdered food coloring.

Because I wasn’t sure how long it would take to finish the assembly at the venue, we had tried to come up with some sort of complicated plan of vehicle switching that would allow me to stay at the venue if necessary while Angie went back to my apartment to change.  I was so distracted that I never understood the plan in the first place, so it’s a good thing that we didn’t actually attempt to put it into action.  In the end, we had plenty of time to drive home and change and then take a bus back to the venue in time for a pre-ceremony cocktail.  While we were gone, they even accessorized the cake table with votive candles and flowers that matched the colors of the cake flawlessly.

The wedding was absolutely beautiful.  I was so nervous about the cake that I hadn’t eaten all day and there was an open bar, so I may have had a few more glasses of wine than was really good for me.  The wedding coordinator for the venue told me that the cake was a challenge to cut, which I don’t doubt is true.  Apparently he put a note to that effect in the file.  Not that there’s any real likelihood that I’ll ever serve a cake there again.

I have absolutely no idea whether there was any leftover cake or what happened to the cake base, since by the end of the night I was too drunk and exhausted to do anything but let Angie roll me into a cab home.  I like to picture a severed, silver, sugar arm sticking out of a dumpster being devoured by ants.

As promised, I’d like to give Executive Producer credit on this cake to Angie for cleaning my apartment, to Jenn for running to the store for emergency powdered sugar, and to Alejandro for driving the cake to the venue.  Thanks guys!

Calder Cake

A few years ago I took a kinetic art class and we made little wire versions of Calder-style hanging mobiles.  I decided to try to make one using cake to serve at a graduate student conference being put on by my department.  It was partially an experiment to see whether I wanted to attempt a similar cake for my friends’ wedding that was coming up a couple months later.  Although I think this cake turned out all right, I decided not to try one on a larger scale at an important event like a wedding.

For this project, the cake was the easy part.  I tried out a new lemon cake recipe, since my friends wanted a lemon cake for their wedding.  It was really good, but I didn’t wind up using it for the wedding because it called for the juice of one lemon and the zest of four lemons, so I wound up with a lot of naked lemons left over.  It’s just not a very practical recipe.

I cut the cake into various sized truncated pyramids.  Then I spritzed them with rum and coated them with an apricot jam glaze.

The trickier part of this project was the structure.

I started with a ½” steel pipe secured to a 24” diameter wooden base.   I had planned to have two 18” aluminum tubes running through the top of this at right angles to one another to support a total of 32 little cakes.  I clearly hadn’t envisioned the spatial relations carefully enough because there was just nowhere near enough room for that many cakes in that amount of space.  I wound up with only 12 little cakes hanging from just one aluminum tube.

I made some little wire saddles to hold the cakes, and bought some ¼” aluminum rod to connect them.

To assemble this kind of sculpture, you start from the bottom and work your way up, balancing the components by shifting the pivot point.  Once I had all the little cakes in place, I fine-tuned the weight by adding a white sugar glaze to each little cake.

I finished off the piece with a larger truncated pyramid cake on top of the central pole.

I had thought that the way that eating the cake disrupted the balance of the sculpture would make for an interesting interactive dining experience.  I’m afraid, though, it may have just been off-putting and irksome.

I think the conference attendees enjoyed the cake overall, though it was by no means one of my most impressive efforts.  It’s probably a good technique to have in my arsenal.  I can picture some more interesting cakes based around a similar structure.

Banshee Cake

My nephew Nathan’s specifications for his 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 his 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 his other birthday cakes, I was living in the same house with Nathan.  But now, while Nathan still lives in California, I am in grad school in Madison, Wisconsin.  Fortunately, my spring break aligns fairly well with Nathan’s birthday, so I was able to be there for his 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 Nathan for his birthday.  However, since I failed to inform my sister and her husband that I had this toy for Nathan, they bought him 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 Nathan’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 Nathan’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 Nathan, 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 fist 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 boys, so I didn’t get to unpack the cake completely until Saturday evening after the boys 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 Nathan’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 Nathan was happy.  Happy and full of sugar.

Peep and the Big Wide World Cake

When it came time to design my nephew Sam’s second birthday cake, I turned to Sam’s older brother, Nathan, to help me conceptualize the cake.  Sam, while remarkably verbal for a two-year-old, still cannot be relied up to respond to specific questions in a direct manner.

At first, Nathan suggested various vehicle-based concepts because Nathan loves vehicles.  Eventually, I was able to convince Nathan that we should base the cake design primarily on things that Sam likes, which may not correlate directly to things that Nathan likes.  At this point, Nathan came up with the idea that Sam might like a duck cake, which I thought was a very good idea.  Sam loves animals of all kinds.  After further discussion, I suggested that we should make a cake based on the TV show Peep and the Big Wide World, which could include not only Quack (a duck), but also Peep (a chick) and Chirp (a baby bird).  Since Quack is very much attached to his pond, I decided that it would be fun to make Quack float in a lake of blue Kool-Aid.  As it turns out, blue Kool-Aid is difficult to find, but Gatorade makes an absolutely disgusting flavor that was the perfect color for Quack’s pond, so I used that instead.

This is almost the first cake I’ve made that was primarily landscape-based, rather than primarily object- or character-based.  Each major character in Peep and the Big Wide World has a special landscape feature with which he or she is associated.  Quack has his pond; Chirp perches in her big tree; Peep lives in an old tin can.  I also decided to include “the most beautiful flower,” because I really like that episode, and a caterpillar.  The caterpillar is a minor character in the show, but Sam had recently said “caterpillar,” which he pronounced something like “patta-putter,” when I was reading to him.  I thought this was absolutely adorable and I hoped that, if I put a caterpillar on his cake, he might say it again.

All of this required a great deal of advance work in gum paste and in chocolate.  Most of the gum paste work was fairly conventional – cutting leaves and flower petals out of gum paste and draping them over various things to get graceful curves.  The can was easily accomplished by wrapping gum paste around an actual tin can.

I was quite proud of Chirp’s tree.  Rather than making the tree out of gum paste or fondant, I decided to make it out of chocolate.  While I have taken classes in chocolate-work and I frequently make truffles and such, this was my first attempt at making anything this big out of chocolate, at least since the white chocolate rib cage of the Thorax Cake.  The first step in casting the tree was to cut the basic shape out of foam core.  Then I made a soft bed of cocoa powder by sifting it into a baking tray.  I pushed the foam core positive into the cocoa powder to make the negative mold, then piped tempered milk chocolate into the depression in the cocoa powder.  Then I flipped the piece of foam core over and did the same thing again to make the other side of the tree.  Once those pieces had set, I glued them together with more milk chocolate.  After carving off the excess cocoa powder and smoothing out the rough edges with a knife, I was really pleased with the result.  And, as it turns out, properly tempered chocolate is much more rigid than my usual building materials of gum paste and fondant.  I’m going to have to start incorporating chocolate into my cakes more often.

To create the pond, I bought a big bowl.  Then I cut a piece of ½” foam core with a hole in the middle to sit on top of the bowl to support the cake for the land.  I also bought a little pump and put it into the pond.  The idea was that, if the water was moving, Quack would float around the pond, rather than remaining stationary.

Sculpting the cake into a scenic hilly landscape was easy.  Rather than attempting to cover the entire thing in a single piece of fondant, I decided to cover it in a patchwork of various shades of green.  This didn’t perfectly mimic the landscape of the show, but I felt that it still captured the cartoony effect.

Installing the tree went remarkably well.  I cut a big hole in the cake, poured tempered chocolate into it, and then stuck in the tree.  A little more chocolate easily adhered the leaves.  It worked perfectly.  Have I mentioned that I need to use chocolate more often?

At this point in the project, two days before the birthday party was scheduled, Sam came down with a truly unfortunate case of croup.  Sam and his parents spent the day before what was supposed to be his party at the hospital and I spent the day that I had planned to spend finishing Sam’s cake watching Nathan and reassuring him that Mommy and Sam would be home soon.  Obviously, we cancelled the party.  But it was too late not to finish the cake, and the point of the cake was largely to amuse Sam and Nathan, rather than our guests, so I decided to finish the cake anyway, even though there was no longer a party at which to serve it.

I had hoped to make Chirp and Peep entirely out of cake, but I discovered that it is basically impossible to make a sphere out of nothing but cake.   So I cut some Styrofoam balls in half, covered them in tin foil, and used those for the bottom half of Peep and Chirp, with only the top half made of cake.  I was quite pleased with how well I did in covering 3” diameter spheres in a smooth layer of fondant.  I also think I did a pretty good job of capturing Chirp’s characteristic expression of frustration and exhaustion after she has failed in an attempt to fly.

For Quack, the major problem was, of course, how to make him float.  My plan was to make the bottom half of Quack out of buoyant foam and the top half out of cake.  The first thing I discovered was that, if you make something egg-shaped (ie. Quack) half out of lightweight foam and half out of heavyweight cake and then place it in water, it will immediately flip over so that the heavy cake part is underwater.  No good.  I addressed this problem by gluing a lot of heavy steel nuts to the bottom of the foam, so that the bottom of Quack outweighed the top.  This worked, up to a point, but it also necessitated a higher proportion of foam to cake to make up for the increased weight.  Quack ended up only about one quarter cake and three quarters foam.

I also conducted some experiments on the soluability of fondant in water and I discovered that if I coated the fondant covering Quack in Crisco I could reasonably expect him not to dissolve for at least a quarter of an hour.

Assembling all the cake elements proved more problematic than I had anticipated for two reasons.  First, my plan to stick the gum paste flower and the gum paste milkweed plant for the caterpillar directly into the cake utterly failed to account for the fact that moist cake rapidly erodes the structural integrity of gum paste.  In the end I did manage to get the flower standing, but the caterpillar’s plant was ultimately a lost cause and he wound up just perched on a clump of grass.

Second, I had planned to assemble the cake while Sam napped and my sister took Nathan out to the museum.  As Nathan proved to be utterly uninterested in the museum that day, though, they came home early.  At first, this was delightful, as he immediately ran up to the not-yet-completed cake and yelled, “I love it!!!”

Unfortunately, this was also the moment at which several pieces of the cake started to fall apart.  Peep fell off her can.  The flower and the milkweed plant began to collapse.  I began to freak out.  So we spent the next hour or so forbidding Nathan from approaching the cake.  “It’s very, very fragile!”  “Please be careful!”  “Oh, stay behind the train table, please!”  The poor little guy just wanted to look at it.  Nathan, I’m sorry.  I should have been more concerned with you than I was with the cake.

Sam woke up at about the moment that I finally managed to get the cake assembled and properly accessorized with gum paste rocks and gum paste tufts of grass.  Because I was convinced that several components were about to collapse, we rushed to serve the cake, making this an extremely short-lived object, even by cake standards.

I slightly overfilled Quack’s pond with Gatorade, so that when I actually put Quack in the pond and turned on the pump to agitate the water, it overflowed a bit onto the floor.  Other than that, Quack’s floating worked remarkably well.  He was a little askew, but he definitely floated, and we were even able to light the two candles that I had adhered to his feet.  Remarkably, the bit of cake inside of Quack even remained undamaged and edible.

Poor Sam was probably still recovering from his croup and had just woken up, so he didn’t seem terribly impressed.  I’m not sure he understood that it was cake until I dissected Chirp and actually put the cake in front of him.  Then he was happy.  Sam loves cake.  After he finished eating Chirp, he even asked, very sweetly, for “more cake, please?”  Happy birthday, Sam!

Zoom! Boom! Bully Cake

Those of you who don’t happen to be immersed in the magical world of three- to five-year-old children are probably not familiar with John Scieszka’s Trucktown. So I recommend that you follow the link so you know what the heck I’m talking about.

My personal favorite book in the Trucktown series is actually Smash! Crash!, but since the occasion for this cake was my nephew Nathan’s fourth birthday, Zoom! Boom! Bully was a more appropriate reference. The basic plot is that various denizens of Trucktown stack up crate, barrels, and tires in the middle of the street, but are periodically disrupted by the aptly named Big Rig smashing into them (Zoom! Boom!). The other trucks then exclaim about what a bully Big Rig is. The big surprise in the end is that it’s Big Rig’s birthday and the other trucks are making him a birthday cake out of the crates, barrels, and tires, which Melvin the cement mixer then pours cement “icing” on. Big Rig, very touched by the other trucks’ thoughtful gesture, picks up the “cake”, takes it back to his garage, and proceeds to gleefully smash it while wearing a festival yellow party hat.

I decided to recreate the penultimate moment of the book in cake form, consisting of three components:

1)    The “cake” made of tires, crate, and barrels.

2)    Melvin the cement mixer, with a rotating drum in the process of dumping cement onto the “cake”.

3)    Big Rig, who would smash face first into the “cake”.

When I explained this concept to Nathan he was very enthusiastic, if a bit disappointed that Jack Truck and Dump Truck Dan wouldn’t be on the cake.

The first thing I had to do was figure out how the heck I was going to make any of this happen. The easiest way to describe the process is probably to take each piece separately, though of course these projects were running concurrently.

Melvin the Cement Mixer

I learned a lot about cement mixer drums. The first thing I learned was that it’s very difficult to find detailed schematics of them on the internet. Eventually I resorted to studying Nathan’s toy cement mixer. As far as I’ve been able to determine from these authoritative sources, cement mixer drum interiors consist of a series of semicircles, angled and staggered such that when the drum turns one way the cement is propelled towards the bottom of the drum and when it turns the other way the cement is pushed up and out the chute.

I made a whole series of Bristol board mockups with various sizes and densities of semicircles, trying them out using little pieces of paper as a cement substitute. None of them even came close to working. So I branched out and tried some other variations on the internal structure. Finally I settled on a helical arrangement of triangular wedges spiraling up towards the top of the drum. This seemed to at least sort of work.

With the basic structure settled, it was time to remake the drum in gum paste. The exterior of the drum was made in three pieces around Bristol board forms. Once these and the myriad little triangular wedges were dry, I assembled them with royal icing around a brass tube for the center support. Assembly was a lengthy process, as I had to wait for the icing on each wedge to dry before attaching the next one.

With the drum assembled around the central tube, I superglued the tube to the shaft of a reversible gear head motor (once I had figured out how to wire up the motor to make it reversible.) Mounting the drum and motor assembly to the base was a real challenge. I had made a pretty simple base for Melvin out of a cut-up aluminum baking sheet, covered with gum paste, and elevated off the wooden base for the entire cake with L-brackets, so the body of the truck would ultimately appear to be resting on its tires. In Zoom! Boom! Bully, Melvin’s drum appears to be supported from beneath in the middle by two angled beams, but there doesn’t seem to be a support for the back of the drum. This, of course, also raises the question of what Melvin’s rear chute is attached to.

My plan was to build the side support beams out of gum paste around pieces of brass, bolted to the aluminum base. Because, unlike the people illustrating the book, I physically needed something on the back to support both the drum and the chute, I decided on a brass ring mounted on a strip of brass and wrapped in gum paste, also bolted to the aluminum base.

The first time that I put this all together with the motor and the gum paste drum, I set it up so that the lowest point on the drum was resting on the aluminum base, on which I had put some UHMW tape to keep friction to a minimum. I thought that this would help to support the weight of the drum and keep stress off the motor. This turned out to be a very bad plan, as I had failed to account for the fact that, in spite of my best efforts, I had failed to center the drum perfectly on the central brass tube. This meant that when I turned the motor on, as soon as the part of the drum that was slightly further from the axis of rotation got around to the bottom, it jammed against the base. I turned the motor off as soon as I realized what has happened, but not soon enough. As the central brass tube was still trying to rotate while the drum itself was jammed against the base, the royal icing connected the gum paste drum pieces to the brass tube cracked. D’oh!

A few tense hours and one major royal icing repair later, the drum was reattached to the tube. In order to prevent this from happening again, I made a new, slightly higher brass ring to support the back of the drum and raised the motor, and therefore the front of the drum, about a half an inch as well. That way, the drum never touched the actual aluminum base and was supported only by the motor on one end and the brass ring on the other end. It worked!

Once the drum turning mechanism was in place, finishing the back of the truck was relatively simple. I covered the motor in green gum paste and assembled the gum paste pieces of the side support beams. Having previously made tires out of black fondant and hubcaps out of gum paste, sprayed silver, it was easy to attach these, as well as the gum paste wheel wells.

I had also wired up some white LEDs to use for Melvin’s taillights and headlights, so I put the LEDs for the taillights in place and then ran the wires underneath the aluminum base so they’d be in place for the headlights once I got his head assembled. The taillights themselves I made out of gum paste cylinders, capped with rice paper (to diffuse the light) and yellow gelatin (to give the light the correct hue.) In the past, when I’ve needed sheet gelatin (see the Tardis Cake and the Flying Saucer Cake) I’ve used the pre-made kind, but since that has a strange diamond pattern on it, this time I tried making my own flat sheet gelatin, using these instructions that I found on the internet. After a few abortive efforts, it worked pretty well.

Assembling the chute took a little time, because it was made of six separate pieces, which had to be attached one at a time, with sufficient time for the connective royal icing to dry before attaching the next one.

With the back of Melvin thus complete, I had to make his head, the only part of Melvin that contained actual cake. This went very smoothly. Having made all the exterior gum paste pieces in advance, it was simply a matter of carving the cake into the appropriate shape, covering it with fondant, and then setting it in place on the aluminum base. Then I could assemble the gum paste exterior with royal icing, including more tires and wheel wells, the ears / side view mirrors, and eyeglasses / headlights (which were assembled around the rest of the strand of LEDs.) To fill gaps and hide seams, I used royal icing, smoothed with a damp paintbrush.

For cement, I made some white chocolate ganache, tinted grey with black powdered food coloring. Mind you, at this point I still didn’t know whether the drum was properly configured to actually push the cement out and down the tube, and I wouldn’t find out until the party.

Big Rig

My biggest challenge of this cake was figuring out how to make Big Rig roll. It was also pretty high pressure because, let’s face it, if Big Rig didn’t smash into the “cake” the whole project would pretty much be a blatant failure. With almost all of my cakes, I accept that there is a fairly high probability that it might not work as I intend. My philosophy is that if you always know that what you’re doing will work, you’re not trying hard enough. Which is fine when the only people who are going to be disappointed with a failure are me, or my adult friends, or the guests at my friends’ wedding. But I really didn’t want to disappoint Nathan. So in this particular case, I really couldn’t let failure be an option.

Keeping Big Rig on the right trajectory was the easy part. I attached two L-brackets to the bottom of Big Rig’s aluminum base, a material which I had selected to keep his weight as low as possible. Then I cut a track in the plywood base for the entire cake, running from the far end where Big Rig would start, leading to the end of the base where the “cake” would sit. That way, the L-brackets, slotted into the plywood track, which I had lined with UHMW tape to reduce friction, would keep Big Rig on target to the “cake.” All I had to do was get him to move.

My first attempt at a drive mechanism was to connect a hobby motor directly to the shaft of one of the front wheels (made out of plywood, to be covered later with gum paste tires), so it would basically be a one-wheel drive car. This failed for at least two reasons. First, because the two front wheels weren’t connected to each other via a complete axle, both had a tendency to bind up in their bushings, so that moving even the light aluminum base without any cake on it took all the motor’s power.  Second, because only one wheel was driving the truck, it had a tendency to try to pull the truck off course so that the L-bracket bound up in the track.

So I scrapped that and tried something else. This time, I connected the two front wheels with a brass and threaded rod axle. My plan was to transfer the power from the motor to the axle with a heavy-duty rubber band under tension. This plan failed even before I connected it to the wheels, as the minute that I started experimenting with putting tension on a rubber band around the shaft of any of the hobby motors I had in hand it became clear that none of my motors had nearly enough torque to get the job done.

I went online and located a promising-looking high-torque motor. While I was waiting for that to arrive, I started playing around with the possibility of a motor-less drive mechanism. My first thought was a tension spring. Unfortunately, a few major problems with this idea soon became clear. First, the length difference between the relaxed spring and the spring under tension wasn’t nearly enough. I couldn’t pull the truck all the way back to the end of the track, and even with the spring fully relaxed I was afraid that the truck wouldn’t even reach the “cake” to smash it. Second, I was very scared that, if I had to keep Big Rig under that kind of tension for any length of time there was a significant risk of premature smashing, which would be a real tragedy. Third, I really wanted Big Rig’s tires to spin on their own, so I could start the wheels spinning, and then release the truck for the final smash. There’s a great illustration in Zoom! Boom! Bully where Big Rig’s tires are spinning into a whirl of smoke just as Jack shouts, “Stop!” and the other trucks reveal that the “cake” is for Big Rig’s birthday. I really wanted to recreate this moment in cake before the smash, and that required motor power directly to Big Rig’s wheels.

I managed to solve the first of these problems by substituting a jumbo-sized rubber band for the spring. The rubber band had a much higher stretch-to-length ratio than the spring, and the flexibility of the rubber band meant that even after its tension was exhausted, it at least wouldn’t arrest the momentum of the truck. The rubber band also seemed to have sufficient power to move the truck fairly quickly, even with the projected added weight of the cake and gum paste. But the rubber band still left my other two concerns unaddressed. It still required the truck to be under tension for a longer period of time than I was comfortable with, unless I could come up with a release mechanism that I could set after the cake was completed and moved into place. And in order to achieve the effect I wanted with the tires spinning prior to release, I really needed tires that were legitimately motor-powered.

Fortunately, when my high-torque motor arrived, early signs were encouraging. Unlike the motors I was trying before, it was clearly powerful enough to withstand the tension on the rubber band. So I mounted the motor to the cake base and ran the rubber band to connect the motor shaft to the axle. Initially, I was delighted with the result. With no weight on the aluminum base, the truck drove great. However, as soon as I put some weight on it, to mimic the weight of the cake and gum paste I was planning to put onto Big Rig, it stopped working altogether, as the added weight was sufficient to counteract the tension on the rubber band and cause it just to slip uselessly around the axle. I tried to mitigate this problem by putting something sticky on the axle, but this just made the rubber band stick to itself and get wound up around the axle.

Next, I tried using gears to transfer the power from the motor to the axle, which required a complete redo of the front bushings to leave space between the axle and the aluminum base for the gear. Like the rubber band drive, this worked great until I put any weight on the base. Unlike with the rubber band, the truck did at least move with additional weight on it. It just moved very slowly. I did have hopes, though, that if I kept the cake as light as I possibly could, it might work.

To give it an extra boost of power, I decided to combine this partially successful motor solution with my partially successful rubber band solution. I designed a release mechanism consisting of a piece of U-shaped channel that ran across the track, underneath the base, attached to a dowel handle leading out the side of the base. That way, with the rubber band connected to one of the L-brackets under the truck base on one end and an eye bolt at the “cake” end of the track at the other end, I could finish decorating Big Rig with the rubber band relaxed, and then pull him back and set the L-bracket into the U-channel. This would hold him in place, and hold the front wheels a fraction of an inch off the base, so I could turn the motor on, let the wheels spin freely for a second, and then pull the dowel to release him. The rubber band would pull Big Rig forward while the wheel simultaneously pushed him forward. I could only hope that would provide enough force to make him powerfully smash into the “cake.”

And thus ends the saga of making Big Rig go, but I still had to actually make Big Rig. Because Big Rig has a kind of maniacally glowing face, as well as taillights and a menacing glow inside his wheel wells, he needed a lot of LEDs. Fortunately, by this point I’ve done so many LED-intensive cakes that I could basically just chop and splice segments together as needed, so the wiring went pretty quickly.

All the gum paste pieces, including tires, hubcaps, fuel tanks, bumpers, walls, trim, and yellow party hat, were made and dried in advance. To get the requisite orange and yellow glow out of Big Rig’s eyes, mouth, etc. I made sheets of gelatin with fades from yellow to orange, backed with rice paper to diffuse the light form the LEDs.

The cake itself was limited to the back of Big Rig and a very small square of cake inside his cab. At the party, someone pointed out that it was like a little cake engine block. I couldn’t put a bigger cake inside his head, because I needed to leave space around it for the LEDs. I kept the fondant layer on the cakes (necessary to prevent the gum paste from touching the buttercream icing, which softens dried gum paste) as thin as possible to keep the weight down. Fortunately, since I was covering the entire thing with pre-made gum paste pieces, the fondant didn’t have to look particularly nice.

With the cakes in place, attaching the gum paste exterior and all the trim pieces was really quite simple. The only problem I had was that when I redid the front axle bushings to accommodate the gears, I had failed to make the corresponding changes to the templates for Big Rig’s cab, so the sides, front, and back of the cab were all about half an inch too short. Fortunately, I had some extra dry blue gum paste pieces that I was able to cut down to patch the gaps. With some liberal royal icing spackle, it turned out just fine. The finishing touches were the royal icing antennae on the top. I have no idea why Big Rig needs so many antennae (which is what I told Nathan when he asked me that question) but he has them in the book, so he had them in the cake.


Although the “cake” was the easiest component in that it didn’t have to do anything but sit there and be smashed, it also required more individual gum paste pieces than (I think) Melvin and Big Rig put together. Each barrel was made of five separate gum paste pieces and each crate required six. At the early planning stages of this project, I had envisioned putting tiny individual pieces of cake inside each crate and each barrel. Considering that the crates were only an inch and a half on each side, and the barrels were even smaller, I’m very glad that I came to my senses before I tried to do this. It’s not like there wasn’t already more cake than our guests would possibly eat anyway. Instead, I just put a little square of cake inside the “cake”, surrounded by the hollow crates and barrels and fondant tires. This probably made for a better smash in the long run anyway.

In addition to the crates and barrels, the cake also included a selection of fondant tires and gum paste pipes. Since I had made way more of all these things than were actually required, I used the extras to create bonus piles of stuff around the perimeter of the plywood cake base.

Finishing touches

With everything assembled, I actually went to bed at a relatively reasonable hour the night before the party. The next morning, as I was putting on the finishing touches – mostly adding a little dirt and grime with black powdered food coloring – Nathan came in to inspect my work. He walked around it, studying it very carefully and commenting favorably on specific elements, like Big Rig’s tires and Melvin’s articulation. He then pointed out that I needed to put eyes on the chicken hood ornament on Melvin’s nose, which was already on my list of details to finish up before the party.

Nathan then noted that I hadn’t made a hitch for the back of Big Rig. I had considered making a hitch for Big Rig, but decided against it because it doesn’t play any role in this scenario and because in some of the images in the source book, he doesn’t appear to have a hitch. Nathan listened patiently to this explanation and then countered by pointing out that, in Truckery Rhymes, Big Rig is shown towing a trailer, which he couldn’t do if he didn’t have a hitch. I was forced to bow to his superior logic and quickly made a gum paste hitch. Actually, it even looked better from an aesthetic point of view, as the silver hitch made the solid blue rear section of Big Rig much more interesting. What I especially love about Nathan’s argument is that it draws not just upon the specific source book for this project – Zoom Boom Bully – but upon the rest of the Trucktown canon as well. I also enjoy that it is a functional argument. His point was not merely that Big Rig should have a hitch because he is shown with a hitch in the illustrations, but that Big Rig needs a hitch or he would be unable to fulfill his function as a big rig.

With the hitch completed, I got Nathan’s dad to help me move the cake out to the dining room. Then came the stressful moment when I had to pull Big Rig back into his release mechanism. I was terrified that I was either going to lose my grip and send him crashing into the “cake” or crack Big Rig’s head to pieces in the effort of pulling back the rubber band. Fortunately I avoided either catastrophe and got Big Rig primed for release with only the loss of one fuel tank that was easily reattached.

Nathan then consulted the source material for one final check on the accuracy of my work. He pointed out that, in the book, the “cake” is shown on a wooden palette, and I had failed to put my cake version of the “cake” onto a palette. I explained that I had noticed that and had considered putting the “cake” on a palette but had decided against it as I was afraid that the palette would arrest Big Rig’s movement so that he wouldn’t smash into the “cake” as effectively. Nathan considered this carefully and then decided that perhaps Big Rig had taken the “cake” home on the palette and then removed it from the palette in order to smash it. I agreed that was an excellent explanation.

The party

With only one exception, the cake worked very well. Melvin’s drum turned flawlessly, but sadly, he did not actually pour cement. Either the drum and/or the wedges inside weren’t angle correctly or I had made the ganache too thick. Also, I didn’t really know which way the drum was supposed to be turning to make the cement come out. Cement mixers are complicated. Oh well, at least the drum turned.

Most importantly, Big Rig worked! Zoom! Boom! One of the barrels even flew off the table. Big Rig’s front bumper cracked beautifully so that he wound up with an excellent jagged evil grin.

Nathan had a great time eating various gum paste bits (and a little bit of actual cake.) I particularly enjoyed it when he ate one of Melvin’s eyes, revealing the LEDs and leaving Melvin looking like a mangled cyborg.

The next day, as Nathan was helping me to disassemble the remains of the cake and salvage the electronic components, he told Melvin (who was by this point essentially just a severed head) that he was his favorite cake ever. I call that a big success. Nathan was a very tough audience with an incredible eye for detail. He was tremendously critical, but with such sincerity and such admiration. He has absolute confidence in my ability to execute a perfect cake version of Big Rig, so of course he wants to point out my errors so that I can correct them. It’s such a charming combination of exactitude and blind faith. He’s the perfect manager.

Jet Truck Cake

This cake was for my nephew, Sam’s, first birthday. It’s based on a real truck.

When I asked Sam’s big brother Nathan, who was, at the time, almost four years old, what kind of cake he thought that Sam would like for his birthday, he gave me very detailed specs:

  • Tractor-trailer – w/o trailer
  • Racing truck
  • Racing trucks are yellow.
  • Jet engines on the back
  • Flame powered engine
  • Flames come out of exhaust pipe
  • Flame powered fuel
  • Button to turn on flames
  • Nathan will show Sam how flames work
  • Flames come out of jet engine
  • Flame powered fuel tank on the side

When I showed my notes to my sister, Nathan and Sam’s mom, she immediately knew what truck he was thinking of. Evidently he had seen it in a video on youtube. A few google searches later, I had some great reference photos to work from.

Since the planned birthday party would be attended by numerous small children, I decided that having actual flames shoot out the back of the cake would be a bad idea, even if I could accomplish it in a food-safe way. Instead, I planned to make basically a miniature version of the flames on those plastic Halloween cauldrons where a light and a fan inside the cauldron make some waving fabric look like relatively convincing flames.

Ultimately, it didn’t work out nearly as well as I had hoped, for several reasons:

1)    Initially I had hoped that I would be able to substitute something edible for the fabric “flames” but I was unable to come up with any food item that was thin, dry, lightweight, and flexible enough to fit the bill. The closest I came was the skin of a bell pepper, but that was too brittle when dried.

2)    I bought white fabric, but then dyed it red and orange with food coloring, which stiffened it a bit more than was optimal so it didn’t move as fluidly as I wanted.

3)    Fans small enough to fit inside a 2” diameter gum paste rocket aren’t all that powerful. I bought a couple of different ones to try out. I thought the ones I decided on would work, but once I got them all the way hooked up with the fabric I found that they didn’t have enough punch to move strips of fabric more than a couple inches long.

4)    When I stuck the fabric to the gum paste rockets, I did it in such a way that the air only passed over one side of the fabric, not both. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize what a big error this was until it was too late to do anything to fix it.

5)    When I installed the fans and rockets on the cake, I didn’t leave enough room at the back of the rocket for air to get sucked into the fan. Again, I realized the error too late to correct.

So the flame effect wound up being mediocre at best, but otherwise I think I captured the essence of the jet truck pretty well.

For the base, I started with a trapezoid of plywood. I guess I though that a trapezoid would give it more of a sense of motion than a rectangle, but I’m not sure it really did much. I used grey run-in royal icing, with white and black food coloring sponged on to make it look like asphalt. On top of that I painted yellow lane markers with thinned royal icing and then yellow food coloring.

To raise the body of the truck up off the ground, I mounted a second, thinner piece of plywood, on top of some sections of 1” aluminum channel, positioned so that that channel would later be hidden behind the tires. I covered this piece of plywood with black fondant.

At this point I did all the wiring for the fans and the LEDs to light up the inside of the rockets. I got some nice big red buttons to turn them on and off because I thought that Nathan would enjoy that.

Next, I used gum paste, detailed with royal icing, to make the rockets, the grill, the spoiler, the hubcaps, the wheel wells, the fuel tanks, the bumpers, the reflectors, the license plates, and so on and so on. I used fondant for the tires and a few of the other bulkier trim pieces.

Shiny chrome truck bits gave me a chance to try out my new metallic edible airbrush colors. I was a bit skeptical, but they worked great. I was especially pleased with the job I did on the rockets.

For the cake itself I started with three 10” square cakes, carved into the two separate pieces of the cab, then crumb-coated with buttercream. Once covered with fondant, the corners were more rounded than I wanted, giving the truck a more puffy, cartoon-ish look than I would have liked. I’m reaching the conclusion that the only way to get nice, sharp mechanical corners is to pre-make gum paste pieces like I did for the Tardis cake.

My plan was to cover the front cab section first with blue fondant then with yellow fondant so that I could cut the yellow fondant away from the windows revealing the blue fondant beneath. (This is after I decided that my original plan to actually create an interior for the truck that could be seen through the windows was not feasible in the time I had available.) I have never personally tried this technique before, but I have seen them do it many times on Ace of Cakes, so I figured I ought to be able to do it easily. It probably would have worked just fine, except that I decided to wait to cut out the windows until after I airbrushed the orange and red stripes onto the cake.

Masking parts of the cake off and airbrushing is another technique I’ve seen on Ace of Cakes, but this was my first try at it. It worked relatively well, but next time I’ll be more careful with my masking, since I did have a few spots where the color bled under the paper.

By the time I was finished airbrushing, the top yellow layer of fondant had completely fused to bottom blue layer of fondant, so it was utterly impossible to remove one without removing the other. So I cut all the way through both layers for the windshield, the side windows, and the front grille, all the way down to the crumb-coat, and then stuck a new piece of blue fondant into the hole. To give it a window-like gloss, I painted a layer of piping gel onto the windows.

Assembling the rockets around the fans and the lights was a bit of a challenge, both because I kept getting confused about which side of what rocket each wire was supposed to go on and because I had underestimated the required length of a few wires and had to splice in some extra pieces.

Then it was just a matter of attaching tires, fuel tanks, trim, etc. and running a strip of ribbon around the edge of the base to hide the side of the plywood. I stuck the candle into one of the exhaust pipes.

I’m happy to say that Nathan was delighted with the cake, even though the flames were a little lame.

I tried putting edible glittering into the rockets so that it was blown out when the fans were turned on, but that wasn’t too dramatic either. Mostly I think Nathan just liked pushing the buttons.

Sam was pretty impressed with the cake, too, although he didn’t actually get any of it, because I foolishly used a chocolate cake recipe that involved almond extract and my sister didn’t want to give him nuts yet for fear of allergies, so we made a last minute emergency batch of cupcakes with a nut-free recipe. Sam was very much in favor of the cupcake. I think the only food I’ve ever seen him enjoy more was pumpkin pie. Nathan, on the other hand, was most entranced with eating the gum paste pieces. At one point in the party he ran past me, doing a little happy dance, singing, “I have an exhaust pipe!”

Flying Saucer Cake

I began this cake flush with the success of my recent Tardis cake. I received a bit of a comeuppance.

The occasion for the cake was my friend Isaac’s third birthday party. (You may remember Isaac from his second birthday cake and his first birthday cake.)

My goal in this design was to evoke the classic B-movie spaceships from the 50′s and 60′s (the title of the party’s evite was “Plan 3 from Outer Space”.) As I had so recently completed the Tardis cake, I was still interested in cakes with mirrors, LEDs, and visible interiors. I also wanted to personalize the cake, by including Isaac (in alien form), abducting his parents (in human form). So I designed a classic silver flying saucer with round portholes around the sides that would look into the lighted interior rooms of the ship, where alien Isaacs would be doing things that human Isaac loves to do – eating pretzels, climbing on unsafe things, splashing in a pool, and playing with trains. The entire ship would be mounted on a turntable, so it could slowly rotate. The turntable in turn would sit on a clear acrylic tube, representing the ship’s tractor beam, within which I would enclose gum paste figures of Isaac’s parents, in the process of being sucked up into the ship.

To make the rooms inside the ship, I started with two pieces of foam core – a 14″ diameter circle for the bottom and a 14″ diameter 2″ ring for the top, so that I would later be able to put the cake inside. I split the space into eight equal slices with gum paste dividers, each with a row of white LEDs on top and bottom. I backed every other space with mirror, so that when their corresponding portholes were backed with mirrored window film and the LEDs were lit, they’d be mirrored ad infinitum within the ship, creating a spacey infinite corridor. For one of these spaces I used red LEDs instead of white, as that was where the conical thrusters would connect to the ship, thereby evoking a combustible power source.

The remaining four spaces became the rooms for the alien-Isaacs. Because I was going for a little-boy’s-birthday vibe combined with my 60′s B-movie vibe I painted one room aqua, one lime green, one orange, and one yellow. These are all also colors that Isaac’s mother has used to decorate their house. Then I appliqued each room with various gum paste squares and circles, painted silver.

I made the aliens out of gum paste, serpentine with green skin and one big eye. To make them reminiscent of Isaac, I gave them puffy cheeks and little shocks of blond hair.

For the portholes, I used a template to cut out gum paste rectangles with windows in them, and draped them over custom forms to dry. The thrusters were also gum paste, wrapped around cones to dry, and then coated with royal icing for a sort of corrugated steel texture. Once the portholes dried, I used royal icing to stick sheet gelatin window panes to the back and, in the case of the portholes in front of the mirrored room, a layer of mirrored window film.

My sister kindly baked the cakes for me. There was space inside the perimeter defined by the rooms to put a 3″ tall 10″ diameter cake.

To make the tapered upper section of the ship, I started with a 10″ diameter cake on top of a 14″ diameter cake. I carved these into a truncated cone, 3″ high, tapering from 14″ diameter at the bottom to 6″ diameter at the top. To get the appropriate architectural feel, I covered the cake with a layer of fondant and then the fondant with 16 pre-made gum paste trapezoids. Then I dropped this whole section on top of the cylinder with the rooms.

For the very top of the ship, I carved some 6″ round cakes into a hemisphere and covered that with fondant. I mounted this cake onto a foam core circle in which I had embedded a ring of LEDs and mounted it on top of the other cakes.

With the main body of the cake assembled, I needed to get the base together. I embedded a ring of green LEDs into the plywood base to illuminate the tractor beam and then set about creating the people being abducted. I started with a wire armature and built up the figures in gum paste around that.

Once the figures were complete I installed the acrylic tube around them and then glued a turntable to the top of the tube. I had considered mounting the turntable at an angle, but I decided that might make it too hard for the turntable to rotate, so I kept the turntable level. As it turned out, I needn’t have worried because the moment that I transferred my cake to the turntable it became clear that the turntable was nowhere near powerful enough to turn such a heavy cake. And thus my cake became stationary. Actually the turntable wasn’t a total waste, as it still allowed me to turn the cake manually. This was convenient, since the cake was designed to be viewed from all angles, but it certainly lacked pizzazz.

With the cake mounted on the base my flying saucer still needed to taper at the bottom. Unfortunately, it proved to be far too difficult to attach the gum paste pieces that I had created for the bottom of the flying saucer and by this time it was so late that the royal icing would never have had time to dry. So I was forced to hot glue my Bristol board mockup to the bottom of the turntable. I don’t like using non-edible materials any more than necessary, but in this case I felt that it was just too late to do anything else.

In fact, by this time it was about 5:00 am the morning of the party and it was too late for a lot of things. I had planned to finish all the edges very cleanly and wind up with a very polished final product that would live up to the standard that I set for myself with the Tardis Cake. Sadly, at 5:00 am, this was not meant to be. The best I could do was to whip up a few fondant ropes to cover the most egregious seams, slap a coat of silver luster dust on everything and go to bed. I was not thrilled with the results. I’d like to claim that it was some sort of homage to the shoddy special effects that we all love so much in our B-movies, but the sad truth is that it was just poor time management.

The next morning I just had time to cover the plywood base with a layer of pressed sugar and make it to the party in time to help hang up the decorations. The cake did make the car trip with no untoward effects, but there evidently was a lot of moisture trapped in the acrylic tube because the figures’ gum paste limbs softened and wilted, so where their arms had meant to be pulled upwards by the inexorable force of the tractor beam, instead their arms curved despondently towards the earth.

I actually don’t mind an occasional failure. When you’re pushing the boundaries of a medium you have to expect a few unsuccessful trials. This failure irked me however, because in this instance my failure was not due to excessive ambition but to deficient planning. I view the first type of failure as an inevitable result of man’s eternal striving to better himself, but the second is merely the inevitable result of opting to watch America’s Next Top Model instead of working on the project at hand.