Enterprise Cupcakes


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Digger Cake


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sandbox


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heart Cupcakes


In the past, my heart-shaped cakes have tended to get bigger and bigger, resulting in things like a heart the size of a small dog and the infamous Thoracic Cavity Cake. This year I decided to buck the curve and make very small, individual-portion-sized heart-shaped cakes.

There were 18 people coming to Pumpkinfest, so I needed to make 18 little, cupcake-sized hearts. I also wanted them to bleed because what would be the point of making heart-shaped cupcakes that didn’t bleed? I thought it would be a nice touch to have both red blood (arterial) and blue blood (venous), so I made a batch of fresh raspberry sauce and a batch of fresh blueberry sauce. Both of these sauces are very delicious and very easy to make. The only ingredients are berries, sugar, and lemon juice, mixed up in a blender and strained through a sieve to remove the seeds. The blueberry sauce was perhaps less blue than it might optimally have been, but I think we all know how hard it is to find appetizing blue food.

To contain the sauces, I made two gum paste cylinders per cupcake, for a total of 36. The idea was that one of them would be the aorta (full of red blood) and the other the superior vena cava (full of blue blood). Mounted vertically on the top of each cupcake, they would hold the fruit sauces until the cupcakes were cut into, at which point they would spill their gory contents over the plate.

For the cake itself, I started with cupcakes, which are relatively heart-shaped to begin with. I removed the paper from each one and set them in the middle of white paper plates, the better to emphasize the soon-to-be-spilt fruit sauces, and covered them with a thick later of chocolate buttercream frosting.

I didn’t want to use fondant to cover and sculpt these hearts because I thought that the proportion of fondant to cake would be overpowering at cupcake scale (not that it probably makes that much difference anyway since most people peel the fondant off before they eat the cake.) For some reason, I also decided not to use buttercream frosting. I don’t recall why I made that decision because in retrospect, buttercream would clearly have been the way to go. Instead, I decided to use white modeling chocolate. I didn’t do a very good job of making the modeling chocolate, so it came out very hard and a little grainy. I used it anyway. I rolled out circles of the modeling chocolate to drape over the whole cupcake and then shaped it a bit with some gum paste sculpting tools. Then I used royal icing to pipe on detail veins and attach the cylinders sticking off the top.

Because I had used modeling chocolate I needed to color the hearts with powdered food coloring mixed into cocoa butter. Water-based colors don’t stick to chocolate. To get the hearts nice and shiny, I then painted on a layer of red- or blue-tinted piping gel. Because the piping gel is water-based, it didn’t spread smoothly, but rather beaded in rills and pockets, which I thought was actually kind of a nice effect.

Right before serving, I filled the tubes with my two fruit sauces.

Reactions were mixed. Adults more or less agreed that the cake was tasty, but that the modeling chocolate was too thick, hard, and grainy to eat. I really should have used buttercream. One little boy, who had been promised a cupcake adamantly refused to accept that these were, in fact, cupcakes in a slightly different configuration and had to be supplied with a normal-looking cupcake that we fortunately had in reserve. His little brother, on the other hand, took to the little hearts immediately, breaking off the aorta and jugular vein and gleefully drinking the contents like a proper little cannibal.

Poo-Flinging Monkey Cake

Barbara Jo made this creepy poo-flinging monkey cake for our little friend Isaac’s first birthday party. This was a special request by Isaac’s mother, who was also the recipient of the dancing yeti wedding cake.


Poo-flinging on YouTube
…and again

What does every little boy want for his first birthday? That’s right – a
cake shaped like a creepy-looking monkey! And what’s even better than a
creepy-looking monkey cake? That’s right – a creepy-looking monkey cake
that flings poo, just like a real monkey.

OK, maybe that’s not exactly what my little friend Isaac would
have requested for his first birthday cake, but he can’t talk, and that is
exactly what his mom requested.

The first step, of course, was to figure out exactly how the poo mechanism
should work. My first thought was to make it a sort of catapult, but then
I realized that it would be more fun if it could fling poo repeatedly
without a complicated reset of the mechanism. So I decided to go with a
spring-loaded hinge. I made an armature for the arm and hand out of wood
and brass tubing – I felt that it was necessary to have a metal structure
within each individual finger so they wouldn’t break off when I pulled the
arm back to release the poo. The arm was connected via the spring hinge to
a post, which was in turn secured to the heavy wooden base of the cake.

Before I made the cake, I sculpted the arm out of gum paste and fondant
around the wooden armature, which meant that I had a sort of ghostly white
monkey arm on a stick. I did load it up with some raisinettes (aka cake
monkey poo), which it flung quite effectively, so I was ready to move on
to the cake.

My sister was kind enough to actually bake the cakes for me. Fortunately
she baked more than I asked her to, because the amount that I asked her to
make would not have been enough. I had to cut notches in each tier and
slide them into place around the arm support post. When I was done, I had
what appeared to be a squat, one-armed robot, at least until I carved it
into a more monkey-like shape.

This cake marked my first experiment with using rice krispie treats to
sculpt additively onto my cakes. It’s a technique that I learned, like so
many others, from reading Colette Peters’ books. My plan was to sculpt the
tail, haunches, and second arm out of rice krispie treats. Not having ever
made rice krispie treats myself, for some reason I thought they solidified
really quickly. “I’ll have to work fast,” I thought, “but once I get them
into shape they’ll hold really well.” Yeah, it didn’t work out that way at
all.

I’m not sure whether it was because it was really wet out or just because
that’s the way rice krispie treats are, but they didn’t behave at
all
the way I expected them to. As I started sculpting them, they
were just gooey and collapsing everywhere. I hollered for my sister to
bring me skewers! Hurry! Hurry! Yikes! I stuck in skewers, here, there,
everywhere! Anything to hold those rice krispie treats together and to
hold them in place. Pretty soon I had a proto-monkey which appeared to be
undergoing a truly ghastly acupuncture session. But at least it had arms
and legs. I added some detail to the hand and feet with fondant.

I made the facial features by piping buttercream and sculpting it with a
paintbrush. It was kind of hard to make it look like a monkey rather than
like a sort of withered old man, but I think I did OK. I was using one of
my baby nephew’s animal picture books as a reference. It was very nice of
him to share it with me.

The ears I had made a few days in advance out of gum paste with skewers
embedded in them so I could just stab them into place in the cake.

What’s the point of a poo-flinging monkey without gross, matted fur? It
would have been easy to make the fur out of frosting, but that tends to be
too cartoonish for my taste. So I came up with a different plan – those
little crunchy chow mein noodles. I know, I know it sounds a little weird.
But potato chips and chocolate can be good. Those little shoestring potato
snacks and chocolate can be good. I though it was workable. And they
looked GREAT! It took me quite a while to cover the entire monkey and I
seriously underestimated the amount of noodles it would take. Fortunately,
there was some confusion as to who was buying how many packages of
noodles, and we wound up buying approximately twice as many as I thought I
would need. Which turned out to be just barely enough.

The noodles were already a pretty good base monkey color, so I just
airbrushed in some mottling and some shadows. I painted the eyes with
black food coloring and then went over that with clear piping gel to get
the necessary depth and sheen. With that, the monkey itself was done. Left
to my own devices I probably would have left it at that, but fortunately
my sister gave me the kick in the ass that I needed to make it a better
presentation. She came up with the idea of surrounding the monkey with
bananas. So we bought about sixteen bananas and I made some gum paste
leaves to fill in the gaps. It looked quite regal really, like he was a
monkey king sitting on his banana throne.

The party was in an outdoor park, which was a great setting. We arranged
the monkey on a picnic table underneath a big tree, with a convenient bowl
of raisinettes to use as poo. The green leaves of the tree complimented
the green leaves on the cake perfectly and I got to bask in the
compliments of the guests at the party in the next picnic area as well as
those of the guests at our party. I actually went to the party thinking
that the cake was entirely innocuous and mainstream, at least compared to
all my other cakes. But the unanimous verdict was that it was actually
quite creepy, primarily due to the huge, hypnotic, glassy eyes.

The weight of all the gum paste and frosting and chow mein noodles on the
arm made the poo flinging a little more sluggish than it was in my initial
tests, so the monkey only threw his poo about two feet in front of him. Oh
well, next time maybe I can get a better angle of release.

Cutting the cake was very funny because I had to cut it away around the
arm mechanism. We ended up with a monkey arm hovering above a field of
cake and banana carnage. The verdict on the chow mein noodles with the
cake was mixed. Some people thought it worked quite well – a bit of
crunch, a bit of salt – while others just found it weird and incongruous
and ate around it. The birthday boy himself didn’t weigh in on that
particular issue, as he doesn’t have enough teeth to get any of the chow
mein noodles, but he certainly seemed to enjoy the cake. No one’s quite
sure how he got some on the back of his head, though.

Centipede Cake


When I was in MBA school I had to take a class called Venture Creation, for which the final project was to write a business plan. Mine was for a cake business. We also had to do a presentation for people pretending to be potential investors, so, as part of that presentation, I naturally needed to make a cake. The Centipede Cake is what I came up with.

Since the name of my imaginary cake business was Kinetic Cakes, it was obvious that my cake had to do something. Since I didn’t have all that much time blocked out in my schedule to make the cake, it was obvious that it wouldn’t do anything too complicated. Since there would only be a few people at the presentation, it was obvious that it shouldn’t be very big. Since moderation in cakes is not one of my strong suits, it was obvious that I was going to make way too much cake.

I had some trouble coming up with a concept because I had a bit too much creative freedom – it can be hard to design anything when there are so few parameters. I have no idea why I ultimately settled on the centipede, unless perhaps it was because the apartment I was living in at the time was occasionally invaded by house centipedes, which are completely harmless but quite large and shocking to meet in the bathroom in the middle of the night. And I like arthropods. I once had to walk five blocks in my pajamas to my friend’s apartment because she had a house centipede in her sink and couldn’t get rid of it herself.

The legs are, of course, the most pivotal part of the centipede, plus it is their disturbingly inhuman rippling motion that makes the centipede seem so alien to us. It was this motion that I was trying to convey through my cake.

My plan was to mount the cake on a turntable that was, in turn, sitting on a bumpy base so that, when the turntable was spun, the legs, which would hang off the sides of the turntable, would ripple up and down as they passed over the bumps.

First I needed a turntable. I was fortunate enough to find one with a wire around the perimeter so that I could easily attach my legs to it. In order to do that, I built the legs around lengths of copper wire by piping royal icing onto each side of the wire with a large round tip. I airbrushed one side of each leg yellow and the other side orange because I though that having a variance in color between the two sides would help to emphasize the rotational motion of the turntable. To hide the seams running up each side of the legs, I piped on a thin line of turquoise royal icing. (If this sounds like an unusually colorful centipede, you’re right. I don’t really recall why I chose this color scheme, but it was quite festive.) Then I positioned the legs all the way around the perimeter of the turntable, wrapping the copper wire in the legs around the wire at the circumference of the turntable.

For the base that the turntable would rest on I used a big piece of foamcore, with smaller segments of foamcore arranged around it to create the bumps. Then I covered the whole thing with a layer of green marbled fondant, to suggest grass and because I like marbled fondant.

To make the cake, I started with two tiers of chocolate cake, one 10″ in diameter, the other 8″ in diameter, torted and filled with buttercream frosting. Then I carved that into a spiral, as if the centipede was curled into a loop, and coated it with buttercream.

Because centipedes have segmented bodies, it was easy to cover the cake with small fondant sections, each overlapping the one before. With the fondant in place, I built up the airbrush color in layers. First a yellow base, then orange and red shadows around the perimeter of each segment, then blue shading in the center of the segments. Once the color was on, I moved the whole cake onto the base, which already had the legs attached. I stuck some additional legs directly into the cake, following the curve of the centipede’s body. In an attempt to conceal the edge of the turntable that wasn’t already obscured by the legs, I piped on some sort of mini-legs between the big legs. I also piped some details onto the face. I had made some royal icing antennae and mandibles in advance, as well as some wicked-looking pincers for the back, and I stuck those on at this point as well. Then I airbrushed my new royal icing details with the same yellow, orange, red, and blue and a bit of black for good measure.

The cake went over well at the presentation, though I think if I were talking to real potential investors for a real project it would behoove me to make a cake that did something more impressive, though the rippling of the legs was nice in a restrained kind of way. And of course I had about five times as much cake as I needed, so I gave the rest to my friends in the Entrepreneurship Center. And I got an A in the class (which no one but my parents cares about because it’s grad school.)

Fish Fountain Cake


The second in my series of disintegrating cake (the first being the Melting Head Cake), the Fish Fountain was made for the Second Annual MBA Art Show at my business school.


Watch the fountain on YouTube

My goals in creating the Fish Fountain were:

  1. To explore the impermanence of human achievement by creating a cake – a work of art that by its very nature must be destroyed to be appreciated – that preemptively destroys itself.
  2. To show off for my classmates.

I think the main mistake that I made in designing this cake was that I was much more concerned with the functionality – the simple fact that it was a self-devouring fountain – than I was with the aesthetics, which, to be honest, were a bit of an afterthought and I was sort of making things up as I went along. I wish that I had put more thought into integrating the appearance of the cake with its actions. I also think that I could have made the melting more impactful had I made the exterior of the cake darker, because then when the color melted away to reveal the white fondant beneath it would have created a sharper contrast.

Instead, a fish was the first shape I thought of when I thought of a fountain, so I made a fish. Well, not just a fish, of course. In keeping with my usual style, I wanted to make it a bit monstrous and grotesque, so I decided to give it fins that were morphing into human hands and feet.

The first thing I did was make the hands and feet out of royal icing so they would have lots of time to dry. I piped the royal icing onto parchment paper, then set them over some curved cardboard pieces to give them a nice shape. In hopes that it would help the cake melt in an interesting fashion, I gave the fins some very thin sections and some very thick sections so they would dissolve at different rates.

Next I ran some tests on various form factors of sugar, to see how quickly they melted when left under a stream of water. I wanted the cake to melt quickly enough to be easily observable, but not so quickly that the cake would melt into a soggy inedible mess before everyone had a chance to appreciate the complexities of my concept. I experimented with pressed sugar, royal icing, isomalt sheets, hard candy sheets, and fondant. I also wanted to use multiple materials that would melt at different rates and create interesting textures. Everything worked pretty well, except for the pressed sugar, which dissolved too quickly to really be of any use to me.

Now I needed a fountain. I picked up two different little pumps at Home Depot as well as some tubing. After a fair amount of trial and error, I wound up with a plastic cake plate sitting in an ugly blue plastic bowl with a paper towel tube sticking up through the middle. Underneath the cake plate was my little pump, with a tube running up through the center of the paper towel tube. I wanted to make the water come out as close to vertically as possible, so that it would dissolve the cake all the way around and not just on one side. I knew I wouldn’t be able to test it anymore once I had the cake in place, so I just had to set it up as best I could initially and hope.

For the cake, I made my usual chocolate recipe, baked a whole mess of rounds, torted and filled them with chocolate ganache, and stacked them around the paper towel tube. Because it was so tall, I used dowels and foamcore circles every four inches or so. Then I carved it into basically a big oblong blob and crumb coated it with more chocolate ganache. In retrospect I should have given it a more contrapposto shape. It would have been more dynamic.

Rather than try to cover such a tall shape with just one piece of fondant, I used three. I also made them extra thick because I didn’t to risk the cake itself getting soggy. First I covered the side with two rectangles, so that the seam would run right up the back and the belly of the fish. Then I put one more piece over the top that would serve as the fish head up to the gills. This had the highly unfortunate effect of making it look like a penis.

Next I added the larger fondant decorations to the face. Again, my propensity for making monsters came to the fore and the fish came out very dragon-y. I also ran textured fondant lines up the front and back to hide the seams in my initial fondant layer. Then I put my royal icing fins and tail in place, using big skewers to hold them until the royal icing dried.

At this point, because I hadn’t planned the visuals well enough, my decorations got a bit out of hand. It was like the royal icing had a mind of its own. I piped fringe, dots, whiskers, stripes … in an attempt to conceal the fact that I had made the fountain inside a cheap plastic bowl from Walmart, I covered the bowl with royal icing as well and tried to texture it like stone with a sponge. It wasn’t the prettiest thing in the world, but it was probably marginally less ugly than the bowl. I also sponged some royal icing onto the cake itself, as I was vaguely planning to give that a bit of a stone appearance as well.

Once my royal icing dried I put a base coat of airbrushing on. To emphasize the fact that my fish-dragon was also part human, I put flesh tone on the fins/hands and tail/feet. Because I was going for a stone feel overall, I put a grey base coat on the rest of the cake and on the bowl.

Now my fish needed scales. Of course, if I had really been committed to my stone texture idea, I would have sculpted the scales into the fondant before I applied my stone texture. But, as I said before, cohesive aesthetics was not my top priority. I thought by having several different media on the cake – royal icing, fondant, isomalt – I would get a more interesting melt. So I made some multicolored, iridescent scales by mixing isomalt powder with silver, purple, green, and blue luster dust, then melting little piles of the mixture in a 400 degree oven on a silpat mat. They came out nice and bubbly and organic-looking, but of course they did absolutely nothing to make the cake look like a stone fountain.

I stuck the scales to the cake using royal icing, gradating from green around the back ridge through blue and purple to the silver at the stomach ridge. Then these got out of control, too, and I started sticking scales on the face, the fingers, the toes, everywhere … I just couldn’t stop myself. Improv has never been a strong suit of mine – I really need a firm plan to work from, or I won’t be happy with the results.

To try to better integrate the multitude of scales with the rest of the cake, I painted luster dust all over the rest of the cake, too. When I was done, my cake looked more like a disco ball than a fountain. And not a tasteful, restrained, silver disco ball. A ridiculous, garish, rainbow-colored disco ball.

On the bright side, the fountain-ness of it functioned quite well. I realized at the last minute that the bowl the cake was in would be nowhere near big enough to contain all the drips and splashes from the fountain, so I had a friend of mine bring a big silver tray to the art show to put the cake on. I had bought several gallons of cranberry juice to use instead of water, so I poured that in and plugged in the pump. I hadn’t gotten the angle on the tubing just right, so at first the juice all sprayed down one side of the fish. I had to prop one side up a bit with a stack of napkins to get it to flow evenly. I was glad that I had decided to use different types of sugar, because that really did enhance the texture of the melting.

I don’t recall exactly why I decided that the fountain should spray something red. Perhaps I didn’t exactly decide; perhaps after so many gory cakes blood red is just my default setting. My finance professor told me that I should have used Cabernet. He was right, it would have been classier to use wine, but I was too cheap to spend much money on a drink that was obviously going to be useless once it was all gummed up with melted sugar. And it did get gross – you have no idea how bubbly and sticky and gooey cranberry juice full of sugar and fondant can be.

Hobby Eagle


As soon as my nephew Nathan learned how to walk I decided that he was ready to fly. So for his first birthday I made him a hobby eagle. (It’s like a hobby horse, but much more cumbersome.) Being the giant Tolkien nerd that I am, I called it Gwaihir the Windlord.

In making the pattern, I tried to size it appropriately for a taller-than-average one-year-old boy. Time has proven that I, in fact, sized it appropriately for a taller-than-average three-year-old boy, which is just as well, since time has also proven that Nathan had virtually no interest in the eagle until he turned three.

For the structure I used a wooden spindle with a dowel stuck through it at a right angle for the handle. I had already decided to go with a muted palette of natural eagle-toned browns (because everyone knows that one-year-olds love subdued, tasteful colors), so I simply used a basic oak stain. I put a caster on the bottom as well because I figured that would make it easier to use for a boy too small to actually pick the whole thing up.

I then made a complete mockup of the entire fabric section out of paper. I of course made it unnecessarily complicated with layers of feathers in gradated colors and lots of alternating curves and a big gaping maw with a twisted tongue. So when it came time to sew the real thing out of fabric, I had to do a lot of hand sewing on the little fiddly bits. Then I used foam rubber to stuff the wing feathers and batting to stuff the rest of it and glued the fabric pieces onto the wooden structure.

Since I was making this in Wisconsin and my nephew lives in California, I then had to make a giant, custom-made foam core box to ship the huge thing to Nathan. I think that he found the box at least as interesting as he found the eagle.

Triple Animal Cake


This cake was made for my nephew’s first birthday. I was trying to make a 3-dimensional version of those children’s picture books where each page is split into three parts so that you can mix and match the heads, bodies, and feet of the animals.

My plan to adapt the concept of the mix-and-match animal parts book into a 3-dimensional cake was to build the cake around a central pole, so that each tier would be able to rotate independently of the others. The first tier was the feet, the second tier the body, and the third tier the head. Because I was planning to put all kinds of decorative schmutz onto and into these cakes and because I wanted to have just a basic chocolate cake section for the one-year-old birthday boy to smush, I also made a hat for the fourth tier, which frankly didn’t really add a whole lot, visually or conceptually speaking.

Each tier was divided into three sections, each decorated like a different animal. That way, you could line all the sides up so that the three animals appeared in their entirety on the three sides of the cake, or you could rotate the sections relative to one another so that, for, instance, each side of the cake would show the feet of one animal, the body of another, and the head of the third. I also wanted to experiment with different decorating and texturing techniques, so rather than decorating in the usual way with only fondant and frosting and food coloring, I decided to enhance the primary texture of each animal with a different food product and then also coordinate the flavor of the cake within to the decor on the facade of the cake. My animal / decoration / flavor combinations were:

Side #1: Monkey / Nuts / Hazelnut Chocolate Cake
The monkey side of the cake was made of chocolate cake with hazelnut paste added to the batter, with nuts of various types and textures applied to the outside to create the appearance of matted monkey fur.

Side #2: Bird / Candied Citrus Peel / Chocolate Orange Zest Cake
The bird was chocolate cake with orange zest added to the batter, with candied lemon, orange, and grapefruit peel feathers.

Side #3: Alligator / Sugared Mint Leaves / Mint Chocolate Chip Cake
The alligator was chocolate cake with mint chocolate chips mixed in, with sugar-coated mint leaves for the textured skin.

The first thing I needed was a central pole for my cakes to rotate around. I started with a heavy circular wooden base with a 3/4″ threaded rod screwed into a phalange in the center. To support the cakes, I got four plexiglass circles with holes drilled in the middle with acrylic tubes the height of the tiers glued around the holes. So that we would be able to turn the tiers without touching the cakes, I glued little plexiglass circles onto the edges of the bigger circles to use as handles. To support these plexi cake bases, I used big nuts and fender washers, screwed onto the central threaded rod. Each tier required three nuts and a fender washer. The nuts were just the right size to fit inside the acrylic tube while the fender washers were big enough for the plexi bases to rest on. To assemble, I started with one nut, then a fender washer, then another nut pinching the fender washer in between. Then one more nut, positioned so that the distance from the top of the fender washer to the top of the nut was the same as the height of the tier. That way, when I slipped the plexi plate and acrylic tube over the nuts, the plate rested on the fender washer and the nuts at the top and bottom kept the whole piece stable. Then repeat the whole operation for each successive tier. I did a dry run putting this whole assembly together without cake to make sure it would work the way it did in my head before I started working on any of the edible cake components. When I reassembled it later with the cakes in place, I also sprayed the washers with cooking spray as lubricant to counteract the weight of the cakes, which I was afraid would hinder the rotation.

Before I started on the cakes themselves, there was lot of advance work to do:

Sugared mint leaves:
These were easy to make, if a bit gooey and tedious. Fortunately, my sister had a big mint plant in her back yard, so I had ready access to a virtually infinite supply of mint leaves. To sugar them, I dipped each leaf one at a time in egg white, then in granulated sugar and put them on wax paper to dry. I have since realized that I could probably have gotten a nicer result had I rubbed on the egg white with my fingers in a thinner layer and then sifted the sugar overtop. As it was, some of my leaves got too much egg white or too much sugar on them and wound up being unusable or just a little lumpy and weird.

Candied citrus peels:
I started with lemon peels, orange peels, and grapefruit peels, so that I would have a variety of sizes and colors to use for my feathers, using a recipe from Jacques Torres. First I cut the fruit into fourths and removed the peels. My mom was in town (she and Dad were both a big help on this cake) so she took the leftover fruit and carefully separated the fruit from the inner membranes to feed to my nephew. I tried to eat some of the grapefruit but Mom shooed me away. Apparently I don’t rate as highly as he does. The pieces of peel went into a pot of boiling water three times to blanch some of the bitterness out of them. Then they went into a pot of sugary water to simmer for a couple of hours. Then I pulled them out of the syrup and left them on a wire rack to drain and dry. I had been lead to believe, by Jacques Torres’ recipe, that they would dry out in a few hours. As usual, Jacques’ recipe didn’t work out the way I expected. None of Jacques’ recipes that I have ever tried have worked out the way I expected. I left the peels out on the rack overnight, and they were still nowhere near dry. At that point, I became pressed for time, so I had to put them into a warm oven to dry before I could put them on the cake.

Gum paste faces:
To make the snouts of the alligator and the monkey and the beak of the bird protrude appropriately from the cake surface, I made them in advance out of gum paste. As it turned out, I didn’t make them quite enough in advance, as the beak wasn’t quite fully hard when I went to attach it, but I’ll get to that in a little bit. In order to get the shapes I needed, I draped rolled-out sheets of gum paste over forms. In the case of the monkey nose and the alligator snout I was able to find cups lying around the kitchen that were basically the right size and shape. To get the more distinctive shape of the bird’s beak, I made my own form out of cardboard. All the forms had to be liberally coated with corn starch before applying the gum paste to insure that the finished pieces would release easily.

When it came time to make the cakes and the frostings, Mom and Dad were invaluable, with Mom doing most of the baking work and Dad doing most of the cleanup. For each tier, we made three two-inch tall cakes – one of each of the three flavors described above. I torted each of the cakes and filled them with chocolate buttercream frosting. Then I cut each of the cakes into thirds and stacked the thirds on top of each other, so that I wound up with three pie wedges per tier, one in each flavor, each about six inches tall. I had to cut a little divot out of the corner of each pie wedge so I could fit them around the central tubes, assembling the pie wedges back into circles. As it turns out, cakes are much flimsier when they’re built this way and until I finished carving them and covering them with fondant I was very worried that the three sections of the cakes would flop outwards like the petals of a flower. As I said before, I had conceived of the hat as the smash cake for the birthday boy, so for that one I simply made a basic chocolate cake and didn’t have to worry about cutting it into thirds.

Carving was pretty easy, actually, since I was going for sort of puffy cartoony animal shapes. Once I had them covered with fondant, I was able to stick my gum paste beaks and snouts on with royal icing, holding them in place with skewers until the icing dried. Unfortunately the beak wasn’t quite dry enough and it sort of sunk over the skewer, so I had to leave the skewer embedded in it and pipe royal icing on top to hide the end of the skewer sticking out.

I added a base layer of royal icing details – feathers and fur and scales – because I didn’t trust my textural appliques to provide the level of detail that I was looking for. I also added facial features to the heads, and nipples and belly buttons to the torsos. I wasn’t quite sure what to do with the hat, so I just gave it a poorly executed inverted shell border.

Because I was visiting my sister when I made this cake, I didn’t have my airbrush with me, so I had to paint the colors on the old fashioned way – with a soft brush and some paste food coloring. I didn’t do a very good job – so I wound up with a lot of drips and messy brush marks. I also think I either went too muted with the alligator colors or too bright with the bird colors because they sort of didn’t belong in the same world.

I was pleased with the effect of my appliques, though. I did get a little carried away with the alligator. I’m not sure why I put a little flower of mint petals around its belly button (which reptile don’t even have, by the way!) My bird wound up looking a bit like it was on drugs, because I gave it big blank staring eyes surrounded by dramatic lemon peel lashes. The monkey was apparently a bit diseased, since its shoulders were bald and red and splotchy. You didn’t really expect me to successfully make cute little children’s book animals, did you?

The board had to be pretty big relative to the cake in order to make sure that it was stable, but I hadn’t given any thought whatsoever to decorating it, so it looked very bare. Mom suggested that we get some rosemary sprigs from the garden to gussy it up a little. I think it helped.

Whatever aesthetic faults the cake may have had, my rotation mechanism worked flawlessly. With that aspect, I really couldn’t have been happier. Each tier spun easily and smoothly and yet the cake as a whole still felt rock solid.