Robot Baby Cake


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Housewarming Cake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enterprise Cupcakes


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Digger Cake


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.