TARDIS Cake


It’s a TARDIS! It’s bigger on the inside! It’s two feet tall (quarter scale)! And aside from the lights, everything you see is edible. Click for lots more detail and in-process shots.

I love Dr. Who. Just a few weeks ago my sister-in-law and I waited in line for five hours to get good seats at the Dr. Who panel at Comic-Con. Totally worth it!

Since I would have to be a Time Lord to make a Tardis cake that could actually go anywhere in time and space, I decided to do the next best thing – make a Tardis cake that’s bigger on the inside. Or at least appears to be. Like I said, I’m not a Time Lord. I chose to go with the new Tardis interior because, as it is both more organic and more interestingly illuminated than any previous Tardis interior, I thought it would be the most visually effective.

First I had to figure out the best way to create the illusion of a more spacious interior. I tried to consult the internet about optical illusions, but didn’t find anything helpful, so I went with old fashioned trial and error. I played around with a lot of different configurations, eventually settling on two convex mirrors arranged at about a 45 degree angle. To get the curve I wanted, I used flexible carnival mirror, glued onto my custom made wood and mat board form.

Next, in order to illuminate the inside of the Tardis and the “Police Box” signs on the outside, I needed to learn at least a little bit about electronics. So I ordered a DIY Electronics Kit from the MakerShed that was really sort of geared for pre-teens, but it was also very helpful. Armed with new-found knowledge of resistors and LEDs, I trolled the internet for the best deals and ordered a total of 385 LEDs in blue, aqua, green, yellow, white, and flashing white. They didn’t all make it into the cake, but I did wind up using enough of them that I used seven nine-volt batteries that power them. I embedded these batteries into a plywood base and mounted the mirrors.

With my structure in place, it was time to start making gum paste pieces. The exterior required fifty-two separate pieces of gum paste – two for the panels on each of the four sides plus one inward-facing panel for the side that looked into the interior and three to back the windows on the other three sides, six for each of the four “Police Box” signs (some of which were quite tedious, as I had to painstakingly cut out the words to let the light through), and sixteen for the roof. Later I needed an additional seventy-two pieces of gum paste for the window frames and mullions. I went with a grey-blue marbled effect because I thought it would look more convincing and more interesting than a uniform color field.

To make the interior I started with a gum paste floor with cutouts to let the light through from all the white LEDs embedded in the base. In order to enhance the illusion of interior space and elevate the bottom of the central console sufficiently to make it easily visible through the windows, I gave the floor a serpentine curve, supported by gum paste struts. Then I stuck a layer of rice paper to the top of the gum paste floor and painted it dark grey with food coloring. On top of this I piped grey royal icing expanded steel. It went pretty quickly, because I got a lot of practice making royal icing expanded steel when I was making the Demolition Cake. To give it a nice sheen, I went over it with some silver luster dust.

Now it was time to make the control console. Fortunately, thanks to the mirrors, I only needed to make one eighth of it. The console structure is gum paste and sheet gelatin, assembled around blue, green, and aqua LEDs and attached to the mirrors with clear piping gel. Then I had a good time sticking on a myriad of gum paste and royal icing levers, dials, cables, monitors, etc. At times the mirrors made things a little difficult because it was sometimes hard to remember which was the real console and which was the reflection. Liberal use of silver, bronze, and gold luster dust made everything nice and shiny.

With the interior finished, I assembled the exterior gum paste pieces, adding the royal icing molding around the perimeter of each recessed panel, and installing the window mullions and backing.

It was at this point in the process that we decided that we really should schedule a party so that we would have something to do with this cake when it was finished. Fortunately, we have a lot of nerd friends, so we soon had about forty positive rsvps to our evite. It was also at this point in the process that I took some time off to go to Comic-Con and then on a family trip to Colorado, so my gum paste pieces had a long time to thoroughly dry. This was definitely an advantage, because it would have been very hard to assemble the cake with anything less than 100% dry gum paste and because the pieces were so large that they did require some significant drying time.

A week before the party I began assembling the exterior, beginning by putting together the “Police Box” signs around my strings of white LEDs. I backed the cutout letters with rice paper, both to diffuse the light and so that I could stick the free-floating interior pieces of the O’s, P’s, A’s, and B’s to the rice paper.

Because of the mirrors and the interior space only a little less than half of the interior was actually going to be made of cake. This meant that I could install two of the four sides prior to baking any cake and even attach and solder their respective “Police Box” signs.

Three days before the party I baked the cake. We decided to go with a banana cake with chocolate buttercream icing because, to quote the Doctor, “You should always bring a banana to a party. Bananas are good.” I needed a total of eight two inch tall, ten inch square cakes. Of the eight cakes, seven of them were cut in half on the diagonal and stacked in the body of the Tardis. The last cake was reserved for the square top section.

With the cakes in place, I covered them with a layer of fondant, to prevent the gum paste exterior pieces from coming into contact with the buttercream, which would moisten, soften, and weaken the gum paste. Then I was able to install the last two side pieces and their respective “Police Box” signs.

I put the top section together separately, carving the slanted roof, covering it with fondant, and then assembling the gum paste pieces around it with royal icing. I left a hole through the middle, so that I could run blinking LEDs through it for the light on top. Once the top section was in place, my Tardis really started to look like a complete piece, but it still needed a lot a detail work.

I used fondant rather than gum paste to cover the base and for the trim on the corners and in the center of each side panel because some of them needed to be relatively thick, which is easier to accomplish with fondant. I did use gum paste, however, for the thin strips of molding around the perimeter of each “Police Box” sign.

To make the little light on top, I wrapped rice paper around gum paste circles, then put panels of sheet gelatin on top of that, followed by gum paste trim and royal icing mullions. The curved top is gum paste dried over Styrofoam balls.

With all the major features in place, I went over the entire structure with royal icing smoothed with a damp paintbrush, to hide unwanted seams and fill in a few gaps. Then, to give it that distressed look of a vehicle that’s been to the end of the universe and back again, I went into all the corners with some black powdered food coloring on a soft paintbrush.

To make the sign for the front of the Tardis, I blew up an image of it to the correct size and then essentially made some edible transfer paper by coating the back with black powdered food coloring. I put this on top of a dry white piece of gum paste and traced all the letters with a stylus to transfer the text onto the gum paste below. Then I painted over the letters with black paste color.

The finishing touches were the royal icing handles, hinges, and tacks to hold on the sign, and the gum paste lock.

Carrying the cake to the table for the party was a bit stressful and difficult, as it probably weighed fifty pounds and all of the weight was in one half of the cake. Part of me was convinced that, after literally months of planning and building, I was going to drop it at the penultimate moment. But actually the move went perfectly smoothly. I got my brother-in-law to help me and he even bravely volunteered to carry the heavy end.

I’m really pleased with the way this one came out, maybe more so than any cake I’ve ever made before. Please note that, with the exception of the mirrors, the electronics, and the wooden base and dowels and foam core separators that would needed in any cake this size, it is entirely edible. (And if anyone knows how to make an edible mirror, please let me know.) It’s hard to capture the “bigger-on-the-inside” effect in a photo, but I do think it was pretty darned successful. By an odd coincidence, Cake Wrecks (one of my favorite websites) did a Dr. Who post on the very same day that we had our party, so I immediately sent them photos of the cake, mere hours after it had been consumed, and they very kindly posted it right away!

For hours after we attended the Dr. Who panel at Comic-Con, my sister-in-law and I were all a-twitter about how awesome it was; now I still kind of feel that way about this cake.

MORE PICTURES

Dinosaur Graveyard Cake


Pastry arts for a good cause – this cake was raffled off at a fundraiser for my nephew’s preschool.

Watch the train on YouTube
…and more
…and more

My nephew’s pre-school was having a fundraiser. My challenge – make a cake for the raffle that fulfilled all of the following conditions:

The cake should be:

  1. Small enough that people wouldn’t be intimidated by the prospect of eating it.
  2. Sturdy enough that there would be minimal possibility of breakage when the winner transported it home.
  3. Enough like a normal cake in appearance that people would recognize it as such when walking by the raffle table.
  4. Appealing enough to the average two-to-four-year-old that he or she could be counted upon to pester his or her parents into purchasing raffle tickets for it.
  5. Appealing enough to the average parent of a two-to-four-year-old that he or she would be willing, with some childish prompting, to spend a few bucks for a raffle ticket for a good cause.
  6. Appealing enough to me that I wouldn’t get bored making it.

Collectively, these represent waaaay more constraints than I have ever had placed on one of my cakes before. Prior to this, my biggest restriction was when Barbara May and I made a cake for our friends’ wedding and they said that, ideally, it probably shouldn’t bleed, explode, or catch fire.

So I had a bit of a challenge developing an initial concept, but ultimately I came up with a solution that I think fulfilled all the requirements. Viewed from one angle it would appear to be an ordinary 12″ round cake, covered with white fondant, delicately decorated with cornelli lace, so as to appeal to people who like their cake to look like cake. From the other side, however, the fondant would be cut away to reveal a subterranean tunnel with a train going around and around, so as to appeal to the toddler set. The train would be pursued by a ravenous dinosaur, so as to appeal to me.

I think I can best explain the process of construction by breaking it up into its component elements.

The train:
The first thing I needed was a way to make the train go. I figured the easiest thing to do would be to get some kind of battery operated car toy and build my train around it, so I went to Toys R Us. Mind you, I detest Toys R Us, for various reasons that I needn’t go into here, but I was in a hurry and it was my best option for a quick solution. The toy I selected was a battery operated Thomas the Tank Engine, which turned out to be delightfully easy to decapitate, leaving me essentially with a AA battery on wheels.

In keeping with the subterranean / archeological theme of the cake, I found a photo of an old-timey mining cart to work from. First I encased the body of the train in a box made of flat gum paste pieces, with semicircles cut out to accommodate the wheels, then I added additional gum paste wooden slats. I used one of the semicircular cut off pieces from the wheels to cover the little magnetic hookup that toy train cars have on the back. I also made a cow catcher for the front. Because of all those cows that archaeologists encounter in underground caves.

I wanted to cover the wheels (which were bright green) with gum paste to make them more rustic and less plastic looking, but every time I tried, the wheels came out too big for the track (more on that later) so I wound up just painting the green wheels with black food coloring.

To get some human interest into my tableau, I wanted to put a little gum paste archaeologist in the train car. After all, no self-respecting dinosaur would be chasing an empty train car – a T-Rex in particular would need the prospect of juicy meat to get him moving. I tried to make my archaeologist look really terrified, with a gaping mouth and wide, staring eyes, looking over his shoulder at his dreadful pursuer. I also couldn’t resist making him a little Indiana-Jones-style hat and a pickaxe. The train had a big button on top to start and stop it. At first, my plan was to put my little man directly on top of that button so that you had to push on his head to make the train go, but then I realized that was just too risky to be worth it – who wants to see a man with a smooshed head being chased by a dinosaur? So I moved him to right in front of the button and left the button alone. I’m glad I did because by the time I was done some crumbs or something must have fallen into the mechanism because the button got a bit tempermental.

I then put a coat of paint on everything, using paste food colors thinned with vodka. It has recently been pointed out to me that using vodka to paint things intended for children might not be 100% kosher, which had never occurred to me. I choose to assume that the majority of the alcohol evaporates away and that what’s left is so minimal as to make no difference. Certainly my nephew has shown no ill effects from the last three birthday cakes that I’ve made for him.

With my base coat in place, I was ready to add fine details. I made some royal icing chains and rivets. I also added some royal icing dinosaur bones around my archaeologist, and threw in some oreo cookie crumb dirt for good measure. I used some more vodka (Woo hoo! Par-ty!) with bronze luster dust to make the chains look metallic.

The track:
Now I had an operational train, but a train doesn’t do anyone any good unless it goes where you want it to go. So I needed a track. It took me five or six cardboard mockups before I got one where the tracks were the right width and the right distance apart and correctly positioned within the circle of the cake. Once I had a functional mockup that worked with my little toy train, I covered a foamcore circle with a 1/4″ thick layer of white fondant and used my mockup as a template to carve the fondant away to create the two concentric circles of the track. With the fondant cut away, I needed to do something to cover the foam core revealed underneath. After a few experiments, I settled on painting the revealed foam core base red (which frankly would have been a lot easier to do had it occurred to me to paint it red before I covered it with fondant). Because I didn’t do the world’s best job of this, I dusted the track with a lot of brown and black powdered food coloring and silver luster dust to try to conceal my mistakes.

The dinosaur:
A little train by itself might be interesting enough for pre-schoolers, but I have loftier aspirations. To keep my interest, the cake needed a monster. And it had to be Big! Fierce! Mean! Prehistoric! RAAAWR! I settled on T-Rex.

Step 1 – find internet photos. Of course, the internet crazies have conflicting opinions on what T-Rex looked like, so I just picked the skin texture and color scheme that seemed the most appealing to me.

I made two gum paste bodies, because I wasn’t sure quite what size I wanted. I wound up using the bigger one. By letting the gum paste dry for a few minutes, so that it developed a bit of a dry shell, and then bending the body a little I was able to create a delightful wrinkly skin texture.

In order for the dinosaur to chase the train, it of course needed to be on wheels. My first idea was to use the wheels from a tiny little toy skateboard. This didn’t work at all. For one thing, toy skateboard wheels turn out to be very flimsy and not very well aligned. I know this is a shock, considering that I bought it for $3.95 at Target. For another thing, toy skateboard wheels are extremely small, on the order of 1/8″ in diameter. Since my layer of fondant between the two track circles was on the order of 1/4″ thick, I clearly had a problem. I tried to salvage my skateboard wheel solution by cutting larger plastic circles and gluing them to the existing skateboard wheels. Then I realized that this was a stupid idea and I should just make the wheels from scratch.

I cut two new sets of plastic wheels, larger for the front, smaller for the back and put hot glue rims on them so as to give them the requisite traction. For the axles I used brass tubing, encased in slightly larger diameter brass tubing to allow it to rotate freely. I attached these to the body of the dinosaur by using royal icing and by cramming brass tubing up into the body.

I tried to mask the wheels a little when I added the gum paste legs, but since I was simultaneously trying to position the legs as if T-Rex was in a full-out run, and since I was trying to conceal four wheels with two legs, I wasn’t very successful. I chose a nice muted ochre and brown color scheme, with some purple and green details, again using vodka and paste food colors for paint. Once that dried, I used royal icing to make little teeth and claws. I of course couldn’t resist adding a bit of food coloring blood to the tips.

The hookup:
I now had a train on wheels and a dinosaur on wheels but in order to make the dinosaur chase the train I needed to connect the dinosaur to the train. I cut and bent a piece of brass tubing into the correct curve. Gluing it to the dinosaur was easy. Gluing it to the train was exceedingly difficult. First I tried hot glue. Then I tried Superglue. Then I tried hobby cement. Then I tried epoxy. As it turns out, for some inexplicable reason, none of these things stick to the underbody of Thomas the Tank Engine, even after he’s been roughed up with a flat file. Eventually I resorted to the king of household glues – Gorilla Glue. Because Gorilla Glue expands as it dries, I was terrified that it would push everything completely out of alignment, but it actually worked.

The tunnel:
With my train and dinosaur set, I needed a tunnel for them to run through. My original plan was to create a nice rocky texture by making a mold in the shape I wanted the tunnel to be, lining it with plastic produce bags (because they release easily from chocolate), filling it with crushed ice, and then pouring tempered chocolate over it. In my imagination, this technique created a beautiful organic texture. In reality, it created absolutely nothing of value because the chocolate set up before it got beyond the first layer of ice. I went to plan B.

Plan B involved making two concentric tubes of chocolate with holes in them to form the inner and outer walls of the tunnel. One would be 6″ in diameter, to fit around the 6″ round cake that would be in the middle of my creation. The other would be 12″ in diameter, leaving a 3″ tunnel for the train to pass through.

At first I envisioned creating these tubes by spreading chocolate over bubble wrap (which also releases easily from chocolate), cutting it into appropriate rectangles, and then wrapping the rectangles around cake tins of the appropriate diameter, all while the chocolate was set up enough to cut accurately but malleable enough to wrap around the cylinder. This didn’t work either. By the time the chocolate set up enough to cut it was too firm to wrap, so it just cracked when I tried to bend it into the right curve. I was also having problems getting my chocolate in good temper, so it wasn’t setting as firmly as I would have liked. Normally I would blame problems like this on my own relatively limited experience working with chocolate. In this case though I’m more inclined to blame the problem on the chocolate itself because, at the same time as I was making this cake, I was also making chocolates to raffle off at the event, and I was having spectacular success tempering chocolate bars that had been sitting in our cabinets for so long that they were essentially just big slabs of chalky blooms. For the cake, though, I was using a new bag of chocolate medallions from my local cake supply store and I couldn’t get them in temper to save my life. So I choose to blame the chocolate.

My third plan was to wrap the 6″ and 12″ cake pans in tin foil and them pipe tempered chocolate onto them in an abstract pattern. Due to my issues with getting my chocolate in temper I was concerned with the stability of the structure and I thought that I might get it to be sturdier and set up faster by mixing in a little corn syrup. This is a technique that I used to good effect when I made the shrunken head truffles, but in this application it just seemed to make the chocolate more brittle. So the technique that I finally ended up with was putting the tin foil wrapped cake tins in the freezer and piping the (sort of) tempered chocolate onto the cold foil in an abstract pattern with lots of open space. This helped the chocolate to firm up quickly when it touched the cold foil so that it wouldn’t drip down the sides of the cake pan.

Third time’s a charm. This time my plan more or less worked, although I still wasn’t happy with the temper of my chocolate and my finished pieces broke in a few places when I unmolded them from the tin foil. But I figured it was nothing I couldn’t repair when I put it in place around the cake.

The cake:
The cake itself is actually the most boring part of this story. All I needed was a 6″ round cake. I tried a new recipe for chocolate cake, but when I went to torte it I realized that it wasn’t baked all the way through, so I had to make an emergency backup cake. Since I didn’t have any more cocoa powder I went with a white cake, which turned out fine. I torted and filled that one with buttercream icing. My sister took the incompletely baked cake, carved a hole out of the center to remove the uncooked part, put some ice cream in the middle, and took it to a friend’s birthday party so it wasn’t a total loss.

The facade:
To make my 6″ cake surrounded by chocolate cylinders look like a 12″ cake with a chocolate tunnel inside, I premade two pieces of white fondant. One was a simple 12″ circle to cover the top of the cake and tunnel. The other piece was to go part way around the perimeter of the cake, but it also had to appear to be cut away so as to reveal the tunnel inside. I rolled out a piece of fondant, then cut it into a sort of ragged trapezoid. I used a ball tool to thin out the rough edges then draped the whole piece over the side of a 12″ cake pan to get the right curve. To make sure that these pieces were dry enough to maintain their rigidity I made them a week in advance.

Putting it all together:
With all my components pre-made it was a simple matter to place my 6″ round cake in the center of my train track and piece together my chocolate tunnel around it. For some reason my 6″ round chocolate cylinder was bigger than I needed it to be, but the fact that it was poorly tempered meant that it was easy to cut a slice off to adjust.

Chocolate tunnel in place, I stuck my fondant circle on top and my curved fondant piece around the edge with some royal icing. I was a bit concerned about the top fondant circle drooping, as a large section of it was unsupported. My concerns were not wholly unfounded, as close examination of the finished cake does uncover some definite unintended curvature to the top of the cake, but as it didn’t seem to pose a risk of structural cake failure I didn’t let myself get unduly concerned.

In order to integrate the dinosaur with the cake, I incorporated subtle dinosaur skeletons into the cornelli lace that I piped onto the fondant. I used a #2 tip because I was too lazy to use a #1 tip. I also put a couple of dinosaur skeletons onto the inner wall of the chocolate tunnel.

When we set the cake up at the fundraiser, we tried to position it such that children would be able to see it easily, but not grab the train. For the most part, we succeeded. Only at one point during the party did I have to shoo away a toddler who was trying to snatch the dinosaur. The cake was ultimately won in the raffle by one of the kids from my nephew’s preschool. I hope that he and his family enjoyed it.

Demolition Cake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Circulating Heart Cake


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


Watch on YouTube

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Raven Pumpkin


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

Spider Cupcakes


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robot Baby Cake


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Housewarming Cake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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