Monday, July 27, 2009

Tzompantli Cake

The Tzompantli cake is a follow-up cake of sorts to the Chacmool cake. It was made for friend M for her birthday and the subject matter is due to her interests in things related to bone and archaeology. It was a bit of challenge for me because I really don’t know all that much about bone anatomy. I mean, I like sculpting people (mostly their heads) but I can’t say I have much understanding of what goes underneath. This is doubtless a serious weakness as knowing the underlying anatomy is supposed to help make one a better artist! Oh well. First off, I’d better tell you what a tzompantli actually is supposed to represent.

A tzompantli means “wall/rack of skulls” (more or less) in Classical Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. A skull rack is a place where skulls are placed in a rack and unlike the medieval European tradition of bone curation, mostly these skulls are from sacrificial victims or fallen enemy warriors. These were presumably displayed at public places near public buildings and edifices. At least, that appears to be the idea.

Of course, bone curation was also practiced for family members too, so it’s not like it was just limited to “trophy” skulls but in the case of the rack, it seems that those who occupied it were enemies or captives. So, basically, a tzompantli is another version of a public human sacrifice/warfare memorial, except presumably some of the skulls could have been captured in battle as well as removed under more ceremonial circumstances like a ballgame. So making a tzompantli cake makes a nice addition to my cake repertoire of Mesoamerican human sacrifice monuments.
Honestly, I can’t recall that many skulls have been found in archaeologically recovered contexts with the correct lobes removed or holes for placement in racks, so this may have been a practice that was somewhat more limited or specialized than what the conquistador Bernal del Castillo suggests (his numbers are very high). At this point, it is something that is difficult to know.
However, we do know that they are represented in some of the codices as almost abacus-like structures with skulls as the beads. Most of these post-date the Spanish Conquest so it really is hard to know whether they are all that accurate. We have to just go with what we have for now.
To do my tzompantli cake I had to make some structural decisions. Did I want skull shaped cakes that I could stack together as a rack or did I want to make a regular old cake and merely decorate it with skulls made from fondant? This time, I decided to stick to doing the cake with fondant skulls. For one thing, although I had plastic skull molds for making sugar skulls for the Day of the Dead, I didn't actually have any mold that could withstand oven temperatures. I did see some skull pans once but the details on them were woefully inadequate. Friend M has actually taken quite a bit of bone anatomy and would have doubtless been disappointed with them!

As I’ve said earlier, I wasn’t that good at molding the skulls. As you can see below they really ended up resembling gorilla skulls. Well, sort of…put it this way, had you opted for a statistical shape analysis of my fondant skulls you would have concluded that the individuals in question suffered from all sorts of rare and unusual maladies. You might also have concluded that they were evidence of a now extinct race of polar space gorillas. You know, I did once have access to a 3d scanner, perhaps it would be a fun exercise for next time!

The good thing about doing a skull rack for a friend is that you can also render their head alongside all the other “victims”. In this case I thought it would be better if I did a head with flesh still on it, so it would be recognizably hers. As you can see, it does sort of look like a human head, perhaps a bit too much of a Barbie-like expression but then, I don’t actually know what decapitated fresh heads look like much less what type of expressions are common so it could be just right. I opted to sculpt the head and the features entirely of different colors of fondant rather than paint the features onto the head. I thought painting on the fondant, while it would produce a more realistic head, might make the monochromatic white fondant skulls appear a little to different and fake-looking by comparison. I suppose I was going for more of a "fake" fun style in this case rather than gorey. Perhaps next time I'll go for horribly accurate.

Finally, I attempted to use lollipop sticks to make the requisite “rack” for the skulls. Believe it or not, it did actually stay up but the big problem I found was that the skulls kept spinning and staying at awkward angles more suggestive of a child’s toy or a really macabre abacus rather than a real skull rack.
This is where some more details on skull rack practice would have helped. It’s possible that they used a method other than the simple obvious method of "impale the skulls with a stick and put on rack"…they may have been attached by other means or secured by some other device to the stick. Or it could be that my skulls (being solid and ill-proportioned) were so “off” in their measurements and weight that they simply didn’t behave like real skulls would. I suspect that it’s a combination of the two, I don’t know how the rack worked and I messed up the skull proportions. It would be easy to find out with real skulls but I had cake to finish making. Besides, I don’t have access to labs where they work with skulls at my university and I suspect that they would look askance at anything that might require er, drilling holes into them to see how I could hang them on a rack! But it would be a nice side research project for the history/discovery channel types. I hope they get right on that.

Finally, I just laid the rack directly onto the cake surface so that all the skulls (and fleshed head) were laying in the correct manner. The cake was basically a simple and yummy platform for the actual skull rack. It was a golden buttercream cake with a simple american style confectioner's sugar buttercream (arizona is too hot generally to use any other kind without some access to near constant refrigeration). You can see the happy result below.
Naturally, everyone got their own skull.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Establishing a Painting Tradition

I’ve never been that much of a painter. My watercolors were really terrible as a kid and I haven’t really tried them since I was twelve. In retrospect I was too impatient as a kid to let layers dry and although some of them started out well, they invariably ended rather badly with lots of unintended purple brown streaks. The one exception I can think of is when I used watercolor merely as a fill-in color to some pencil drawing I’d done and it turned out okay. It was the “medieval illuminated manuscript” birthday card I’d done for my father (I have a whole manuscript/ancient document tradition for his birthday). Actually, I believe my stepmother H “corrected” that one as I always have trouble staying between the lines. Even my own! The one attempted painting I did with oil (well I was nine and my mother had optimistically gotten me some paint by number thing) was something appalling. Actually, I ignored the numbers carefully labeling the under-drawing on the canvas type board and painted a few people (it was supposed to be a landscape). My mother never purchased one of those again.

Having recited that dismal history of my non-illustrious painting past, I do love to draw. I’ve drawn pencil sketches and attempted a few charcoal drawings and lots of pastels, crayons, pens, magic markers, and even sharpies. Mostly what I’ve tended to draw are people. Okay, when I was really little I drew ballet dancers and then I went thru a horses phase although the only part of the horse I was good at was the head. Actually, mostly the part of people that I can sketch with any decency at all is the head up to the shoulders; after that, things get a bit sketchy. Occasionally hopeful friends and family members have purchased various books on anatomy and the human form in the hopes that I will get better at drawing the entire human body. I usually read the books avidly and then still find myself quite unable to draw them. I think it’s because that’s not the part of people that interests me most. It’s not that I don’t admire beautiful body proportions. In fact, I love three dimensional figural sculptures but somehow I just haven’t gotten the hang of it producing it in drawing form. My first impulse doodle is a face, often in profile, and then the face head-on and I’m typically obsessed with hair, which never gets drawn realistically enough for me.

In addition to people I also like sketching flowers and mostly I stick to those subjects. Although once I was required to draw dozens of different types of squirrels using crayons. Perhaps one day I will attempt a squirrel sketch on a cake but only if it’s for friend T, who might appreciate a rodent portrait on his cake!

One thing all of my drawings seem to have in common is that they are messy. The nice interpretation is that they are more evocative of the subject rather than attempting something like a hyper realistic Audubon print.

Of course, cakes are not typically the medium in which one sketches or watercolors, one either does or does not have designs on the surface! The cakes as ceramics turned out okay because the kind of ceramics I was attempting happened to be fairly “messy” themselves so that despite the repetitiveness of the designs, the occasional slip-ups were a little less obvious. I have attempted drawings of flowers on cakes before, such as the poppies in a previous cake, but in that case I was directly painting the wet food coloring on the cake without diluting it with vodka and letting it dry in layers (like water colors) or by mixing the colors themselves as one would in an oil painting. In a sense, these simpler brushed designs can be considered a trial run for the more complicated techniques and designs that I attempted here.

All of my recent attempts involved flowers, which I am relatively comfortable sketching but uncertain at producing exact lines! My first attempt was cherry blossoms and a baby sparrow on a birthday cake for friend R. I picked cherry blossoms for him because I figured he’d like them and they seemed similar in visual effect to other much tinier flowers I’d seen him admire.
Besides, I also have good memories of visiting the cherry blossoms that were originally a gift to the US from Japan in the tidal basin in the DC area with my Japanese grandmother, who was also fond of them and liked the back-story.

I decided to include a fledgling swallow because I had the pleasure of watching four little eggs grow from naked hatchlings to finally fledging on the porch of the laboratory I was staying in this past summer. It was a real treat! And they were really adorably cute, as you can see below.

Here they are as hatchlings.

Here they are as fledglings having just fledged!

So how to put the sketches on the cake? I decided to stick to a familiar method using the same luster dust I’d used in previous cakes and simply use a little bit of vodka as a thinner and paint directly onto the fondant as if it were a canvas. Using just luster dust vodka paint, I knew I could achieve a painted design that would dry.

Here are two overviews of R’s cake:

A detail:

For R’s cake I used all metallic luster powders so in person they all gleamed like matte glittery metal. The effect is, alas, not really apparent in the photos I took. It was a devil’s food cake.

The next attempt was for friend D. I’ve made ceramic style cakes for her before but this time I wanted to do a flower painting so I asked her which one she liked best. In this case she came up with an answer, the Mexican bird of paradise. Actually, what she really said was, “I don’t know; whatever it is that’s blooming right now, I like those flowers.”

It seemed kind of hard to draw because leaves are fern-like, but I gave it a go here, using different shades of green to try and get a more realistic feel to the leaves. I can’t say that I succeeded at much more than “evocative” here because, frankly, I’ve had so little practice or mentoring. I definitely need more practice, but it was fun at least getting something that wasn’t embarrassing at least! I had help from friend L, whose hand is barely visible in the picture, in getting the colors a little more right.

Also, this cake design really was more like a watercolor/oil painting because I had to mix shades and overpaint, which I hadn’t really done very much with the cherry blossoms. The flowers came out a bit better than the leaves did in my opinion, probably because I’ve had more practice at sketching flower forms and they’re really the part of the flower that I pay the most attention to anyways. This was actually fun to do and I also used non luster colors so the results were very bright, which is a nice effect! You can see Mr. PB stealing some extra fondant on the side…

D’s cake was a pound cake vanilla number I think she’s liked in past years, a golden buttercream cake.
Finally, although this wasn’t really a painted sketch, I did actually attempt a combination of 3d and painted effects in a really large birthday cake I did for another friend. Friend RK likes purple so I decided to try my hand at purple gumpaste orchids accented with painted stems and decorative accents that were all painted in the same fashion as the previous flowered cakes. I liked the effect of combining the two methods, but I think there are ways I could be more sophisticated about it. That’s really the fun part about making these cakes, with all of them, there’s always a lot of room for improvement and each one contributes something to the next.

As an aside, I also realized one shouldn’t experiment with a new type of gumpaste that seemed nicer to model but unfortunately far too delicate when dried. I lost about half of the flowers I constructed originally because they were so fragile they broke when I was assembling them in the final stage.

This last cake was red velvet. It's a quintessentially Southern cake, so I've been exposed to it at church potlucks and social events for as long as I can remember. Someday I will devote an entire blog to the subject of red velvet cake. However, my feelings about its origins and its curious sour and sweet flavor are far too complicated to summarize easily, much like my feelings about my birthplace!

Personally, one thing I feel unequivocally positive about is its color, which is magnificently visible below.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Calendar Stone Cake

I’ve always wanted to do a cake of the Calendar stone, which is actually the sacrificial stone of Motecuhzoma II, one of the last rulers of the Aztec Triple Alliance empire.

This cake is the latest in a string of Mesoamerican monument cakes undertaken here at Cake and Empire. It is also one of my most ambitious to date. Partly this is because the details are extremely unforgiving and there are many different levels of relief to evoke, as the image below can attest!

The stone itself is huge, spanning about 12 meters across. The skill of execution alone is breathtaking. The demonstration of obvious technical prowess combined with many levels of relief carving and a complex design but eye-pleasing design make it one of the most beautiful of the Aztec monuments. It was originally uncovered in the late 18th century in Mexico City (1790) which was built on top of the prehispanic capital of Tenochtitlan. It has been dubbed the Calendar stone because it depicts dates, including the twenty day month signs and the four previous “suns” or universes in the Aztec mythological cycle as represented by earth (jaguar), air, water, and fire. The present age is the fifth sun and is shown emerging from the underworld in the center of the stone.

According to the experts (in my case, Emily Umberger) the stone was probably painted but many mold castings later, the paint is only supposition, though based on known historical examples of painted monuments. She’s seen the stone up close and in person so she told me many details about it that I wouldn’t otherwise have known. For example, there is damage on the central part of the stone on the central “sun face” that isn’t due to taphonomic processes but rather to use wear most likely related to human sacrifice.

I attempted to portray the wear patterns in the cake design itself, as you can see below.

To those of raised in more antiseptic religious traditions that employ grape juice rather than real blood, use wear from religious sacrifice is a little unsettling. As a kid I used to wonder if real sacrifice rather than metaphoric made it more powerful or whether it would become routine like Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery. At any rate, we can be certain that it meant something significant to those who built and used these stones.
Of course, everything that is known about the stone and its original creators is complicated. Even the use of the term Aztec is fraught in academic circles, most people who use it now seem to have to engage in a lengthy aside as to what, precisely, they mean by it. Wiki has a decent entry here on the Aztecs that includes a bibliography for the interested reader.
Aside from the complex set of contexts and information attached to this monument in prehispanic times, and which remain rather obscure to me, its importance in modern Mexico interests me as well. It’s the most ubiquitous image of ancient Mexico and it is plastered on almost everything in modern Mexico as well. The Calendar stone really is used to as a representation of modern Mexico, it’s almost like a flag but better. Whatever its older meanings and usages, it has come to represent modern Mexico in a way that appears to crosscut any regional or ethnic identity. I think that is really what attracted me to attempting a cake representation.
I decided to make the scale one inch equals one meter, given the level of details in the piece. I used my favorite commercially available fondant, fondx to sculpt the different details. I did it piecemeal using the shapes of the glyphs to mold each piece separately to the right scale, figuring I could put them all together on the finished cake.

This time I wasn’t really able to make much use of any template cutouts from Emily’s drawing; instead, I had to really just use them as a sculpting guide because the level of relief and detail was too great. I think it *might* have helped if I’d been better able to recognize each of the representations of the iconographic items used. For example, the deer in the day month glyph boxes looked rather dog-like to me, so I just directly imitated what I saw from the drawing and picture rather than what I thought a deer should look like. My understanding from others with much more experience in epigraphy is that it is better to be completely familiar with the visual corpus prior to attempting what I did. Oh well.

The project turned out to be an incredibly labor intensive task, taking a total of 12 hours to finish sculpting each piece to the correct scale. Of course, it’s the most fun I’ve had with fondant in a while and it’s also the most elaborately constructed cake I’ve ever made for just me rather than for friends. I wasn’t as exacting as I could have been; there is definitely room for improvement on a future version!

For example, I left off the nemontoni (the unlucky extra days from a solar year) that were represented as glyphs right around the main sun face. I was tired at that point and I figured the missing tiny dots would go unnoticed (I figured incorrectly as it turns out). I also left out the bells that adorn the serpent figureheads that encircle the edge of the stone that probably represent the watery underworld (and would therefore perhaps have been painted turquoise). Funnily enough, no one noticed the missing bells. I think this is because the level of dimensional detail was sufficiently daunting that the eye overlooks it while the nemontoni really stood out on their own despite their tininess. Of course, I’d rather get every obsessive detail in, but I think in truth it would be slightly different each time I attempted it.

This time I felt a minor twinge while cutting the cake, almost as if I should have performed some other ceremony prior to its destruction and enjoyment. Something about the formality and obvious excessive labor of the cake combined with a group of people just standing around waiting to eat it may have lent to my wanting something more for a brief moment!

Friday, May 30, 2008

Cakes and Miniatures

This is a blog about cakes and miniatures.

My step-mother, H, also collects dolls and, more importantly, doll accoutrements. In particular, she collects “playscale” doll stuff (aka, the right size for Barbie) rather than the itsy bitsy miniatures that used to fascinate me as a kid in doll museums. Due to her interest in doll stuff, and her own interest in sculpting doll food she persuaded me to attempt making a miniature replica of a wedding cake I’d recently made. Most of the cakes I’ve done required a certain amount of sculpting so despite my relative inexperience in that art in a non-food medium, I decided to give it a whirl.

H helpfully got me a book on polymer clays and more importantly, she got me some basic tools and clays to get started. Basically, tinfoil can be used as an armature by making tinfoil base "cakes" and then one can treat the clay exactly like fondant and use it to cover and decorate the faux cake.

The first cake I attempted was a version of the art deco and paisley wedding cake sans the paisley elements because I thought they might be too ambitious in something this small. First I made the tinfoil "cakes" and covered them with clay. H helped me roll out the clay and make the tiny round ball borders.

Next I stacked the finished tiers together and added the detail work.

The next step was making the black and white lotuses. It was actually a lot easier sculpting polymer clay even though the scale was challenging because I found it to be a lot less sticky than fondant!

After that I had to make some choices. Although I really liked the original cake topper deco line drawing in royal icing on the wedding cake, I didn't think I could get it to look right at this small a scale. The contrast between the deco lotuses and the teensy line drawing would be significant. I thought something bolder would show up better so I opted for a different design. H can be shown holding her cake just prior to baking so you can get a nice visual sense of playscale.

My dad helped out by making the cake platform. It was a real family affair.

Finally, the finished and baked cake.

And the original wedding cake below for comparison!

The next miniature I attempted was one of Mr PB's favorites, the daisy cake as seen previously here.

First I added the stems. Then the flowers, color by color.

I couldn't manage the same level of details in the flowers for the miniature cake as I did for the original. The mini-cake was truly too mini.

Finally the finished cake.

The original real cake is below:

And here's the finished clay cake with a better scale, since I muffed the one with the measuring tape.

Finally, I made a miniature of a birthday cake I made for Mr. Pretzel Bender.

Here's Mr. PB's original cake. It was devil's food (what else?) covered in fondant and painted with a metallic blue luster dust with silver fondant damask-pattern like accents.

And the miniature cake below!

I have mixed feelings about making miniature cake replicas. They don't smell good (polymer clay smells like playdoh but saltier), they don't taste good er...can't be eaten.
I enjoyed the experiment, and will probably make more of these for H, but I think I prefer real cake because they can be enjoyed and then finished.
They don't last; I like that.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Chacmool Cake

This cake combines three interests of mine, Mesoamerica, cakes, and sculpting into one hobby. It is also a follow-up, of sorts, to the Coyolxauhqui cake that I did earlier this year. I did this one for a friend as well, friend M as a birthday/celebration cake of sorts. M is interested in the physical anthropology side of archaeology (i.e. bones). So I figured that some kind of sacrifice stone/skull rack theme was in order. I will attempt a tzompantli one of these days, but they are awfully repetitive (rows of skulls) and a cake (unless it was huge) could only give an impressionistic view of the whole. So I went with a probable sacrifice stone/sculpture that I haven’t attempted yet, a chacmool.

A chacmool is a type of sculpture “in the round” that popped up in Mesoamerican sites over one thousand years ago. As far as I know, they number in a few dozen at most. Their purpose is not entirely clear, though their general iconography combined with a vessel or plate positioned suspiciously over their chests, and their location on or around temples is strongly suggestive of religious offerings and sacrifice.

Chacmools are found in host of different Mesoamerican centers but the two most recognizable ones (and the ones where the largest amounts have been found) are Tula and Chichen Itza. There are differences among chacmools in both execution and iconography, but in general they are stone statues of reclining figures with their knees drawn up and their hands holding a plate or vessel over their chest/stomach area and their heads pulled up as if they are doing a sit-up with their heads facing towards one side. There are variations in clothing although most seem to have loincloths and some kind of necklace or pendant. And they all have similar headgear that appears to reference Tlaloc (the rain god). The level of detail and refinement in the features (for example, the face) also vary a great deal. Of course, some of these could have been plastered and painted originally, which may have afforded a level of detail that is no longer apparent. The eyes and mouth in the examples I’ve seen from Tula are really schematic rather than fleshed out like the Aztec example.

I decided to base my cake on a chacmool from Tula. I had several aesthetic and practical reasons to choose this one. This sculpture appealed to me because it has clean lines with the legs and arms not as detached from the blocky body. Also, to my sensibility it appeared less gawky than the Aztec chacmools and less “leggy” than the one from Chichen Itza (see the comparison again here). But most important of all, it is the only one from Tula that still has a head!
The block shape of the body and the square angular proportions of the arms and legs also made it easier to do in cake form. Cake pans do curves in two dimensions (the familiar round edge of the most common type of cake pans) but not so much in adding freestanding arms and legs, at least, not without using way too much fondant to achieve the effect that the cake matrix doesn’t provide. Also, given my disastrous experience with hemispheres (as when I made the UFO cake), I figured blocky was more stable.

Here’s a picture of the Tula chacmool below.

For a rectangular body, I could simply make a square cake. I used my big square cake pan (the one I typically use for groom cakes) that is 12 x 12 inches. First, I used a two layer cake recipe to make two complete cake layers. Next, I cut each layer in half and stacked three of them on top of each other for the cake body.

You can see the layers stacked below.

Using three layers also made contouring for the feet and shoulders and upper back a lot easier too.
I had to mold the feet separately and then attach them on the cake feet cutouts. They are messy of course, but I kind of like the stubby toes perched on giant sandals of the cake. I particular like this close up of the feet below.

For the head, I took the unused half of one of the layers and used my large biscuit cutter to cut out three cake “rounds” that I could stack atop each other to provide the base for the head. You can see the head layers in the process of being messily iced below. I thought that making a tube shaped base for the head and neck and then sculpting the face separately of fondant and attaching it with plastic straw sections would achieve something closer to the appearance of the original sculpture.

I ended up using a combination of appliqué and molding to get the look of the body. I decided to stick with the basically smooth white fondant rather than coloring it grey and making irregular pockmarks (in imitation of the basalt rock used to make the original). I suppose it was an aesthetic choice since I am going for an overall look rather than an exact replica in this case. You can see the body below prior to the attachment of the head.

I attached the head using plastic straws (two) inserted into the cake body and head for stability. You can see it completed and “in situ” below immediately prior to munching.

The initial cut depicting the cake’s stratigraphy.

Here’s a view from the top. I toyed with the idea of putting a faux heart on top of the vessel clasped between the two hands but nixed it in the end. It seemed too obvious and I'm not sure anyone there would have wanted to eat a giant fondant candy heart so it would have gone to waste.

Finally, a picture of me holding the disembodied head after the rest of the chacmool cake had been demolished. I gave it to my committee chair, who else?

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Cakes as Ceramics

I’ve always liked the idea of using ceramic decorative styles as an inspiration for cake decorating. So far I have limited my efforts to creating decorations that are merely reminiscent of the actual ceramic on various birthday cakes for friends and family. The two ceramic decorative styles that I’d tried up till now include Blue Delft and one that I fancied was at a little like “Chinese porcelain”. Both have cobalt blue painted designs on a white surface.

Blue Delft I’ve tried for a few years with very limited success. I can’t say that I ever got even close in color when I tried using the “brushed embroidery” look with royal icing. I got a better Blue Delft look when I tried it on my cake printer using one of the plate designs (altered to get the colors a little clearer) on my own birthday cake this year. I used the kind of rolled fondant (Fondx) that tastes good and can produce a wonderful lustrous smooth surface.

You can see it below.

Still, I wasn’t really satisfied. For one thing, the colors in the frosting sheet tend to bleed and blur after only a few hours and they don’t adhere well to a rolled fondant surface (this was prior to my subsequent experimentation with vegetable fat as glue).
The “Chinese porcelain” was a better attempt at ceramic design.

Actually, I used a modern version of a Talavera (a Mexican glazed ceramic) plate for inspiration. Talavera is neither Chinese nor porcelain, it is earthenware, meaning it was fired at much lower temperatures than true porcelain and does not include the requisite feldspar which was the secret sauce for the real thing. Talavera is the Mexican version of the Spanish maijolicas (glazewares) that dates to colonial times. The modern Talavera plate I used had a non-traditional heron bird in its center, in addition to the almost “busy” blue paint designs in the shape of plant like fronds and drops that seem to take up all the available space in the Talavera style.

I wanted the craqueleure look of some china (real porcelain supposedly doesn’t develop the fine cracks that are due firing temperature differentials) and figured that quick pour fondant was the way to go. Quick pour fondant is a kind of sugar glaze typically flavored with almond and the most common decoration of petit fours, those little rectangular cakes covered in frosting that are sweet enough to make your teeth hurt.
So, I made the cake and poured on the quick pour fondant which I’d never tried before and discovered two things at once. The first thing is that the stuff dries remarkably quickly so you have to get a nice even pour onto your surface the first try. The second is that the recipe I used was a little too much for my cake so I ended getting a fair amount on myself, the counter, and the floor. Luckily I’d had the forethought to do the pouring onto the cake prior to it being put onto a plate otherwise I’d have had a puddle of fondant and a cake floating on it on my plate.

The surface cracked up nicely (barely visible but still there) and it was nice and smooth and shiny, just like I had hoped. You can see the slight cracking below.

For the painted design, I opted to use paste food coloring. Paste food coloring is highly concentrated edible (or at least non-toxic) pigment that appears (from the ingredient list) to be suspended in some combination of glycerin and corn syrup. It is used in lieu of liquid food coloring because it does not alter the composition of the dough or icing like water would. It doesn’t really go bad though it can get “gummy” in texture over time.

Paste food coloring is typically used in icings, gum paste, fondant, and I suppose, cookies. I guess you could use it in cakes, though I have used liquid food coloring for cakes on those rare occasions that I have felt the need to dye a birthday cake green.

I decided to paint the design directly onto the fondant glaze using the unadulterated paste color as paint. This proved to be a mixed strategy. The fondant glaze was not hard but soft-ish with a crust, so painting on its surface proved difficult and also a tiny bit damaging. Also, it turned out that the paste color “navy” was the closest to cobalt blue on the white surface than any other color I had.

You can see the design and the cake up close below.

The one above is still my favorite decorated cake, but I don’t always like using a fondant glaze, so I tried out a variation on the painted ceramic theme a year later on a rolled fondant surface.

Once again, I painted a poppies design directly onto the cake’s surface. I didn't use a ceramic tradition directly to inspire this one, although I am fond of the poppy designs seen on some lacquer vessel work done in metal and glass. I used the food paste colors to paint the design. This is an ultimately flawed approach (although the colors are vivid) because as far as I know, they don’t dry. At least, probably not in the time that it takes to eat the cake. So, they may leave more color than I would like on the cake eaters themselves than I would like! Plus, if you make a mistake, you can’t really wipe it off and try again. The dye is VERY strong.

I made them for the same person, friend R, so he’s probably used to it by now…still, I wanted improvement.You can see the poppies here. The very nice script was not produced by me but by a fellow friend of R’s who, as you can see, has exquisite handwriting!

As an aside, I found out later that the Wilton baking Product Company had some product called “brush-on-color” available in rather bright shades for fondant application via stamps or brushes that would presumably dry. However, I didn’t care for their shades and I think they may be discontinued, so I wanted another solution for establishing a painting tradition on fondant covered cakes.

I decided to try a solution that I had used earlier on the UFO and Dalek cakes to apply metallic powder colors to fondant by painting them on in a vodka solution. The vodka evaporates leaving behind the paint. Why not for designs and regular colors? I figured they must have powder colors for practically every shade. They did. So I purchased a few for my next ceramic project.

This time I wanted to make one from a Mesoamerican ceramic type, Chalco/Cholula Polychrome. The friend for whom this cake was to be made studies the region and the ceramics in question. Additionally, friend D had pictures of the ceramics that would prove helpful in its reproduction in cake form.

By way of background, the two names refer to a region and a center, respectively. The Chalco region is the area in the southeastern Basin of Mexico that produced highly decorated elaborate polychromes in the Postclassic period. Cholula is a large site in central Puebla that has a lengthy occupational period, was known as a prehispanic religious/pilgrimage site, and also produced distinctive highly decorated elaborate polychromes that appear to have seen wider trade in the Postclassic period (time of the Aztecs, roughly speaking). The reason two names are attached to this particular ceramic type is because it is apparently difficult to distinguish vessels from the Chalco region from vessels from Cholula (though I imagine chemical sourcing helps). Here are some examples I used for inspiration.

The polychromes in question also apply a distinctive painting technology that involves double slipping. Slipping is a solution of clay and other minerals (often for color and surface treatments) added to water that is thin enough to be poured over the surface of already formed and partially dried clay vessels. Double slipping is exactly what it sounds like, pouring a second layer of slip on top of a previous slipped and dried layer.
For the Chalco/Cholula polychromes, it appears that double slipping was done by first applying a white slip and then an orange or orange/red slip on top of the white slip. Next, painted decorations or incising or a combination of the two would be applied. The double slipping has the effect of making the orange and orange/red distinctively “bright” in appearance. It is a technique that would appear to make the identification of these double slips *almost* apparent even without the occasional incising and rubbing off of the top orange slip that allows the white to peep through underneath.

Incidentally, double-slipping is one of those techniques often associated with Chalco/Cholula ceramics but it apparently also occurs earlier in other parts of Mesoamerica. At least, it does in the Gulf Lowlands. It is called “laca” in Spanish, which I believe simply means lacquer, a term which has been loosely applied to anything that produces a shiny hard surface though of course no actual resin is involved, just paint.

To get the “white slip” look, I simply covered the cake (golden buttercream) with white rolled fondant. Next, I used the vodka and a brush to apply the orange powder pigment to the surface. As you can see below, the colors are very bright and the brush application adds a certain look to the surface that is at least reminiscent of real double slipping.

In the end I achieved a very bright orange. And having seen a few samples of the Gulf versions of double-slipping, they can be vivid.

Next I applied the painted designs using powdered red and black pigments. The designs were based on actual Chalco/Cholula Polychromes from a museum collection.
Side design elements added below.

Top framing swirl added below.

Top design elements added below. I made the white circles by scraping off the orange paint and filling in the middle with red paint. That technique appeared to get the best approximate look of the ceramic designs from the photos.

Here's a close up of the top center below.

As you can see I mixed and matched a few design elements that I liked rather than copying any one pot wholesale. I imagine this kind of thing was done by the original potters themselves. The ceramic designs themselves weren’t that hard to imitate, although admittedly I lack the painting skill and technique of the original potters and I did choose the "easy" designs.

Of course, archaeologists attempt to guess at the motivations and reasons behind imitation because they can tell a lot about the people making them. And getting at the political, economic, and social implications from such residue is always a complicated process.

Sometimes imitation is the result of local artisans trying to compete with the distinctive beauty of Chinese porcelain for a European elite market (they invented bone china in the process). Elites often acquire exotic imported materials in social competition with each other and also because they've been trained to cultivate such tastes!
Other times imitation is the result of political relationships, the client states of imperial New Kingdom Egypt cultivated having Egyptian serving and eating vessels (though they did not use other items in the Egyptian ceramic repertory related to, for example, burial practices) possibly as a signal of their special relationship with Egypt.
Of course, generally it's not as simple as I am making it sound. Most imitation combines social, political, and economic factors.

People can be annoyingly messy in their motivations.

My own efforts at cake ceramic simulacra have similarly mixed motivations. Tragically, I am not required to analyze cake imitations for a living (though I imagine one could compare the decorative traditions of say, Australia with the US and get interesting results).
Perhaps another time.

For now, I can just happily eat cake and not worry about the subtext of recreating antiquities in cake form.

Here's the full view of the Chalco/Cholula Polychrome Cake: