Friday, June 22, 2007

Dalek Cake

All the weddings I attended as a child had two cakes. One, the bride’s cake, was white and covered in all manner of scrolls and scallops. The other, the groom’s cake, was a more whimsical and less serious number. It often featured a hobby or special interest of the groom, such as fishing or golfing. The groom’s cake was also invariably chocolate, another tradition.

I’ve read books that stated that back when the bride’s cake used to be made of fruitcake, it was intended to be sliced up and sent home as a party favor (and eaten for months) rather than at the party itself. Therefore, groom’s cakes were required for the wedding feast and intended to be eaten on site. I can’t tell you why they were chocolate.

Now, the bride’s cakes have morphed into plain vanilla (I concede that any flavor is now acceptable) and are served along with the extraneous groom’s cake. Personally, when I first pondered the question of why there were two cakes at weddings, it seemed to be inherently obvious to a child that one would want both chocolate and vanilla cake options whenever possible!

However, the bride’s cake is still the one that gets all the fuss made over it with the official cutting and feeding of the cake to each other by the bride and groom.

Honestly, I don’t know that a groom’s cake is a tradition in all parts of the US, but I do know that in the Deep South, where I am from, it is firmly established. At least, I’ve never been to a wedding in Louisiana that didn’t feature a groom’s cake!

I’ve helped make a few wedding cakes in my time (mine, my sister’s, my uncle’s, and two sets of friend couples) and they’ve all included a groom’s cake. So I suppose I should say that I have enforced the tradition in my own experience.

Most of them have been a simple chocolate number. I’ve made a giant square of rich chocolate cake covered in chocolate icing and bearing a few simple decorations (I’ve stuck to roses mostly) as embellishments.
Here's one that I made for Mr. Pretzel Bender at our wedding.

Notice that in this one for friend A, I ventured into more adventurous territory with the inclusion of a gum paste cicada (brood X was marauding their way through the East Coast at the time). Yes, they really do have red eyes! I believe he kept the bug.

The latest groom’s cake I attempted was different in several dramatic ways. It wasn’t chocolate, it wasn’t square, and it moved (well, rather slowly, the cake was awfully heavy) by its wireless remote controlled platform.

Friend J (or T to his family) wanted a cake in the shape of a Dalek. A Dalek, for the uninitiated, is a race of mutant creatures featured as one of the many (and probably most implacable) foes of Doctor Who, of the eponymous British sci fi series.

Actually, he originally wanted a Dalek in scuba gear so I think I got off lightly with just the Dalek!

From my observations of the cake decorating industry from the vantage point of a hobbyist, one significant “type” of cake decorating involves making cakes that are exact replicas (in miniature) of objects that can vary from anything from incredibly elaborate buildings to computers. Although I’ve admired the artistry and technical precision of many of these “cakes as objects” as well as their inventive use of the sugar medium, I have not typically practiced it in my own cake decorating.

This is not to say that I haven’t made replica flowers, insects, and pearls in sugar as decorative cake accoutrements, but I haven’t actually made the cakes as anything other than cakes with decoration.

On occasion, I’ve tried to articulate a theory of cake decorating that describes respecting the form and cake medium (conic sections mostly I guess) using different artistic themes (like art deco) or ceramic traditions (like Blue Delft) to decorate cakes. Partly this is out of personal preference. I prefer keeping the cake “forms” as cakes, not as jeeps or space ships unless it’s funny (like an alien autopsy). Partly I think it may also be that although I like to think I have some minor skill in the sugar arts, I am not much of a technician and making replicas is an exacting art!

But there was no getting out of it this time. And Daleks have so many unforgivably straight sides! What to do?

Well, first there was the matter of the cake. J said he wasn’t fond of most cake (not being a sweet tooth like myself) but chose a banana cake for sentimental reasons. I decided to use a nice banana cake recipe from Rose Levy Beranbaum’s Cake Bible. It’s got a nice hint of lemon because the recipe calls for lemon zest. The cake is also a little sturdier than a standard butter cake and because of the starch from the banana is also a little more resilient and springy in texture.

Still, I was a little worried about creating the Dalek cake archictecture (I figured the finished product would be about a foot and half high) and making the cake solid enough to hold itself together without stressing the fondant covering.

My solution was to try making a variation of a Chilean cake, the “torta de mil ojas” or “thousand layers cake”. The original torta is made creating very thin sponge-like crepe/cakes (that incidentally also have lemon zest) in as many layers as possible (the most I’ve managed is 18) thinly spread with manjar blanco, literally, “white jam” also known as “dulce de leche”, which is a rich milk caramel.

One experiment later, and I found that each banana cake layer could be easily sliced into three layers for spreading the caramel and it also tasted pretty good. It’s kind of like a “bananas foster” cake (bananas foster is a New Orleans dessert – as an aside, my love of bananas is unsurprising given that New Orleans was [or at least was at one time] a major port of entry for bananas into the US, so banana desserts, like the wonderful banana pudding made with nilla wafers from my childhood are ubiquitous there).

Also, the banana/caramel idea allowed me to create a cake that was VERY solid, with an incredibly sticky substrate, and thin enough layers to allow for contouring the upper part of the Dalek.

You can see the bottom half here. It was also relatively easy to cut the layers of banana cake and caramel into an outline of the basic Dalek shape.

I ended up making two significant cake segments, each nine layers tall, one for the bottom half and the other for the Dalek “head” and middle section. I covered them up in fondant and then painted them using luster dust in the appropriate bronze and old gold colors using vodka to get them to adhere (the alcohol evaporates so it doesn’t affect the fondant).

Sculpting the fondant into a Dalek-like exterior proved a bit daunting. I can’t say I achieved much in the way of clean lines, but the whole was certainly suggestive in colors, shapes, and details of a Dalek.

Getting the fondant to stick (in the grill on the “head” for example) actually required the use of a little corn syrup. Still, at least I found that using an exacto knife to cut lines into the fondant to give the impression of metal joints and indentations proved fairly successful.

Also, I ended up having to cut open a zillion (something around 74) little holes into the fondant sides to implant the fondant gold balls successfully and without using tons of toothpicks which would have made cutting (and eating) the cake a challenge.

I only ended up having to use non food items in three places. One, was in using the miniature metal whisk for the suspiciously whisk like “death ray” left arm of the Dalek. I also used flexible plastic straws covered in fondant to create the toilet plunger-like arm and the head “nose”. And yeah, I did use two toothpicks to stick the silver fondant “eyes” into the Dalek head.

I had to use straws through the center of both sections to add to their structural integrity and put the top half of the cake on its own cardboard round (forgetting that I would need to attach it to the other cake somehow!). I ended up performing an operation on the top half to insert straws through the cardboard round so the top could REALLY be stuck to the bottom well.

I placed it on a cake cooling rack (basically an open metal grid) that was balanced between two chair backs and went in underneath and cut tiny holes into the cardboard round so I could shove straws into the Dalek top partway, leaving the bottom half of the straws sticking out so they could go into the bottom section of the cake.

And yes, it was just as precarious and silly as the diagram below indicates. One does not necessarily make the best engineering decisions late at night. Suffice to say the cake survived the operation unscathed.

Speaking of engineering…

Now we get to what was, in my opinion, the pièce de résistance of the whole cake. The remote controlled moving platform that was specially built for the Dalek cake by two engineers who coincidentally also served as mentors of a local HS Robotics First Team, Mr. Pretzel Bender and his buddy M.

Here they are, pictured in very similar and unprompted poses at the same event. Mr. Pretzel Bender is the one on the left. M is on the right.

Clearly, their minds are in synch.

Perfect for designing and building a moving cake platform!

Step one was to buy a cheap remote control car and strip it to its bare engine and wheels body. Next they embedded it in a specially designed wooden case to build the platform around as you can see below.

Finally, the base itself was constructed with all the correct angles to suggest a Dalek using items I recall from high school (like a protractor, to get the angles right) and such exotic items (to me) as a Brad Nailer all of which helped make the outside shell look professional! The top was made of pine wood too.

It took them about two nights after work (including some down time for bb games and eating) to complete the job.

Mr. Pretzel Bender painted it a nice textured black. You can see it best in the following cake picture showing the Dalek cake “in situ” at the wedding itself.

Unfortunately, no one had any video to capture the cake actually moving via wireless remote control. However, given how slow it was initially (till some of the cake was eaten!) due to the extreme heaviness of the cake (caramel is heavy stuff) it probably is just as well.

With a much lighter butter cake it would have been positively zippy!

And now that I have exclusive access to a team of crack cake platform engineers, it occurs to me that there are a lot of humorous and hitherto unexplored possibilities for wireless remote controlled moving cake platforms, don't you think?

I look forward to trying them out.


Blogger F said...

Cool cake; a moving Dalek. If only they had implanted a speaker and a recording of "you shall be exterminated" in a loop over and over.
Torta de mil ojas sounds like a cake I need to find.
I've only been to 1 wedding with a groom's cake, not that I've been to many weddings; I tend to avoid them. It was in Georgia, so maybe it is a Southern tradition.

Fri Jun 22, 05:10:00 AM 2007  
Blogger Pretzel Bender said...

Funny you should ask, I considered it but eventually settled for a silent Dalek. Actually J had a toy radio controlled toy Dalek that you could press a button and hear various Dalek "extermination" threats. He let me borrow it to help create the cake.

Remind me to send you the recipe for the torta de mil ojas. It's 45 minutes of non-stop labor (cooking and layering happens all at once) but well worth the effort!

Fri Jun 22, 01:53:00 PM 2007  
Anonymous Bec said...

Oh this absolutely rocks! Saw this on BoingBoing and nearly wept with joy - just fantastic!

Mon Jun 25, 04:07:00 PM 2007  
Anonymous Y said...

What a great looking cake. A talking walking cake might even have been a world's first.

Tue Jun 26, 03:57:00 AM 2007  
Anonymous Christy said...

That's a fantastic cake!
When you make more neat cakes please take pictures and put them up on Instructables- we're big fans of the weird and exciting. Check out our other cakes if you're curious.

(for the Instructables team)

Tue Jun 26, 10:03:00 AM 2007  
Anonymous Karen said...

hehe. toy cake.

Thu Aug 23, 12:56:00 AM 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That cake its AWESOME!!

Mon Dec 24, 01:09:00 PM 2007  
Blogger toro said...

Very interesting cake!

Thu Apr 10, 01:59:00 PM 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, that's beautiful :) Great work!

(Here via doctorwho community at Livejournal.)

Rose Cat

Sun Nov 02, 07:49:00 PM 2008  
Blogger Esther Perry said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

Wed Jun 17, 04:22:00 PM 2009  
Blogger Esther Perry said...

As an amateur decorator, who just made a working Operation Game cake with wires and battery packs . . . and who has a love of all things Doctor Who, I salute you! This is fabulous!

Wed Jun 17, 04:23:00 PM 2009  
Anonymous Lou said...

I made a much more basic Dalek birthday cake for my son, it's not quite the same as yours, you can see it on my site

He was very happy with it!

Thanks for sharing yours :-)

Thu Jun 24, 05:25:00 AM 2010  

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