Monday, May 07, 2007

Unidentified Flying Cake

Recently I was asked by a friend and co-worker, D, to do a cake for the opening of the exhibit, Alien Images: UFOs, Photography and Belief, at the ASU Museum of Anthropology. My original idea was to do something subtle, something artistic, perhaps even sublime!

Okay it was just an alien autopsy.

I wanted to do a cake (red velvet, naturally) that was in the form of a big-headed grey/cream colored alien body that could be cut humorously with a big meat cleaver.

Yes, I’m aware that it’s not all that original. And that’s even if I hadn’t seen the wonderful 80s (I think) Alice in Wonderland video by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers which they end by eating a “live” Alice cake (that appears to be red velvet, incidentally).

Actually, I can trace the genesis of my alien autopsy or food as cake body quite clearly. I got the idea from a food study break in college. In the now late (and unlamented) Woodward Court dormitory at the University of Chicago, each two floor “house” was given a weekly allowance to buy food for a study break. A few people from the house were assigned to purchase the ingredients to make food or buy prepared food for the break. Since this is food preparation and/or purchasing for a public event (the study break was open to the entire house) it naturally became a venue for competition and display!

A couple of guys and one girl basically set the bar high with their study break. They made a life-size dummy out of paper-mache, filled it with candy (and I believe condoms, which violated the food edict, but why not) and dressed it in a business suit and hung it in the middle of the lounge for the study break. Their concept was to have students beat the dummy with baseball bats (which they provided, of course) to get the candy.

It was an inspiring sight.

Of course, it turned out they’d made the dummy head (complete with hat) too hard to really break easily, so I have a vivid memory of one student jumping up and down on the head to get it to spill the goods.

One of the planners told me that originally they’d wanted to do a cake “body” but that the lure of a paper-mache businessman was greater.

I didn’t do the alien autopsy.

The curator of the exhibit liked the idea, but one of the planners preferred the idea of getting a cake in the shape of a UFO or flying saucer. Since the exhibit featured a lot of fifties style flying saucers, I figured that’s the shape I should be going for in the cake. And since it was commissioned (and paid for) after all, I didn’t really have the final artistic license.

So, how to do a fifties flying saucer cake? First off, I wanted something very simple and structurally sound. Since flying saucer molds weren’t proving that easy to come by, I had to settle on making the base out of a large round pan (or conic section if you want to get technical) and the top part out of some kind of hemispherical pan. I found a soccer ball half mold that seemed like it would do the trick.

The soccer ball pan was made out of nice light aluminum by Wilton cake pans. Unfortunately, the instructions on how to bake a cake in the pan were vague. They should (in my opinion) give you cups of batter (as a guideline) and then tell you how much time you will need to fully bake your cake. The instructions simply said that the pan would fit “one cake mix”, i.e., a two layer 9 inch round cake batter would fit nicely. No word on how long or what temperature to bake the cake!

I ended up using a recipe for a golden buttercream cake from Berenbaum’s Cake Bible that I’ve mentioned before. It’s a sturdy cake with a pound cake-like crust, a wonderful flavor, and can hold up to structures like layers and, I hoped, a half hemisphere upper portion of a spaceship!

So I ended up having to bake it for a full hour and a half at 350 degrees Fahrenheit (a safe temp to guess as most butter cakes bake around that temp) to cook it through entirely. I proved fortunate in my choice of cake because had I chosen one of the lighter butter cakes, I think the cake crust would have burned quite badly. As it was, it was a very dark brown in places by the time the center of it was testing as "done".

Since the cake is like a pound cake in retaining moisture, I knew from past experience that I could safely shave off the hard top part of the crust and be okay. So I let the cake cool for a while sitting dome-like on the cake cooling rack.

And then I made a fatal error.

I momentarily forgot the structural properties of hemispheres and turned the cake round side down. As the following diagram generally demonstrates, there are certain forces pulling on the sides of a hemisphere precariously balanced on it's rounded side.

The cake tore itself apart in about two seconds.

The unhappy results are below.

I had to bake an entirely new cake. On the up side, the second one cooked up a lot better and the cake was less in need of a trim. And I was able to put the cake together after only 2 hours of detour!

I finally put it together and with the help of friend K, we used my husband’s nice vodka to paint the rolled fondant covering with silver luster dust. We ended up with a look of brushed sheet metal.

Finally, with some design suggestions from Mr. Pretzel Bender, I added some doors and round-ish windows complete with silver edible non-pareils (the ones that look like ball bearings) for the finishing touch.

Here it is below at the exhibit opening.

And finally, the best part. The cake stratigraphy. Note the straws? I learned my lesson from previous experience that one needs to use the tensile strength to hold up second heavy layers!