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.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

A Paean to Purple Cake

I’ve only made three graduation cakes and I suppose they are kind of in-between major projects like wedding cakes and more minor projects like birthday cakes. Typically graduation cakes are requested (well, I don’t suppose I can use the word “typically” since I have hardly any cases from which to generalize) but I think it would be kind of weird to show up at someone’s big graduation bash with a giant decorated cake without having had them ask you for it first.

Well, maybe if it was humorously shaped exactly like their head for the sake of some serious post-defense mordant wit!

My most recent graduation cake was for a friend, D (the same one who got me the UFO cake gig), who was celebrating her graduation from ASU’s Museum studies MA program. D, in addition to her Museum gigs, has worked at some of the same places I have as an archaeologist.

I asked her what she wanted on it, since it was an encomium in her honor, and she requested that it be the color purple and possibly embellished with some kind of flower. She was unspecific as to details but I surmised that she wanted something “girlie”.

D and I have both worked as field archaeologists. Actually, I believe she has way more contract field archaeology experience than I do. This means hard outdoor work, (well, pretty much anything outdoors in an Arizona summer should be considered hard labor by any standards!) complete with work boots and hard hats.

I see no inherent contradiction in D’s desire for girlie purple cake and her street credibility as a field archaeologist.

However, this may come as a surprise to people who assume that field archaeologists adopt the outdoor accoutrements (including boots, jeans, cotton work shirts, etc.) as affectations designed to enhance their credibility.
Of course it is also true that many vocations have clothing aesthetics (as one relation acerbically put it, when attending a Society for American Archaeology Meeting, “Do they ALL have to wear jeans and flannel shirts?”) and archaeologists are no exceptions, dressing the part even in situations where it is not required.

Naturally I thought D’s cake should involve the appropriate amount of glitter, flowers, ribbons, and purple. In this instance, I thought I would start by modeling gum paste flowers.

There are pretty standard instructions on how to model gum paste flowers and I’ve owned a kit that has the cut-out designs and cutters necessary for the job for years. For some reason, I’ve mostly stuck to sculpting basic flowers like roses “by hand” and avoiding all the others except when it comes to graduation cakes.

The first graduation cake flowers I ever did were daisies for a graduation cake years ago but they were relatively easy to do. They were labor intensive (they required royal icing applications for the flower centers and stems) but they were not technically hard to do with the flower petal cutters and some minor sculpting.

You can see a close up here.

And yeah, I know the icing is kind of messy. My excuse is that I was more concerned about the taste, and this happens to be my favorite custard-like icing to make, modeled after the famous “floating islands” dessert. Yes, this icing actually has crème anglaise and Italian meringue in it, oh, and about a pound of butter! But, I have to concede, the lack of smooth surfaced icing detracts from the appearance too much for my liking.

However, I do note that the design for this cake happens to be one of Mr. Pretzel Bender's favorites. Possibly the engineer in him simply likes the fact that I planned it in advance!

The second graduation cake I did for D's sister (requested by D) and it involved calla lilies. Again, a relatively easy flower.

For D, I wanted to finally attempt something really ambitious and unabashedly pretty. I wanted to try a flower that would require several cut-outs and some more elaborate assembly involving florist wires and tape. (I note here that gum paste flowers, while technically made of sugar paste and hence following the cake decorations must be edible rule, also typically include parts, like wire stamens, that are NOT edible).

Although the peanut gallery did opine it was a pity my orchids weren’t vibrant colored and speckled, the plain white orchid was the only kind in my flower instruction book!

Here they are.

You can see in the close-up the more detailed parts (three to be exact) of the three petals that had to be put together.

I used a plain vanilla sugar frosting (not too exciting but heat resistant, which is important where I live!) to decorate the 12 inch round two layer white cake.

Personally, I think that the day it is made, the white cake is probably the moistest and lightest of all of the butter cakes. It’s a favorite of mine when fresh. However, it is hard to use for big events unless I’ve really planned in advance though because it is best the day it is made.

I made this cake the day it was going to be served, mostly because I could do the flowers a few days in advance and keep the other decorations relatively simple.

Finally, the finished product, a glittery, pearl bedecked purple cake complete with beribboned gum paste orchids.

Personally, I think only the addition of some unicorns could have made this cake more girlie.

But, perhaps some sugar paper butterflies could have been thrown in for good measure! They can be disturbingly realistic.

Perhaps for the next graduation cake...