Perfect people…….

When it comes to crafting a cake for a special celebration in honor of a specific person, we’ve had lots of fun and interesting requests.  One of the things, however, that used to make me cringe was any request for me to make a gumpaste person.  Megan and I are untrained cake artists and we had so much to learn about gumpaste.  I had no idea what gumpaste was capable of and I had no idea what I was capable of in working with it.

I came to find out many things about gumpaste and making people.  Megan and I started working with fondant in February of 2010.  We didn’t start working with gumpaste immediately, however, we worked with fondant for a couple of months before we ventured into gumpaste.  We wanted to conquer everything to do with decorating cakes with fondant and gumpaste so when the time came to tackle gumpaste, we decided that we wanted to make our own.  It seemed simple enough.  We looked a recipe up online (believe me when I say that our cake decorating would be non-existant if it wasn’t for the internet) and got to work.

My husband’s birthday was in early June and we decided to do a baseball themed cake.  Once again, our inexperience and lack of gumpaste knowledge allowed us to be overzealous in our estimation of what we could do.  We got to work in an afternoon in preparation to put the figures on the cake that evening.  We decided to represent our family as a baseball team on the cake with my husband as the pitcher.  Eight hours later…..

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As you can see, they’re a sorry looking bunch.  The color is poorly mixed into the gumpaste, they are cracked in several places and the faces are drawn on with edible markers…….and yet……….I love them.

They had no internal supports.  I’m not even sure how we got them to stand up on the cake.  Since then, we have learned how to use dry spaghetti as internal supports.  We also start with a bamboo skewer running through the entire length of the body, even up into the head.  This gives us a way to support the weight of the gumpaste as well as a way to secure the figure to the cake.  We try to only use edible pieces on our cakes but we’ve found that, many times, spaghetti is just not strong enough to support the entire body.  We do always use spaghetti, however, for supporting arms and legs and feet.

We’ve mentioned before that Megan and I have different aspects of decorating that we enjoy and we learned early on that Megan hates doing people.  As a matter of fact, she doesn’t really enjoy shaping gumpaste at all.  It’s okay though, because Megan excels at piping and detailing, both of which are aspects that I don’t enjoy at all.

And so, my journey with gumpaste people began.

I knew that if I was going to the be the one responsible for the gumpaste people on our cakes, I would need to streamline the process.  I decided that I needed to come up with a generic head shape that I could detail according to whatever person I was trying to duplicate.  I came up with a sort of pear shape that I could work with.  It makes life much easier and I’ve found that I can add enough details that are unique to the person that I’m trying to duplicate to make it recognizable to the people that I am doing the cake for.  It may not look like an exact replica, more like a ‘cartoon-y’ version of them, but I usually include enough details that are specific enough to that person that people say, “Hey, that’s me on the cake,” when they see it.

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I’ve experimented a lot with the details.  In the beginning, I would make all the facial features out of gumpaste or even try to shape the gumpaste into the facial features.  Now, again, after much trial and error, I add gumpaste features such as eyes, nose, ears and hair and I usually go back and add details by painting with food coloring.  I can be much more detailed by using a combination of the two.  Although I paint hair with food coloring, I also use an extruder to make hair dimensional whenever possible.

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Standing figures are obviously harder to do than sitting figures and have to have plenty of time to dry.  If necessary, I can do a sitting figure at the last minute but standing figures usually need a couple of days to dry.  One of my biggest challenges was the zombie couple that I did for an anniversary cake.  I knew that we wanted the couple to either be holding hands or having the guy zombie’s arm around the girl zombie.  I agonized over it because I knew how fragile the figures would be if I tried to connect the two before I put them on the cake.  After pondering for several days about what to do, Megan came up with a brilliant idea.  She said, “Mama, they’re zombies.  Their body parts break off all over the place.  Have the guy’s arm broken around the girl’s shoulder!!”  That’s why there are two of us.  It seems like when one struggles with something the other one of us is able to come up with a solution.

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Gumpaste is a funny thing to work with.  It can be extremely sticky so it is imperative to use some type of lubricant, however, it dries very rapidly and your window of opportunity can be very small before it starts to crack and dry.  I usually break off the amount that I need and keep the rest in an airtight container until I am ready to use it.  Depending on what I’m doing with the gumpaste I will either use cornstarch or crisco, however, when I do people I always use crisco.  I rub it on my hands, work it into the gumpaste and also rub it on my work surface.  Crisco keeps gumpaste from cracking as you are bending tiny arms, legs or hands.  Between cakes, I keep my gumpaste in a ziploc bag in the refrigerator.  I don’t really have opportunity to leave it there for very long because we use gumpaste so much but it will last for quite a long time stored in the refrigerator.

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I’ve been asked to do people that I have never met or seen before so I always ask for a picture.  Even more than the picture, though, are the things that go with the person on the cake.  Obviously, standing alone, a gumpaste figure may or may not be recognizable, but couple it with numbers on a uniform and it becomes a famous baseball player……

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or a kid that loves fishing…..

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or a little girl who is celebrating her first birthday as a fairy…..

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or a sweet girl who loves to shop…..

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or her sister who loves to read…..

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or a friend who loves to hunt……

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I still get stressed whenever I’m asked to do a gumpaste person but I’ve definitely gained a certain level of comfort in working with gumpaste.  You have to know what it is capable of and when it’s going to let you down.  Typically it will only let you down when you expect more than it can give.

As I continue to work with gumpaste people, I can’t help but think of God and His illustration of clay in the Potter’s hands.  It often occurs to me that my gumpaste people have a great deal in common with real people……

they’re not perfect…..

they’re a work in progress……

and patience will go a long way in shaping them to be their best.

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It’s lonely in cakeland…..

Megan is in Slovakia.  Every summer for the past several years she has gone on mission trips to teach English to children at summer camps in other countries.  We have been to Romania together twice and she has been to Russia several times.  This summer she traveled with a different group to Slovakia.  She doesn’t have an internet connection so I must be content with only being able to text her once a day.  I have to say, though, that I am thankful for even texting.  When we went on our first mission trip several years ago we weren’t even able to do that much to stay in touch with our family.

We tried to keep the cake schedule light once we knew the dates that Megan was going to be away.  There were two that had been scheduled for a couple of months and another one that got thrown into the mix at the last minute because we just couldn’t say no.  As much as we tried, there are some requests that you just can’t say no to.

We sat down to have our weekly cake meeting and there was so much planning to do that it took several sessions to accomplish it all.  Since Megan and I both get contacted about cakes, it is the responsibility of whichever one of us gets contacted to do the follow up for scheduling and details.  We always consult each other before anything is finalized and added to the cake schedule.  We don’t have a Mary Alice like Duff does, although Megan seems to wear the Mary Alice hat much more often than I do.  She has over 1,000 friends on Facebook, whereas I have less than 200.  Since most of our contacts come from Facebook, you can see why she would be contacted more often than I am.

Responses in, details ironed out, planning pictures drawn, we sat down to have a day of gumpaste work to do the components that we would need for the cakes that were scheduled while Megan was away.  What a trooper!!  She had details to take care of for her trip but she was concerned about the amount of work that I would have to do without her.  Usually, we work side by side to do gumpaste components.  I do all the work on people and shaping things and Megan does a lot of the work on props and detailing.  I finished the things that I had to do and moved on to do some housework and Megan continued to work on the projects that she had started.  She spent two whole days working right up until the night before her trip to finish so that I would have what I needed while she was gone.  I still have another cake, requiring quite a few components that I will have to do on my own, but the work that we did before she left makes my life much easier while she is gone.

I must interject here that Megan and I have discovered that the old addage, “absence makes the heart grow fonder,” is, indeed, true.  Ever since Megan was a little girl and she started going to camp in the summertime, we realized that being apart now and then is good for us.  I know that life gets intense here sometimes.  Megan still lives at home as so many young adults are forced to do in this horrible economy.  She lost her job a couple of years ago and, even though she has a full-time job with a local school district, it still doesn’t pay enough for her to be able to support herself.  She will leave when the time is right but, for now, we’re all so thankful that she loves being here and we love having her.  As I said, we have learned, however, that a break from each other always makes us appreciate each other and we come back together refreshed and renewed.  I know that she was looking forward to having a break from the stress of doing cakes for a few weeks and I was happy knowing that she was going to be able to pursue her first love, teaching.

As amazing as Megan is with doing cakes, she is an even more amazing teacher.  I apologize.  Bragging was never allowed in my house but I can’t help but be proud of the teacher that Megan has become.  She wanted to be a teacher from the time that she was in second grade and she followed that passion all the way through to getting a Master’s in School Administration.  I’ve seen her in a classroom of third graders.  She has that incredible gift of being a disciplinarian as well as a loving friend to her students.  Her kids love her.  It also doesn’t hurt that she drives a bright, red volkswagon beetle and wears funny hats for all kinds of special occasions in her classroom.

But it’s lonely here in cakeland.  Don’t get me wrong.  I have projects to do…reading for my counseling work, laundry, cleaning…..you get the picture.  I have plenty to do that has nothing to do with cakes which keeps me busy and I still have the rest of the family to keep me company, but when I start to work on a cake, I feel like my right arm is missing.

There is no one chattering at the kitchen table with a movie running in the computer by her side.  No one flinging powdered sugar all over the counter while mixing up a batch of buttercream.  I don’t think that I have ever mentioned what a messy worker Megan is, which seems to be totally opposite from our personalities.  Megan, the concrete thinker, is a cake tornado that blows through the kitchen leaving a trail of powdered sugar, gumpaste bits, and tools caked with cornstarch.  I, on the other hand, the visionary, runs around with a clean, wet dishcloth, wiping down counters with disinfectant and stopping to scrub the floor if anything gets dropped on it.  I’ve learned to deal with her messy-ness, knowing that the most beautiful, amazing creations will come from the mess.

It was so weird to deliver a cake without her last week.  Actually, I constructed and delivered two cakes while she’s been gone, with two more to go before she gets back.  There was no one there to go over the checklist with.  I was so worried that I was going to forget something.  While we each take on different tasks when making cakes, going over the checklist, making sure that we have the tools that we need to construct the cake, and packing up all the cake components is something that we do together.  As it turned out, I did forget the bamboo skewers for the pirate’s chest, however, I had toothpicks in the toolkit that I keep in there all the time and they worked just as well to secure the chest to the cake.

 

My husband drove for one of the deliveries, so, although I had someone in the car with me, there was no one there to chatter about the upcoming delivery.  Usually, once Megan and I get in the car, we chatter about the cake.  We chatter about whether we know where we’re going.  We chatter about putting the cake together.  We chatter about whether the client will like it.  We even chatter about how far we will have to carry the cake.  You get the picture.

When we come home from a delivery, I usually have cake tools to put away and a final clean up in the kitchen while Megan sits at the kitchen table and posts the pictures.  We’ve been told over and over how much people enjoy looking at the pictures so we try to be faithful about putting pictures up as soon as we get home from a delivery.  Not only did I have to put the pictures up, I even forgot the camera for one of the deliveries.  Megan would have killed me if I had not taken pictures of a cake.  In the beginning when we first started doing cakes, I took all the pictures.  As Megan became more proficient at photographing food, she took on the role of cake photographer.  It’s her job to take the camera along.  I don’t even think about it anymore.  Fortunately, the cake that almost didn’t get photographed was at a baby shower and one of the women who was giving the shower allowed us to take pictures with her camera.  She was extremely thoughtful, getting the pictures to me the very next day.

As I am sitting here writing this post, the house is quiet.  My youngest daughter and husband are both at work.  It doesn’t happen very often that my house is this quiet.  While I must admit that there are times when I desperately need a moment of quiet solitude, I wouldn’t trade the busy-ness of my home because it means that the people that I love are here.  There are times when everyone is here, my married daughter, Bethie, son-in-law, Jeremy, and grandson, Thatcher, Megan, who is my oldest daughter, my youngest daughter, Gracie, and my husband, Rick.  The kitchen is humming, the dogs are barking, the phone is ringing, and it feels like complete bedlam, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

So I’m missing my cake partner.  Even though we still disagree at times and even still have times when we need to walk away from the disagreement that we are having over a cake detail, I wouldn’t trade my relationship with Megan for anything in the world.  We started this journey together and, even though we could both do cakes without the other person, I wouldn’t want to.

For now, the conditions are right with Megan living at home, to continue to do cakes.  There may come a time when, for whatever reason, we won’t do cakes anymore.  That will be a sad day for both of us and we will cross that bridge if we ever come to it but I know one thing for sure.  Happily Ever After Cakes is a team and I am lost without my Megan.

Be safe, sweetie, have a wonderful time teaching sweet Slovakian children, but come home soon.  Your crazy cake partner misses you.

The Cake Marathon

Megan and I are finding that we are scheduling cakes further and further ahead into our calendars.  Right now, as I write this, we have cakes scheduled into August and are talking October with someone.  We try to do no more than two cakes a weekend.  First of all, we don’t have a shop and when we are ‘caking,’ the kitchen is recalibrated to cakes.  My tiny little kitchen with my tiny little stove and my tiny little refrigerator can only handle so much. (I picture them as cartoon characters that smile and hum like an old Saturday morning cartoon).

Believe me, this is not what my kitchen looks like when we are ‘caking.’

Secondly, Megan and I, both, have other jobs.  She is a teacher and I am a Christian counselor.  Until a shed magically appears in my backyard complete with a working kitchen and consultation area which would allow for us to do the cakes that we love doing full-time, we must try to restrain ourselves from taking on more than we can handle.

However, sometimes, it can’t be helped.  The floodgates open.

Such was the case last week.  We were scheduled to do 100 cupcakes and a small cake for a 60th birthday party.  It had been in the book for several months, which turned out to be a good thing because it took some time to work out the details.  Originally the woman wanted a tiered cake for her husband’s birthday party but she decided to do cupcakes instead.  We told her that the trend right now seems to be cupcakes on a cupcake stand with a small cake on the top tier.  She decided that was what she wanted.  She also decided that she wanted several different flavors of cupcakes so that took some time to nail down as well.  All of our cakes are homemade so it also takes time to work out which recipes for cakes and frostings we will use.

Since the theme of the party was her husband’s 60th birthday, obviously she wanted it to be geared to one of his favorite interests……..playing guitar.  We’ve told you before how we love to work with people to re-create some special part of their lives in cake form.  At first we started thinking we would do a cake in the shape of a guitar with all the detailing, but when she decided to do cupcakes, we threw that idea out the window.  We decided that we would put a guitar on top of the small cake, and guitars and guitar picks on top of the cupcakes.  Since we would be putting components on the cupcakes and we always want cupcake components to be more palatable than cake components, we decided to go with fondant instead of gumpaste.  We also knew that in order to do 100 guitars and picks, we would have to plan plenty of time into our schedules to allow for the detailing.

I didn’t want to do just any old guitar for this woman’s husband.  Since he still plays in a band, I assumed that he would be very specific about the guitar he would want on his cake.  He’d been playing in a band for years so I knew that he knew guitars.  I emailed her, asking whether he played acoustic or electric and she emailed back saying it would be difficult to nail it down since he actually owns 23 guitars.  Wow.  Okay.

We finally narrowed it down to two and we decided that the more colorful of the two would go on the cake and the other one would go on the cupcakes.  Kudos to Megan here.  She totally came up with the design of the guitars and picks for the cupcakes.

Since I am the one who normally cuts out the gumpaste components when we are doing something with a lot of detail, I got to work on the template for the guitar for the cake.  It’s my job to get the proportions and shape correct before I pass it off to Megan to detail.  You have to look at an object and separate out all the externals and see just the basic shape.  This guitar was going to be difficult because the neck of the guitar would have to have enough support so that it wouldn’t break off either in transport or once it was on the cake.  It would have to be large enough to detail but small enough to put on a 6 inch round cake.  Also, when we are working with gumpaste, it’s important to allow enough time for it to dry.  Ideally, that means at least a week.  Ideally.

We started working on the guitar on Wednesday night.  The cake was due Saturday.  We felt that would be plenty of time to dry because it wasn’t really that large or involved.  I failed, however, to adequately support the neck.  I was out of the house for the evening on Thursday night when Megan sat down to detail.  The neck of the guitar broke off in her hands.

Okay.  I don’t want anyone out there to say, “I told you so.”  When am I going to learn that the first prototype doesn’t usually make it all the way through to the conclusion?  I’m pretty sure that I should know this by now.  I think I need to rethink how far ahead I am going to make gumpaste components.  I know.  You’re thinking, “Seriously?!”  “Do you think?!”  Well….it always seems like I’m going to have enough time.  I guess I haven’t learned to factor in human error.  And, believe me, where I’m concerned…..there’s a lot of human error.  I guess it’s my wild, soaring optimism that makes me think that everything will go right the first time.  Is it any wonder that Megan gets frustrated with me?!

I walked Megan through cutting out a new guitar since I wasn’t home.  This time, I told her, put a bamboo skewer through the neck for support.  She texted me and said that it seemed to be working.  Late that night, when I got home, I checked out her guitar.  It still didn’t look sturdy enough but I thought it might work.

Friday morning I got up early and went to check her version of the guitar.  It had a crack in the neck.  Back to the drawing board.  I quickly layered three layers of gumpaste with a skewer running the entire length of the guitar and extending out the bottom so that we could actually use the skewer to stick into the cake.  It worked.  I put it in front of a fan and got to work on crumbcoating all the cakes.

It must have been strong enough to last because I saw it laying on the woman’s countertop the day after the party when we stopped there to pick up the cupcake stand.  I like it when people keep the gumpaste components to our cakes.

As you can see, this project alone took a tremendous amount of time.

Factor in cake number two, due the same day.

We got a message from a friend to do a cake for her little boy who was turning three.  She wanted penguins since they were doing a penguin party at the local zoo.  Again, since the cake would be for children, we wanted the components to be tasty and easy to munch on so we decided to use fondant instead of gumpaste.  It shouldn’t be a problem since the penguins weren’t terribly detailed anyway.

I got to work on this cake.  Where Megan enjoys layering gumpaste and piping details, I enjoy shaping fondant and gumpaste.  I love to see a piece of fondant come to life in my hands as I shape bodies and faces, beaks and wings.  It only took an evening to come up with the pieces for this cake and I worked on it as Megan finished up the details for the guitars and picks.

Factor in cake number three (wait a minute, did I say that we try to restrain ourselves from taking on more than we can handle?).

A dear, dear friend and her husband had been at Thatcher’s birthday party two weeks before.  They knew that we were doing cakes but hadn’t yet seen any of our cake pictures.  They must have spent at least a half hour on the sofa with Megan as she showed them some of our pictures on her computer.  The husband, in particular, seemed to be enthralled with the detail that we put into some of our cakes.  It’s always fun for us when people enjoy looking at pictures of our cakes.

A few days later I got a phone call from this friend.  Her husband’s birthday was coming up and she was surprising him with a party.  Could we do a golf cake for her?  You guessed it.  Due the same day as the guitars and penguins.

You may remember, way back in our early days of blogging, that we wrote about our cake rules.  We had said that there is safety in sticking to the rules.  Well, one rule that I didn’t mention there was the rule that we NEVER turn away a friend.  No matter how much we have to do, we do this mainly because we love doing cakes for the people that we love.  God has gifted us with so many wonderful people in our lives and we have gotten a great deal of joy out of doing cakes for them.  No matter how busy we were, there is no way I was going to say no to this precious, precious friend!!

So we set aside the time and worked on golf components.  We had done a golf cake before so we just borrowed some of the ideas from that cake.  It made it somewhat easier, in that we didn’t have to come up with a new design, however, we still had to set aside the time to get the components done.  These would be mainly gumpaste, because of the detailing, and would need several days to dry.

In the end, as much as we paced ourselves and worked ahead of time (we’ve gotten much better with scheduling and working ahead) we still ended up with a marathon day last Friday.  I was up at 7:00 a.m. and we worked that night until 2:00 in the morning.  Amazingly enough, we didn’t even have any cake wars (Gracie is convinced that everything went smoothly because she left her lucky ladybug in the kitchen with us……we don’t believe in luck…….we did, however, touch the lucky ladybug the day of the cupcake competition……..let’s say that it’s becoming more of a fun tradition rather than a lucky charm).  We’re starting to realize that the cake wars happen mainly in the planning stages and not in the implementation so we try to be clear and patient with each other when we are in the planning stages.  Anyway, we delivered all three cakes, one after the other on Saturday, and still made it back to my house in time to help my middle daughter get ready for the Pampered Chef party that she was having at my house.

Do you remember when I said, last December that we didn’t have much to do at that time, cakewise?  That’s the last time that I could have been able to say that.  It’s all good though.  There was a great deal of satisfaction in knowing that we got all three cakes done, in time.  We’ve come a long way with time management.

Thank goodness……because people are always more important and seeing those cake smiles mean the world to us.

~Wendy~

Chapter two……..

Megan and I thought it was kind of fun to co-write the last blog about our first cupcake competition using both of our perspectives……so we’re going to keep the ball rolling, or the fondant rolling…..hopefully the fondant will keep rolling.

As I mentioned, one of the categories was ‘traditional.’  That means, the decorating can only be buttercream or royal icing or a combination of both.  Since Megan has become more experienced with royal icing, I suggested that she do something with royal icing lacework.

I’ll let her take it from here…….

Megan – Working with royal icing is one of my favorite things to do.  I love the detail of it.  Let me walk you through the process as I started making royal icing butterflies…

You would think that the first thing you would do is to make the royal icing…wrong.  First, I had to draw my pattern for the butterfly wings on paper.  I went through many designs before I found a design that I liked.  Then I taped wax paper to foam board.  I slipped the design under the wax paper. Then, I made the royal icing.  This is a tricky thing because you can only measure so much.  You have to get a feel for the consistency of royal icing.  Different tasks call for different consistencies.  I have learned to judge whether royal icing is the right consistency by the way it looks.  It is hard for me to describe royal icing to someone, because I have to look at it to make sure it is right.  Then I load the royal icing into a piping bag.  Next, I traced the butterfly wings on the wax paper.  After that, you let the royal icing dry overnight.  The next day when you peel the wax paper off the royal icing, you are left with a VERY fragile butterfly wing.  Next, you have to glue the wings together with royal icing so you have to look for something that is at the correct angle to hold the wings together while they dry.  You then have to let the bodies of the butterflies dry so that the wings don’t fall apart.  All that is done, and then you have to figure out, not only how to get these incredibly fragile butterflies on the cupcakes, but transported an hour away from their safe little home in Nazareth.  Can I again say….NERVOUS-WRECK?!

Wendy – In the last post I mentioned how we had a Saturday with no projects due and plenty of time to start working on the competition components.  I can’t tell you how delicate the butterfly wings were that Megan was working on.  She started piping with a small tip and, although the wings were beautiful because they were so delicate, you couldn’t handle them.  They would just go to pieces in your hands.  Remember, these are untrained hands that learn through trial and error.  So she switched to the next size tip and they started to hold together better.  Over the next several days she began a process of piping, peeling and gluing.  She made three times as many sets of wings as we would need because we still weren’t sure how well they would transport.  Megan ended up with two plates, one with wings in tact, another with all broken pieces.  I admired her diligence in sticking with this project.  We really thought that, as far as technical difficulty, these cupcakes would score well.

I was working on the ‘baker’s choice’ category.  Where Megan’s specialty is piping, mine is shaping gumpaste.  I love to sit down with a piece of gumpaste and watch it take shape into a person, a rose or a puppy.  My old art training comes into play as I remember how much I enjoyed working with clay so many years ago.

We decided that the ‘baker’s choice’ category would be a miniature garden.  I love to garden and as I pictured the pieces in my head, I let them flow out through my fingers into the gumpaste.  Miniature toadstools and flower pots started to appear.  We had also decided that we would line all six cupcakes up and use gumpaste pebbles that would form a pathway, flowing from one cupcake to the next.

I’ve talked before about how, when working with gumpate components, you always make extra.  You never know when disaster can strike during construction or delivery so you always want to have extra pieces.  My biggest hurdle to overcome was making a topiary.  Normally, I use spaghetti and bamboo skewers to hold things in place but the rules said that everything had to be edible.  I took that literally and decided to try to make my supports out of gumpaste.  If you look at the pictures of the cupcakes you will notice that the topiary isn’t there.  In the end, I was successful in making it stable enough for the cupcakes but it was top heavy and I just didn’t want to try leaving it on a cupcake.  The gumpaste trellis took its place.

The last category was themed to the village of shops where the competition was being held.  Since Megan enjoys very delicate piping, we decided to replicate some of the buildings in gumpaste.  We had used this technique before.  Some of you may remember the Philadelphia Marathon cake that we did for a friend, where we reproduced some Philadelphia landmark buildings.  We always do research for any project that we do so we actually took a day, drove to Peddler’s Village and took pictures of the buildings that we would use.  I rolled the gumpaste and cut it into the shapes of the buildings and Megan makes them come to life with her piping.

Megan – Again, royal icing came into play.  I love the detail.  I love adding all the tiny details that make a cake, or in this case…cupcakes come to life.  When I do work with architectural pieces I really need to study the building that I am replicating. The building becomes a jumble of geometric shapes.  Anymore, I look at many things, and think…”How could I make that on a cake?”  It is really important to make sure you capture the unique details that gives a building its character, and that is what I love about detailing buildings.  I get handed this canvas (piece of gum paste), and I get to create art.  I love to see how it comes to life before my eyes.  I have to say that out of the three categories of cupcakes, I was most excited about these Peddler’s Village cupcakes.

By the time Saturday came we were feeling pretty prepared.  We had made a list early in the week of all of the components that needed to be finished.  We faithfully kept to the list.  Somehow we saw everything start to come together.  We packed everything up the night before.  We made another list to make sure that we didn’t forget anything that we might need to put the cupcakes together.  Around 11:00 p.m. the night before, we were finally finished.  I had such mixed emotions.  I didn’t know if I was excited for the next day to come, or terrified that it was going to be a disaster.  Even after we were all prepared to go, I still couldn’t believe that we were entered in a competition.

Wendy – This post wouldn’t be complete without some small disaster though.  After all, we live in a world where things go wrong and when inexperience meets lack of preparation, it is a recipe for trouble.

We were so pleased with the royal icing butterflies that we felt that they needed a very special way to be displayed.  We decided to try, for the first time ever (I know what you’re thinking…..why would we try something for the first time, the night before our first competition……’cause that’s just how we roll).  We had yet to try dipping cupcakes in royal icing.  Dipping cupcakes in royal icing is a tricky process but it yields a rewarding, beautiful product, if it is successful.  Cupcakes dipped in royal icing have a shiny, smooth surface which, we felt, would not detract from the intricacy of the butterflies, like a mound of buttercream would.

We had researched the process and felt confident that it would work.  We started dipping around 8:00 p.m.  I guess I don’t even need to describe the process any further.  On the third round of dipping, we realized that it just wasn’t going to work.  Thank goodness we had saved some buttercream…..just in case.  We scraped off the royal icing and ended up piping buttercream on instead.  In the end, it actually worked much better than the royal icing would have, the buttercream helped to cushion the butterflies for transport to the competition.  Remember one of our mottos…….live and learn.  Megan has vowed that she will never attempt dipping cupcakes in royal icing again, but I am determined to not let the icing win.  I will live to conquer the technique another day…….hopefully.

We were only one more sleep away from competition day.

Our first cupcake competition……

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that I write most of the blogs and once in a while Megan chimes in.  We’re going to do something a little different this time.  Since we were recently involved in our first cupcake competition, we thought it might be fun to co-write this blog and give you both of our perspectives.  Again, if you’ve been reading this blog, you’ll know that Megan and I are a mother/daugther team who are about as opposite in our approach to ‘caking’ as two people can be.  Remember, I am the free spirit and Megan is the concrete thinker, and also keeping in mind that our cake relationship is still a work in progress.

A few months ago a dear friend of mine found out about our cakes.  I hadn’t seen her for a while and when I did, I showed her some of our pictures.  She loved the cakes and very enthusiastically said, “You should enter a cupcake competition.”  She had heard about this competition which was about 45 minutes away from where we lived.  It was being held in a quaint little village of shops, which, by the way, my family already loves to go to.  It was encouraging that she thought that we should enter, but it was one of those, “I don’t really think we will”…….moments. Then I started thinking about it.  Then I started to get excited about it.  Then I started envisioning what we could do.  There I go again, soaring off into the clouds of fondant.  I stopped myself short and thought I better let Megan in on my plans, epsecially since, you know, we’re kind of a team.

I was on board immediately…..surprise, surprise.  My typical response to anything that people ask us to do cake-wise is, “Sure, we can do that,” without really considering the engineering miracles that it will take to do a particular project.  Details, details.

Megan, however, didn’t share my sentiments…..surprise, surprise.  Megan didn’t want to enter the cupcake competition.  Let me just say that right off the bat.  Come to think of it, she was pretty adamant about not entering it.  I had to talk her into the whole idea.  Granted, it didn’t take her long to agree to do it but I definitely had to do some fast talking to get her on board.

I don’t usually text Megan during the day while she’s working but I knew that she wouldn’t answer me anyway unless she had a break, so I took a chance and texted.  I told her to call me as soon as she had a chance.  That didn’t necessarily sound urgent to me.

Megan – Let me set the scene for you.  I am sitting in the Reading Room at work and I get this text…”Call me as soon as you can!”  Now, this text from my Mother has me a wreck.  You always think the worst when you hear something like that.  I am thinking something horrible has happened to someone.  I call her as soon as I have a free moment, and this is the first thing hear…”Do you want to enter a cupcake competition?”

Really?!  I got stressed out for that?!  Ok, regroup…”Do I want to enter a cupcake competition?”

There is something that you should probably know about me.  I am a very competitive person.  And when I say competitive, I mean COMPETITIVE.  I will be honest with you…my competitive tendencies are not a good thing.  I try to tone down being competitive, but sometimes it just gets the best of me.  Sometimes I will choose not to do something like a game or contest because I am so competitive.  So, when asked if I wanted to be in a cupcake competition, my first instinct was….”That’s probably not a good idea.”  I said, “no.”  I was happy making cakes and cupcakes in a strictly non-competitive way.

Wendy -  Like I said….fast talking.  Finally, Megan jumped in the competition boat with me and we set sail.

We started gearing up for our first baking competition, ever, and we had no idea what to expect.  Visions of cake competitions from the food network started dancing through my head.  Ten tiered cakes that weigh 200 pounds and take seven people to lift them to the display table………..

Back to reality…..standard size cupcakes, no more than six on a board.

It’s been heartwarming to us to see the response from everyone when we announced on Facebook that we were going to enter our first competition.  Again, we are humbled by the support of our ‘cake family.’  Many people seemed to have a lot more confidence in us than we had in ourselves.  We decided to plow ahead.  I’m not sure if everyone realizes just how much their encouragement means to us.

The beginning stages of brainstorming and getting ready were very exciting for us, and, yet, nerve-wracking at the same time.  We had no idea what to expect, absolutely no idea what the competion would be like.  There were three categories,’ traditional,’ ‘anything goes,’ and ‘themed’ to the location where the contest was being held.  There were two entry levels, professional and amateur.  Obviously, we would be entering the amateur level.  Did I mention that we had no idea what to expect?!

Megan – I think that not knowing what to expect made the idea of competing even more nerve-wracking.  I kept having this scene play out in my mind where my mother and I would arrive at Peddler’s Village with cupcakes in hand, and there would be these outrageous, amazing cupcakes already on display.  We would look at each other and say, “What in the world are we doing here?”  Someone would come up to us and ask us if we were entering cupcakes in the competition, and our response would be, “What cupcakes?  These cupcakes?  Oh no, these cupcakes aren’t ours.  Who would enter these in a competition?”  Needless to say, we had some planning ahead of us so that wouldn’t happen.

Wendy – We started brainstorming.  I can’t tell you how many ideas have come and gone through our discussions.  We finally nailed down what we wanted to do and got to work.  As I mentioned, there were three categories and we ambitiously decided to enter all three.  The cupcakes had to be ready to be displayed upon arrival.  They were not going to be judged on taste, only visuals, difficulty and creativity.

The first category was ‘traditional.’  The rules were that you had to use either royal icing, buttercream or a combination of the two.  No fondant or gumpaste components.  The second category was ‘baker’s choice.’  That meant anything goes….gumpaste, fondant, buttercream and/or royal icing.  The last category was themed to the quaint village and its shops.  All components had to be completely edible.

Two weeks before the competition we had a Saturday where we had some time, with no cakes due, and we decided to start working on some of the components.  We really try hard to budget our time when we are working on cake stuff and we like to carve out chunks of time in our weekly schedules.  We spent several hours working with royal icing and gumpaste and things seemed to be going pretty well.  We felt like we were being good stewards of our time, working ahead, and carefully thinking things through.  That’s what we thought.  At the time.

Time is never wasted when we are working on cake stuff……although sometimes it seems like it.  Even if the project that you are working on is a total fail, you are learning in the process…..enter, life lesson.  You learn what works.  You learn what to do differently next time.  You learn how totally incompetent you are, or, you realize that you have enough experience under your belt to know how to make it work.  Bottom line….we walked away from that Saturday with nothing concrete accomplished even though it seemed, at the time, that we were accomplishing a lot.  Mostly what we accomplished was knowing what not to do the next time….and we had nothing to show for that precious, unfettered chunk of Saturday.

Case in point….Megan’s butterflies……….but, we are going to end this post here……we’ll continue the story with another post.  We try to keep our posts to a reasonable length, after all, your time is precious and I’m sure you don’t want to spend the next hour reading about some dumb cupcake competition with a couple of goofy women.

To be continued…….

Murphy’s Cake……

I’m sure you’ve all heard of Murphy’s Law…..you know, the old saying that says, “Whatever can go wrong, will.”  It applies to cakes as well.  Sometimes we have Murphy’s cakes.  We will be in the middle of cake construction and look at each other and one of us will say (usually me), “This cake is never going to come together.”  I’ve threatened to walk away in the middle of a cake disaster but something keeps me in the kitchen, bent on mastering the particular cake monster that I am working on at the time.

Recently we were asked to do an 80′s themed cake.  No problem.  An 80′s themed cake shouldn’t be a problem for us.  I was young and having children in the 80′s.  My daughters played with 80′s toys and I listened to 80′s music.  There are plenty of ideas and themes out there that we could choose from to incorporate into the cake.  The cake was for our church and a celebration that they were having for the people who spend countless hours volunteering.  It was a way of saying thank you for all that they do.  We were happy to be asked to do the cake for them.

We decided that we would incorporate Pac-Man, a boom box, Rubik’s cube and a Smurf.  A lot of the cake would be fondant work that we would be doing immediately after the cake was baked, crumb-coated, and the fondant layer was put on.  The only thing that we had to do ahead of time was to make the Smurf.  We decided to do the Smurf out of fondant instead of gumpaste.  Gumpaste is usually what I use to construct people but I knew that there would be children at the party and I wanted the Smurf to be a little more palatable.

We set aside our weekly cake night and got to work.  Megan and Bethie were working on fondant footballs that we needed for some Superbowl cupcakes and I was working on Mr. Smurf.

I hate making people out of fondant.  Let me just say that right now.

His body went together fine but his head……let me frame this out for you;  Megan and Bethie were finished with the footballs, Megan had gone to bed and Bethie had gone home and I was still working on the little blue man.  Even Gracie was too tired to sit at the kitchen table and watch a movie with me.  Finally, at about 1:00 a.m., and hours of re-working his head, I went to bed with the head finished and waiting for the detail that I would do the next morning.

It’s not out of the ordinary for us to have a little trouble from time to time with cake components.  Sometimes we have to remake things even after they have dried.  I’ve already thrown away people that I spent hours working on because I wasn’t happy with them after they had dried.  So I really didn’t think anything of the trouble that I had with little Smurf-man.  Megan was at school when I finished his face the next morning and I texted her a picture so she could see what he looked like.  She liked him, I was satisfied and so I put him in the dining room to dry.

The cake was due on a Friday night and on Thursday, I got to work baking.  Cakes went together pretty well.  There were going to be three tiers, 10″ square bottom, 9″ round middle and a 6″ square for the Rubik’s cube which would be the top layer.  Still no problems.

I was running a little late, I wanted to have the cakes baked and cooled by the time Megan got home from school so that we could get started right away but I was just finishing up baking when she got home.  Still no problem.

I wanted to start with the Rubik’s cube layer so that Megan could work on doing the colored squares while I crumb-coated and put fondant on the other layers.  I stacked and crumb-coated the Rubik’s cube and was ready to hand it off to Megan.

When Megan is nervous about something she doesn’t come right out and tell you what she’s nervous about.  She just starts to say things like, “Mama, I think I’m going to have a hard time getting the squares to come out evenly on the cube,” rather than, “Mama, there’s no way that I will be able to make that oblong, rectangular blob look like a Rubik’s cube.”  She’s so polite.

Really?…..it looked fine to me.  I mean I know that I need to get new glasses but….maybe I was just tired of working on the black fondant and wanted to move on.  I was ready to deliver it to the kitchen table and I looked at Megan.  She was starting to twitch.

“Mama, that’s not really a cube.”

Silence on my part.

I considered doing battle for a moment and then decided against it.  I looked at what was supposed to be a cube.

She was right.  There was no way that she would be able to get the squares to come out evenly and make it look like a Rubik’s cube.

Okay.  I got out my trusty bread knife which doubles as a cake carving knife and got to work.  Fifteen minutes later, the cake was more accurately shaped like a cube and Megan stopped twitching.  No problem, right?

I had to cover the cube with black fondant before she could put the squares on.  Can I just say right now that there are some colors that I absolutely hate working into fondant and black is one of them.  It seems to dry the fondant out faster and you have a small window of opportunity to get the fondant on the cake before it starts to crack. ( Oh, if only for an airbrush in my storehouse of cake tools!!)  Even adding water doesn’t always pull it back from the brink of disaster.  Yep…..I ended up throwing away two batches of fondant and putting fondant on the cake six times before I got it right.  I came close to walking out of the kitchen.  All the while, Megan is sitting patiently at the kitchen table waiting for her cube.

Finally, I passed the cube off for her to finish, she seemed satisfied, and I moved on to crumb-coating and putting the fondant on the two bottom layers.  As I was putting the round layer together, the top layer of cake cracked.  Are you even kidding me?  Keep in mind, this was only minutes after I had recovered my sanity from the cube disaster.  Okay.  Keep moving.  I laid it on the buttercream filling, crumb-coated it to seal the pieces together and put on the fondant.  Megan finished the Rubik’s cube, the cakes had their fondant overcoats on and we called it a night.  We weren’t as far along with finishing as we wanted to be  but we knew that we would have time the next day when Megan got home from school.

As I said before, having one or two problems with a cake is not unusual.  As I look back at this cake, things could have been worse, but there definitely seemed to be a dark cloud hanging over this whole project.  When we look at the pictures now, we still can’t believe that it all came together.

Before Megan got home from school, I took the bottom square layer out of the dining room and started working on the Pac-Man fondant pieces that would decorate the sides.  I don’t like to do fondant work unless Megan is here so that felt a little weird but I finished this layer and put it aside.  One of the corners seemed lower than the others but I knew that it probably wouldn’t be noticeable when the other layers were in place.

Megan came home and was ready to work on the boom box for the middle layer.  We had to stack the cake before she could put the boom box on.  I had put the wooden dowel supports in and we put the middle layer on.  I cracked a small piece of fondant off the bottom but we figured that Megan would be able to cover that with the boom box.

Megan:  “Mama, the middle layer is rocking.”

Me:  “Seriously?”

Megan:  “Yeah, watch.”

She took her hand and gently rocked the cake back and forth.  Hmmmmmm.  Are we done yet?

There was a look of sheer panic on Megan’s face when I told her that we would have to lift the middle layer off and remove one of the wooden dowel supports because it was too high.

“Megan, I’m going to lift the middle layer and you pull the problem dowel out of the bottom layer.”

Blank stare from Megan.

Dowel removed, cake back in place.

I looked at the clock.  It was 3:15.  I was supposed to pick Gracie up from work at 3:15.  I had taken her to work because her car was in the shop.  I left Megan at the kitchen table working on the boom box for the middle layer.  She would be fine as I raced out the door to pick Gracie up.

I sat in the parking lot of the grocery store where Gracie worked and no Gracie.  Finally after waiting for 20 minutes, I went into the store.  Gracie was still working the register.  She was in the middle of taking care of a customer so I didn’t want to disturb her.  I quietly said, “Aren’t you done at 3:15?”

She mouthed to me, “4:15.”

Seriously?

I raced back home not really knowing how Gracie was going to get home, only that I had a cake to finish.

I walked into the kitchen and Megan had finished the boom box.  The only problem was that she was supposed to put it over the place where I had cracked the fondant when I put the middle layer on the cake.  You guessed it.

Megan realized what she had done.

Okay.  It’s okay.  We’ll cover it up with the fondant balls that we put around the base.  Another bump in the road.

“Megan, what’s this hole in the fondant on the middle layer?”

“Where in the world did that come from?”

Keep moving.

Finally, we put the fondant balls on the bases and the cake was finished.

“Mama, what time are we supposed to have the cake to the church?”

“Ummmm.  I’m not sure.”

Megan checked the event time on the website.  The event was planned for 6:00.  It was now 5:00.  We are a half hour from the church and now we would have to fight traffic on the road which is the major artery for the valley.

We made it in the nick of time.  We put the Rubik’s cube on top of the middle layer, Mr. Smurf-man went on top of the Rubik’s cube, pipe the base of the cube, and stepped back……….

Wait, a minute….is that the same cake that we have been agonizing over for the last two days.  It can’t be………

So the cake came together….finally.  There were no major disasters.  It didn’t end up topside down on the driveway or anything like that (which, by itself, is surprising considering how the events unfolded).  There were just enough minor incidents from start to finish to frustrate us.  We would look at each other and both of us would say out loud, “You’ve got to be kidding me!!!”  A friend of ours once commented that no matter what happens, our cakes always seem to turn out.  It’s because we have no choice but to stick with it and work through the bumps in the road.  When people are expecting a cake, you keep working until you can produce it.

Object lesson:  bumps in the road, bumps in the road, there will always be bumps in the road.  Am I going to walk away or am I going to stick with it?  We’ve all learned the hard way that we learn from the bumps.  There is nothing to learn when the road is smooth.  There is nothing to learn when the cake doesn’t crack or the fondant doesn’t sag.

And sometimes the bumps make you appreciate the finished work all the more.

Tools of the trade and the language of cakes….

Fondant, gumpaste, offset spatula, turntable, crumbcoat, ball tool, coupler, piping bags……….just some of the terms and tools that come with the territory of baking and decorating cakes.  We’ve also added our own addition to our list of terms; ‘caking,’ which is a term that we have coined that describes more than just baking, but includes the whole process from making gumpaste components to baking, crumbcoating, putting fondant on and finishing construction…………..

Sound familiar?  If you’ve been following our blog, you may have heard us use some of these terms.  If you have been in a conversation with us in the last year I’m positive that you have heard these terms, and if you live with us, you’re probably sick and tired of hearing these terms.

When Megan and I first started doing cakes, I would pretty much use the tools that I already had in my kitchen.  I learned pretty early on that, even though we could improvise from time to time, there were some tools that we needed and didn’t have, and eventually came to depend on once we had them.  It took the better part of a year to accumulate even the most basic tools that we need to craft the cakes that we make (please don’t ask my husband what the den looks like).  I’ve said many times before that there are so many tools that we would love to have but we try to stay focused on the cake that we are doing at the time and what we need to finish that particular cake, and besides, if we buy anymore tools with the small amount of storage space that we have, one of us will have to move out of the house.

If you go to some of the local, large chain craft stores you’ll find usually one or two aisles that are devoted to cake supplies.  They’re very basic in the cake tools that they carry so once you’ve exhausted their supply you’ll need to look for a more specialized store if you can’t find what you need.  I always prefer little mom-and-pop stores anyway and there are a couple of nice, small cake stores in my area.  I’ve also been able to find things on line when I have plenty of time and notice.

As I mentioned a paragraph ago, I heard a very good piece of advice when we first started this process and that was, “only buy what you need for the cake that you are working on at the moment.”  As much as I would love to buy everything in the store, I do try to stay focused on the cake at hand and only buy the equipment that I need for that cake.  Sometimes it’s a special cookie cutter.  In the beginning, Megan and I would cut out carboard templates and use exacto knives to cut shapes out of fondant.  I can’t believe how we spent hours doing it that way.  Now, we try to get special cookie cutters when there is a particular shape that we need and, what took hours, now takes minutes.  Remember, we are self-trained and had to learn the hard way.  I would also recommend a few sets of basic shapes; round, square, star and flowers are especially invaluable.  One of my favorite Christmas presents this year was a basic set of Ateca round cutters.  I looooooove them.  There is such a difference between them and the cheaper ones that I used to use.

We’ve always had to improvise and, quite often, still do.  Before I got the set of circle cutters for Christmas, the only cutter that I could find that was the perfect size to cut fondant for cupcakes was the lid to my antique salt shaker.  You guessed it.  I would take the salt shaker apart, wash the lid, use it to cut fondant for cupcakes, re-wash it and put it together and back on the shelf.  That was a pain.

I had an offset spatula in my drawer for years and never used it.  I had no idea what to use it for.  For a time, many of my friends were having Pampered Chef parties and I bought several of their basic tools  (I kind of can’t resist kitchen gadgets).  Now, my offset spatula is my best friend and the tool that I use to crumbcoat.  I also have a smaller one that is one of my favorite tools.  I use the smaller one, many times, when I am making a square cake to get nice sharp corners.

We really didn’t know how much we would use it at the time that we bought it, but we thought that the Wilton set of fondant tools would be a practical purchase, and so it was.  We had no idea at the time that we bought it how much we would use it.  We wouldn’t be able to make gumpaste roses and flowers without the ball tools that came with the set, although one of the tools that I really covet when I go to the cake store is a metal ball tool.  It’s just too expensive though.  So far, I’ve done fine making flowers with my little plastic ball tool, but maybe I’ll have to ask Santa to bring me one next year.

Gumpaste and fondant dry out very quickly and when you are working with them you have to keep them from drying out.  For example, recently Megan and I made an 80′s themed cake and the top layer of the cake was a Rubik’s cube.  I baked the cake, carved it and covered it with black fondant.  I passed it off to Megan to cover in multi-colored squares and she was working with six different colors at one time.  We put drinking glasses over the fondant so that we can see the colors but also keep it from drying out.

One of Megan’s favorite tools is her wooden roller.  She uses it for gumpaste only.  We have different rollers that we use for fondant.  Megan also loves her piping bags.  I had acquired a few of the cloth piping bags over the years and we used them when we first started doing cakes but we found that, with the volume of piping that we do, the disposable plastic bags work much better.

I must mention, once again, my favorite tool of all and it wasn’t purchased at any craft or cake store.  It’s my trusty styrofoam drying rack.  Because of its corners and shaped edges, it is probably the tool that we have used the most.  I wish that I could patent it and sell it.  It has propped up gumpaste people, supported hanging roses, and dried stalks of grapes and chocolate trees.  It’s silly, isn’t it, that something so simple can be so valuable to us?!

You’ve seen by now that we take lots of pictures and if you look back at our early pictures, you can see that they have evolved somewhat.  We try to take a lot of pictures, first of all because we can’t believe that we are doing this, but also because we’ve been told time after time how much people enjoy looking at pictures of our cakes.  You can probably also tell that we take a lot of what I call ‘process’ pictures.  I try to, as much as I can, record the process, although many times construction gets intense and it’s difficult to stop what I’m doing to take pictures.  It’s much easier to take pictures when Megan and I are sitting at the kitchen table working on gumpaste.

There is one more tool that I need to mention…..

This is Silver……as in “Hi, ho, Silver and away.”  I know that I am horribly dating myself here but this is my mixer and his name is Silver.  For those of you who are too young to know that phrase, it’s from The Lone Ranger, a 50′s western television show.  I loved the Lone Ranger.  He always showed up in the nick of time and his trusty horse, Silver, was always his faithful companion.  Much like Silver carried The Lone Ranger wherever he needed to go, no cake has come out of my kitchen without first passing through Silver.  He’s such a trooper.  Together, we’ve had days where we’ve done six batches of cakes and, unlike me, he never gets tired.  We couldn’t do what we do without him.  He deserved his own close up.

My Dad used to say that the right tool makes the job easier.  So true.  My Dad was a tool and die maker and always worked with his hands.  He didn’t earn a whole lot and to add some extra money to his budget, he would work on cars after he was done with his regular job.  I adored my Dad and, in order to spend time with him, I would go with him while he cleaned out a carburator or put on a set of brakes.  I was his helper and would hand him his tools as he needed them.  I spent hours in cold garages, watching him work.  My Dad was a talker and we would talk to pass the time.  He was always interested and always engaged.  We talked about everything under the sun but mostly about life and he always wanted to hear what I had to say.  My Dad did so much more for me than just take me with him to keep him company………I would always hand him the right tool that he needed at that moment.

“Hey, Megan, hand me that ruler.”

Don’t talk to me when I’m baking…

Age is a relative term.  I know that I am not old, but the mirror tells me that I am definitely past my bloom (what a lovely Edwardian way to say it).  It’s a hard adjustment, really.  It’s no wonder that people fight it so.  I always wanted to age gracefully but I’m not really sure what that means.  I think that you just have to accept it, like everything else, not let it rule you and move on.

It factors into my baking.  I have had to remake cakes because I couldn’t remember if I had put a certain ingredient in or not.  I know.  Sounds silly.  But when you are making a cake for someone who is not a family member, you really don’t want them eating a cake that has, maybe half the sugar that it’s supposed to, or possibly no baking powder.  Yeah, pretty sure that wouldn’t exactly leave quite the impression that I was shooting for.  I once made a batch of brownies that had no baking powder.  That was when we were first married and I quickly learned what role baking powder is supposed to fill.  Let’s just say that the brownies bore an uncanny resemblance to those pieces of rubber that you see along the road that have broken off of tires.  Come to think of it, you could lift the whole batch out of the pan in one piece.

So I’ve learned to be a lot more methodical in my baking.  I’ve started using prep bowls a lot more.  I pre-measure all of my ingredients and I do it in order as they’re listed in the recipe.  If I’m like the last person in the baking world to do it that way, then forgive me.  I’ve always been a little bit of a rebel and in my pre-fondant days I would just throw everything in together.  Believe me, those ingredients are listed that way for a reason.

I love Alton Brown.  No, it’s okay, not love, love him.  I mean, I just wish that he’d been around when I started cooking and baking 35 years ago.  Anyway, I love Alton because he explains the chemistry of cooking and baking.  When you’ve been in the kitchen long enough there are things that you figure out on your own about cooking just through trial and error, but when I hear Alton explain things, it all makes sense.  I love that Alton explains how you always add the flour last because of the way it bonds to the other ingredients.  And once you add the flour, you turn the mixer down and beat it slowly.  Because of the chemistry of cakes, you’ll end up with a dry cake if you over-beat the flour.

Back to my aging brain….here’s another example of my methodical baking processes (my Continuous Improvement husband would be proud of me for using that phrase).  When I am measuring out my flour, I make separate piles in the bowl so that I can count the piles, unless of course you’re sifting and then the piles get a little mixed up.  I still make piles of flour, I just do it before I put it through the sifter.

My house is usually pretty crazy busy with people coming and going like it’s a train station.  I’ve only ever been in one train station and that was Grand Central Station and it was pretty busy.  It reminded me of home.  So when I am in the middle of methodical baking processes and there are people flying around me, it gets a little difficult to concentrate. I’ve learned, again, the hard way, that I can’t talk while I’m baking.   Everytime I try, I mess things up.  So, if you’re in my house while I’m baking, do me a favor and don’t talk to me.  You can do handstands, backflips, or juggle poodles and I’m fine.  Just don’t talk to me.  I’m used to the activity but my poor aging brain can’t chain words together in a sentence and turn out a cake at the same time.

I also can’t talk when I am rolling out fondant for a half sheet cake.  Fondant is fickle.  Sometimes it likes you and sometimes it doesn’t.  I can have fondant go on a cake perfectly fine, draping over a cake like a hand in a glove.  Other times, it’s temperamental and the corners crack and air bubbles start popping up all over the place.  My record for re-fondanting the same cake is three times.  Don’t laugh.  It actually peels off pretty easily….most of the time.  But seriously, it can be really difficult to try to put temperamental fondant on a sheet cake, and if the fondant is temperamental then I get temperamental.  My sweet cake partner/daughter, Megan, has learned to run interference for me with other family members.  The other night my husband was a shout away in the family room and he was working on the taxes.  He asked me a question and before I could answer, “Don’t talk to me right now,”  Megan called out in a much sweeter tone than I would have at the time, “Don’t talk to Mama, she’s putting fondant on a sheet cake.”  Whew…..thanks, Megan.

Just in case you think I’m the only one, here’s a warning….don’t talk to Megan when she’s piping…….or for that matter, when she’s painting pin stripes on baseball players.

Well, just to finish up the age and caking discussion…..I really do think that, as much as I hate having to be so much more careful these days because of my antiquated brain cells, I really couldn’t have done this whole fondant thing 20 years ago.  I didn’t have the patience then.  I was raising children and it took raising children for me to learn to be patient…..patient with them and patient with myself.

Come to think of it, this may be a bit of a stretch but learning to be patient with fondant, reminds me a little of learning to be patient with children.  You work fondant, gently but with a firm hand, adding ingredients slowly as you go, adding only what the fondant can handle at the time.  If you’re too rough with it, you’ll damage it.  You mold it and shape it and take your time with it.  You gently guide it into place, helping it into all the places it needs to go.  You stretch it and shape it until it takes on a life of its own.  When it’s finally in place, you stand back and look at it, a little sad because it’s finished, but happy that you were patient enough to see it through to the end.

Top ten things that I didn’t count on when doing cakes….

Sometimes it’s really easy to write the blog.  The more cakes we do, the more cakes we have to write about.  The flip side, though, is when we don’t have a lot of cakes to do, there isn’t much to write about.  Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy writing and just living life is fodder for the keyboard, but since this is a cake blog, we try to stick to the subject at hand (although I occasionaly digress about my crazy puppy, Thistle).  I do have a top ten list for parenting teenagers that I plan to publish at some point but that will have to wait until the summer when Megan is in Slovakia.

We haven’t had any cake orders since the beginning of December.  It was nice to have a little break through the Christmas season.  It gave us the opportunity to experiment with royal icing and sugar cookies, although when we have the time to experiment we always come away with more ideas than we are able to satisfy in one sitting, and more ideas always lead to the need for more equipment, and more equipment means that we need to do more cakes because that is how we pay for new equipment.  So maybe free time isn’t always a good thing.

Other than watch a few episodes of Ace of Cakes, we haven’t done any ‘caking.’  But last week we were working on three cakes, two for last week and one for this week.  One cake ended up getting postponed but we still put the time into working on it.  Also, Megan’s birthday is this week and I will be working on her cake as well, which, I might add, will be weird.  She’s my partner and it will be odd to do a cake without her.  Bethie, my middle daughter, has agreed to spend the day helping me.  Bethie is a great help because she’s been an extra pair of hands for us many times before and she knows the ropes.

So the title of this particular blog is, “Top Ten Things that I didn’t count on when doing cakes.”  Although I don’t really care for David Letterman, we’ll do it like he does his top ten lists and start with number 10.  I’ve rambled long enough, let’s get to it.

Disclaimer:  Please, please, please understand, we are not, in the least bit, prideful about what we do.  As a matter of fact, when I look at our pictures, whether here or on Facebook, I CANNOT believe the cakes that we have done.  It’s ridiculous.  I mean, how did this all happen?!  I CANNOT believe that God has given us the opportunity to do these kinds of cakes.  I mean, I always wanted to take a Wilton buttercream class but just never seemed to have the opportunity to do that.  Yeah…I guess I don’t really feel the need to do that now.  Anyway, when I talk about our cakes being popular, it’s just because I’m amazed by it all.

Number 10 – I never counted on the fact that our cakes would be so popular.  Wherever we go, people want to talk about cakes with us.  Since we love to talk about cakes, we’re always happy to talk to anyone who wants to listen.  I’m always surprised when we talk about a particular cake and people seem to know exactly which cake we’re talking about just by seeing the pictures on Facebook or here on the blog.  Megan has also started linking the blog to Pinterest.  Wow.

Number 9 – I never counted on the fact that working out our cake relationship would be so difficult for Megan and I.  Cakes became a crucible for our relationship; turn up the heat in any situation and even the best of relationships can be strained.  Its like we were on this ship, heading into uncharted waters and, until we figured out what each of us was supposed to be doing to keep the ship afloat, it became pretty stressful.  Megan was in the cabin with charts and graphs and I was on deck with my hand on the rutter and we just didn’t understand who was supposed to do what or how.  We figured it out, finally, and now we move in tandem.  After all the months of ironing out our roles and cake ideology, we sail together quite happily now.  We’ve learned so much, and not just about cakes.

Number 8 – I never counted on the fact that we would need so much equipment.  When we first started doing cakes I would go to the cupboard and pull out whatever cake pan I thought would work for the cake that we were doing, after all, these cake pans were my friends.  I’d used them for years.  Then, Bethie bought me my first Wilton 8 inch round pan.  As new requests came in, I needed another pan, and another, to suit the needs of each cake.  Now I have a box that I keep all my cake pans in and the cake pans that I have used for years stay in the cupboard.  When we have a cake to do for someone, we only use the pans that we have purchased to make cakes, and that’s just the pans.  I’m planning on a separate blog just to talk about our other tools and how they have taken over the den.

Number 7 – I never counted on how stressful it would be to make a cake for someone’s special occasion.

Number 6 – I never counted on how much I would enjoy making a cake for someone’s special occasion.

Number 5 – I never counted on how much I would enjoy people’s responses when they see their cakes for their special occasion.

Number 4 – I never counted on writing a blog about our cakes.

Number 3 – I never counted on how much time was involved in making a cake.  Its not just about the baking.  We’ve already talked, here in the blog, about starting gumpaste components weeks before the cake is actually due.  Baking is actually one of the last parts of the process.  I love our ‘cake talks’ though, the planning sessions where Megan and I brainstorm about how to handle each cake.

Number 2 – I never counted on our cakes showing up on a Google search.  Yeah, that was a little weird.

Number 1 – I never counted on the number of people who have encouraged us and supported us with our cakes.  We’ve had people tell us, over and over, how much they enjoy looking at our pictures and reading the blog.  Thank you.  No, really.  Thank you.  Do you know how much it means to us?  It makes us want to keep baking, and fondant-ing, and writing, and posting pictures and……you get the picture.

Maybe, someday, you’ll come into our little shop, and we’ll talk cakes.  We’ll give you a free cup of coffee, just because we love people and we love coffee and combining those two are one of our favorite things to do.  Maybe you’ll lean over the counter and look into the display case and choose a cake to take home, or maybe order a special cake for someone that you love.  Maybe we’ll have pictures all over the walls of the cakes that we have done.  There will be little tables, and warm colors, and cozy corners to read in.

We don’t have a shop, not even close, but we can dream can’t we?  After all, I never counted on enjoying making cakes enough to want my own shop.

P.S.  Thistle update:  Thistle is no longer sequestered from the other dogs.  She is so happy to have new sisters and I’m sure that you can tell from this picture, Jemma is thrilled as well.

As a matter of fact, Jemma told me the other day that she thinks she’s too old to have a puppy in the house.  Believe me, Jemma, I know exactly how you feel.  Seriously, yes, it’s true, I’ve relinquished a corner of my heart to Thistle…..and so has Jemma.

Start to finish…..

Back to cake stuff.  Thank you for bearing with me when I write about things other than cakes…..like puppies, and floods, and family.  I know that this is a blog primarily about cakes but cakes are just one facet of life and occasionally I digress into other areas.  Anyway, thanks to those of you who read the blog about Thistle (someone said that I doomed her to be prickly because of her name), and as I said before, back to cake stuff.

Megan and I haven’t been doing as many cakes lately and I think that may be a mixed blessing.  We love it and miss it when we don’t get to do cakes but it’s also a busy season and so, less cakes gives us more time to do Christmas.

The whole process of planning for a cake is pretty involved for us and includes, as I described it to someone yesterday, a lot of blood, sweat and tears!  We’re not very busy right now but back in September and October we had a lot going on.  Not only do we do cakes for people who ask us to, but we also take cakes along when we visit friends and family (hint, hint…..if you invite us over for dinner, you might end up with a cake for dessert……insert winky smiley face here).  At one point in September, we were taking a cake to a friend’s house when we went there for dinner, two family birthday cakes, a fundraising event for the American Heart Association, a kid’s birthday cake, and an adult birthday cake with a sports theme.  In October we had two more adult birthday cakes and another family birthday.  (It’s easier to write about them after the fact because many times the cakes are surprises for people and if I write about them prior to the event I worry that I will give away too many details and ruin the surprise.)  This is a little of what we go through when we are working on multiple cakes.

Megan and I have a calendar where we write all the upcoming orders.  We also write up order sheets with all the details like size, flavors, theme, etc.  Then, we sit down together to talk about scheduling, timing, supplies and whether we have all of the tools we need for a particular cake.  It’s in this planning stage where the tension gets a little high sometimes.  This is where the rest of the family usually leaves the room while Megan and I work things out, like whether the monkey faces are going to be pink or tan……hmmm….anyway…..I digress.

For example, we did cupcakes for a fundraiser for the American Heart Association.  We begin by looking at pictures of cakes and cupcakes online for inspiration.  Megan and I look at tons of pictures online, as I have mentioned before.  If someone asks us for a particular cake, we look for pictures to show them, to kind of guide them with what they want.  Sometimes they want exactly the cake that they see and sometimes they are willing to let us come up with our own design.  I love it when people sort of have an idea what they want but they give us some artistic freedom.  It’s so much fun when they actually see the cake!!!

Many of the cake pictures that you have seen on Facebook have been our own design but some have been copied from other cake pictures.  The reason that I tell you all that is because it has been my desire, from the beginning, to come up with our own, unique signature style and we were excited to come up with our own style with the cupcakes for the American Heart Association fundraiser.

Once we decide on a picture or a design, we talk about who is going to do what.  This has turned into quite a brainstorming session.  Again, we don’t have a lot of experience under our belts to draw from and it can be very stressful to try to talk things through.  I am the visionary and I know that it frustrates Megan at times, when I get grand ideas for a cake.  It seems like, a lot of times, I have to talk her into jumping up onto my bandwagon.  Sometimes I am successful, sometimes not.  It’s hard for her because she is a very concrete thinker and when I am soaring through clouds made of fondant, I’ve left her standing back on terra firma with a puzzled look on her face as to where I have flown off to.

Other times, I must sit, patiently, and try to answer her questions.  Megan has lots of questions about how a gumpaste creation is actually going to take shape and be sustainable on a cake.  In other words, it’s one thing to think that you know how to make a Leaning Tower of Pizza on a cake, it’s another thing to actually do it.  Megan is very much like her Father.  She’s a concrete thinker who needs to know how the Leaning Tower of Pizza is going to be built so that it doesn’t become the Falling Tower of Pizza once it’s on the cake.  I have to keep in mind that we are two different people with two different perspectives.  It never seemed to be as much of a problem when we were just Mother and Daughter.  Now that we are business partners, it has been a real growing experience to come to an understanding of each other and how our thought patterns work.

The cake flavors and fillings are never a problem.  As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been married for 34 years and I love to bake so I already had tons of cake recipes to draw from and if I can’t find what I need in my own library, there are multitudes of cake recipes online.It’s funny how people keep offering cake recipes to us.  I think that it makes them feel like part of the process and, believe me, we’ve found lots of wonderful recipes that way.  My Mother has got to get the credit for a few of my recipes, especially my signature chocolate cake.  I always thought that it was her recipe but I found out, after talking with her about it, that it actually came from my Grammy, her mother-in-law.

Next, we start talking about what needs to be fondant on a cake and what needs to be gumpaste.  How sturdy or intricate does something have to be?  What color does it need to be and should we color the fondant or paint it?  Different creations require different strategies.  Everything must be edible so we use spaghetti internal supports whenever necessary.

We’ve also made countless trips to cake and hobby stores for supplies.  Right now, as I write this, we are looking for some special cookie cutters in very specific shapes.  We did a Tuscan themed cake and we needed some new leaf cutters to simulate grapevines.  There are a couple of local stores that we use but I also order online if I know far enough ahead of time what I will need.

I’m like a kid in a candy store at the cake supply store.  “I want that, oh, and can I have that……and I’ll take one of those…….”  We have to be really careful to not go overboard with buying tools.  We’ve learned that we usually only buy what we need for whatever cakes we have coming up.  We always have an eye out for unusual cake stands too.  We love HomeGoods and Marshalls for things like that.

Lastly, we buy our baking supplies.  We make lots of trips to the grocery store for eggs, milk, flour and vanilla.  Sometimes I wish that I would have kept track of the supplies that we have used from the beginning….how many pounds of flour, sugar and powdered sugar…..wow, I can’t even begin to imagine.

Then, as we have time, we start working on the components for the cake.  If we are doing gumpaste figures or decorations, we start several weeks in advance to give everything a chance to dry.  We have also learned to make extra, mostly as a result of failures; like the time we made the curly pieces for a birthday-present-shaped cake.  They were wrapped too tightly around the surfaces where they were drying and they cracked and broke as we tried to take them off.  Live and learn!!!  We say that A LOT!!

The actual baking is the last thing that we do.  We like our cakes to taste as good as they look so we’re very careful about making sure the cakes are fresh.  We never freeze cakes ahead of time and we never make box cakes.  Fresh, fresh, fresh.  I don’t want to deliver a cake that I wouldn’t want to eat myself.

I’ve said it before, we’ve learned so much this year.  As I sit here thinking through this whole process in order to write about it, I realize that we’ve learned so much more than just how to do cakes.  We’ve honed our time management skills, we’ve learned how to be much more professional with the way we handle our cakes, we’ve learned how tolerant our family is of ‘cake stuff.’  Most importantly, Megan and I have learned how different we are and I really believe that, as hard as things get sometimes, we have learned to love and communicate to each other in new ways.  I also have to say that cakes have opened up the door into people’s’ lives that we would never have any other way.  For those of you who have had cakes from us as part of your celebrations, THANK YOU, for allowing us to mark milestones with you, to welcome a new baby with you, to be part of your wedding, to celebrate your accomplishments and rejoice over finishing the race!!!

We hope that 2012 brings us lots more opportunities to share in your lives and to share what we do here on the blog.

P.S. – Thatcher is crawling now, look out world.

P.P.S.  Just thought that I would give an update on Thistle for those of you who are interested in my little bundle of energy.

This is Thistle when I try to fold laundry.  Notice her hanging off the bottom of my jeans.  Rick said that, “When we go somewhere, we don’t have to crate her, just let her latch onto something and hang her up.”  aaaaaaand then she spotted the cat….

We’re still going for our daily walks and, even though it’s not enough to tire her out, it is helping.  She’s definitely calming down and she actually sat still for about 3 minutes and 49 seconds on my lap.