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…..
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.
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.
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.
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.
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……
or a kid that loves fishing…..
or a little girl who is celebrating her first birthday as a fairy…..
or a sweet girl who loves to shop…..
or her sister who loves to read…..
or a friend who loves to hunt……
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.