Da Vinci’s Wild Austin Adventure


For this year’s That Takes the Cake! show in Austin, TX – which had a theme of The Science of Cake – I decided to make a cookie version of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Aerial Screw, sometimes called Da Vinci’s helicopter. Da Vinci drew this concept but never built it, and even if he had it never would have actually flown. But it was a very interesting concept for his day and part of his artistic contributions to science, so I thought it would be a great way to pay homage to the concept of science and art coming together.

da vinci helicopter in gingerbread

The finished piece but before final assembly at the show.

I found a museum model kit made out of wood and cloth that comes together to make a working model of the Aerial Screw, and decided I’d make a cookie version of that entire thing. I’d long wanted to see if it was possible to make gears in gingerbread, and in fact my next choice of a Da Vinci homage would have been his Self-Propelled Cart, but I decided that would be less aesthetically interesting since it was flatter and many of the elements were hidden under each other.

The subject of making edible gears poses many challenging problems. First of all, gears need to be strong enough to push against each other under whatever weight they’re bearing, and edible media is generally very fragile, especially in small pieces. Secondly, gears require precision that is difficult to achieve in media that spread as they bake or shrink as they dry. If a gear train is even slightly off somewhere along the line, the entire thing can seize, slip, or otherwise fail.

So by having this wooden, working model to base everything on, I figured as long as I checked at every step to ensure my cookie pieces were precisely aligned with the wooden ones, it would work. And it did…mostly. Because things dried about a millimeter off in one piece, there’s a slip in the mechanism so it only works in reverse; as in, the top turns the handle and the slip fixes itself that way, but the handle doesn’t turn the top because then the slip turns into a sticking point. That goes to show just how difficult edible-media gears are! So if you’re going to attempt something like this, make sure you have tons of time to make and possibly re-make pieces, because as I learned the hard way, messing with semi-dried pieces will go badly for you, some things will need sanding, adjustment, or remaking, and it’s all very fiddly on a very fine level. It’s an exciting thing to attempt, but it’s not for a rush job!

Because I’d used Julia Usher’s “construction gingerbread” recipe from her book “Cookie Swap” for my sewing machine 3D cookie construction the year before, I knew I could use that again for the “wood” parts, and I considered using pastillage for the sails. I knew I could make a drying rig that would dry pastillage nice and flat as the taut cloth would look on the model. But I decided no, this is a cookie entry, so I should make as many elements out of cookies as possible. I’d seen Julia Usher’s videos about using tuile dough, and I knew fortune cookie dough is basically the same thing, so I found a UK recipe for fortune cookie dough (because as mentioned in other posts, UK plain flour is softer than US all-purpose flour, so it’s important when spread and strength are key to ensure your recipe matches your local ingredients). I made some actual fortune cookies for a Christmas event so that gave me a feel for how that dough spread, how to shape it, and most importantly how it performed for weeks afterwards. I saved two of the fortune cookies and placed one in a dry part of the house and the other in a humid part of the house, and every week or so I’d go check them for mould and poke them. I wanted to know how that dough held up after a long time out and exposed. But it grew no mould and stayed surprisingly hard, even in humidity, so I knew it was up to a week of construction, a flight, and then the actual show.

After a careful accounting of how all of the wooden kit’s parts went together, what was needed for where, and how I’d be translating all of that to cookie, I then realized that not only would I have to take this in two halves to be assembled in the US, but that one of the halves as per the kit would be slightly too tall to fit under an airline seat, which is where I’d need to put it on the flight to ensure nobody else smashed or crushed it. So I did a bunch of math to calculate where I could shave off a bit of width and height to keep the proportions of the outer bits but still keep the inner gears exactly sized to the model kit, because again, you can’t just shrink or expand gears without messing up the timing and then they won’t work.

In particular, I knew the length of the poles holding the sails needed to come in a bit, and I was dubious about being able to make the sails in two pieces as per the kit. So I decided to get the sail frame built first, then take its exact measurements, and then tailor the sails as needed to fit.

I also decided that since the rules for this category just said, “All types of cookies are allowed including 3-D designs. Any combination of techniques and/or media may be used,” that I didn’t have to cover everything with icing, so wherever possible I decided to keep the beautiful golden-brown hues of the gingerbread exposed. Da Vinci’s science art was frequently utilitarian in an age when many other things were heavily decorated, so I decided it was in keeping with Da Vinci’s spirit to concentrate on the beauty of the mechanism, not excessive decoration.

I initially used royal icing to affix pieces together, but soon found that the Renshaw premade royal icing I was using was just not setting up hard between the cookies as I needed (I have found this problem consistently and would never use this product again for anything, to be honest). So instead I looked around for a colour mix to make gingerbread-coloured gumpaste, but stumbled on some “Teddy Bear Brown” Squire’s Kitchen modelling paste I had because it came in one month’s Cake Bag. When I took it out and compared it to the gingerbread, I realized it was already an excellent match and that meant I could buy more and not have to worry about colour matching. I ended up using about a pack and a half in the end, so that was a good choice!

In fact at the show after judging, Mike McCarey asked me how I’d made the “paste” because he thought I’d ground up gingerbread and turned it into a matching paste of some kind. I told him it’s just regular Squire’s Kitchen modelling paste and he was surprised! I guess that means the colour really did match well.

I also decided that while 100% edibility would be great, there was just no way any edible medium at this scale was going to be hard enough to turn as gears without breaking. So I decided on pastillage over round cocktail sticks (toothpicks) for the gear bits, and pastillage on bamboo barbecue skewers for the sail poles.

Ultimately, this piece used 47 cookies, plus Polo candies (hard, dry white mints with holes in the middle, similar to Lifesavers mints for anyone looking for a US version), about 300 grams of modelling paste, a small amount of royal icing, and a small amount of pastillage.

Here’s a list of where all the cookies went:

Museum Model Rotating Assembly

Baseboard – 1 cookie

2 Narrow Pillars – 2 cookies each, affixed together with royal icing with exposed edges covered in modeling paste – 4 cookies total

2 Wide Pillars – 2 cookies each, affixed together with royal icing holding a Polo mint candy embedded between, with exposed edges covered in modeling paste – 4 cookies total

Horizontal Gear Mechanism – 1 end cap cookie covered in modeling paste, 1 large gear cookie embedded with pastillage-covered toothpicks held in place with modeling paste and covered with the same on the back, 1 spacer cookie covered in paste, and a handle comprised of 2 cookies held together and covered in modeling paste – 5 cookies total

Vertical Gear Mechanism – 2 Polo candies covered in modeling paste, 2 cookies embedded with pastillage-covered toothpicks held in place with modeling paste and covered with the same on the top of one – 2 cookies total

Top Platform for the base – 1 cookie

Total: 17 cookies

Aerial Screw Components

Support Disc – 1 cookie

Mast Base – 3 cookies held together with royal icing and covered in modeling paste

Central Mast – 15 very small cookies, some interspersed with pieces of Polo candies to facilitate strong holes, held together and covered with modeling paste, with pastillage-covered skewers affixed into the holes with modeling paste

Mast to Arm Support Ring – 1 cookie, covered in modeling paste

3 Angled Arms – 2 cookies each, held together with royal icing and covered in modeling paste – 6 cookies total

Base Ring – 1 cookie, covered in modeling paste

Sails – 3 fortune cookies

Total: 30 cookies

GRAND TOTAL: 47 cookies

Below are many photos showing how it came together and how I kept comparing it to the model to maintain the gear precision as much as possible.

First I rolled the gingerbread out to the same thickness as the wooden pieces, and then rolled once more gently to make them slightly thinner so they’d hopefully bake to about the right thickness (I also did the “ironing” method on each cookie as they came of the oven, which is taking a metal fondant smoother over the hot cookies gently but firmly to squish out any unwanted puffs). I cut a circle to the same size as the gear (erring on the slightly smaller side when matching to my circle cutters, again because of anticipated expanding during baking) I put the wooden gear right on top of the dough and used my needle tool to poke the location of every hole, making several pokes so I could clearly see where the hole was.

making gingerbread gears

I used a tiny little round cutter I have that’s bigger than the hole I needed because I knew they’d partially bake closed. The paintbrush was to pop the gingerbread out of the tiny cutter.

But I quickly realized that the very act of cutting the holes was pushing the dough out of shape ever so slightly, so I put the round cutter back around the dough to act as a support as I did the cutting.

using a cutter as a support collar while cutting

Manipulating the tiny circle cutter inside the big one while keeping everything straight is exactly as tedious as you’re guessing it to be.

I did likewise with the smaller gear cookies, and then after baking placed them on the actual wooden model (with the wooden gears pushed down so their rods poked up to test the cookies on) to make sure everything lined up.

comparing wooden and cookie models

I did this sort of comparison/checking constantly throughout this piece, always adjusting as necessary to try to preserve the ratio for the gear train.

sizing gears

To ensure the large gear wheel was precisely aligned for every spoke, I had to carefully file out holes until I could slip it onto the wooden model with spokes in place.

testing on wooden kit

And then testing and re-testing to make sure it all lined up as per the wooden kit.

For the inner mast, at first I tried to make it in all one piece. It was a challenge from the start to make holes that went crosswise through the dough because each new hole through wrecked previous ones. And then, as I pretty much expected, it didn’t cook well so not only did the holes bake closed, but the whole stick was split inside and along part of the outside.

baking liner on foil frame

I made a supportive rig of foil with a baking liner curved to hopefully keep the rounded stick shape. That aspect worked, but little else did.

cracks in mast

Here you can see how the stick has cracked along one side and throughout the middle.

wonky holes

The holes shifted and closed during baking, and even if I could drill them back out, the dough inside was no longer stable enough to support weight.

baking round cookies

So then I made a bunch of equal-sized little round cookies instead for stacking later.

many cookies

Gradually I started amassing a pile of cookie parts.

wooden parts

The equivalent pile of wooden parts.

base cookie

The base was baked as one very large single cookie. I made it slightly larger than I wanted it to be so I would have plenty of room to file the sides to make them straight. The holes were lined up with the original wooden board as much as possible before baking and then filed a bit more as needed after the cookie cooled.

filing cookie edges

Once the base was cooled and had been re-measured to the holes, I drew lines with an edible marker to mark the sides (you can see the red line at the bottom of this photo), and used a microplane grater to gently file the edges down to a sharp, straight corner on all sides. I propped it up on cutting boards over another cutting board so I could hang just an edge over, keeping the rest safe and stable to reduce the risk of breakage.

cookie gear box

Getting back to the gears, I covered some toothpicks with pastillage and let them dry, all precisely sized to the wooden sticks from the kit. When the gear cookies had all been filed on their edges and inside their holes as needed, I pushed wet blobs of the Teddy Bear Brown modelling paste into the holes and then pushed the pastillage sticks into that goo. I used a brush and a Sugar Shaper to carefully smooth the bits that would be seen inside the gear cage, but didn’t worry about the bottom and top because one would be hidden and the other would be covered later.

For all four side supports on the base, I made two cookies each that would be glued together back to back for maximum flat surface matching. To provide strength inside for a rotating shaft, I reinforced these supports with a Polo candy embedded in the middle. This meant I had to carve out space for the candy to be embedded in between but still allow the cookie surfaces to come together flush.

making embedded candy

I didn’t file the cookies’ sides yet because the important part here was to match each pair accurately around the Polo candy, make them even around the edge, and then make sure each unit matched the others.

To start, I made sure the pre-baked hole was filed out to be smooth and clean. Then I traced a Polo candy around it with the tip of an x-acto knife.

scraping hole

Next, I used the knife to carefully scrape away some cookie within that border, taking great care not to crack the cookie.

candy in hole

I kept testing the Polo candy in the depth to ensure it fit.

assembling units

And once the two halves could sit together with the candy in the middle and minimal separation between, that part was done and ready to be glued together.

Filing straight edges is fairly easy, as long as you take care to go slowly and evenly and are protecting the cookie against any stress that could break it. Filing perfect curved edges is not so easy, so given that I was making this piece to replicate wooden counterparts, I used those wooden parts to help me get a perfect edge.

filing circle

By sandwiching the gingerbread ring between the actual wooden ring and a matched wooden base, I was able to keep the gingerbread ring fully protected and use the wooden edges as a guide. Obviously I didn’t go right up to the edge and risk wood shavings or damage to my microplane grater, but this really helped me get a lovely, clean, even curved edge around the outside. This of course didn’t work for filing the inside edge, which was just done very carefully and slowly without a guide.

Turning my attention back to the central mast, I needed to have a very strong way of supporting the arms for the sails that could also have a shaft going down into the gear assembly. Since the Polo candies had worked so well for the side supports of the gear mechanism, I decided to make them work for me in the mast as well. It wasn’t going to be stable to use them on their sides to use their actual holes, though, and they were slightly too wide compared to the cookies I’d made to stack in the mast, so I decided to cut each Polo candy in half and then file the cut edge down so they’d make a supportive insert on either side of the gaps between cookies, thus giving a lot of hard strength to the mast while still being edible and really within the spirit of gingerbread, which often comes with candies stuck onto it anyway.

filing candies

Here you can see the original wooden mast, which has alternating holes through which the pegs that hold the sail are meant to go. These pegs are very long relative to the mast, meaning there will be a lot of force applied in the small part of each peg within the mast. Wood can handle that but edible media are softer and more fragile. So here you can see that I’ve been filing down the halves of the hard Polo candies to make them fit the small, round cookies I’ll later stack. I also used the corner of the microplane grater to carve a bit of a curve into the top and bottom of each facing little cookie, so together a layer of cookie with a top trench, two filed halves of a Polo, and then a cookie with a bottom trench came together to form one hole.

shaping the mast

I then stacked the cookies and sliced/filed Polo candies in sections that formed the cross-ways holes. I did them in small sections to dry at first because this whole thing got very soft with the wet modelling paste needed to join it all together. By working in segments held securely in the underside of a Wilton flower former, they could dry hard and then be attached and dried again.

test assembly of mast

Once the mast was fully dried and hard, I tested it in the loosely-assembled rig made out of other cookies. Here you can see the ring support arms are partially covered in modelling paste but not yet fully, as there too I let each bit dry as needed before putting on the next bit. But by constantly doing these loose test assemblies, I was able to ensure everything was coming together as intended and correct for any errors as I went.

Once that mast was definitely together, dried, and as needed, I filed it as a whole with the grater to smooth the sides, and covered it with the modelling paste. Filing the candies and the cookies at the same time was a bit tricky because of the different hardness between them, but I went slowly and carefully. This is pretty much why I listen to so many podcasts while I make my sugar art! (If you need one to listen to, start here!)

covered mast

I also mounted it to the thicker base that had a hole through it for the bottom gear shaft to stick into. Here you can also see more covering going on the ring support arms.

model coming together

Meanwhile I kept assembling the base, having filed down the side supports to be all even and equal in height. This was about when I realized the royal icing wasn’t drying, though, so soon after this I had to cover the sides of those supports with the modelling paste.

testing skewers

I covered larger skewers in pastillage, dried them, and set them up in the holes of the mast loosely for one final measurement of the total width to ensure it would fit in the space needed for my airline box.

Once all of these bits were covered and tested, it was time to actually commit to assembling them!

I filled each mast hole with very wet modelling paste, then poked a hole through that was smaller than the pastillage covered skewer. Then I put the skewer in and used my thumb on the back of each hole to smooth off any excess that came through and ensure I could feel that peg almost all of the way through. With measurements calculated down to millimeters, it was important to ensure everything was lined up where it needed to be. I also checked many, many times to ensure I’d put the right length of stick in the right hole in the right circular order count. I also mounted the support ring at this time, fusing it to the mast with modelling paste and having already put some modelling paste on its sides to dry as surfaces for all of the attached bits to cling to without putting too much stress on the cookie inside.

fitting arms

I ran one last test of the ring support arms with their carved-out notches for the ring, ensuring they all sat exactly where they needed to be on this ring and the bottom ring they’d be attached to. All of the weight of that big bottom ring would be suspended from these funny little bent arms, so it had to be strong and precise.

marking pieces with numbers

Once that final test was done, I marked each arm 1, 2, or 3, and made corresponding marks to the mast ring and the bottom ring. This would ensure that if there were any small differences in fit, that the right piece would go on the end result as it had fit in testing.

assembling mast

I finally mounted all of these pieces together (with another cookie under the mast assembly to hold it up during drying). I ran a ribbon of the modelling paste around the mast ring’s edge, and then used wet modelling paste smushed into each join to make it strong, smooth, and aesthetically pleasing. I also made small holes in the mast base for where the handles would go, as Da Vinci originally drew people standing in there and turning that mast by hand.

Finally it was time to make the sails.

tracing sails on paper

First I took the actual cloth sails from the wood kit and traced them out on paper. I knew mine would be slightly smaller, but I wanted to start with the actual kit size and work down as per my version.

testing paper sail

Even though the kit had the sails in two pieces, I adjusted the overall paper version to be three that lined up on the supports as I needed. I tested them taped together on the actual model.

sail 3 under liner

Then I cut the three segments apart and used them under a non-stick baking tray liner as a guide.

fortune cookie dough on template

That way I could put the liquid fortune cookie dough down exactly as the template needed. I kept the edges in very slightly because I knew it would spread a bit, but I also knew I planned to file the edges so I didn’t hold it back too much.

cookie on rig

As soon as the cookie came out of the oven, I placed it on the rig and held it with my fingers (and yes, it’s HOT!) until it cooled into the right curve. Actually, the one in this photo I decided wasn’t wide enough and I ended up making another one, but I didn’t take a photo of the replacement on its own.

cookie edges

Once each cookie had been baked, cooled, and filed, I glued them all in place with liquified pastillage as glue. This photo shows the lower cookie sails glued in place with the last one sitting loosely on top to test placement. I then took that one off and filed its edge before gluing it down. But this photo shows the difference between the filed edge (bottom) and unfiled (top).

adding cake lace

Once it was all dry and firm, I cut some decorative bits of cake lace from a sample I had laying around from a previous show and stuck them on to cover the joins. I also cut some straight bits of cake lace and anchored those from the poles to the lower ring. It was very, very difficult to get them taut without breaking.

I mounted the base/gear box unit on a thin cakeboard, glued a ribbon around it all, and then it was done pending final assembly in Austin. The photo and video at the top of this post show it sitting in place but not actually glued together. Here are some more photos from that shoot:

gears

The gear assembly without the top on.

final piece from side

final piece from above

Of course, then I needed to actually transport the thing in a cab, on a bus, on a 10-hour plane ride, and then in Kyla’s car to her house and then the actual venue. I know from past experience that my cabin bag fits under the seat in front of me on the plane, so at first I considered trying to build some kind of container within that bag, because it would also give me rain protection and handles, but as I worked on the piece it became clear that while the halves would actually fit in my bag, I wouldn’t be able to get them both in the narrow opening of my bag. So I decided to build a box instead, partially using some instructions shared with me from ICES friends, but tailored to materials available in the UK.

I bought some A3 sheets of 5mm foam core, measured out a base board that would fit both pieces including all of their bits sticking off to the side, and a cardboard one as well to be glued on the bottom as additional support. I placed the actual pieces on before cutting to be extra sure there was ample room. Then I cut a piece sized to the baseboard less 5mm on all sides to accommodate side walls, and placed the gingerbread pieces on that one to trace out their bases. I cut out their bases from this second piece and glued it down onto the baseboard. This gave me a perfect custom-fit recess into which each piece could sit, reducing the chance of them sliding around inside the box, as well as perfect grooves to line up the side walls.

floor of box with holes cut

You can see the top bit of foam core has an arrow in one corner. That told me to point the anchor point for the lowest corner of the sail there, because I traced the piece in that position so I knew that would be the precise fit given that the circle wasn’t a perfect circle. That meant it would slide right into that hole snugly with no stress points. It also meant I’d accounted for overhang on all sides with that orientation. Likewise the pencil line on the outside of the square is reminding me that that’s where the big turning knob cookie will overhang.

I then measured the height of the pieces on that baseboard inside those recesses. The maximum height was 21.5cm, and I knew the official clearance for the under-seat carryon was 25cm, so to be sure of clearance on both sides I measured side walls to a total height (including the base board) of 23 cm. I knew I was going to be using a plexiglass lid, which would be less than 1 cm, so it would still come in under 24 cm total. I also cut a middle wall that was 5mm shorter than the side walls because it was to sit on top of the inner board with the recessed holes, but for strength I did not cut a recess for that middle wall.

Then I grabbed the old plexiglass I had on hand from my 2016 entry, which had actually ended up damaged on one corner in my kitchen so it was no longer useful as a full piece. I cut a lid to fit the outer dimensions of the box, and rounded the corners because plexiglass corners can be sharp and I didn’t want anyone to be hurt, including myself, or for airport security to have an issue with it. I then did a second one since I had enough spare plexiglass and mounted that to the bottom (on the cardboard under the foam core) as extra protection against water and to make it easier to slide on the carpet under the seat.

box pieces

All of the pieces cut and laid out.

After assembling the first two walls, I took the taller piece and tested it, just to be sure that it would indeed have sufficient height clearance for the lid.

testing cookie in box

I had to be very careful doing this, because the top piece was otherwise sitting on that cookie you can see below for support, prior to assembly when a shaft from the gear train below would be up into the middle bit to hold it up. This meant that every time I moved this top bit off of that other cookie, the stresses on the ring support cookies were very high because that inner mast is floating about a cm over nothing in this photo.

I knew I’d be using rolled-over packing tape under the cardboard baseboard under the base/gear box cookie unit to affix it down into the box, but I couldn’t tape the upper unit because tape doesn’t stick to the cookie at all, and I also was wary of damage anyway. So as I built the box, I cut scraps of foam core to make corner-strengthening units inside (taking care that they’d be nowhere near any elements protruding out beyond the boundaries of the recessed holes), and as I glued them into place I also glued in lengths of cheap but strong curling ribbon.

ribbon seat belts

These bits of ribbon would be made to function as a sort of seatbelt for each half.

Then as I put the pieces in, I pulled those ribbons flat and taut over the base of each half and glued it down into the opposite corner on diagonals.

ribbon seat belts on base

The base unit was fairly sturdy and taped down under the board anyway, but I still did the seat belts just in case. It was very tricky to get the ribbons through the gears without touching any.

seat belt ribbons on top piece

For the top piece, these ribbon seat belts would be the only thing holding it in case the box was tipped, so they were very important. They also had to not be anywhere close to the fragile cake lace. Here you can see that supportive cookie is back under the mast to reduce stress points during transport. You can also see how I’ve lined it up with the arrow I drew on the bottom of the box, and an arrow I drew on a side wall to ensure I didn’t put cut box pieces in the wrong place. I find it’s generally safest to assume I’ll forget things and make marks rather than puzzle things out later.

This created a very strong way of tying the cookies down in the box without actually touching them very much; it would stop them from going anywhere if the box was tipped, but it wasn’t putting any constant pressure on the cookies at all. It was a fail-safe that wasn’t needed, but it was very comforting during some of the bouncier bits of the journey to know that it was there. Plus, last year Heathrow security turned my bag with my sewing machine entry on its side to go through the x-ray, so even though this year I had the box exposed and asked that it not be turned (after all, it was built to the height clearance so it shouldn’t need it), if someone had turned it the pieces would probably be okay. They didn’t tip it, but having the extra security built in eased my mind throughout the trip.

Once I had the pieces in and strapped down, I was ready to add the final wall in place. But I also realized I didn’t like how much the gear mechanism was rattling around. I knew it would probably be fine to rattle but figured more security would be better, and I still had foam core scraps left. So I measured and cut an additional piece to slide down just above the base’s top, not touching it, but with a hole fairly narrow for that mast pole so it could only move by a few millimeters instead of jiggling widely.

adding extra support

The extra bit to hold the gear shaft from rattling. I also tucked an Amazon package air cushion into the back as extra insurance against moving.

I realized that in my cold kitchen, the hot glue was going to start setting up as I tried to cover all of the edges needed for the front panel to go on, so I started by putting down a large bead of the glue for the bottom edge. Then I could put that edge on and it would stay warm enough while I quickly put some hot glue up the three walls and the two angled supports I had in place. I didn’t worry about perfect coverage, because I also knew I’d be taping all of the seams; I went for careful speed instead of perfection at this point.

I then taped in some spare airbags around so they weren’t touching the entry, but once again would give an added fail-safe in the event of any other point of failure. I also had purchased some bags of silica desiccant, and taped in some of those around where they wouldn’t be at risk of damaging anything.

Next I glued on the plexiglass lid, and then ran clear packing tape around all edges. Once it was all secure, I compared it to the height of my regular carryon bag which I know fits under the British Airways seats.

comparing to bag

I stuffed a blanket into the bag to check the height. I figured as long as the box was smaller than the bag, it should fit.

I made signs for the two long sides of the box explaining the fragility and contents so the various transport staff would understand what was going on with this weirdness, and I taped that on running the tape all the way around the box in two stripes, giving added security to the entire construction. Finally, I used a long big of wire-edged ribbon leftover from a previous cake board and wrapped that around the entire box, taping it down separately so that if airport security had an issue with the wire, I would be able to remove the handle without taking the rest of the box apart. Again, they didn’t have an issue with it, but it’s always best to plan to be very accommodating of airport security!

box with label

testing handle

I tested the lifting capacity of the handle to make sure it was very secure. I also jiggled it a bit to ensure nothing inside was moving.

box in a plastic bag

I tested the handle with a plastic bag over the whole thing to keep out rain and to ensure any judges I was travelling with (because I knew at least two were on my flight) would not have their judging compromised by accidentally seeing an entry beforehand. This is done to protect judges from accusations of favouritism.

It all worked! Here it is under the seat in front (well actually the middle seat’s spot, because nobody was in the middle seat and the man on the aisle seat was happy for me to use that entire space):

box under airline seat

Because I was able to use the middle seat’s space, that meant I could keep my regular carryon with me as well instead of having to put it overhead.

And here it is cut open at Kyla’s house, all intact!

box opened

I cut the box open carefully all around, not trying to preserve the box in any way. Although it did get repurposed by a friend to take the cake she made in a class home on her own short domestic flight, so that’s good re-using!

The severe humidity we had at the show impacted a lot of pieces, including mine. The cookies got so soft inside – almost sponge-like – that the mechanism never did work very well. It looked good on the first day and worked enough that the judges could see that, barring such horrible humidity, it would have worked better. The wet winds blowing as I took the piece into the hall made the cake lace blow and stretch slightly, so what had been taut was now slack, which really bugged me. But I didn’t want to risk taking anything apart to repair, so I marked it as DAMAGED IN TRANSIT on the entry form and that, along with the sheets of in-progress photos I put beside the entry, had to suffice to show the judges that it had been fine before the weather got to it.

at the show 1

at the show 2

And the judges did like it! It won a Gold as an overall grade, and placed Second in Masters: Cookies. It also won Second place in the overall show award for matching the theme of science.

medals

How cool are these medals?! From the moment I saw them being designed I said, “I WANT ONE!” and I’m thrilled to have won two!

And then at the very end, since I couldn’t bring the assembled piece home, we decided to SMASH IT. Tien Bui recorded me dropping it, but because of the humidity and how much moisture the cookies had absorbed, it didn’t shatter so much as fwopped as it landed. If you listen in the video, it makes a wet-thunk noise, and the only breakage was the sails popping off and going flying.

So that was it for my experimental gear-based moving cookie. It was a fun challenge to make, and now let’s never do that again wheeeeeee….

Posted in 3D Cookies, Cake Decorating, Cookies, Experimental Techniques, Prize Winners, Severe Nerdery, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Episode 35 of the Podcast is Up


Go to the show page for the full episode and lots of photos showing how bad knockoffs can be.

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Podcast Episode – Cake International 2018

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The Princess and Her Dragon – Cake International 2018


For my 2018 Cake International entry, I decided to enter the Small Decorative Exhibit category and present a story of a self-rescuing princess who has no cares to give for the patriarchal institutions trying to keep her at heel. This princess has a dragon friend and despite what her parents seem to think, she’s not the one in danger. She’s seen casually spinning her crown on her finger beside the chest of gold she and her dragon went and claimed for themselves instead of by some knight for separating her from her friend.

My entry on the table at Cake International with the Bronze card.

Every entry at Cake International is graded individually and can receive Gold, Silver, Bronze, Certificate of Merit, or nothing at all. I had really hoped for a Silver this year and my Bronzes in previous years are demonstrably rougher than this piece so I really thought a Silver was possible, but it turns out CI decided to award fewer top slots this year so everyone was downgraded. So another Bronze it is.

judging sheet

My judging sheet. I’m not sure I agree with some of the scores given as you’ll see below I hand-modeled almost all of this, but it is what it is.

I started out with an 11″ board because this category requires everything to fit within a 12″ cube, so I figured with a board that size I was safe from disqualification even if something somehow was overhanging on an edge. I set the scale to my Body Kun artist model figure to help me really stay within scale for the figure, because I know it can be quite a challenge to ensure all limbs and other parts fit together properly.

Going with that scale, I began by making some gold pieces for the chest and to be scattered to the ground. I held up various Wilton tips to my Body Kun figure’s hand and decided the #6 tip made for a goodly sized piece of gold (about 3.5mm). I then used the tip to cut rounds out of thinly rolled Satin Ice gumpaste and I stamped each one with the O of a miniature letter stamp (Dovecraft Alpha Stamp DCVW0050) because the space of the O looked vaguely like a head and shoulders for the “heads” side of a coin.

making coins

It was very difficult to centre the stamp on each coin because I couldn’t quite see the coin under the stamp, but after awhile I got the knack of how to line it all up. I rejected any coin that was too far off centre.

Later I attempted to airbrush the coins gold, but as I somewhat expected even the lowest setting of the airbrush blew them around. I had them in a tub, which I hoped would contain them and it did, but even that tiny bit of moisture made such small pieces stick together after blowing around. So then I had to separate them all and dust them with edible gold dust instead. I reserved the best-looking ones with visible heads and put the rest in the chest, scattering those best ones around the base. I’m not sure if the judge even noticed, to be honest, but I was quite pleased with them.

tiny gold coins on sugar rock

Finished coins scattered on the ground of the base.

For the base itself, I dug out a bunch of old fondant in various colours and then added more colour as needed to develop several distinct, marbled shades. I also added granulated sugar to the sandy tone because I find that gives it a sparkle like real sand.

Cave floors come in all sorts of shapes and colours, and I researched a lot of photos (including many taken by myself and my husband over the years) to get a feel for how the rocks look. Dripped floors have a different texture than flooded floors, and I decided I liked the look of a flooded floor best, as if this is an old cave where water used to flow in and out but now is secure enough for the dragon to take roost. I built up a foil cave wall on one corner and then set about covering it in patches of the fondant, taking care that the geological strata matched on the back and front of the wall. Given that the judge particularly mentioned not liking the colours and texture of the cave, I’m guessing she hasn’t seen this type of cave and wasn’t keen on my choices, but I stand by them, especially since I’d had my husband (who spent his younger years spelunking through Australia) approve the texture and colours from the kinds of caves he’d seen.

I also used old, dried chunks of fondant grated on a microplane grater to make extremely fine, multicoloured “dirt” that could be scattered around elements as needed.

To bump up the “magic” of the place – after all, there’s a dragon! – I decided to add some glowing crystals throughout the rocks. I used some Cake Play yellow isomalt nibs that had been in previous Austin cake show goody bags and Simicakes’ Geode Mold to make lots of little bright yellow crystals. With the mold, I chose various bits in a line each time and then broke them up into smaller chunks, so none of them looked like the mold itself. I also rubbed each of them with bits of the fondant to grind “dirt” into the grooves and make them look like natural protrusions.

isomalt crystals 1

A line of isomalt crystals made to look like they’re poking up through the rock of the cave.

To ensure they were bright, I backed them all with a light marble tone of grey rock colours, and then sealed all of that with Dinkydoodle Shell and Shine (otherwise the isomalt may have melted in humidity later). To take the shine back off any rock bits, I then immediately dusted those bits with a tiny brush dipped in corn starch and my ground-up fondant “dirt”. Once those chunks were all dry, I was able to embed them in any colour of the fondant rocks/dirt without losing the bright glow of the isomalt to a dark backing. In some cases I chose to let some of the grey backing show through as if this was an exposed vein of another kind of crystal-bearing rock. In other cases I fully buried the lighter background to give more contrast. Although the bits look random, they’re all actually very carefully considered and placed.

Some crystals protruding from the side of the cave wall, these ones showing the grey vein from which they’re growing.

isomalt rocks

These ones were on an edge of the cave where water would have been forming the texture of the rocks, so I made them look as though water had swept through them for many years using a fine brush and fondant matching that section of rock.

isomalt rocks

These ones were part of another wall where I wanted the grey vein to show through as if the darker rock on top has been wearing away.

For any of the crystals on the cave floor, I used my torch to smooth out the geode mold’s edges, and also spent a lot longer rubbing the rougher fondant against them to smooth them out further. I figured if this dragon has been in this cave for awhile and there was water shaping the floor before the dragon even got there, any rocks on the floor would have been beaten down smooth over the years. I also made these dirtier because who sweeps a dragon’s cave?

worn down isomalt rocks

Worn-down crystals on the cave floor.

I knew the dragon would be cuddling up with the princess and be slightly smiling at her, but I wanted to make it clear that this is no pacifist of a beast. To tell that part of the story, I made parts of three skeletons to have strewn about the back of the cave. I made most of a skeleton from one victim, a skull, ribs, hand, and foot from another, and then just a hand and broken skull from a third. They’re laid out as if the pieces had once all been together but smashed around over the years. All of them were also sized to the Body Kun figure for consistency, with the skulls slightly smaller than the tip of my pinky finger.

skeletons 1

The closest skeleton in this shot has their hand protruding from the dirt, as if they were trying to crawl away when they died. (Click this photo to zoom in.)

I used a slightly different palette to dust each one to imply differences in age, but again I don’t think the judge got that since she commented that I should be “taking care” with the skulls (I don’t know what that means because I did, perhaps she didn’t want them to be all broken up but I’m not sure).

skeletons 2

The skeleton on the left is the most complete, with many ribs, some spine bits, two shoulder blades under the ribs, a broken mandible, a partially submerged pelvis, and some limb bones. The centre skeleton has its skull in two pieces, each partially buried. (Click to see a bigger version.)

skeleton 3

The most complete skeleton on the final piece, clearly showing that broken mandible around the base of the skull.

Once the base was ready and the skeletons safely tucked in the back, I started work on the actual dragon, because then I knew what the contours of the rock would be and how to make it all work together. I made a foil centre for the dragon’s body and then covered that in some scrap old green flower paste to form the general shape of the body. I let that dry on the base but not attached, so it would droop into the indentations of the rock as needed. That also let me plan out the general size, shape, and number of other elements needed such as spines, horns, and claws. I made those and let them dry before dusting and painting as needed.

spines

Forming the spines out of Satin Ice gumpaste tinted green. Later they’d be painted with Americolor white on the tips, dabbed with Americolor Leaf Green on the bottom, and then dusted with various tints of green dust to take off the shine and blend the colours throughout. I made more than I needed in case I broke any.

claws and eyes

The curled horns were wrapped around a wire to make the curl and then I removed the wire and tightened the curl up. It was important to check they curled in a mirror match! They were later painted as with the spines. Also here you can see the white Satin Ice gumpaste in claws to dry, plus three sizes of eyes to dry as well so I could see how they fit once I’d made the head. The eyes were later painted yellow, dabbed in the middle to lighten them. Next I drew on a black slit with an edible ink marker, and then sprayed them all with Shell and Shine to seal in the colours and make them shiny.

body on base

The base body laid in place so it would dry to the right shape.

Next I made the dragon’s head, using Satin Ice gumpaste tinted green with Americolor Electric Green. I formed it in one piece with a split mouth, and inserted the pre-dried gumpaste teeth into the mouth as needed. I pushed the dried, painted, and sealed gumpaste eyes into place and then built eyelids over such that it would look like the dragon was half asleep but still looking at the princess.

undusted dragon head

This is the head with the dried, painted, and dusted horns in place, but before I dusted the actual head itself.

dusted dragon head

This is the head after being dried and dusted with several shades of green and some black in the nostrils.

While the head was drying, I placed all of the back spines down the body, taking care to ensure all of their points lined up on a single, curved line down the back.

Then I secured the head in place on the body with a toothpick and patched up the join, knowing I was going to cover that in scales later so I made it smooth but didn’t worry too much about colour matching. I then made a yellow belly and added brown dust to the indentations, keeping a brush handle under the chin to ensure the piece dried with a bit of a gap under the neck where I could later tuck the front limbs.

making the dragon

At this point the darker green original body was really firm so I could handle it, but the underbody and neck join were soft so I could put it together and position it for the next round of drying into place.

Next I formed the limbs, taking care at that scale to make any curves or folds ready to accommodate the forthcoming scales. The pre-dried claws were pushed into the soft gumpaste easily, and although one broke I had extras so it was okay.

dragon limbs

I also mounted the body to the base at this point so the limbs would properly contour to the rippled rocky floor of the cave. It was a bit of a quick-working trick to get it all on at the same time to fold the drying gumpaste under where I needed it to go without munging another part somewhere else.

The next step was to put the scales on. Individually cutting, rolling, and sticking hundreds of scales seemed like a lot better of an idea before I actually started it, heh. It took SO MANY HOURS to do this, especially because I kept rejecting any scale that wasn’t perfect, and spent so long placing each one, constantly telling myself, “This is for a Silver. This is for a Silver.” So it’s very disappointing that the scales weren’t even mentioned on the judging sheet and with the scores the way they are, I’m not sure the effort was really noticed. I would definitely recommend against this method unless you’re sure it’s worth it, because it’s long and tedious compared to the much easier straw method for making a faux scale texture. The straw thing takes minutes, the cut-and-rolled method takes hours over days.

But anyway, I began by making a gradient in the gumpaste, working from Americolor Electric Yellow on one end, blended with Electric Green towards the middle, and the pure Electric Green blended with a mix I made of Turquoise and Leaf Green towards the darker side.

gradient of gumpaste

Then I rolled it out very, very thin and cut each scale with a #3 Wilton tip for most of the coverage, but going up to a PME #3.5 tip for the middle of the body. This took a firm cut-and-twist motion to get a clean edge every time, and started to damage the tip, so every once in awhile I had to use my Kemper needle tool to straighten out the edge of the #3 tip. I pretty much trashed that tip over the course of making hundreds of scales, so while it’ll be fine for general flooding-type piping in the future I’ll mark it to remember to never use it again for anything where a perfect piping job is required.

tip cutting scales

If you don’t push firmly and twist, they don’t cut cleanly and stay stuck in there, leaving a ragged edge when you pop them out.

Every scale was then rolled with a ball tool on a foam mat for making flowers, exactly as you’d do for a petal but on a tiny scale. I was using my old plastic Ateco ball tool but it has a seam that kept catching on this small scale, so I have since bought some seamless stainless steel ball tools to use should I ever try to roll things this small again.

I cut and rolled about 10 at a time on each go, collecting them in the tip, dumping them onto the foam mat, knocking them apart if they were stuck at all (a corn starch dusting on the surface of the gumpaste helped avoid that for the most part), rolling them, and then picking each one up with a lightly damp brush and sticking it into place on the model in rows, working up through the gradient as I went.

first row of scales

The first row going on.

scale rows building up

I had to think ahead about how the colours and lines would play out on the limbs as I went.

more scales

I also had to avoid the holes for the wings, be sure to tuck scales into folds, position them in a sensible way around the spines, and make sure both sides of the dragon were relatively even. It was pleasantly repetitive work with podcasts on but very, very, very time consuming.

Meanwhile, I started the wings. I did a Google image search for “dragon wings” and found a front-view of a set that looked about the right kind of shape, then enlarged them in printing to about the right size for my model. I used the same darker shade of green Satin Ice gumpaste I’d used for the spines to make tapered sticks that lined up against a gumpaste-covered wire bent in the shape of the main bone of the wing.

making wings

Even though my final wings would be very different in colouring and even the angle of these boney bits, by having a mirror-image graphic I was able to ensure both wings were the same size.

Once all of those were dried, I used more of the matching gumpaste to affix them to the wired portion, positioning them as needed to look like the wings were more folded on the dragon’s back. I made one side of each wing sculpted nicely so the wings could dry on the not-so-nice sculpted side, and then when they were dry I flipped them over and did nice sculpting of the joins on the “backs” as well. That gave me an even, textured, strong framework for the wings with a wire back to support the weight going downward into the foil body of the dragon.

With the frames ready, I used some of the gradient colours to roll a gradient sheet for the wings.

gradient sheet for wings

I made small sticks of the various colours I’d already made in a gradient and then rolled them together, folded it and re-rolled repeatedly until I liked the streaky blend.

I then rolled out segments of this gradient very, very thinly, cut them to the size needed for each gap of the frame but bigger so it could fold in and look like the wings weren’t fully extended, and then pressed that shape into a petal veiner to make veins all through this green, fleshy bit.

This is one of the things I love about Satin Ice gumpaste above others, that it stays creamy-soft for the longest time without forming cracks, but dries rock-hard. And no, they’re not paying me to say that (although this particular bucket was in my Austin show winnings so I didn’t pay for it, but they didn’t know it’d come to me when they donated it to the show). It’s my favourite gumpaste because it works the best for the kinds of miniatures I like to make, and I just ordered another bucket for full cost from a store here in the UK even though I can get other brands cheaper. I tried something similar with another brand of gumpaste in the past and it kept cracking as I was working, but the Satin Ice stuff stayed pliable while I worked. Of all of these segments, I only had to trash one where I’d rolled it too thin and the veiner had created actual cuts through. The rest stayed soft under a plastic sheet while I worked and made a very tricky task work well in the end.

making the wings

To affix each segment, I wet the bony bits on either side and then used a damp brush to gently attach the sides of the cut fleshy bit to those bony bits. I spent a very long time ensuring it was centred down the bone and going straight up into the join with the main arm, where I’d use the wet brush to pull/squish the folds right up against the wired bit. This brought all of the fragile connections together strongly but still preserved the delicate nature of the fleshy wings.

adding flesh to wings

Each section had to be left to firm up before I could progress to the next or else I risked damaging it. I also had to keep lining up the gradient and tapering the ends with the curve of the wing.

Once they were done and dried overnight, I painted the bony bits in the same style as the spines and horns.

painting wings

I did each side and let them dry while also working on building the tiny treasure chest.

It’s important when making a piece like this to keep coming back to your original plan (even if that’s just in your head) and making sure the elements are coming together as expected, or adjusting if they’re not. So while the wings were drying, I cut out one of the paper bits I’d used as a rough template and folded it to get a sense of where the wings would end up and how the figure would fit along with the poster and the treasure chest.

positioning pieces

I made the poster in between other elements drying, simply by cutting a rectangle of extremely thinly rolled beige paste, letting it dry in a cast-aside sort of position, and then writing the words on it with an edible ink marker.

I also began work on the princess at this point. I considered making her “not pretty”, possibly even with a scar on her face since the two characters had just been through a battle, but since I was going for top judging I decided to play it safe and go with “pretty”. This is because in the past when I’ve made figures for various shows that don’t conform to the mainstream concept of a “pretty” female face, I’ve had judges think I didn’t know what I was doing and mark me down for it. This is a sad, shameful fact about how misogyny pervades everything in our society, but the reality is judges are looking for perfection in modeling and don’t always understand when artists push beyond into statement pieces. You never know what judge you’re going to get so I decided not to risk it and just go for a dainty-faced, pretty princess with cute little freckles, hoping the incredibly tiny freckles themselves would get me some points. To make them, I had to put pin-prick dots on her cheeks and then use a magnifying glass and a needle tool to scrape most of the pin-prick away. The judge made no note of them so I don’t know if they counted for anything, but I’m very pleased with them nonetheless.

princess face

I made the tiny face first, knowing there’d be messy hair later so if I had any trouble making more of a head I could still get it on. I also pre-made the hair colour by tinting some Satin Ice gumpaste with a mix of Americolor gels in the brown-red-orange range until I liked the tone. I used a tiny bit of that to make her eyebrows and eyelashes. This face is the size of my pinky tip and was entirely hand-modelled using a needle tool, an X-acto knife, two of the soft-tip Innovative Sugarworks mini Sugar Shapers, and a small damp brush.

I also made her arms early on, with bulked-up shoulder armour narrowing down to tight leather sleeves laced with hand-rolled incredibly tiny black laces.

gumpaste arm

This dried gumpaste arm would be outstretched later so it has a toothpick in it, protruding out at the shoulder to affix later to the body. I also later dusted it with darker brown dust to dirty up the leather armour and add texture and shadows.

The hands were also made separately very early on and left to dry so they’d be very strong, especially the one with the outstretched finger. They were attached to the arms later by cutting out tiny, thin circles of white gumpaste, rolling those on the foam mat, and poking them into the ends of the arms as protruding sleeve cuffs. That gave me a squishy, sticky bit of paste in which to stick the hard-dried wrists.

Then when the wings had dried overnight, I put them in place with three graduated balls each of the dark green gumpaste, sinking the wire down into the hole and those balls so it would be a snug fit. Even then, the weight of the wings threatened to make them turn so while I was able to rest the dragon’s right wing tip on one of the rings around a spine to keep it in place as it dried, the left wing kept trying to rotate so I had to put a support in place while it dried for a full day.

attaching wings

Later when these attachment bits were dry, I painted them to match all of the other spines, horns, etc.

I made some very dark green-gray gumpaste using Americolor Super Black and some of the dark green combo I’d made earlier to serve as the princess’ inner body and later her chainmail and leather skirt. I wasn’t too worried about the exact shape of the inner body as long as it was the right curved angle for her body leaning up against the dragon, and having the right shoulder and hip surfaces where I could later mount those limbs. At first I accidentally made her breasts way too big because it’s important to remember when making an underbody like this, that any covering on top will make it seem even bigger, so I had to hack her breasts back drastically so she’d be in the right proportions once I made the chainmail later.

I dried this torso form overnight at first with the arm loosely in place, and then the next day built the face onto a head with the first covering of hair, and then mounted all of that together with a toothpick. Then I made sure this assembly went well with her right arm that would be tucked under her head and up against her dragon.

adding the princess

Once I was happy with this placement, I affixed the lower torso into place with some extra rock/dirt mixture. Then I attached that right arm to the shoulder and to the dragon’s body, and began to add more hair bits between the arm and head to get all of that locked into place securely.

I pre-made the boots out of some gumpaste made of a mix of brown and green tones, shaping the foot and then pulling up an ankle and leg shape. I flared out the top edge, then bent it down and trimmed it to make the cuff. I used a thin blade to indent a side seam and a needle tool to make holes for laces later. Then I made sure there was a good top edge pinched out with a hole I could later put a leg into. Once the boots were dried, I made soles out of the same colour I used for the treasure chest, although dusted differently so it looks like a different shade in the end. I also added the black laces up the sides.

The legs were made of gumpaste tinted with a mix of Americolor Ivory and Warm Brown to go for a buckskin type of colour. They were bent into place and pushed into the dried boots, then dried separately from the figure. Once they were hard and the figure was firmly in place, I mounted them to the hips using more of the matching leg colour to build the gusset of her breeches, just in case anybody looked up her skirt later. The legs were also dusted heavily so they’d look leathery but also as if she’d just been in a battle. I even dabbed some bits with water and re-dusted to make various levels of “dirt” in the creases and high points.

Once the legs were solidly in place, I rolled a very thin skirt and tucked it around the model. This was tricky with her already laying down, and I had considered putting the skirt on first, but then I would have risked breakage all over. It took a few goes to get the skirt cut to the right angles and sizes for tucking, especially while keeping that lower edge 100% perfect with no splits, but again the Satin Ice performed extremely well. I was so proud of that perfect skirt edge, although I’m not sure it was even noticed by the judge.

positioning bits of figure

The skirt and chainmail had to be wrapped around the figure in this position, which was tricky to make look contiguous.

The chainmail was made with the same colour as the torso and skirt, using a technique that RPG mini makers use where you use a tiny ball tool (I used the one that comes with the PME miniature tool set) to push indentations down in a column one way, and then up in the opposite direction, and then paint over the top edge with silver. There are several videos on YouTube showing this, but here’s a link to one I used. I used Rainbow Dust Metallic Food Paint in Light Silver on top.

Once the chain mail was painted, I also finished making all of her loose hair bits and her braids. Those are real braids, braided with tiny strands of the hair colour. I made them very long so I could cut the looser top bit off of each, roll that top bit to a point, and insert that in holes I’d left in the hair on her head. Then I added extra loose tendrils here and there as needed until I felt like there were enough. I also made tiny bands for the ends of her braids and used the point of an X-acto knife to flare out the ends.

Then I mounted that last arm with its super-delicate outstretched finger, supporting it on an old Rolkem dust container now that we can’t use those recalled dusts for much other than supports!

finalizing the figure

Chainmail painted and the final arm in place, waiting to dry for her crown as the last bit to go on her.

I wasn’t sure how I was going to get that crown on her finger stably at first, because to be honest I’ve never had much luck with edible glues. But I happened to win some Rainbow Dust Edible Glue from a Cake Masters Magazine giveaway on Facebook in early October, and had found it to be useful for some of the other elements on this piece already. I was really impressed with its holding power, so I tried it with the crown on her finger and although it took awhile to dry into place, it did dry firmly overnight.

Meanwhile I put the extra dragee-jeweled crown I’d made (I’d made three styles, a thin one as seen on her finger, a bigger one with jewels I decided looked too gaudy, and an in-between one as a backup to take to the show in case the tiny one broke in transit) into the treasure chest and loaded in all of the gold coins except for the ones I’d reserved to be on the ground. I used the Rainbow dust glue again and although it was taking the gold dust/paint off of the pieces just because they were so small, if I was careful it stayed on enough to dry in place. Once the chest was full, I put it and the poster in place on the ground, using soft rock/dirt fondant as needed.

chest detail

The chest is made from brown gumpaste panels, shaped initially with the Katy Sue wood texture mould that came in a recent Cake Bag set. I accentuated some of the lines with a brush, then cut panels to size, shaved them down after drying with a microplane grater to make sure everything sat 100% flush, and bound the edges together with matching brown gumpaste. Then I painted those edging bits with Amerimist Copper, along with the back hinges, front lock bits, and side handles. I made tiny screws out of black gumpaste and indented them with the tip of an X-acto blade. The chest is 100% edible with the lid supported only by more gumpaste in the hinge edge.

And with that, the piece was done!

finished piece

The finished piece. Click to see an enlarged version.

hair detail

The hair bits spilling all over her arm and head.

side view

Side of the princess (click to enlarge).

skirt detail

poster detail

finger twirling crown

To give an idea of scale, those ruffles were cut with a #12 Wilton tip and then rolled on a foam mat. So the wrist fits in smaller than a #12 tip.

bandage

Showing the side of the dragon with the bandage, and how the injury went through the dragon’s ear to the arm. The bandage was textured with a dishcloth, but it’s hard to see in the photos. (Click to enlarge.)

tied bandage

The bandage from above, so you can see that it was actually tied, not just fake-tied.

chest rear

Rear-side view of the chest showing the back hinges.

treasure chest

Looking into the chest, because I might not have won anything higher than Bronze but this princess and her dragon definitely brought home the Gold for themselves! (Click to enlarge.)

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Podcast Episode 33


Featuring Kyla Myers, and you can listen and see the show notes here. Enjoy!

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Podcast Episode 32


Come over to the show page to listen to Trinity Chapman and I talk about cake TV, our own cake disasters, and the bazillion things you need to think about when preparing a class.

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Episode 31 of the Podcast Is Up


There may be a slight amount of Mike McCarey worship between Jesse Lesser and I in this episode...

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Podcast Episode 30 is up

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My Chocolate Balls Bring All The Ladies To The Yard


That is to say my “Chocolate Truffle Cake Bombs With Salted Caramel Popcorn Buttercream Centres” that I entered into the Women’s Institute 2018 Tea and Tents Bake Off competition won the chocolate category and everyone who’d had one came around my campsite later to see if there were any left, but my friends had already happily gobbled up the extras!

chocolate ballscertificate and ribbon

me giving ball

Me giving one of my balls to my friend Melanie Reed. And since people keep asking, I got my shirt here.

Mel's ball in half

Mel snapped a pic of her ball amidst her throes of passion.

When I was standing waiting with other entrants to place our stuff on the tables, someone told me that the name was “too clunky” and mocked me for how I wasn’t likely to win with a name like that. Hm.

But that’s one of the things I keep reiterating on the podcast: you need to know each competition and how judges look at things. While I hadn’t done this level of WI competition before, I have competed in and won smaller WI bakeoffs, and I know that in this sort of casually-judged tasting contest a lot of the decision rests on appealing to the judge’s head before the food is even in their mouths. So while that title is indeed clunky, it’s deliberately throwing a pile of delicious-sounding words at the judges to make them think, “Oh WOW, that sounds AMAZING.” Part two of this strategy is ensuring you are BRINGING IT in terms of a multi-flavour punch. You can’t lure them in expecting something big and then have wimpy flavours. But I know how to deliver flavour, and clearly this strategy works!

By popular request, I’ve posted the vague-sorta-recipe for the winning chocolate entry below.

In contrast, the strategy that keeps failing me at WI contests is to bother with anything decorated, although I did know that going into this contest and did it anyway to amuse myself even if it wasn’t likely to win. The chocolate balls were actually my secondary entry; my primary one was built of the sugar cookies my WI friends always say they love, arranged in a decorated way to celebrate the camping event itself:

Tea and Tents cookie Display

Decoration is only minimally acknowledged at these events, if at all, and I believe the winning cookie was a more complicated flavour profile. Because again, what wins these particular contests is complexity of flavours above all else.

But I know most of my blog readers are here for the decoration stuff, so here’s a little bit on how I made the cookie construction:

First I nailed and glued an upright A4 sized MDF board to an existing Mike McCarey board I had in my supply, and covered the whole thing in foil. Then I made several dozen square sugar cookies (with this recipe) and filed the edges so they’d fit properly onto the upright background and the base of structure. I affixed the background ones on first with royal icing after tinting them in a blue gradient, tipping the whole assembly back so they could dry firmly in place overnight. A little too firmly, actually…in prepping this piece to be weather-resistant on a camping ground, I adhered them so well that people couldn’t get them off to eat later!

making background

The tipped-over structure with the “sky” cookies drying on overnight.

I made jumbo letter cookies for the name of the event and used two different knitting texture mats to make them look “knitted” since yarn crafts are a major part of the event.

knitted letters

For the multicolored ones, I cut squares of the colours, lined them up, placed a rolled-out sheet of one of the colours on top and rolled it all slightly, then put that whole thing multi-side-down on the impression mat with the squares lined up to the mat’s squares as best as possible. If this had been a decorating judged contest, I’d have worked a lot harder to make those line up perfectly but since I knew decoration didn’t count much here, I didn’t stress over it.

For both the ampersand and the campfire, I used a tea cup cutter to continually re-introduce the titular tea motif for the event:

tea cup ampersand

A standard wet-on-wet rose cookie with a bit of overpiping painted with Americolor Amerimist Gold Sheen Airbrush colour. The ampersand is black fondant rolled out and shaped in place on top.

campfire cookie

The campfire cookie is a tea cup with wet-on-wet yellow and red icing made to look like flames, stood up on a round cookie with brown fondant logs. Note the bunting ribbon around the edge…the WI loves its bunting!
You can see real bunting in the background!

The little cabins were cut using the Sweet Creations 3D Mini Gingerbread House Cookie Cutter which appears to be out of print but it looks like it can be found on ebay and other resellers. I put the side walls on the outside of the front and back to make the cabins more cube-ish (all held together with royal icing and left to dry overnight). I then decorated all of the sides with brown fondant textured to look like wood, and made ovals cut in half to layer as shingles. The cutter looks like this if you’re searching for one:

3d house cutter

For the tents, I made two small squares with two small triangles with an edge to match (this was easy using my two Ateco graduated sets in square and triangles respectively), and then with a third square cookie I cut a piece off and filed it with a microplane grater to make a pointed edge. Again, the pieces were glued together with royal and allowed to dry overnight.

building the tent

On the left, the loosely assembled tent, on the right, all of the pieces needed.

Then I covered all of that in blue fondant (triangle sides first and then a long rectangle over the top), cut a bit of white with the same triangle cutter and affixed it in place, then cut blue with that same cutter and affixed one edge with the other curled open.

tent and cabin

For the trees, I just did a basic wet-on-wet multi-green, although I also made some with the dough itself tinted green so the judges could taste the cookies without icing if they desired.

trees

I covered the base in tiled cookies and then used stiffer green royal icing with the grass tip all over, placing the trees, tents, cabins, and campfire as I went.

tiled bottom

The green grass ended up being quite the fantasy and the drought-stricken field we camped in looked more the colour of these naked cookies!

Even though the judges didn’t pick this display to win, it was a hit with my local community, specifically a very aggressive wasp that kept coming in while I was decorating! It decided one tree cookie in particular was the greatest thing ever, and when I went to get my child from school I came back to find the wasp buried face-deep in the partially-dried icing:

Obviously I couldn’t serve that cookie at that point. I mean look at the hole it ate through:

wasp hole

And no matter what I did, the infernal wasp wouldn’t leave me alone, even when I put that now-scrap cookie to the side. So when it decided my empty green icing bag over on the counter was also interesting, I managed to grab the bag, sealing the wasp inside to its doom. I cut my coupler out for vigorous washing later (even though the wasp hadn’t gotten down that far), killed the wasp in the bag, and threw it away.

wasp in bag

I will go out of my way to save pollinating bees, but aggressive wasps in my kitchen bring their own doom upon themselves!

I’ve since installed these traps around our yard and house, filled with watered-down strawberry jam with vinegar added to keep honeybees safe but let me get my sugar work done safely!

wasp trap

Given how many wasps we had at the camp site, I’m going to bring one of these with a hanging pole next year! It’s already making a huge difference for our house. I’m used to having children lingering around when I’m doing decorating work but I won’t put up with stinging beasts wrecking my icing!

Anyway, those were my creations for Tea and Tents 2018. Here’s the sorta-recipe for the chocolate balls for those who are interested. Note that it’s an “about that much” kind of recipe because I didn’t measure as I went. The caramel popcorn is adapted from this recipe by Emma Christensen.

NOTE THAT THIS RECIPE USES CHOCOLATE CAKE BALL MATERIAL. That means you will have to either have that kind thing on hand (as cake decorators generally do) or you will have to bake the cake and make the ganache in advance. I haven’t put a prep time on this recipe because if you have to make the entire cake first, that adds a lot of time.

Chocolate Truffle Cake Bombs With Salted Caramel Popcorn Buttercream Centres
 
Salted caramel popcorn is mixed with buttercream, covered in cake ball material, and then coated in dark chocolate for a very rich, delectable dessert. Winner of the 2018 WI Tea and Tents WI Bakeoff Chocolate category.
Author:
Recipe type: Dessert
Serves: 30-40 balls
Ingredients
Salted Caramel Popcorn
  • 43 grams unsalted butter
  • ½ cup light brown sugar (packed)
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla
  • ¼ teaspoon sea salt flakes
  • ⅛ teaspoon bicarb of soda
  • 70 grams already-popped popcorn (I used Tyrell Posh Lightly Salted this time but I've made this same popcorn in the past with fresh-popped as well)
  • table salt
Buttercream
  • 207 grams of unsalted butter, softened (as in the rest of the 250g block you used 43g of for the caramel)
  • Powdered sugar/icing sugar (I didn't measure, it was several cups' worth I think)
  • 10-15 drops of Foodie Flavours Vanilla
  • 10-15 drops of Foodie Flavours Caramel
Cake Ball Material
  • This is the sort of thing cake decorators generally have in their freezers from carving cakes, made up of cake cut-offs and in my case any ganache that was on the cake plus extra leftover ganache. It is not an exact amount of anything, but I had a large Ziploc freezer bag full and I used about two thirds of that, plus a side tub of ganache. The chocolate cake cutoffs were all from my standard cake recipe which is this BBC recipe (but I lower the sugar to 300g and increase the cocoa to 95g), and my standard ganache recipe is equal weights of double cream and dark chocolate. So if you don't have any cakeball material already, you would need to bake that cake and make enough ganache to cover and fill it, and then mash all of that up together into a sticky paste with as few lumps as possible.
Chocolate Coating
  • To make 30-40 balls I used four 100g bars of dark chocolate, but I had leftover buttercream so if you want to make more, have more chocolate on hand.
Method
Salted Caramel Popcorn
  1. Preheat the oven to 120C/110C (fan)/250F.
  2. Melt the butter in a nonstick pot over medium heat. Add sugar and mix thoroughly.
  3. Increase heat to medium high and bring to a boil, stirring regularly with a silicone spatula, scraping the bottom of the pot frequently. Boil for 3-4 minutes or until you see the first wisps of smoke coming from the mixture, then remove from the heat immediately. The mixture will look cloudy and may still have some separated butter. Continue to mix off-heat until it comes together in a thick mixture.
  4. Put the popcorn in a large bowl with plenty of room to mix. Carefully pour the hot caramel over the popcorn, mixing as you go so it doesn't all clump up. Mix as well as you can for even distribution.
  5. Spread the coated popcorn out on a nonstick cookie sheet (best if you can line it with a washable tray liner such as a silicone mat or a woven cookie liner) and bake for an hour, keeping an eye on it and rotating the tray if necessary.
  6. Remove from the oven and sprinkle lightly with table salt.
  7. Let cool completely on the tray while occasionally taking "quality samples".
Buttercream
  1. Put the softened butter in a stand mixer and whip it up a bit so it's creamy. Add powdered sugar in small amounts, scraping the bowl as necessary, until you've got a fairly stiff buttercream sweetened to your tastes. Add the flavourings, mixing thoroughly after each addition, and test after a few drops of each to adjust it to your taste.
Salted Caramel Popcorn Buttercream
  1. Chop up the caramel popcorn into small pieces with a large knife on a cutting board, and then mix into the buttercream.
Shaping the Balls
  1. With a small spoon, scoop out small lumps of the buttercream (about 1-2 cm wide) and roll into balls. Chill until firm.
  2. Make a flattened ball of the cake ball mixture about 5 cm wide. Push a firm ball of the salted caramel buttercream into the cake ball and wrap the mixture around it, rolling in your hands to smooth it out. You'll soon get a feel for how much is a good amount to cover the buttercream without the end result being too huge to bite, so pinch off any excess if necessary. Place these balls on a board or tray and chill to firm them up.
  3. Melt the dark chocolate in a narrow, deep bowl in small amounts at a time in the microwave, going low and slow and mixing in between. Do not melt until fully liquid or you'll ruin the temper of the chocolate! Melt it until lumps remain and then stir and rest repeatedly until the lumps are gone, then add a few extra unmelted lumps and mix gently until those melt.
  4. Take the chilled balls out of the fridge a few at a time and dip them into the chocolate on the edge of a fork (the fork shouldn't pierce the ball, just hold it). Tap the fork on the edge of the bowl to allow excess chocolate to drip off, then place them on a silicone or other non-stick tray until the chocolate hardens. Rewarm the chocolate and/or add more as necessary.
  5. Store refrigerated until just before serving.

 

 

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Episode 29 of the Podcast


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