Okay, going to a cake show where you’re not a volunteer or part of the core management team is a whole different experience than I’m used to! At the Cake International show at the Birmingham NEC – one of the most prestigious and largest cake shows in the world – I got to hang out with friends, see all the competition entries, play with hands-on stuff, and watch demonstrations all without having to worry about catering to anyone else’s schedule! I even had Peo with me, and we had three great, fun-filled days of cake and chocolate delight.
We also both entered the competition. That was tricky given that most of my tools are still back in Austin, not to mention the whole thing where Robin is 17 months old, we have a tiny kitchen, and I had to rent a car to drive a bit over two hours to Birmingham. On the wrong side of the road for the first time. In the rain. In the dark. Yeah.
This meant I had to do something fairly quick, small, and very stable for maximum portability. Luckily this show has a category called “Small Decorative Exhibit” which is akin to the Austin show’s “Special Techniques Not on a Cake”, only removing the “special” part which I’ve wanted gone for some time since the Austin judges tend to pick flowers to win and flowers – while lovely and indicative of high skill – are about the most standard thing you can do in cake decorating.
So I was happy to enter a “Small Decorative Exhibit” of an Ice Queen, not at all like Elsa, nor like the oversexualized images you’ll find if you Google image search that moniker, but instead someone who is commanding the powers of winter and looks like she might hurt you if you get in her way.
Thus I made this:
She wasn’t perfect and some of my intended experiments failed early, but overall I’m pretty happy with her. The judges were as well, enough to get me a Bronze Medal:
In talking to one of the judges, I agreed with every assessment that lost me points and pretty much every one boils down to me not having enough time or my full array of tools: the whole board should have been covered, there should have been more to the scene, her feet are a bit clunky, her face is weirdly pudgy and a bit bug-eyed, and pretty much you can tell by looking at it that I know what I’m doing but I didn’t put enough time into it.
The base construction was white fondant rolled over the board and hand sculpted to give it a windblown flow. I made a wire armature using the same techniques described in my Dynamic Figure Modelling ebook, except without a cake or structure to anchor them I fed the bottoms down through the board and affixed them firmly there with packing tape and a glue gun.
Then I made indentations by the wires to make it appear that the snow had moved under her feet, and to echo this I made little footprints at the right pace behind her as if she’d been walking but now has lunged forward with the effort of conjuring her snow and ice swirl.
I made a swirling wire and similarly anchored it down through the board and then again tightly through her forward hand. I covered the wire in twists of very wet fondant and let it dry.
When I got to her face, I used very wet white fondant to sculpt the tiniest little white eyelashes and lipstick. I’m pretty happy with how those turned out.
The icy parts of the whipped up snow swirl as well as the clear parts of her dress are all thin gelatin cast on various texture mats, including a hexagonal one (and then cut into strips), a floral lace one (spread so thin that it left airy gaps in the lace), and ones that came with the Autumn Carpenter snowflake cookie set. I made some thicker than others, some tinted slightly blue (which goes slightly green with yellowish gelatin), some with rainbow disco dust and some plain. To shape the various cutouts as needed, I warmed them with a stick lighter and affixed them with piping gel, giving at least 24 hours of drying time between layers. I also painted on drips of piping gel as icicles in various places.
For the bits blowing out of her hand, I cut ragged triangles out of the thinnest cutoff bits from other elements and stuck them on with piping gel, flaring them as necessary to create a blown spread.
As for my intended experiments, part of why I wanted to do this figure was because I wanted to try new methodologies with hair for figures. Experienced modellers know that you should never, ever do the knife-hack-job method for hair that beginners inevitably gravitate towards. On a small scale, you can’t ever get it fine enough and it never looks good. What you want to do is suggest locks with intentional, designed waves, sculpted gently with a narrow but blunt tool.
But I wanted to try something closer to the fine texture of actual hair while sticking within the realm of edible sculpture. My first thought – as is often the case with me – was to try gelatin, especially since it’s pretty much the same stuff as actual hair (gross, I know, but that’s the truth of it). I wondered if I could do “spun gelatin” in the same way that one spins sugar, which is where you take a whisk or fork and dip it into boiled sugar and then whip it back and forth to create long, thin strings.
So I tried…and nope.
I mean sure, you can get some strings that way, but to get enough for a full head of hair – even for a small figure – would take ridiculous amounts of time. It is nice in that it stays flexible for a long time so if you did take the time, you could have an actually fuzzy, edible head of hair that flutters in a breeze, but the tedium isn’t worth it.
Then I wondered about doing like I’d done for raindrops for the Singin’ in the Rain piece (which I only just realized I still haven’t posted, whoops…I’ll get to it soon!) and tried dribbling the gelatin on my little rolling pin taped into place over a tub. I don’t have my long nylon pin here, and it became apparent quickly that this would also take forever:
Clearly gelatin alone wasn’t working. I pondered about adding some stretchy sugar into the mix, and then realized that gelatin plus sugar equals marshmallows. I’ve been meaning to make my own marshmallows ever since I saw Alton Brown do it on Good Eats years ago, but when I looked up his recipe I realized I couldn’t do it for this project on account of having no stand mixer (or even a hand mixer) here in the Cambridge kitchen. So then I found this video and went with its linked recipe (adjusted for UK ingredients). Once I had the marshmallow goo, I tried spinning it like sugar.
I even tried pulling the marshmallow goop between two forks, hoping that’d produce strings, but it pretty much just made a mess.
Then I started Googling around for variations on edible hair, and came along this video and recipe for how to make Dragon’s Beard Candy. It was actually fun to make and while it took a lot of upper arm strength to pull, was otherwise relatively easy. It produced a really nice result:
If you wanted candy hair for a figure that was being served immediately, this stuff would totally work. It looks great, Peo said she loved the taste, you can add colour in the early stages of the recipe to tint it as required, and it doesn’t require any special ingredients or tools.
Unfortunately, this is how it looked a mere four and a half hours later (and it wasn’t rainy or particularly humid):
And here it is at two days:
I began to despair. I really wanted my figure to have hair blowing in the wind, and I needed it to be stronger than I knew I could get with fondant, gumpaste, or royal icing.
Then I remembered that I’d seen vermicelli (aka angel hair pasta which ought to be a real giveaway to its potential) used to make itty bitty antennae for ladybugs on cakes before, so I threw some Sun Shun Fuk Amoy Flour Vermicelli into my next Tesco delivery order (we don’t have a car while we’re here so it’s non-trivial for me to acquire ingredients or even do basic shopping). I chose it because most of the vermicellis listed were more yellow and in tight little nests, and to save time I was hoping to not have to boil the noodles.
Happily, this particular brand came in wide waves that I was able to break off as flowing, curving locks without having to boil at all.
I tinted some fondant with the tiniest amount of yellow colouring until it matched the natural colour of the pasta, and put that on her head in very softened, wet lumps. Then I pressed the curved waves of raw pasta in, flaring out to one side, building them a bit at a time until I got the look I wanted. Between each batch, I used a damp, small brush to literally paint the fondant up and around the pasta, securing it into place without making it look lumpy, sometimes adding tiny amounts where needed.
I used tweezers to stick smaller pieces on the more windblown side of her head (keeping in mind that she’s partly creating the wind and blowing the snow forward and to her left).
In the end it all came together fairly well, if not how I originally envisioned. And I’ve demonstrated that vermicelli totally works as edible hair!
Peo’s entry was in the category for kids under 12 years old. They had to make a birthday cake with an inscription, so Peo chose to make a chocolate-fondant covered cake (using a dummy, which was allowed for this competition) with Pokemon characters and inscribe it to her friend George. I showed her how to roll out the fondant and get it on the cake, but she did the actual work.
When she hit on the idea of doing Pokemon balls as a border, I said that was a great way to hide the bottom edge. She figured out all on her own to cut red and white balls in half with a black bit in between. I told her she’d be sick of making them by the end but that doing that kind of repetition happens a lot in art, so she’d better get used to it if she wants to go forward in creative spaces.
For the figures, I printed off sheets showing the various characters she wanted to do and we talked about how to break each down into parts for sculpting.
This was by far her best cake, the one she put the most thought and – most importantly – follow-through into. Her conversation with a judge was very encouraging and she got some tips on how to improve her figure modelling going forward. But she did get a Certificate of Merit, and she herself acknowledged that the medal-winning cakes in her category had cleaner lines and looked even more planned out than hers.
Once we got our cakes placed, we were able to relax and enjoy three whole days of a cake show! Here are our favourite highlights from all that we saw and did.
On Friday, we walked around to look at some of the non-competition displays since the competition displays were roped off for judging. We also made some fun stuff and watched some demos, learning about chocolate and lettering.
When some of the competition tables opened for viewing we had a look and took some photos, but I didn’t realize name cards would be out the next day, so I don’t know the baker name for all of the photos. As I see them appear on social media or on the official photo list, I’ll update to give credit where I can.
Then we started working our way through the first competition cakes.
On Saturday we took the time to go through more of the big displays outside of the competition.
This large wall was covered with animatronic Fraggle Rock characters by Cake Frame, at least some parts of which are rendered in edible media. Of course Peo had her own Fraggle Rock cake, which is actually what indirectly got me involved in cake shows in the first place since I joined Capital Confectioners in 2008 hoping someone could help me make Doozer sticks for that cake, and then I found out they had a cake show and the rest is history!
On Sunday morning we went to the one paid demo I’d signed us up for, and then we looked at the rest of the competition cakes.
I got to meet lots of really great folks at the show, including some of my idols like Carol Deacon! My first ever fondant work was done out of one of Carol’s books, so it was an honour to tell her how much she’d changed the course of my life.
People kept giving stuff to Peo all through the show. On Saturday when Peo had to miss part of one of the British Sugarcraft Guild demos because we had to queue so long for the washroom, she told the lady she’d missed part so the lady let her come back at the end of the day to take the demo piece home. On Sunday when we were near their booth again for another demo, a different lady said they all remembered her high interest and wanted her to have yet another display. They were all super nice!
Also on Saturday, Michelle Galpern – mom and support staff to the mega-talented Sidney Galpern – gave Peo an isomalt owl with a little LED inside. Peo played with it for hours until it broke and she still has the pieces on our dining room table right now.
At various booths, people gave her extra samples of fondant, chocolate, and other stuff. I’m telling you, this kid leads a charmed life!
And back to Sunday, check out the huge chocolate sculpture Peo won:
On Sunday they opened up the tables for the National Cupcake Week Finalists. None of these were marked with names so I can’t post credit. But Peo and I loved them!
We also found time to do some shopping, mostly on Sunday. Here’s most of what we bought (with a few things not shown because they’re secret Christmas gifts!)
All in all, it was a blast and I’m seriously considering going to the Manchester show. I’ve inevitably left things out of this post, but I’ve been culling photos and writing things up for two days straight so please forgive any omissions or typos. Remember: I have a 17 month old.
But if you’ve got any suggestions or requests for experimental techniques you think I should try for Manchester, let me know in the comments!