I went to the Sugarcraft Southwest event hosted by Region 6 of the British Sugarcraft Guild on April 18, 2015. This was my first BSG show so I wasn’t sure what to expect and had to pester one of the organizers repeatedly with rules questions – Corran says I’m a disruptor in cake space – but it all paid off because I won not only a Gold but the category trophy!
I didn’t actually bring the trophy home because it belongs to their division and I’d have to return it by sometime in the fall, but I gather that this was very prestigious to win it at all, especially as a newcomer.
The category I chose was Nursery Rhyme Cupcakes, which required six cupcakes that clearly demonstrated a single nursery rhyme with each cupcake being different. I figured small items would be easily transportable on the 4.5 hour drive to Taunton from Cambridge. We’d also decided to use the show as an excuse for a family holiday the week after to go down to the Dorset coast and rent a National Trust cottage, so I didn’t want to take a piece that would have to come with us afterwards.
I decided early to do Jack and Jill if the rules could accommodate a display base shaped upwards as a hill. The rules specified no artificial decoration on the cupcakes themselves, but a show organizer confirmed that a built up foil base covered with fondant would be fine.
I thus shaped some foil so that I could position six cupcakes in green wrappers at various levels in a dynamic fashion. I started with the foil loosely crumpled and then gradually squished it tighter as I formed the piece, even banging out very flat platforms for the cupcakes using the blunt, heavy handle of a screwdriver.
Once I liked the shape, I used a glue gun to affix it to a green foil board and decorated it, starting with some brown patches where I wanted an exposed-cliff effect.
After that I covered the rest in patches of green blended together, with cut edges to look like grass hanging. I didn’t make hatch grass marks all over because that always looks amateurish, like hack-mark hair. You want to suggest fine detail, not enslave your piece to it.
When I talked to a judge, she said she had to think to come up with criticisms because they’d all liked my piece so much, so she suggested that perhaps I should’ve used a thicker drum and covered the whole board. I heard the same about my Birmingham NEC show piece, so I think I should probably start doing that.
Since I don’t have my airbrush here, I tried to fake it with a sort of sponge-painting-type look with green food colouring (the stuff I bought here is terrible and I can’t wait to get my Americolor back!) on the green fondant, and then dusting the whole thing with green and yellow to take off the shine. The judge said they weren’t keen on the effect and suggested marbling multiple shades of green instead, in lieu of an airbrush which we agreed would have been much better overall.
I also made many tiny flowers (more on those below) and stuck them all over, trying to replicate the spring look of the fields around England in early April with spots of colours everywhere from wildflowers in every meadow.
For the cupcakes themselves, I needed to build the figures in my limited child-free time on weekends or occasional late evenings, in part because in order to make them with no internal foil or wire supports I had to let them dry between building stages. So I made six fondant circles sized to the top of the cupcake wrappers, cut with a fluted cutter to replicate the edges of the wrappers. I dried these and sponge-painted/dusted them in the same manner as the grass on the base.
With two characters and six cupcakes, it at first seemed natural to do three versions of each. But since I wanted both Jack and Jill on the top of the hill with the well, that meant I either had to do a fourth version of one of them or find something else to do on one of the cupcakes. I decided if Jack carried a bucket up the hill and filled it at the top, it was within the story to have the bucket on its own tumbling down the hill. I then realized that this would allow me to do some really cool effects with suspending the bucket up in a very dynamic pose with gelatin/piping gel water pouring out.
So I drew some rough sketches and set to work, building the figures up bit by bit. I knew I’d need to lean characters on the well, so I started it first by making various shades of red bricks using my sugar shaper tool and the square die.
I let them dry for about 48 hours and then used very softened bits of white fondant over a few evenings to mortar the bricks together around a red base. Royal icing would have been faster but I don’t have a mixer at the moment so I decided fondant would be better than trying to hand-whip a tiny amount of royal icing.
I put a blue base inside the well so that the later piping gel would show that tint instead of appearing very dark against the red. After an initial layer of lightly blue-tinted piping gel was put in and allowed to set up for a couple of days, I put a second layer of gel in along with the pre-dried bucket. This way the lower, firmer gel would keep the bucket from just sinking in, but I still had softer stuff to carefully push up into the bucket to give a dynamic, scooping effect to the water.
For Jack I started with teeny tiny feet mounted onto legs and let those dry in place with supports where necessary.
I decided right away that I wanted Jill to be very little, almost a toddler, and to give her pudgy legs and dimpled knees like my daughter Robin has. I shaped some little torsos in white, more or less like little sleeveless onesies, with leg holes in the bottom and a spaghetti-sized hole at the top for a later neck support. I let these dry solid for many days.
After using flour vermicelli straight from the bag for my NEC entry, I wanted to try working with it boiled enough that I could bend it into shape and also experiment with dyeing it. I decided to give Jill braids to allow for experimentation in this regard. I broke some strands and put them in a shallow dish with a bit of water and yellow food colouring, and then microwaved that for 30 seconds. It came to a boil and the noodles softened. I then laid them out three at a time on a little modelling silpat I bought from Ruth Rickey and braided them.
I used the mini PME hook-shaped tool to scoop up each end as I went down the braid, but the noodles were very slippery with more and more starchy goo developing with every touch. I couldn’t cinch the braid snug at all as one does with yarn or hair because if I tugged at all, that noodle would slip out from the other two entirely. I also couldn’t pin down the ends because they were too fragile and would just squish and break.
But after some practice I finally got several braids, all much longer than I needed. I made sure I had allowance for breakage and for part to be embedded in the hair for strength, especially on the ones that would need to stick up into the air for Jill’s falling scene. I made sure those ones were long and curved so they could come out from underneath her head to stick up as if she’s just landed on her back.
Later, I carefully broke extra ends off to get them to the right size (although the curved ones technically are longer than the straight ones, so Jill has a bit of a Dorothy’s Braids Blooper going on), and added tiny blue fondant loops on the ends.
I also did the same small-boil method with a bit of black food colouring to make grey noodles I could then bend into pail handles. I made many in case I lost some to breakage, and thought if I made them angled enough I could trim them as necessary to fit the pails I’d already moulded and were dry.
Unfortunately, I didn’t realize just how much the vermicelli would shrink when it dried. For the braids this was great because it made them even more tiny and delicate-looking (even though they’re actually reasonably strong, especially when compared to any similar-sized string of icing), but for the pails it meant all of my angles were off and none of my original handles were big enough for the buckets. So I had to make a bigger second set with some seemingly far too big just to ensure I’d definitely have some since time was getting critical. Luckily some within this second set worked. I put tiny balls of very wet grey fondant on the sides of the pails and stuck the handles in place, then let the whole thing dry up.
I also made many little tiny green stems with vermicelli, but didn’t boil it in that case. For those I just dabbed them with some green food colouring gel. Then when I had some mini flowers ready and dried, I used a tiny bit of very wet green fondant shaped into a cone, pinch-smushed onto the backs of some flowers, and then poked the green stems in and set them to dry.
While most of the little flowers on the base and scenes are simply stuck on directly, the ones Jill would be holding needed to have stems showing, so I thought it might make more sense if the first Jill was kneeling beside a particularly thick patch of grass and flowers. I made grass using one of the multi-hole openings on my sugar shaper gun and created an initial central tuft, pinching the tuft inwards at the bottom to tighten it up and give a good seat to the first few stemmed flowers poked into it.
One of the important things to consider when carrying a story element through multiple pieces is to make sure the element matches all the way along. This meant I had to ensure that there were flowers in that first patch that would match the ones in her hand by the well and then match the ones being dropped as she falls. So to start I selected mini flowers in matched sets. For the first scene, I then added extra to imply that Jill was choosing a few from a set.
A recurring problem in modelling is that if you poke something rigid into something soft and move the rigid thing at all, the hole in the soft medium widens very easily and no longer supports whatever you poked in there. Thus it is vital to poke once with confidence and not move it. In this particular case, the stems were so delicate that moving them around would risk breakage as well.
So once I had those first few flowers in, I started building up the grass with more little tufts, each one pressed gently inward to help mush the hidden interior into a tighter mass around the stems.
By doing this repeatedly around and carefully checking every part after each insertion for movement and alignment, I was able to create an outward-looking delicate arrangement with a fairly solid interior.
For the flowers in Jill’s hands at the well scene – where I wanted her casually holding them behind her while she smiles up adoringly at her big brother – I totally cheated by using multiple stems instead of actually having contiguous stems poke through hands. It’s hard enough to model hands on this scale; having to then insert stems through or fold fingers around or any other manipulation pretty much guarantees mushed fingers. So instead I made the hands, let them firm up a bit but not dry completely, and then inserted two of the flowers coming out of the top and two other stems coming out of the bottom. This wouldn’t have worked if the stems had been required to appear straight – as in if she’d been holding a baseball bat or a rolling pin – but since it stands to reason that a toddler would tightly grip and thus mash any flower stems they manage to collect, bent stems not only made my life easier but fit the story well.
Or at least, that’s the story I’m sticking to!
For the third scene I wanted it to look as if poor Jill is losing her flowers into the air as she tumbles, because for a toddler it’s always a greater tragedy to lose one’s treasure than to sustain a bit of an injury. However, as good as I am at cake decorating, I still haven’t figured out how to suspend things in the air without supports. Confined as I am to the laws of physics and the gravitational pull of the Earth, I was thus forced to find other ways to suggest this motion of flying flowers.
I decided having one on the ground already but stem up as if it’s still in the act of landing would work. For the other, I affixed it to Jill’s open palm as far up as I could (it kept sliding back down) to suggest that the thud of her landing has finally made her lose her grip on that last precious flower.
Also in this scene, I used the aforementioned curled braids along with elevated legs kicking out from a flying-up skirt all to indicate motion. The braids were stuck down underneath the head to hold them in place.
As for the mini flowers, I would’ve liked to have used a mini plunger cutter because I have one back in the US but didn’t have one here, so I took it as an opportunity to go smaller and smaller with a simple technique as follows.
First, I made a little ball of the main petal colour and pinched it into a disc on my fingertip, making the edges thinner than the centre.
I put the disc down on my work surface and gave it a pat to flatten it a bit more and thin the edges further. Next I used one of my mini poking tools to make five indentations evenly spaced around, or sometimes more, depending on how bored I was getting with one type or the other.
Then I picked it up, put it in my palm, and used the mini ball tool to gently indent the middle.
Then I set them to dry and later put in whatever centres I wanted, sometimes a simple contrasting dot of fondant, sometimes a dot with a hole poked in the centre, and sometimes other various tiny pieces. Again, my goal was to make it look varied and to not get bored doing it.
I also made some tiny cup flowers, some tapered, marbled-paste flowers with indentations on the sides, and a few teeny tiny rolled-rose type ones, but those were so fiddly that despite liking how they looked, I just didn’t have time to keep making them. The ones I’ve demonstrated above are really quick by comparison.
Getting back to the figures, I continued to build them up with supports as needed. I considered a few different hair styles for Jack but eventually decided that his hair should be fairly simple and short in the first two scenes, but messy in the third where he’s taken a tumble. I also mentally went back and forth on the literalism of his broken crown, since obviously that means he’s cracked his head. But since many portrayals show a figurative crown and since I couldn’t exactly show him with a broken skull without getting really gory, I decided the figurative crown would help emphasize the iconic line of the rhyme.
I tried some different methodologies for making the crown but most turned out too chunky and goofy-looking, so eventually I went for a simple thin circlet, indented along the top, dabbed with a tiny bit of red food gel to simulate gems. I pre-dried the broken one so it could sit askew on his head with the other bit on the ground. The judge I spoke to said it was too bad that piece had been damaged, but I said it’s part of the rhyme so she replied, “Oh, right! It’s the broken crown!” Hopefully I didn’t lose points for that misunderstanding!
For the water scene, I wanted to really emphasize the tumbling motion of Jack’s dropped bucket spilling out all over the place. To achieve this, it was important that the bucket appear to be in the air, but once again I had that slave-to-actual-physics problem. So I came up with a design where the bucket would actually be held up by hardened gelatin that was then covered in piping gel rivulets.
I started with a curved bit of dried gelatin saved from an earlier piece. I painted it with piping gel enough to give it the start of a poured texture, but not so much as to completely soften it. I positioned it and put some supports in place and then let it dry for several days.
Once it was firm, I added the pre-dried fondant bucket on top and painted on more piping gel, including making sure there was lots up inside the bucket to really stick the whole thing together. I supported the bucket in place while it dried, also for several days.
I added another very small piece of hardened gelatin to the back on an angle just to be sure that the whole thing wouldn’t slowly sink down, and I added more painted layers of piping gel all over, including pulling out droplets at the end of the splash points.
When it was all solid, I added the vermicelli handle to the pail as described above and put some of the mini flowers all around.
The amount of water is probably more than would technically have fit into the bucket, but I didn’t know what the lighting would be in the competition room and I knew from past experience that poor lighting can make gelatin/piping gel sort of disappear into the background, so I decided it was better to have extra water splashing all over and assume the judges were probably not adept at calculating the volume of fluids in apparent motion.
Here then are views of each of the six toppers fully completed:
Then I packed up all of these delicate structures into a box, ready to go to the show! Yay! Well mostly yay. There was that whole part where a few hours after packing these up, I was in the hospital thinking my baby was dead. She wasn’t. More on that in a separate blog post over here.
But once everyone was back to relative health, I carried this box on my lap for the drive out to Taunton.
I also had two full trays of cupcakes made from my new favourite BBC recipe for chocolate cake, plus a ziplocked baggie of ganache to pipe on so I could put the toppers on the cupcakes at the show. And it would’ve worked too if it hadn’t been for that pesky frigid weather! I had a terrible time getting the ganache to go smoothly onto the cupcakes, and even with warming it with my very hot hands, it sat in a lump on top of each cupcake. Time was running short so I had to give up and go with the toppers higher up on the cupcakes than I would have liked, and the judges noticed and remarked on it.
Further, I’d originally planned to put an extra cupcake liner around the baked cupcake so make it a brighter green without that greased-through look, but because the cupcakes had come out fairly compact compared to the un-filled papers, putting the papers on looked very sloppy, so I didn’t do that. That meant the cupcake bottoms were darker and messier than I originally planned. The judges didn’t remark on that, though, and given that the cupcake papers had to show (ie you weren’t allowed to put any die-cut or other wrappers around), they were probably anticipating some amount of cupcakes actually showing.
This was also a tasted entry; the judges took one of the cupcakes, cut into it, and actually ate some. That’s why I went with the nice chocolate recipe instead of a bog-standard box mix, and why I went with nice ganache. Actually, if I’d had access to a stand mixer I might’ve made my dark chocolate buttercream instead because that would have been softer than the ganache. But as it was, the judges said my cake and icing flavour were wonderful and that they liked that it wasn’t overly sweet. That was a nice change, since I’d otherwise given up on entering tasting competitions since I made dark, rich stuff and experience has taught me that most judges want super-sweet stuff.
So here are photos of the whole thing assembled at the show:
Here are my award and judging comment sheet:
Because we were about to go on holiday after the show and the toppers had been placed on actual ganache that would go off after a few days, I didn’t want to take the entry with me and was going to throw it out. But the lovely folks from the Torbay BSG branch adopted it instead to take to their next meeting a few days later. I hope they enjoyed it!
Peo also entered a cake into the Down on the Farm Cake Topper competition for kids. Here’s her entry:
Here was the second place entry in my category:
And here are some photos of other items of note, identified with credit where I was able to discern the creators.
And lastly, here was my personal favourite entry for the whole show, the branch table by the Torbay branch illustrating the same backyard in four different seasons. It was while describing to Peo just how amazing this was in terms of its carried-through story and detail that I ended up talking to some of the branch members, which is how they ended up adopting my piece for their meeting. I was so thrilled when they won the Gold and Trophy for the branch tables because while many other tables were filled with lovely flowers and other items, this was superb not only in detail but again in that all-important story aspect.
All in all it was a lovely cake event. Thank you to the organizers and volunteers, congratulations to all of the other winners, and I look forward to participating in other BSG shows in the future!
If you think you’d like to take a crack at designing more dynamic figures for your next cake, check out my ebook Dynamic Fondant Figure Modelling. It’s filled with loads of tips on how to make armatures and use your own body to help guide you towards making realistic poses for your figures.