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.


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.


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.


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.
Recipe type: Dessert
Serves: 30-40 balls
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
  • 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.
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".
  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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Podcast Episode 28 – Corinna Maguire

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Episode 27 of the Podcast is Up

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