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:
I got a lot of wowed congratulations for this…apparently it’s not common to get a medal at all on your first Birmingham competition!
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.
Then I built up her body just like I do in the dynamic figures book, this time fashioning a bodice out of layered snowflakes cut with the smallest in the PME set of snowflake plunger cutters.
I put a rough white covering over her midsection first and then built up layer after layer of the snowflakes.
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.
Her face came out chunkier than I intended, but I’m still happy with the eyelashes and lips.
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.
Closeup of the stuff being blown out of her hand. It has disco dust in it which sparkles very nicely under the right sort of lights, but is hard to photograph.
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.
The gelatin doesn’t have the stretch of sugar, so while you can get a few strings, mostly you get globs.
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:
This does make strings that you can snip off, but only a few per go, so it’s really tedious.
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 got more threads, but they all squooshed out thick and flat.
Also, very fragile and self-sticking, making it a very bad choice for hair strands on a figure.
This was the thinnest I got it, spun out on corn starch on a nonstick mat. But these were sticky and super fragile. Peo ended up eating a lot of them and declared them tasty, but they didn’t suit my project.
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:
Some of the Dragon’s Beard Candy held in a wine glass for testing. This is minutes after it was made. It looks awesome!
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):
It’s already melting less than five hours later. There’s no way this would last for a three-day competition.
And here it is at two days:
Heh. Yeah. That’s not going to work.
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.
It’s breakable but does bend a bit before breaking, making it reasonably resilient for travel.
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.
Figure from above where you can see how the waves of pasta are embedded into fondant on her head.
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!
Detail of the swirl, built up with many layers of fondant, gelatin shapes, and piping gel.
Detail of the footprints. I dusted the entire snow area with pearl dust to help highlight indentations.
Detail of the skirt and cape, all of which are gelatin cast in the same way as one makes gelatin bows, but then softened with heat to shape into place and glued on with piping gel. This took about a week to get all of the layers on, since each layer was heavy on the previous, so if the piping gel hadn’t hardened the whole thing would slide off. Even taking days, I had to set the whole thing with a heavy pot nearby so its handle pushed the dress against her body while the final drying took place.
At the show.
Closeup of the faux ice sparkling in the show lights.
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.
Peo’s Pokemon cake for her friend George back in Austin, whom she misses very much!
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.
Peo’s cake at the show, showing the various characters she modelled.
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.
Peo was happy with this award and is inspired to try even harder for bigger awards in the future.
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.
This lifesize Na’vi Princess Neytiri by Emma Jayne Cakes was a centrepiece for the show.
According to this article it’s mostly sculpted from crisp rice treats.
Molded edible lace on the bodice of the Rainbow Cupcake Dress.
Peo held up by our good friend Chip Myers to pose behind the Rainbow Cupcake Dress.
Peo pointing to her cupcake. This was early in the show so the stand filled in later.
Peo’s cupcake. She chose red for her flowers and butterfly. Of course she chose red and if you know anything about her (ahemcoughgryffindor) you’ll know why.
I finally graduated Cake Decorating 101 and made an actual flower (as opposed to a man eating plant, which is as close as I ever got before). I did this at one of the hands-on tables.
While I was making my flower, Peo made some stuff with the University College Birmingham folks at the next table. I think they were supposed to be making ducks but somehow Peo started making vampire animals instead, and then they showed her how to make vampire teeth.
Easy Christmas cupcakes demo by Cake Angels. The trees are ice cream cones with the wide round brims cut off. The pink and yellow flower is made from mini marshmallows snipped on the diagonal and the sticky exposed inside dipped in sanding sugar. The rest is basic buttercream piping and dragees/candies.
Also by Cake Angels, this huge version of Michelangeloâ€™s “The Creation of Adam” rendered in sugar and sprinkles.
Detail of the above to show the sprinkles and sugar used.
Another detail shot.
Bunnies hiding in tree stumps, by Peo (left) and me (right) at the Northwest Sugarcrafters hands-on demo table. Peo actually followed the instructions, but I made my trunk more trunk-like.
Peo on stage at the Author’s Kitchen with Danielle Gotheridge after her demo on lettering techniques. Peo says she learned a lot and if she’d known some of those tips before making her entry piece, she’d have tried Danielle’s trick of using a thin fondant rope to write in script for George’s cake above. She’s keen to work on lettering design on future cakes.
The Birmingham British Sugarcraft Guild had this hands-on demo table to make snowmen. When the nice lady doing the demo suggested putting mustaches on, I said you could even make them curly-ended. She said the sugarpaste wouldn’t go that thin. So I did it, because if there’s one way to get me to do something in my creative arts spaces, it’s to tell me it can’t be done. Then I stuck a beret on him and called him Monsieur French Snowman. Ho ho ho.
Peo’s snowman wore all three demonstrated hats and had legs with socks. Seems legit.
Then we started working our way through the first competition cakes.
The witch’s cottage from Brave.
I took this before the names were out so I don’t know who made it. I bet it won an award so I’ll check the official listings once photos are up. Update: the baker is Lynsey Wilton-Eddleston.
Mama Bear from the above Brave cake.
Brother bear cub from the Brave cake above.
Witch detail from the Brave cake above.
This Operation cake had fabulous detail but may not have done well since it was in the sculpted category and other than the little holes for the pieces, it’s not very sculpted. Baker unknown, but if it does appear on the awards page I’ll cite it. The washy colours are my camera’s fault; the real-life version was very well done.
There were several dog cakes, and Peo liked this one after I pointed out that the dog was making himself sick eating candy. I think Peo could relate. Also: decorative drool is funny. Also also: I’d be sick on licorice allsorts as well since they’re nasty candies old ladies keep around to punish their grandchildren with, based on my experience! Baker unknown.
Peo and I both liked this since we so many of these boats on the Cam here in Cambridge. Baker unknown.
Hedgehog sculpted cake by Zahir Rathod whom I met because he was staying with his family in the same hotel as Peo and I. Fabulous detail on this one, and it was one of our favourites even before we met Zahir!
Here is Zahir’s owl cake. It’s amazing.
A Wreck it Ralph cake in the sculpted category. Baker unknown, will update if it comes up on the winner list.
The back of the Wreck it Ralph cake. I love it when folks pay proper attention to the back!
This stunningly detailed tiger cub cake won first place in the sculpted category. It is by Vicki Smith.
One of Peo’s favourite cakes at the show. Baker unknown.
This is a pretty good faux food cake in general, but what I really loved about it is in the next detail shot. Baker unknown.
Check out the faux raw egg! I’m not sure how they did this…possibly with liquid glucose (aka glucose syrup), possibly with gelatin or really good piping gel. If I find the baker on social media I intend to ask!
This delightful miniature kitchen was right beside my piece. Baker unknown but I’m pretty sure it placed so I’ll check the photo listings when they’re up. Check out the insane level of mini details!
Another great miniature scene in my category, which required the entire thing to fit in a 12″ box, so that gives you an idea of the teeny tiny scale on this. Will list a baker as soon as I can find out.
Another great mini scene, this one with so many details that a photo doesn’t really capture it! Baker unknown.
An exquisitely rendered scene from Snow White. I’m pretty sure this won a medal so I’ll list the baker once the official photos are up.
The lighting wasn’t good for my camera but trust me, this figure was amazing!
This was Peo’s favourite in my category and with good reason: it has amazing detail on a steampunk dragon, it has well-captured motion in the screaming Samurai, and the whole thing is an excellent presentation scene. By Dirk Luchtmeijer and it won Gold plus 1st Place in the division.
Detail from piece above.
A very nicely done Christmas scene incorporating fairy tale characters. Baker unknown.
A steampunk skull and map, very nicely done. Baker unknown.
A lovely figure from Brazil in the International category. Baker unknown.
This cake is impressive enough at first glance with its upwards stringwork and bridges out to the points of the trees. But then check out that cross stitch piece…
See how intricate this is? But wait it gets better…
That cross stitch rendered in royal icing is floating on top of strings of royal icing. This super-delicate work is made by first making the top piece and letting it dry, then putting it into place on supports (often tiny bits of foam) while the support strings are mostly piped into place and also allowed to dry. Then the foam supports are removed and the last few strings are put into place. It’s amazing, fragile, and indicative of high skill. Baker unknown but I’m sure this got an award so I’ll list when I can.
I liked this one primarily for the church which reminded me of half of Cambridge. Baker unknown.
This is a very nice cake overall, but I took its photo mainly for its insanely advanced stringwork.
If your jaw isn’t on the floor then you’re not a decorator, because this is amazing stuff. And remember, they had to transport it to the venue! Baker unknown.
Table cakes are fairly common because the tablecloth effect is relatively easy and very effective, but this one is particularly well done. It’s clean, detailed, and lovely. Baker unknown.
Excellent figure work here with a lot of motion and characterizations going on in a small amount of space. By Valentina Terzieva.
Another superb example of dynamic figures, all doing things even in a small space. Baker unknown.
Mary Poppins cupcakes with tons of detail and a wonderful display. Baker unknown.
Bonfire Night cupcakes. Not particularly fancy, but very effective in their design. Peo and I both really liked these and Peo is keen to try some if we stay in the UK and get to have another Bonfire Night ourselves.
A gorgeous effect here with some cloisonne cupcakes. Baker unknown.
Awww, look, teddy bear cupcakes! Except…wait a minute…THOSE ARE ZOMBIE TEDDY BEARS. OMG Peo and I loved this display to death. Note the cut cupcake: that was the judges checking that there were no wires in the cake and that it was real cake. A lot of cakes at NEC are cut like this after judging. A lot also get disqualified. Baker unknown.
Detail from the cupcakes display above. So much wrong. So much win.
And then there was this one non-zombified bear in the corner, terrified. A detail element like that sells the whole story. Bravo! Also: heh heh heh…
Wonderful figure work on these cupcakes, especially the ones that take most of the design off of the cupcake in a clever way by making the cupcake tops pulled sacks. Baker unknown.
Peo and I both really liked this Swedish Chef cake. It won a prize so I’ll be able to get the baker name from the photos once they’re up.
On Saturday we took the time to go through more of the big displays outside of the competition.
In the Grotto by Shugarush. This abacus is teeny weeny!
In the Grotto by Shugarush. I remember this toy!
In the Grotto by Shugarush. Teeny weeny cakepops!
Peo’s first entry in the Grotto’s cookie contest for kids.
Peo’s second entry in the Grotto’s cookie contest for kids.
My cookie, but obviously not in the kids’ contest. I was just playing around while waiting for Peo. It was a great show in terms of being able to play hands-on all over the place.
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 saw this coming in on Friday morning and was impressed. So were the judges: this won Gold and 1st place in its class. The details are amazing and it looks like real leather. By Katerina Schneider.
Peo was very annoyed that this huge cake by Adela Joann Calvo only got a Bronze. She loved it.
A fun take on the split wedding cake idea, by Emma Roberts.
A really nice pastel rainbow tile effect. I know it won Gold but I can’t read the name on my photo so I’ll have to wait for the official photos to name the baker.
I love love love this style. This is by Elizabeth Fearnley and won Silver.
This was one of my favourite cakes at the show. It is a knitting wedding cake. How adorable is that? And it looks knitted all over. It’s by Emma Matthews and won a well-deserved Gold.
Look at this topper! Look at how the knit stitches wrap around the cake! This is gorgeous and adorable!
This was my favourite entry in my category. It’s a teeny tiny dragon with insane levels of detail, down to the itty bitty scales. It’s by Helen Atkins who won Gold for it.
This wonderful Nemo cake by Beata Khoo was one of Peo’s favourites from the show. It has wonderful design and superb details. It won a Gold and 3rd Place in its category.
A sweet little mouse wedding scene by Marie-Claire Harper. It won Gold.
Peo and I spent a good long time looking at all of the Wallace and Gromit details on this wonderful piece. Unfortunately I seem to have not taken a photo with the baker’s name so I’ll try to find out later.
An amazing and audio-featured Maleficent cake by Vicki Smith.
Peo was a bit spooked by the amazing detail of this Joker cake by Laura Miller.
A lifesize Katniss from the Hunger Games by Lara Clarke. It won Gold, of course!
The photo with the cake, showing that it is real cake inside.
A Lannister always proves he’s made of real cake.
A glorious Phoenix by Jennifer Whitby. It won Silver.
This isn’t just a cake display of a girl on a swing. It also has fabulous, amazing detail all over, and more importantly the swing is angled in mid-swing. I explained to Peo how much harder that is from a technical standpoint, and how much more motion it gives to the whole piece. Amazing work by Rhu Strand.
Amazing swordsman by Denise Robbins, and it won a Silver.
Also by Denise Robbins, some wonderfully sassy older ladies.
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:
Peo on the Chocolate Experience Stage with Alistair Birt. Birt demonstrated how to make the chocolate flower on the 100% chocolate tower shown here. Peo won the whole assembly by asking the most interesting question. She asked were we could get some cocoa butter to try what we’d seen Birt do, and also if a beginner could do this technique. Birt said everyone has to start somewhere!
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!)
Some mini pans so I can play at cake while I’m here without committing to large projects, a rolling mat because mine is back in Austin and we don’t have good surfaces in this kitchen, some basic tools I’m missing, some new tools to try, Lorraine McKay’s new book, and some cocoa butter plus dust colours so I can play with making my own chocolate transfer sheets.
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!
Wow such a wonderful read! Thank you for featuring my Brave cake and for your lovely comments! I loved your entry, it was so pretty and very original! Kind regards Lynsey
Your cake is AMAZING, Lynsey! And thanks so much for commenting so I could update the post with your name and link. You deserve heaps and heaps of credit for such clean, detailed, wonderful work!
That’s amazing love the ideas and efforts you have put in making the cake.