Improvising with a Musical Cake

See what I did there?

But clever play-on-words aside, this cake truly was an exercise in improvisation. Last weekend, I sat down, table loaded with gum paste and iPad loaded with Netflix episodes. I tinted the gum paste but suddenly came to the quite tardy conclusion that I had forgotten all but one of my flower tools at home. Sighing, I weighed my options: go back and get them (nope, too lazy), go buy new ones (nope, too cheap), or just.. make something up. Yes, yes, that’s it!

I did have the large and small rose petal cutters, and I did have the shaping foam. (Whew!) But after making several roses, I knew I needed some bigger flowers. I looked at some photos of flowers, remembered some types I had seen on cakes before, and attempted to use a spatula to cut some interesting petal shapes. Improvising again, I was forced to wait until they dried so that I could attach the wires onto the back. Moral of the story: double check your materials list before leaving home!

various gum paste flowersAnother tool I didn’t have was my set of flower formers, which are small white cups that allow you to dry your flower so that it has a shape, as opposed to laying flat. So my homemade flower formers consisted of cling wrap rubber banded lightly across a cup. I left it loose so that the weight of the gum paste would weigh down the flower, creating that “cup” shape I was after.

gum paste flowers dryingI wasn’t too happy with the way these flowers turned out. Despite my best intentions, they were relatively flat. And the color was flat, too. So I mixed a little teal gel coloring with some lemon extract (or you could use vanilla- or vodka! You just need clear alcohol!). I painted the extract onto the edges of the petals in an attempt to give it a little more life:
teal gum paste flowers with and without shadingFor the layer of piano keys, I covered the cake in white fondant first, and then added white strips, and then black strips after that:

piano cake I was honored to create this cake for a benefit for a beloved high school teacher and his family. Many of his past students are gathering today for a day of sharing music and offering encouragement to the family. There will be raffles as well as items up for silent and live auction. Should you be interested in helping the family cover medical costs for the triple transplant, as well as various costs associated with travel to and from the transplant site, please check out their site and make a donation!

teal gum paste flowers music cake close up teal gum paste flowerteal gum paste flowers music cake sideways

Ten Apples and a Bit of Food Coloring

Later this summer, I plan to enter a cake in the County Fair. The assigned challenge is to recreate a famous painting using candy or jelly beans. Immediately, it occurred to me that I had already tried to create a version of a famous painting- but it wasn’t with candy! In planning for this upcoming cake in July, I thought, now, what will I do with two cakes that resemble famous paintings? One Van Gogh, and the other Monet?

Time for a cake series! It’s summer, I’ve got some free time, and… why not?

So far, I have Van Gogh in buttercream, and will (hopefully) have Monet in candy. Why not try a still life using the subject matter from the painting as the subject itself? What follows below is my attempt at creating a Cezanne still life using apple slices to create the apples that he painted.

Step 1: Cover cake board with 3

Step 2: Paint background on fondant. In order to remain entirely edible, I used food coloring for paint. Put a little gel food coloring on a plate, and mix it with a little lemon extract. Paint away!photo 4photo 7 photo 8Step 3: Create plate and metal canister from the original painting. DSCN0300
For these, I rolled out gum paste and let it harden for a few hours. And
then paint away!

Step 4: Peel those apples!
I had chosen a variety of apples in a multitude of colors. I peeled them in large chunks and then soaked the pieces in lemon juice. I tried to figure out how to keep the pieces from turning brown at the edges and curling in. In the end, the pieces retained color for several hours, but they definitely did curl. Since they had been drenched in lemon juice, it did seep into the fondant surrounding the fruit. I re-painted the fondant once everything was finished, but… pick your poison, I guess! 🙂 If you look in the photo below, you can see the way the fondant bubbled up around the yellow lemon in the foreground. Yikes!

Step 5: Layer the apple peelings.
This was a sticky job that took a few hours to complete!      DSCN0301Once the apples were layered, it was time to photograph! If you step back and squint hard enough, the apple peelings come together enough to look like the apples in the painting! 🙂

cezanne apple still life with cakeSince this was created on a cake board, all that was needed was to put the board directly on top of the cake. I decided to try out a new recipe, and, since I had so many apples sitting around, went with this German Apple Cake recipe I found online. The verdict is in: yummy, yummy, yummy!

german apple cakeWhat other work of art would you suggest that I attempt next? My goal is to recreate several famous pieces, each using a different edible technique. Check out the first in my “Art” series here: “Painting with Buttercream,” an attempt at post-impressionism.

Leave a comment below with your suggested works of art!

P.S. You may want to use a higher quality plate than I did… oops. Lemon extract + brown and black food coloring = pink and teal stained plate?? I don’t understand how, either.

stained plate

Five Little Fishies Swimming in a Cake

goldfish cake standAbout a year ago, I came across a gorgeous terrarium that just happened to be the exact size of a round cake. “I must have this,” I said resolutely, “and shall someday fill it with something important.” A few months later, when my sister’s tropical bridal shower was announced, the wheels clicked into place. “Fish! I shall fill it with exotic and beautiful fish of every color, and put a cake on top of it!”

A few notable changes later, and a plan was devised. The exotic fish of my dreams were replaced by twenty-cent feeder goldfish from the local pet store. (Apparently the “pretty” fish need warm, filtered water.) The perfect round cake needed a segment cut out of one side in order to give the fish access to air. (Also, apparently the fish need access to oxygen to breathe or something.)

Luckily for me, several relatives and friends had flown in for the shower, so I took the cake-making tools to my parents’ house and made use of the extra minions. Ellen had the (non)enviable job of tinting the gum paste, while my mom used her quilting/scrapbooking skills to measure and tape paper along the edge of the terrarium.

fish bowl cake 1

Because I wanted the illusion of fish “inside” the cake, I needed the paper to go along the top and bottom edges (where the terrarium tapered in) so that the gum paste ruffles could be adhered.

fish bowl cake 2For the ruffles, I rolled gum paste very thinly and cut out two-inch strips in a sort of football shape. I squished them around a bit and stuck them onto the cake with a little gum paste adhesive. (FYI: Do not attempt this unless you have an interesting lineup of TV to watch, as it is extremely tedious. Also, do not start the ruffles at 10pm. That is all.)

ombre ruffles 1    ombre ruffles 2

With the cake perched precariously on my lap and the goldfish nearby in a cool whip container, we drove to the venue. “How will we get them in?” we all wondered- there was only one small air-hole. But my father, always ready for a good experiment, had a plan. He said the poor chap at the hardware store was a bit confused by the request. I imagine the conversation went something like this:
“Yes, hello, I’d like a funnel.”
“Of course sir, they’re right over here.”
“I see. Now, do you have any big enough for a fish?”
“Big enough for a what, now?”
“A fish!”
“I’m sorry?”
“For a goldfish to slide through!”
(*blank stare*)
“You see, we’re putting the goldfish in a cake.”
(*more blank staring, and then a look of horror*)

In the end, I think he understood the plan. In fact, after he cut off the end of the funnel, he filed the insides so that none of the fish would cut themselves as they slid through. I can only imagine the story he told his family that night.

goldfish cake funnelgoldfish in cake       goldfish cake                   teal ombre gum paste rufflesI’m pleased to report that the fish made it through the entire shower! I was worried, as a large crumb fell into the water at one point, but it seems they like cake.

Later that night, we brought all the extra food and serving platters and everything back to my parents’ house. Ellen pulled out a container, peeked inside, and said, “Oh great! There’s some of that chicken pasta salad left over!” But my mom looked quickly at us, eyes wide, and then we all knew: “This is the container the fish came in!”  My brother walked in the room, and, taking the container, said, “Did you wash it?” – “Um, not with soap!” Dad answered. And without a pause in his steps, he strolled out of the kitchen, cool whip bowl in hand, saying, “Eh… it’ll be fine.”

No word yet on his health, but I will update as necessary. 🙂

Here Come the Hawks: How to Create A Chicago Blackhawks Cake

I’ve been trying to decide why I love hockey, and I think it’s because my mother is a nurse. I spent many of my elementary years attempting to fake sick so that I could stay home and watch “Little House on the Prairie,” but alas! To have a mother as a nurse is to never, ever, ever miss a day of school. Her insistence that we muscle through any dribbly noses or rumbly stomachs has created within me an immune system so strong that in 8 years of teaching, I have only succumbed to illness once. (Which reminds me: always get that flu shot. Trust me.) Her no-nonsense attitude has completely rubbed off on me and I’m both ashamed and proud to say that, should someone complain that they have a cold, I might outwardly exhibit signs of compassion, but you can be sure that on the inside, I’m thinking, “Take some Dimetapp and move on with your life already- geez!”

It is commonly known that hockey players are the absolute best when it comes to muscling through pain. And I think my mother would approve. I’ll never forget the sight of Andrew Shaw, a gaping gash across his face, hoisting that cup last year! Now there’s a trooper! Or Keith taking a puck to the mouth, losing teeth, and then finishing the game? I can’t even come up with a sport where they’d do anything like that.

Strangely enough, I have baseball to thank for this hockey cake I made. How richly ironic is that? Baseball: the sport where time stands still and the biggest threat to players are grass stains. Any readers who are baseball fans, please enlighten me as to how I can better enjoy the game. Until then, consider this an open invitation to the high-speed world of hockey, where the players move fast, hard, and even win once in a while.

Several weeks ago, The Cake Boss brought a cake in to Wrigley Field to celebrate their 100th Anniversary. The cake was left out all day for the enjoyment of the fans at the ballpark, and by the end, was deemed not safe to eat (or something like that). It found its way into a dumpster, where someone took a photo, which went viral, naturally. The Cubs just can’t catch a break. Many of my friends sent me the photo, and I jokingly commented to them that I wanted to build a hockey cake, instead! Later that evening, I heard a discussion on WGN radio where the hosts were going on and on about the cake, and about how Wrigley should have eaten it, and aren’t there any bakers in Chicago, anyways? I fired off an email to the station offering to bring in a Blackhawks cake, and- wonder of wonders!- the producer was in touch with me within minutes. And then, a deep gulp: what had I gotten myself into?!

With a ten-day deadline, a regular job to do, and absolutely no knowledge of large cake construction, the project seemed doomed for failure. Luckily, my family is awesome and, as usual, served as my minions. There is absolutely no way I could have done this without them.

STEP 1: CREATE THE RINKcreating the fondant hockey rink

Supplies: foam board, rotary cutter, and fondant

1. Cut out foam board to a “rink” shape.
2. Lay fondant on the board and smooth it out (it was easier to roll it directly on the board than to try and transfer it after rolling).
3. Using a very thinly-rolled fondant, cut out various rink decorations.
4. Create center logo. Keep all these pieces like a puzzle, rather than layers. Make it as flat as possible.
5. Use a black food-safe marker to create highlights on the face and feathers.

piecing the blackhawks logo

 STEP 2: CREATE THE “ICE” making a hockey ice rink with sugar(Disclaimer: There may be, and likely is, an easier way to do this. I have no idea what it is though and would welcome suggestions because this was hard. 🙂 )

Mission: Create a clear piece of “ice” that was in the shape of a rink that can lay atop the fondant rink pictured above. I was dead-set on creating this and required it as the “wow” factor.
Difficulty level: Almost off the charts
Success rate: 8 experiments later, we came somewhat close. Result still slightly yellow-ish and bumpy, but seriously, eight tries! Enough already!

1. Bottom surface: Granite (don’t have granite, like I don’t? Buy some garden thingies from Menards!)
2. Lay foil across stone tiles
3. Lay nonstick mat atop foil (that’s me, always food-safe!)
4. Create a barrier that will hold in the boiling sugar and allow it to harden into the shape of the hockey rink (For my barrier, we improvised and took a trip to Menards. We found black metal pieces with a gentle curve (somewhere in the fencing department) and then had a gentleman cut a piece of wooden molding down to the required size (2 feet). We wrapped the wood pieces in foil, coated the foil in crisco (so that the hardened sugar wouldn’t stick to it), and laid them carefully on the mat.)

Method: Cook sugar according to recipe (I used this one). Make sure you have a good candy thermometer- the temperatures listed on the device are extremely important and even a few degrees’ difference is enough to throw off the entire batch (I repeat: we did this EIGHT times). Here are three of the failed attempts. The first we cooked to the marking for “Hard Crack” (310°F). It was clear as we poured it but it turned brown about halfway through- apparently it continued cooking even when off the flame. Attempt 2 we cooked to “Hard Ball” (250°F). As you can see, it was too droopy. Attempt 3: cooked without corn syrup in an attempt to get rid of yellow tinge. Didn’t work- the corn syrup is important in getting rid of all the granules of sugar. This photo shows how cloudy it was, even after half an hour of cooking!

burnt poured sugar     poured sugar fail 2     poured sugar without corn syrup

The final result that we used was “Hard Ball” (285°F). We poured it out and then let it sit for an entire day. Then we gently removed the side pieces, and luckily, it stayed in place! This one was the winner! Here’s a photo of the sugar right after it was poured:

poured sugar ice rinkSTEP 3: CREATE PLAYERS gum paste hockey players

I created body pieces out of red gum paste, and allowed them to harden for several days. Then, using red modeling chocolate, I added another layer to create the uniform. Once the pieces were mostly covered in modeling chocolate, I stuck a little bit of white gum paste in between to hold the leg (or arm) to the torso. Then, I covered the entire joint area with modeling chocolate and allowed it to harden for several days. (My lineup of players lived in this pan while drying. I checked on them frequently to make sure they were behaving and not falling over.)

blackhawks players modeling chocolate fondant cake

gum paste hockey player

Each player had an individual stance and therefore, his own personality. The Toews figure turned out to be the most reliable one, which amused me greatly. (It’s the little things in life.) Every time I had to pick up one of the others, I looked over at #19 and thought, “Well isn’t that just like him. Always the responsible one, getting it done.”

modeling chocolate fondant hockey playersI was so utterly lost for time that I even packed up a little kit to work on while attending my dad’s spring band concert! My last guy came to the concert as a lump of modeling chocolate, and left a player. Not easy to do by the flickering candlelight, but the deadline loomed and I was motivated by the thought of them showing an incomplete cake.

creating player by candlelight
       blackhawks players from the back
STEP 4: CREATE NETShockey nets wire and fondant

Using a heavy gauge floral wire, I sculpted two hockey nets. They were then covered in white fondant. My mom, a whiz with fabrics, created the net with a bit of string. Then she covered the remaining portion of the nets with red modeling chocolate.

STEP 5: PUT THE RINK TOGETHER placing sugar rink on fondant rink

Once the white fondant was dry, and the sugar-ice was hardened, it was time to lay it on top and see if it worked! This picture pretty clearly shows the yellow cast of the ice. :/

Once the ice was down, it was time to create the walls of the rink. These were foam board covered in fondant and stuck into the rink using toothpicks. Unfortunately there are no photos of this part! WE’RE RUNNING OUT OF TIME!!!


Here’s the most awful part about cake decorating: there are certain things that you have to do last minute. Like putting the cake together. Sure, I can make the parts in advance, but one doesn’t quite know how it will work until the actual cake is there! Luckily, my mother is an absolute angel and she baked twelve cakes while I was at work. Twelve!

Once the cakes were carved and frosted, it was time to cover with fondant. I decided to cover the top with one piece, and the sides with separate pieces. If I had the luxury of hiring someone, this would be their #1 job because I am absolutely awful.

Don’t forget to put supports in the cake so the rink doesn’t come crashing through! 🙂

sheet cake 1    sheet cake layer 2     sheet cake layer 1  finished blackhawks cake base

Here’s a handy dandy photo that shows the many layers of the cake:

blackhawks cake construction


transporting cake            transporting players on soft towel


setting up in green room        Kathryn and Garry

Check back for my next post that will describe my experiences at WGN! I was able to bring the cake into the studio, talk on the air with Garry Meier and Tom Skilling, and leave the cake in the Showcase Studio window for passersby to see! I am so grateful to WGN for this awesome opportunity- it was a lot of fun and something that I’ll never forget! In the meantime, tune in to the podcast, available here: (beginning around the 3rd minute).

Oh yeah: GO HAWKS!

blackhawks cake 

Like the Blackhawks? Check out some other goodies I’ve made here:
Blackhawks/ hockey-themed iced cut-out cookies
Blackhawks logo cake
Life-sized puppy cake for player Bryan Bickell’s foundation
Blackhawks jersey cookies

Icing Smiles: One way you can make a difference!

Icing Smiles logo
Check out Icing Smiles here:

I live a fairly regular life. I have a regular job, live in a regular home, and occasionally, despite my preference for the late Romantic period, listen to regular music. Things like traffic and slow internet annoy me terribly, and the last time I got upset enough to cry was almost exactly a year ago, when the dog ate my Easter cake. (It’s been a year and the story still hasn’t reached “Oh, this’ll be funny someday!” status.)

But, as happens every once in a while, something hit me with such gravity that it really threw me back in my place. Last November, as I was meandering about the “America’s Baking and Sweets Show,” I happened upon a nonprofit organization called “Icing Smiles,” which matches bakers with children that are in the midst of serious illness, and provides the child with a “Dream Cake” for his or her birthday. I sat in the car when the show was over and watched a captivating video from their founder that explained perfectly the mission of this organization.

To be quite honest, part of me thought: how silly! A child is fighting for his life here, and the best I have to offer is a cake with Thomas the Tank Engine? This cake-decorating hobby feels frivolous at times, but never more than when I pictured myself walking into a hospital room and presenting a family in the midst of crisis with silly cake. I would rather melt into the wall than “show off” a cake to a family that has, literally, life and death on their mind. 

But then I saw the online photos of previous recipients, with absolute wonder on their faces. These kids, hooked up to wires and IVs or recovering from operations or waiting for transplants, endure a pain and worry that I cannot even comprehend. With Icing Smiles, I would have a chance, if only for an instant, to provide a fleeting moment of distraction. I realized that yes, it is frivolous, but isn’t a birthday frivolous, anyways? An entire day dedicated solely to mark the date the world first saw You as You? It was exactly this sort of triviality that these children deserved. A day where they think not of doctors and needles and pain and fear, but of cake. And frosting and sprinkles and chocolate and smiling!

Here are some of the ways you can help “Bake a Difference” for a sick child (or their sibling- and how cool is that?!):

* Be a “Sugar Angel” (baker): When a need is identified in your area, you get an email asking your availability. If you are free, a representative will send you the family’s requests. (Note: many states, including mine, do not require Sugar Angels to be licensed bakers. You are covered under Icing Smiles’ insurance, and your cake supplies are tax deductible.)

* Help with Delivery: Bring the cake from the baker to the child.

* Cookie Club: For those unfamiliar with (or not interested in) making large cakes, you might like to join the Cookie Club. These volunteers bake cookies to send to the medical families on a “regular day.” Just because. Other volunteers bake cookies and treats for families staying at Ronald McDonald houses.

* Donate: Icing Smiles is a volunteer-run organization, but they obviously have unavoidable operating costs. They rely on donations/partnerships from individuals and corporations alike.

* Fundraise: Host a bake sale! Have a restaurant fundraiser! Help your local school run a fundraiser! (How neat- kids helping kids. 🙂 )

* Get the Word Out: Follow Icing Smiles via social media! If you work in the medical field, tell your PR department! Ask your local bakeries if they’ve heard of Icing Smiles and if they’d like to participate!

Have questions? Leave a comment below! Or check out their website here:

My first cake as a “Sugar Angel!”

(Literally) My Family Tree

fondant and real grandparents

When the time came to create a cake for my grandparents’ birthdays, I struggled to come up with an idea. What does one make for the perfect couple? The man who is so fiercely dedicated to protecting the marginalized of our society, giving a voice to those who have none? Who has shown his children and grandchildren the very definition of love with the way that he adores his wife? The woman who leads the conga line across the stage at the restaurant when our family’s “song” comes on, who demonstrates her pride in her family with unabashed delight? Who- literally- will seek out the people on the fringes, so that they experience, even if for a moment, the feeling of belonging and inclusion? The couple who cares for each other before they care for themselves, and who have demonstrated how to live out a faith-filled life that is brimming with love?

With these thoughts swirling through my head, I rejected idea after idea. Nothing seemed good enough for them. And suddenly, my sister said, “The family tree!” Now, everyone knows that I am spending much of my free time conducting family research, but I hadn’t thought of actually bringing that to life in edible form. After a discussion at dinner on Sunday, it was decided: I would attempt to recreate a family tree. Grandparents at the bottom, with the families sprouting off on the branches. What better to way to honor them than by bringing their “legacy” to life, in fondant form?

Though our history has been traced back until the 1700s in rural Ireland, out of necessity due to both time constraints and cake design requirements, I narrowed down the branches to include only my immediate family. This Irish blood is what accounts for the ghostly skin and the dark hair… And the fact that one in three people in the family are named Mary. (Ok, I’m just kidding about that.) But in all seriousness, due to Irish traditions, names tended to stay within the family. For example, in one strand of our tree: There is a Robert who has a sister Mary and a sister Margaret. Robert marries a Margaret (who has a sister Mary). Robert’s mother’s name is Mary, whose mother’s name is Margaret, who’s grandmother’s name is Mary. Add in an aunt Margaret, a great-aunt Margaret, two great-aunt Mary’s, a great-grandma Margaret, and a great-great-grandma Mary, and then remember: this is just ONE strand. On the other side- completely unrelated- the Margarets begin anew.

photo 1With the exception of one cousin, who has a name that says it all, really- Margaret Mary- the naming tradition has fallen by the wayside with the past few generations. (While it is nice to keep family traditions, it HAS been nice to get to know the other 19 letters in the alphabet!)

Ok, back to the cake! Counting up the relatives, we discovered we needed 25 heads. I asked/begged my mother and aunt to help in this endeavor, promising them that “fondant is really fun!” Luckily, these two women are great sports and we really did have fun making heads, noses, eyes and mouths. (And this aunt isn’t even a part of that particular tree! Do you see what I mean? I have the best relatives all around!)

Next, we created a base for the tree. This tree was going to be very heavy, so we decided to use rice krispie treats instead of cake! Cover the base in fondant, and trim off excess fondant:

photo 3 photo 4 photo 11

Next, create the tree. I used a large plastic cylinder, stuffed it with modeling chocolate, and then stuck in some metal decorative pieces I found at a craft store. I then duct-taped these sticks together because I was afraid the addition of the heads would cause them to shift around a lot.

photo 22 photo 33 photo 44

Once the branches were secure, I added the heads (in family groups). The heads had hardened with a small bit of wire inside, and I wrapped the other end around the “branch” and secured it with floral tape. Then the entire branch was covered with modeling chocolate.

DSCN0049    DSCN0051

The entire project ended up taking a ridiculous amount of time – my lovely mother was roped into work with me literally all day. She was a hard worker that completed all the hard or boring jobs like making leaves (yawn), softening the modeling chocolate (ouch!), and everything else that I could bark out at her.

Not only is she a hard worker, but she’s got a sense of humor!

Normally, I spend a lot of time thinking about the cake recipient while I’m decorating, but boy, in this case- wow! It was like a trip down memory lane!

photo 55Later that evening, we had a birthday party and presented them with the cake. As always, it was a very enjoyable evening and I was reminded about how blessed I am to have this life, these perfect relatives. And as I was thinking about what to put in this blog post, an unfortunate quote came to mind: “Every family has a weird relative. If yours doesn’t… it’s you.”




Painting with Buttercream

Kathryn Favorite Things(1990:)
“What is your favorite subject?” – Art.
“What is one thing you know a lot about?” – Art.
“What is one thing you are really good at?” – Drawing.
“What is one thing you’d change about school?” – Have art every day.

Out of the mouths of babes, as the saying goes- these are the real answers of an 8-year-old Kathryn. My mother, the family’s Keeper of the Memories, saved my “All About Me” worksheets from second grade, and one thing was abundantly clear: I loved art class! (Notice that there is no mention of math. :/ )

(Side note!! If you zoom in on this worksheet, I just realized you can see that my (fabulous) choice of “stretchy black pants” was actually covering a previously erased answer, “School U-” I’m gonna guess that was going to say, “School Uniform.” Nice to know I was already a full-blown nerd at age eight. The only person alive who liked Catholic school uniforms.)

Anyways: crayons, colored pencils, paint, play dough- you name it, I played with it. My mom even kept some of my first drawings, as you can see below! Though missing some important features (like bodies), the most notable thing of all was included: my dad’s fantastic mustache.

kathryn old drawingsFast forward a few years: the love of art has remained the same, and the drawing capability has marginally improved (I’ve started to include arms and legs in my figure drawings). A few weeks ago, I saw a photo of Van Gogh’s famous painting, “The Starry Night.” It occurred to me that this was the perfect opportunity to “paint” a cake using buttercream! Though making cakes is a huge creative outlet, I’ve been missing real art- drawing, painting, and the like. Painting a cake seemed a like a bit of a compromise, and this art style seemed perfect since it uses dabs rather than blended strokes.

First thing’s first: the cake! I wanted the “dab” effect to run throughout the cake, rather than just on the surface, so I purchased a Duff tie-dye mix. The mix comes with lots of colors, but I didn’t use the reds (since there are no reds or oranges in the Van Gogh).

DSCN9901 DSCN9902

Attention: This next part was great fun! 🙂 I used a spoon and dropped the colors in the pan in a random and assorted manner. I had to fight an extremely intense urge to run a toothpick through it all and create The Greatest Swirl Ever– but I was afraid the colors might run together.

Duff cake mix before baking

And the cooked result- how cool is that?! cooked Duff cake mix 

Though unusual to first cover the cake in fondant, and THEN buttercream, I wanted to have a smooth surface to “paint” on. So: on went blue buttercream, and then fondant. Man, that is a lumpy fondant job- I really stink at covering with fondant. I have watched just about every youtube help video out there, and I still have a hard time. Luckily in this case, the frosting totally covered up the lumpiness- but still. A skill to practice. :/


The next step was to create a color palette. Simply tint the buttercream various colors!

color palatteThe photos below show the painting progress, step by step. (Hey! Did someone say “Step by Step?” As in, my favorite song from second grade, as listed on the worksheet above? Check out the music video here! An unusual soundtrack to listen to while contemplating a buttercream Van Gogh, that is true. Perhaps you’d rather listen to this beautiful performance of “Vincent,” performed by Josh Groban.)


As you can see, I very faintly sketched out the major portions of the painting- mainly the large swirl and the beginning of the hill.

DSCN9918 DSCN9919 DSCN9921 DSCN9923 DSCN9924 DSCN9927

The final step – just for fun- was to lay a picture frame around the cake and create the illusion that it was hanging on the wall. I laid out a white tablecloth, taped a string to the back of the frame, and stuck a pin in the tablecloth- as if the frame were really hanging on the wall.

Van Gogh starry night painting cakeClick here to watch a 3-minute timelapse of a different time I painted this cake!

Now for the fun part! As you can imagine, I was DYING to cut into this cake! I really wanted to see if the layering would come out- and wow, did it ever! This Duff cake mix is an amazing product. Check out some close-ups below!

duff cake mix van gogh cake 2

duff cake mix van gogh cake close up of van gogh cakeI had a lot of fun working on this cake. If you could recreate one work of art using a different medium, which would you choose?

(Next up for me is “La Sagrada Familia” – a cathedral in Barcelona (architect: Gaudí) – I want to build it with sand! 🙂 ) la sagrada familia

Um Yah Yah!

Here’s a question: What is the only college fight song in 3/4 time?

And here’s the more important question: What is the only college nerdy enough to notice that theirs is the only fight song in 3/4 time?

Thaaaaat’s right, folks, St. Olaf College! (And I say “nerdy” with only the utmost love and affection, for I myself was a music major.) Home of the melody that, rather than pump up athletes before the Big Game, suggests they grab the nearest opponent and go a-waltzin’ through the meadow.

The words don’t necessarily add any coherence to its puzzling status as a fight song. Here, for example, is the refrain:

Um yah yah! Um yah yah!
Um yah yah! Um yah yah!
Um yah yah! Um yah yah!
Um yah yah yah!

I don’t actually know what it means. But no matter! Comprehension takes a backseat when one is given such a bouncy and pleasing melody. (And just for your information, the text of the verse does make rather more sense.) For those of you unfamiliar with this toe-tapping tune, here is a clip (, published on YouTube by St. Olaf) that perfectly illustrates the college’s character. As the video’s description states, the college was in the midst of moving things around, and all the pianos ended up temporarily in the recital hall. Naturally, the piano students and faculty wanted to see what they sounded like all played together, and what follows is the unrehearsed result, with “Um Yah Yah!” making an appearance at minute 1:59:

And THAT is why I love St. Olaf.

I was not only lucky enough to attend this incredible college, but I made some lifelong friends in the process. We met the first day of freshman year, lived together every year after that, and have managed (despite living states apart) to get together at every Christmas and every summer since graduation (with a healthy amount of weddings and baby showers sprinkled in between). At our most recent Christmas gathering, I decided to attempt recreating one of the traditional “St. Olaf scenes:” sitting on the sign at the college’s entrance.

I created little fondant people modeled after each of my friends. First comes the head:

IMG_2700  IMG_2702
Next comes the body. Torso first, then the jeans:


After the bodies were all made, I stuck a toothpick through the whole thing- jeans, torso, arms, and head- in the hopes it would provide structure and stability:


On come the heads! This is the fun part- individually styling everyone’s hair. 🙂 For the curly girls, it seemed to work better if there was a base (like a helmet) and that way, if there was a part of the head not covered by the curls, the bald skull wouldn’t show through. You can see the “helmet” on the blonde below:


Final additions: give each girl something related to one of her majors. (It was necessary in order to easily tell everyone apart- let’s face it, fondant people all look the same.) From left to right: Greek text for the Classics major, novel for the English major (there are some little white things under the book that I took out later- they were there holding up the book so it would dry upright as if she was reading it), stethoscope for the premed major, laptop for the English major, paperwork for the social work major, apple for the education major, baton for the music major, and a Bible for the religion major.

Ole girls

The next step was to create the sign. I just covered a piece of styrofoam with buttercream and then black fondant, and piped the letters with royal icing. Let this dry for a few days and it’s ready to stick on the final cake! Final step- create the actual cake. I used a brick mat to create the brick effect, and then added a little luster dust to create some dimension on the bricks:

cake base bricks

Final version! (I made the sign as it stands currently. Since our graduation, they changed it– I’m guessing they made it curved so that people would stop sitting on it. 🙂 )

Oles with sign

“If you have two friends in your lifetime, you’re lucky. If you have one good friend, you’re more than lucky.”
– S.E. Hinton

It looks like I’m seven times lucky!

Read sign and cake sign

Bucky Badger in Pound Cake Form!

Several months ago, a friend asked me to do a groom’s cake for her daughter’s wedding. “You can do a 3D Bucky holding some Mike and Ikes, right? Great. Thanks!” She promised to send more info and then waved and went on her way.

And I stood there, frozen, with my mouth gaping. No, I do not know how to carve cakes. No, I’ve never had a cake at a public event. And no, I do not like to disappoint people, especially on their wedding day!

But then there’s that little spark inside that pushes me to try something new. “If she thinks I can do it, maybe I can,” the little spark told me. So with much trepidation (and a pep talk from friends), I nervously assented to her request.

So began the research necessary for a carved cake. What type of cake works the best? And frosting? Fondant? How do you transport it? Does it need to be kept cold? How do you attach the head? What’s the best material for making the head? How about my head? Will I lose it during this process?

Armed with google and a determined spirit, I created the following calendar:

  • Two months before: answer the above questions
  • One month before: sketch cake design and figure out dimensions
  • Three weeks before: finalize cake design and purchase materialsStyrofoam head  and base
  • Two weeks before: begin working on the head
  • One week before: bake and freeze the cake
  • 3-5 days before: create gum paste extras
  • 2 days before: make the cake board, thaw the cake
  • 1 day before: assemble (and pray. Lots.)

Here’s how everything went down:


I decided to use a styrofoam base to carve the head. (Are you supposed to do that? I have no idea!) I purchased some cake pillars from a local craft store that I think are meant to help stabilize cake layers, and I shoved one of the pillars into the head and stuck the other in a large styrofoam dummy cake as the base.

After the base was formed, I began to coat the styrofoam with modeling chocolate. I’ve used modeling chocolate twice before and, let me tell you, something went awry this time. It still made a beautiful finish and was easy to work with once it was kneaded, but I think I can safely say that I gave myself tendinitis just from this one afternoon. I “knead” to learn how to do this better. Haha. 🙂 After approximately 3 hours of kneading (I wish I were joking), most of the modeling chocolate was ready to go.

The photo below shows the modeling chocolate before and after. (The “before” is the crumbly-looking block and the “after” are warm and malleable logs:) modeling chocolate before and afterWith a pile of ready-to-use modeling chocolate by my side, I commenced Head Construction. The photos below show the progress: Bucky Badger head how to

For the candy boxes, I used a piece of styrofoam and covered it in fondant. That didn’t work one bit. So I coated it in frosting, then fondant, which worked a little- but the box was lumpy and weird. So I left it as is, waited a day, and then covered the fondant with a thick-ish layer of gum paste, which I managed to sort-of flatten with the rolling pin so it was a smooth surface. That seemed to work okay, but I am certainly not that happy with the result. I cut out little pieces of colored gum paste to form the fruits, candies, and words on the box (I cut the white letters out first, and then laid them on the black and carved around them) and stuck them on with some gum glue adhesive. Next step: let the whole thing dry for a few days, and voila!
(Oh- I only wanted one box for the final cake, but I made two, just in case. Believe me- make an extra copy of all your embellishments.)
Mike and Ike fondant boxes

I have no idea what I’m doing! I don’t even know what a badger is, really! And how do you carve arms on an animal- it’s not like cake can just withstand the powers of gravity without something supporting it, right?! So I decided to just make his arms close to his body and hope for the best. What follows is a series of in-progress photos. My badger ended up short and morbidly obese. :/

Bucky Badger cake in progress When carving the body, repeat after me: “Little cuts. Little cuts. Little cuts.” Once you cut out the cake, it cannot be put back. Carving this body took me two hours, but I’m not sorry! The result was a coffee table that looks like this:
Bucky crumbs

The final steps went extremely fast. Cover the carved cake in buttercream… and then fondant… and then embellish it:
Bucky Buttercream  Bucky fondant  Bucky embellishment

Self explanatory! 🙂
(The only thing I would suggest is this: see how Bucky wears a turtleneck? You’ll want to make sure that you carve a little dip into the top layer of cake- where the neck is- otherwise he’ll end up looking more like a giraffe than anything else.)
Adding Bucky's head


Bucky Badger cake

I have to tell you a true story. I almost sliced off his arm. No joke! I was catching up on Season 3 of Downton Abbey and had just finished (or so I thought!) the last episode, so I went back to the carving. And suddenly, out of nowhere, it happened. WHAT?!?! I won’t spoil it for any of you, but if you’ve seen it, you can appreciate how Bucky almost became an amputee.

Thanks for checking out this post. As you can see, I still have much to learn. How do you carve cakes? Do you find pound cake to be the best? Do you have a modeling chocolate recipe or technique that does not cause immediate arthritis? 🙂

Gum paste flowers and… straws!

Finally: gum paste flowers!

I have been waiting and waiting until I could learn how to make these! I loved the first three cake-decorating courses, but I couldn’t WAIT for the last one! I just think these  flowers look so realistic. Everything on the flowers is edible except for the wire stems and the stamens. Pretty neat!

The process of making the flowers is fairly time-consuming, but worth it, in my opinion! The more time you take on the flowers, the better they will look in the end. Spend the time to mix appropriate colors, roll the petals thin, and take care how you lay them out to dry. This will give them life and movement!

If you’re interested in learning how to make these flowers, check out a local craft store near you- they often offer beginning cake decorating classes.


Now, the cake does look kinda cool– unless, of course, you see it from the backside… yikes.

*Must… improve… cake… design…*

Once I made the flowers, I didn’t really know what to do with them! We didn’t use them in a cake during my final course, so I didn’t exactly know how to use them. My instructor said that they sell tubes that you can insert into cakes and put the flowers into (presumably because the wiring and floral tape is not food safe). But since I was in an experimental and money-conscious mood, I decided to use straws. I have no idea if this is the right technique, but it seemed to work okay at that moment!

…But then you have a cake full of straws… right?


HELPFUL HINT: Use luster dust around the edges of the petals and leaves for a realistic look!

In this photo below, I used a mixture of orange fondant and gum paste to create the rose. Once the rose was dried (at least a day or two later!), I smudged some luster dust on my finger and dusted the edges to create some dimension.What a difference!

Thanks for reading! Do you have any advice about how to use gum paste flowers in an actual cake? Please leave a comment below if you can help! What am I missing? Or do cakes with flowers also come punctuated with holes? 🙂