Friday, August 3, 2012

a sour taste in my mouth (cake taste vs sculpted design)

in just the past few days a grooms cake I did has received a ton of attention.  at last count nearly 700,000 people had viewed it and I got to reading some of the comments about it.  This can be hard if you don't have a tough skin as many people will bitch and complain about just about anything!  One of the most common comments was something to this end: " too bad cakes that look this cool taste so bad"  It got me to wondering , "why in the hell do people assume that because a cake is a work of art or more specifically sculpted, that it taste badly?" 

The answer is that for many decorators there is a trade off when it comes to doing sculpture cakes.  Somehow within our group, the folks who are known for doing sculpted cakes have propagated the idea that sculpture cakes have to be made from some other sort of cake, and often that means the flavor has to suffer.  I want to know who made up that rule! (I'd like to take them outside and beat them with a spatula)

We've all seen our TV counterparts ( ace and buddy) make cakes from pound and sponge cake.  I once saw buddy pick up a sheet of cake with 2 hands on each end of a cake that had to be at least 3 foot wide.  This cake didn't crack, tear or even so much as bend...  I can't imagine that a cake with this sort of properties could possibly taste good.  When we did our first Cake Off my mother got as recipe from an extremely well known cake personality for the cakes she uses on TV shoots.  It was more of a dense bread than a cake, but in her defense this is a what she uses on TV only, she doesn't serve it. 

This idea that cake must be "different" ( meaning more firm, harder and less moist i.e. more like a brick!) in order to be sculpted has even shown it's face just about every time I do cake classes and require my students to supply their own cake.  I've had well meaning students show up with obscure recipes for "sculpted cake only" variations of what I can only describe as "a cake substitute", believing that this is what is required to make a cake sculpture. 

The following paragraph is bound to rattle some cages as there is a huge rift within our industry between those who scratch bake and those who use a pre-made or "box mix".  scratch bakers market the practice as being better in many ways.  "Fresher", "more pure" and better tasting than the alternative.  Scratch bakers insist that their product is better because of the time and labor involved and people can be very addimate about it, but this isn't a debate about which is better!  We use a mix...  Not because I believe that scratch bakers are wrong, or that base mixes are better, but because it works for us!  I can't even begin to tell you how many times I've heard from clients that we have " the best cake they ever tasted"  all of them assume that we did it from scratch, but really we relied on the millions of dollars that the suppliers have spent perfecting their product and the fact that most of the public palate has become accustomed to the taste.  We juice it up a bit, but essentially it's the same "Betty Crocker" mix you buy from the grocery store! ( I'm so going to get emails from scratch bakers telling me theirs is better! and also from those who claim they don't like "box mix", but in all the years I've done cake I've never had a client complain about the taste, not ever!    Companies like "Betty Crocker" and Pilsbury spend millions of dollars, and do tons of research and focus group testing to determine the best and most marketable product.  I don't know any scratch bakers that can do that!  ( but of course yours must be better , right? LOL)

Getting back to our original topic, there is no difference in the type of cake that we use in sculptures then there is in any simple round or tiered cake, nor is there any justifiable reason for there to be!
If a decorator has to rely on a different mixture, whether scratch or box mixed to create a cake sculpture then there is something wrong with their technique! 

Cake is a terrible medium in which to make a sculpture.  This is because it's soft, gives over time and has very little strength in both the crush direction or in tensile strength.  The better the cake in taste even, the worse it is at "holding up" under the load of fondant and butter cream.  Gravity is the biggest adversary, and many a cake has failed because the Earth's pull was stronger than the structure inside the cake.  Perhaps this problem is why the false idea that cake must be firmer and by default yuckier (is that a word?) in order to be successful.  Let's work on changing this perception!

I live often hours away from most of my delivery locations.  To get from my bakery to the highway requires driving down my bumpy driveway to the often rutted and washboard filled county road.  From there I have an hour at least before I reach my closest deliveries, and I can tell you being in the car, bouncing and getting warm takes it's toll on even the best engineered cake designs, yet to date I have never lost a cake to our enemy, gravity.  This is because I understand that no matter the type of cake, it has limitations.  These limitations mean that I never go over 2 layers thick without support (unless the third layer is very small), I always over engineer my support and I refuse to rely on "rice crispies" as a structural element!    Additionally it's important to remember the slope and length of the surface your covering in fondant.  Fondant is heavy and it will only allow you to hang it so far before it will rip your design apart!  The more vertical the surface the more likely it is that the weight will become too great and the result is a cake that your client will not appreciate, or even worse as I saw first hand on a TV show, cause the cake to crumble and fail all together.   I don't have an exact formula for what constitutes "too much" of a slope or length, but if I feel any doubt about a cake holding up as I'm putting it together, I change the way I'm doing it! 

Seams are another place of likely failure.  Just as a sidewalk will crack and fail at the joints, so will your cake.  Sidewalks are designed with these stress relieving seams so that the larger area doesn't crack and fail.  Intentionally adding seams to fondant is essentially the same as adding relief joints to your cake.  It will crack there and you will be very unhappy!  If covering something tall (say a building) in fondant, I always make sure that I use a single sheet large enough to cover the entire piece including both sides.  It has to be done quickly and preferably with help.  The moistened butter cream cake ( meaning I misted it with a spray bottle of water) is covered with a single sheet of thin fondant.  My rule of thumb for fondant thickness on any design is "only as thick as it must be to cover the imperfections in the butter cream"...  When I'm using fondant on any design from round to crazy sculpted, I seldom smooth the cake entirely.  Often I have fondant structural elements under the final layer of fondant that serve as a sort of skeleton (covered in my DVDs).  These elements work just as a real skeleton or formers and give extra definition to the shape once covered.  The fondant covering must be thick enough to hide these, yet thin enough not to wipe them out and add extra weight.  It's something you learn by trial and error, but generally it's between 1/8 and 1/4 inch thick.

Finally the biggest "trick" to creating sculpted cakes that look as good as they taste is to not let the cake do the work!  Many cake sculptures don't really require much structure to stand up, such as cars and such, but more complex designs should be thought of as miniature building projects.  I design my cakes so that the cake really is only a filler and the structure does 100% of the work.  Many of my structures look just like a building under construction.  They have a solid foundation, a main supporting pillar and several "floors" ( cake boards) and the cake only occupies the empty space in between levels.  I've done many competitions both on TV and off and I can tell you that I've had some strong comments from the people who dispose of them afterwards that they are flat out hard to destroy!   

The "foundation" support of the "Ultimate Cake off" swimwear fashion show cake

Note how the finished basic structure looks like a building under construction.  I only use PVC pipe as a spacer, never as a structural element!  It's been cut to 4" lengths to space each "floor" and to cover the iron pipe supports.  In this design Dawn foods sheet cakes were used and each level was essentially a large sgeet cake!( or several mated to gether anyway)
we used over 200 sheet cakes!

Here's the finished structure.  We were only asked to provide 200 servings of cake so the questionable elements such as the tall spires and front gate didn't justify being done in cake.  The potential for failure and the 9 hour time limit dictated that we do them in foam.  They spent several hours disposing of this cake after our Cake off Victory!  They tried to tip it over even to no avail!
The finished cake from our championship cake off episode! 

Another fun competition winning structure.  you can see in the left corners of the lover level the additional PVC spacers used to keep the corners from sagging.  This was repeated on all 4 corners.  The roof section was for the mock up of the design.  The castle was part of the competition element and started life as one that can be purchased.  I cut it up to suit my needs obviously!
The finished product.  We won with this design and we were the only design that had actual cake in the design!  We actually finished this one quite early as the design really is quite simple

Cake sculptures don't have to be tricky or a cause for worry.  It's all in the planning and pre-cake work done before you ever start carving cake.  Both of the designs above used essentially grocery store sheet cakes bought on location to avoid having to ship so much cake!  I could have used angel food cake or whipped cream to fill the spaces as the structure honestly does all the work!  Admittedly, it would be a chore to serve all of these cakes, as the structure causes some difficulty, but when a client pays you to create something of this magnitude I feel it better to peeve the caterer who cuts it than to show up on site with a cake that has disintegrated in the back of the delivery van!  I've seen it happen to others and it's a very sad sight indeed!

 We're working to finish a DVD that includes all the basics of structure building and even some fondant work too, and it will be out in the next couple weeks.  So, go build something already!
just make sure it taste as good or better than it looks!!!!

Peace N Love


1 comment:

  1. Aww Mike, now our secret is out in regards to box cakes!

    Keep up the great work, I do read your blog posts, I just don't always comment on them.
    Carmelo (The Cake Commando)