April 20, 2007

Fish Fountain Cake

The second in my series of disintegrating cake (the first being the Melting Head Cake), the Fish Fountain was made for the Second Annual MBA Art Show at my business school.

Watch the fountain on YouTube

My goals in creating the Fish Fountain were:

  1. To explore the impermanence of human achievement by creating a cake - a work of art that by its very nature must be destroyed to be appreciated - that preemptively destroys itself.
  2. To show off for my classmates.

I think the main mistake that I made in designing this cake was that I was much more concerned with the functionality - the simple fact that it was a self-devouring fountain - than I was with the aesthetics, which, to be honest, were a bit of an afterthought and I was sort of making things up as I went along. I wish that I had put more thought into integrating the appearance of the cake with its actions. I also think that I could have made the melting more impactful had I made the exterior of the cake darker, because then when the color melted away to reveal the white fondant beneath it would have created a sharper contrast.

Instead, a fish was the first shape I thought of when I thought of a fountain, so I made a fish. Well, not just a fish, of course. In keeping with my usual style, I wanted to make it a bit monstrous and grotesque, so I decided to give it fins that were morphing into human hands and feet.

The first thing I did was make the hands and feet out of royal icing so they would have lots of time to dry. I piped the royal icing onto parchment paper, then set them over some curved cardboard pieces to give them a nice shape. In hopes that it would help the cake melt in an interesting fashion, I gave the fins some very thin sections and some very thick sections so they would dissolve at different rates.

Next I ran some tests on various form factors of sugar, to see how quickly they melted when left under a stream of water. I wanted the cake to melt quickly enough to be easily observable, but not so quickly that the cake would melt into a soggy inedible mess before everyone had a chance to appreciate the complexities of my concept. I experimented with pressed sugar, royal icing, isomalt sheets, hard candy sheets, and fondant. I also wanted to use multiple materials that would melt at different rates and create interesting textures. Everything worked pretty well, except for the pressed sugar, which dissolved too quickly to really be of any use to me.

Now I needed a fountain. I picked up two different little pumps at Home Depot as well as some tubing. After a fair amount of trial and error, I wound up with a plastic cake plate sitting in an ugly blue plastic bowl with a paper towel tube sticking up through the middle. Underneath the cake plate was my little pump, with a tube running up through the center of the paper towel tube. I wanted to make the water come out as close to vertically as possible, so that it would dissolve the cake all the way around and not just on one side. I knew I wouldn't be able to test it anymore once I had the cake in place, so I just had to set it up as best I could initially and hope.

For the cake, I made my usual chocolate recipe, baked a whole mess of rounds, torted and filled them with chocolate ganache, and stacked them around the paper towel tube. Because it was so tall, I used dowels and foamcore circles every four inches or so. Then I carved it into basically a big oblong blob and crumb coated it with more chocolate ganache. In retrospect I should have given it a more contrapposto shape. It would have been more dynamic.

Rather than try to cover such a tall shape with just one piece of fondant, I used three. I also made them extra thick because I didn't to risk the cake itself getting soggy. First I covered the side with two rectangles, so that the seam would run right up the back and the belly of the fish. Then I put one more piece over the top that would serve as the fish head up to the gills. This had the highly unfortunate effect of making it look like a penis.

Next I added the larger fondant decorations to the face. Again, my propensity for making monsters came to the fore and the fish came out very dragon-y. I also ran textured fondant lines up the front and back to hide the seams in my initial fondant layer. Then I put my royal icing fins and tail in place, using big skewers to hold them until the royal icing dried.

At this point, because I hadn't planned the visuals well enough, my decorations got a bit out of hand. It was like the royal icing had a mind of its own. I piped fringe, dots, whiskers, stripes ... in an attempt to conceal the fact that I had made the fountain inside a cheap plastic bowl from Walmart, I covered the bowl with royal icing as well and tried to texture it like stone with a sponge. It wasn't the prettiest thing in the world, but it was probably marginally less ugly than the bowl. I also sponged some royal icing onto the cake itself, as I was vaguely planning to give that a bit of a stone appearance as well.

Once my royal icing dried I put a base coat of airbrushing on. To emphasize the fact that my fish-dragon was also part human, I put flesh tone on the fins/hands and tail/feet. Because I was going for a stone feel overall, I put a grey base coat on the rest of the cake and on the bowl.

Now my fish needed scales. Of course, if I had really been committed to my stone texture idea, I would have sculpted the scales into the fondant before I applied my stone texture. But, as I said before, cohesive aesthetics was not my top priority. I thought by having several different media on the cake - royal icing, fondant, isomalt - I would get a more interesting melt. So I made some multicolored, iridescent scales by mixing isomalt powder with silver, purple, green, and blue luster dust, then melting little piles of the mixture in a 400 degree oven on a silpat mat. They came out nice and bubbly and organic-looking, but of course they did absolutely nothing to make the cake look like a stone fountain.

I stuck the scales to the cake using royal icing, gradating from green around the back ridge through blue and purple to the silver at the stomach ridge. Then these got out of control, too, and I started sticking scales on the face, the fingers, the toes, everywhere ... I just couldn't stop myself. Improv has never been a strong suit of mine - I really need a firm plan to work from, or I won't be happy with the results.

To try to better integrate the multitude of scales with the rest of the cake, I painted luster dust all over the rest of the cake, too. When I was done, my cake looked more like a disco ball than a fountain. And not a tasteful, restrained, silver disco ball. A ridiculous, garish, rainbow-colored disco ball.

On the bright side, the fountain-ness of it functioned quite well. I realized at the last minute that the bowl the cake was in would be nowhere near big enough to contain all the drips and splashes from the fountain, so I had a friend of mine bring a big silver tray to the art show to put the cake on. I had bought several gallons of cranberry juice to use instead of water, so I poured that in and plugged in the pump. I hadn't gotten the angle on the tubing just right, so at first the juice all sprayed down one side of the fish. I had to prop one side up a bit with a stack of napkins to get it to flow evenly. I was glad that I had decided to use different types of sugar, because that really did enhance the texture of the melting.

I don't recall exactly why I decided that the fountain should spray something red. Perhaps I didn't exactly decide; perhaps after so many gory cakes blood red is just my default setting. My finance professor told me that I should have used Cabernet. He was right, it would have been classier to use wine, but I was too cheap to spend much money on a drink that was obviously going to be useless once it was all gummed up with melted sugar. And it did get gross - you have no idea how bubbly and sticky and gooey cranberry juice full of sugar and fondant can be.

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