August 16, 2008

Housewarming Cake

This housewarming cake was made to celebrate (somewhat belatedly) the new house that Barbara May and her husband purchased and Barbara Jo moved into with them to play with their son and mooch off of their groceries.

Slightly less than a year after we moved into our new house, my sister, her husband, and I decide that we were finally ready to have a housewarming party, which naturally provided me with a perfect excuse to overdo the cake.

I wanted to convey the idea that, of all the buildings in all the world, we had found the perfect house for us, so I designed a cake that was made up of a collection of small buildings that, when properly lit, cast the shadow of our house on the wall.

The first problem, of course, was to find a light source that cast a sufficiently defined shadow on the wall. After initial tests with household clip lights and powerful flashlights, it became clear that I really needed a bona fide theatrical lighting instrument. So I bought myself a mini-ellipsoidal pattern projector. Which means that I need to build a puppet theatre, now that I have such a nice light for it.

With my light source in hand, I now needed to figure out what the silhouette of our house actually looks like. I think it has a relatively distinctive silhouette (at least distinctive enough that our guests at the party were able to convincingly pretend that they recognized it.) To insure accuracy, I took a photo of the front of the house and traced that, deciding at the same time which features to include and which superfluous features to ignore. When I was happy with my drawing I blew it up to the full size that I wanted the shadow to ultimately be.

I now needed a full scale foam core mockup of the cake, positioned precisely the same way relative to the wall and to the light source as the finished cake would ultimately be. I set up a table in my studio, with the image of the desired silhouette taped to wall behind it and my light source clamped to a book shelf across the room. So as to be able to precisely position the completed cake buildings the same way relative to one another as the foam core mockup, I designed a base for the cake that would include a 1" grid to which I could align all my pieces. In order to insure that I would be able to recreate the setup in the dining room for the party itself, I took precise measurements of the relationship between the cake base, the lens of the lighting instrument, and the wall.

From there it was largely a process of trial and error, creating one building at a time in just right size, shape, and position to block out an incremental portion of the light to create the house's silhouette. I also had to keep myself cognizant of the fact that I needed to incorporate some buildings that were actually large enough to contain some cake. Otherwise I would just be making a big gum paste city, which would have been a big disappointment to our guests.

With the foamcore mockup complete, I then had to translate that into a complete set of Bristol board templates which I could use to cut out the gum paste. In the interests of not getting massively confused, I numbered all the buildings. If I recall correctly, there were eleven distinct buildings, several of which I divided into substructures which I labeled with letters. Remarkably, my labeling system actually worked - at no point in the process did I wind up with a carefully cut out piece of gum paste and no idea what to do with it.

I also made the cake base at this point, which consisted of a piece of 3/8" foamcore covered with fondant, into which I etched lines on a 1" grid. I then painted it like a parti-colored sidewalk and sponged on some royal icing for texture.

Finally I was ready to start creating the actual gum paste buildings, rolling out the gum paste and cutting it out with an X-acto knife using my Bristol board templates. Because there were so many pieces, it was quite a time consuming process, but it all went very smoothly, expect that I didn't have nearly enough flat surfaces in my studio to set all my pieces to dry. I really need one of those flat racks. Maybe I should build one instead of whining about it.

My plan was to do most of the color by hand, but I started out with a few different colors of gum paste - grey, blue, and pink - to get a different color base to build up from. My plan was to ultimately end up with a wide variety of architectural styles, thereby driving home the concept that, while we had essentially infinite choices of house, we culled the choices down to the perfect one.

As I was cutting the gum paste pieces, I also beveled the corners, in the hopes that they would then fit together in nice corners, rather than having more visible seams. For the most part this worked well enough that I was at least able to hide any imperfections with a little strategically placed royal icing.

With the basic gum paste shapes cut out, I set about embellishing them (variously with bricks, stones, adobe textures, wood panels, metallic windows, neo-classical columns, and even a nice little caryatid that I was rather proud of) and painting them.

Assembly was a rather finicky project, because I had to make sure that the shadows lined up appropriately with my shadow sketch, while slotting little slivers of cake into every available divot, some only a 1/2 inch thick. The only real problem I had was with the roof of one of the buildings wanting to cave in under the weight of the smaller buildings on top of it, so I had to disassemble it, shove in some foam core supports, and reassemble.

Once I had all the pieces together, I added some additional bricks and such to cover up messy seams, and then did some airbrushing, in attempt to unify the scene.

Because I was making it, it naturally ended up looking like a bit of a post-apocalyptic wasteland, an effect that was astronomically amplified once I had placed all of my little, white, unintentionally zombie-like, royal icing figures around the scene.

As a backdrop to project the shadow onto, I covered a sheet of foamcore with a vaguely cloudy-ish grayish-blue piece of fabric. Remarkably, I was able to move my entire cake/lighting/backdrop setup from my studio to the dining room without any detrimental effect on the projected silhouette. Truly, I wouldn't have been at all surprised to have moved it and then been utterly unable to recreate the shadow effect that I had achieved in my studio.

In many ways, this was not my most dynamic cake, as it didn't really do anything, or at least there was no dramatic moment in the party at which it did something that it hadn't already been doing before - casting a shadow on the wall behind it. But I like to think that it had a certain finesse to it, a certain quiet dignity that was appropriate to the occasion. Plus I enjoyed how, as we cut it up to eat it, it became ever more and more a diorama of catastrophic destruction, with the shadow crumbling right alongside its more solid counterpart. Also, the royal icing zombies made great garnishes for the slices of cake and everyone had a good time making the shadow of a little stuffed praying mantis menace the shadow of the house.

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  • Really cool concept, and great execution! I'm here from cakewrecks (for the monkey cake), and all of your stuff is amazing!

    By Anonymous Muria, At November 12, 2010 at 5:53 PM  

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