September 1, 2004

Cyndi Lauper Cake

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This cake was intended to be presented to Cyndi Lauper on The Graham Norton Effect. Unfortunately, it didn't survive being FedExed from Colorado to New York, but we think Cyndi would have liked it.

As my mom pointed out to me, I had no idea five or so years ago when Barbara May and I started theyrecoming.com (our horror movie review website) into what strange adventures it might soon lead me. The one it's led me into most recently involved sculpting a bust of Cyndi Lauper in cake to be FedExed to New York City and presented to Cyndi on a show called The Graham Norton Effect, which I had never even heard of until the contacted me about two months ago. Evidently, someone at the show had found their way to theyrecoming.com and seen the photos of my thoracic cavity cake and my zombie cake. Initially, they wanted me to make a werewolf cake for Seth Green, but they didn't give me enough lead time and I was really busy that weekend, so I had to tell them no, but please keep me in mind for the future. The next time they contacted me they wanted a cake for Cyndi Lauper and, as they gave me a few weeks notice this time and I'm a sucker for rock of the 80's, I enthusiastically agreed, providing they could come up with a way to transport the cake from the little Colorado mountain town where I spend my summers to the Big Apple.

I decided to make the cake a portrait of Cyndi with her mouth open, singing or possibly screaming, however one wants to interpret it. Behind the head, which was to be made out of cake, the hair would be a big dome of colorful hard candy with a light bulb underneath. My goal was to give the impression of something along the lines of a Tiffany lampshade. The folks at The Graham Norton Effect were excited about the idea, so I set about the planning and supplying stages. I believe I've mentioned before that I spend the summers in a little town about two hours away from the nearest big city, so supplies are a bit harder to obtain here than usual. Fortunately, the internet knows no petty geographical bounds, so I was able to order some powdered food colors and cocoa butter, which I didn't end up using after all and Barbara May sent me some paste colors and paint brushes and luster dust and suchlike from California.

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The weekend before the weekend I was to make the cake I was planning to drive to Indiana for a friend's wedding. Yes, I drove eighteen hours just to go to one party, then turned around and drove back. I loved every minute of it. This afforded me an opportunity to pick up supplies at places like Home Depot and Wal-Mart. I was looking for a good, battery-operated method of lighting up the sugar dome, but I never came up with one that I was really satisfied with, so I went with the tried and true method of a plug in light bulb. I also needed a big metal bowl, which I planned to cover with tin foil and use as a mold for the sugar dome. I found one at Wal-Mart that I thought would be perfect. As it turns out, I was wrong.

I returned to Colorado on the evening of Tuesday, September 7 and the cake was due to be shipped to New York on Monday, September 13 for a taping on Tuesday, September 14. The next day I got up and drove forty-five minutes to the nearest Safeway to get all my supplies (mostly sugar and corn syrup, neither of which, as it turned out, I bought nearly enough of.) My goal for that evening was to make the sugar hair dome. I covered the top of my kitchen table with tin foil, then set the bowl on top of some tuna cans to give it a bit more height and covered it with tin foil as well. Using the hard candy recipe from my favorite candy cookbook (The Practical Candymaking Cookbook) my plan was to first create an under layer of clear (or as clear as cooked sugar gets, which is sort of amber) sugar then pour various bright colors of sugar onto that to give the impression of wavy hair. I had forgotten to ask Barbara May to send me my good candy thermometer, so I bought a cheap one at Safeway, which evidently is cheap for a very good reason. It worked fine for the first batch or two of candy, then condensation formed inside it which made it impossible to read and when I tried to wipe off the inside I inadvertently moved the paper scale inside so it ceased to be accurate at all. I gave up on the thermometer altogether after a while and went by the sound of the bubbling and the color of the sugar. I think I did a remarkably good job of it, too, if I do say so myself.

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Building up the preliminary shell of clear sugar went fairly well expect that it was impossible to get it smooth because of the steep slope of the sides of the bowl. Eventually I had a fairly even coating of clear sugar and proceeded to the colored sugar, which was a complete failure. My plan had been to spoon the colored sugar into attractive swirls of hair but this proved to be impossible to do with any kind grace or precision on such a steep slope, so I just ended up with sort of messy wedges of red and purple sugar, which looked really sloppy and non-specific. I set that one aside (just in case I wanted it again later) and started again.

This time my plan was to draw specific wavy hair shapes onto the tin foil over the bowl with royal icing, then fill the spaces with clear sugar, which I would then paint bright colors with food coloring. I took me two tries to get royal icing shapes I was happy with (and this time I didn't set the bowl onto the tuna cans so it was bit shorter) and it proved difficult again to fill the more vertical surfaces of the bowl neatly. I had to do it with my little metal pastry tube from the sixties, which Barbara May got me at a garage sale or flea market or something, which is awesome because they're pretty much impossible to find. This is a very time-consuming process and it involved a lot of me burning myself with hot sugar. About halfway through the process I ran out of sugar and went to bed.

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By the time I woke up the next morning. I had an even better idea - I would start over with a solid, clear sugar shell, then drizzle bright colors of sugar over it in abstract patterns. This would eliminate my difficulty in forming neat, specific shapes and give the cake a wild, carefree look, which I felt would be appropriate to Cyndi Lauper. This was also the day I had planned to bake the cake itself, which I had to do in my friend's cabin because I don't have an oven. I also borrowed a bowl similar to the one I had bought but slightly smaller on which to create my new sugar dome. This way I could start on a new dome without trashing the half-finished dome I had been working on the night before (just in case.) This time I created a more graceful shape (I hoped) than the natural shape of the bowl by taping pieces of paper over it to the bowl and to the table to form ogee-like curves. It formed a good shape, but made the finished product harder to remove from the table.

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I spent the morning running back and forth between the two cabins, coating the bowl with clear sugar and baking three 6" round cakes, using a recipe for white cake I got from a book by Colette Peters. This was my first experience baking at a high altitude (about 8,300 feet) so I was a little nervous, but it seemed to go really well. I went online to get tips on high altitude baking (increase eggs, decrease baking powder, decrease sugar, etc.) I followed those and it went without a hitch expect that it seemed to take longer to bake than I expected, but maybe the oven just wasn't as hot as it said it was.

By three in the afternoon I had all the cakes baked and most of a good, solid layer of sugar on the bowl and I had to go to work for a few hours. By the time I came back the sugar on the bowl had had a chance to cool completely, which, I discovered, was a very bad thing. The first time I poured another coat of hot sugar onto a thin spot, the sugar dome started to crack. Evidently sugar can't take that quick a change in temperature. This was make even worse by the fact that I had, for some inexplicable reason, removed the sugar dome from its supporting structure of bowl and paper and even in some sections started to remove the underlining of tin foil (to assure myself that it was possible), so the hot sugar started drooping through cracks and the dome started to sag. I hurriedly pressed the still-pliable sugar into a tolerable shape and put the bowl back underneath. Clearly, I would have to recoat the entire dome with hot sugar before I started drizzling hot colored sugar onto it or the whole thing would crack apart. I tried to warm up the sugar dome by setting it in front of the radiator and by rubbing it with a hot, damp sponge, but that didn't help much. Every time I poured more hot sugar onto a cool section of the dome, more cracks appeared. Finally, I had a very thick layer of sugar on everything and all the cracks were sealed and covered up. (By this time I had also made two additional trips to the little grocery store across the street to buy more sugar and corn syrup. I bought pretty much all the corn syrup they had. Ordinarily things are much more expensive there than at a big grocery store, but fortunately the corn syrup was inexplicably cheaper.) I was ready to start on the colored sugar. Finally, something went right and the sugar drizzling went smoothly and looked good. I used bright red, bright purple, and bright greenish-blue. Once this cooled I pulled it off the form and peeled away the tin foil. This was easier said than done and I had to use tweezers to get the foil out of a few of the crevices, but eventually I got (almost) all of it.

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Finally my sugar dome was ready and I was ready to start sculpting the cake. I didn't have my cake leveler so I had to eyeball it, but fortunately the cakes were small in diameter so it was pretty easy. I filled the cake with raspberry jam, then, working from a photo I found online, carved it into the rough shape of Cyndi's head with an open mouth. I gave the leftover cake bits to my friend who lent me her oven. To crumb coat the head I used an apricot glaze, made by boiling and straining apricot jam.

Next, I mounted the head onto a neck, which I had made by stacking circles and oblong shapes of clear sugar on top of each other. This, I hoped, would look more graceful than simply plopping a severed head onto a tray. There's a reason why classical busts always include the shoulders.

My plan at this point had been to use white modeling chocolate to sculpt the facial features, but an old problem I had the first time I used white modeling chocolate resurfaced. Evidently I had added too much corn syrup because the modeling chocolate was very sticky and didn't set up right. I also had a hard time getting it to stay in place on the cake. I went to my backup plan, which was to use royal icing. Unfortunately, in the process of removing the modeling chocolate I had already put on, I ripped the nose off of the cake, so I would have to build it up again with icing. I put a preliminary coat of royal icing onto the whole head and went to bed to let it dry.

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The next day, for some incomprehensible reason, I tried the modeling chocolate again. Again, it failed miserably and pulled off some of the royal icing in the process, so I had to redo it. Eventually, I had a good base coat of royal icing on the head and a royal icing beaded necklace around each tier of the sugar neck and could position the head and the sugar hair on the plywood circle I had cut to use as a base. The light bulb was already mounted to the base, wired and ready to go. I had to move it once because the head sat further back than I expected, but that was easily accomplished. By some miracle the head and neck together were actually the right height to fit with the hair and the whole structure together seemed remarkably stable, a major concern for a cake that had to travel across the country. I lit it up to see what it looked like and was thrilled with the result!

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I used a large #12 round decorating tip and a medium #6 round decorating tip to pipe in royal icing features like lips, nose, ears, and cheekbones, then carefully smoothed and shaped them with a slightly damp, soft paintbrush. I put in a tongue and eyelids with a flat #104 decorating tip and again smoothed with the paintbrush. The nose took two applications to get it built up enough, but all in all it was quite successful. I even added a uvula at the back of the throat.

Once the royal icing had dried overnight, I was ready to paint the face. I had gotten powdered food coloring to use when I thought I would be painting onto white modeling chocolate, but with the royal icing I could use paste colors, thinned with water. First the skin tone went on, then rouge, lipstick, and bright, gaudy pink and green eyeshadow. I also painted each beaded necklace a different bright color. Then I added more details with royal icing, such as eyebrows and eyelashes and a head scarf to cover the less-than-perfect edge of the sugar dome hair, then painted those. I used some gold luster dust on the lips and blue luster dust on the eyelids to make it shine and used a few little drops of sugar I had saved for earrings and ornaments on the head scarf. Oh, at some point in there I decided that I didn't like the shape of the lips and had to go back and add more royal icing and touch up the paint job. The finished skin was a little lumpier than would have been ideal, but other than that, and a slightly odd chin shape due to some frosting sagging, I'd say it wasn't half bad.

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Finally my cake was done! Hooray! Now my only problem was packing and freezing it for transport. The packing method I came up with pretty darned smart, if I do say so myself. Like many of my "brilliant" ideas, it came to me as I was drifting off to sleep. First I covered the cake in plastic wrap, then tied it inside a plastic bag. I cut another plywood circle, about two inches bigger in diameter than the one on which the cake was mounted. I screwed the cake base to this so it wouldn't shift around. Then I wrapped about six layers of cardboard around this, forming a squat little tube, the excess space of which I filled with foam peanuts, then closed the top with a triple layer of cardboard. The result looked a lot like a giant hatbox and was far too large to fit in a standard freezer. Fortunately (and this is one of the big advantages of living in a small town) I have a friend who runs a restaurant and he let me stick the cake in his giant freezer.

On Monday morning, I got up, fetched the cake, then spent three hours waiting around for FedEx to arrive to pick it up. He had a little trouble finding my cabin because the street address isn't actually posted anywhere on the property but I guided him in by phone and a few minutes later my rustic little cake was on its merry way to the big city! Sounds like the premise for a Broadway musical, doesn't it?

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Sadly, perhaps cakes were not meant to be shipped cross-country as I'm told the cake arrived in New York broken. I never knew what, precisely, was broken or to what extent, but evidently the damage was severe enough to preclude the use of the cake on the show, because it never put in an appearance (though my name did appear for about a third of a second in the special thanks section of the credits.) I like to think that someone showed the photos of the cake I sent to Cyndi Lauper. I also like to envision the crew of the show munching on Cyndi Lauper's smushed face in the break room.

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