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Like a Broken Record

With cake shows coming up hard and heavy, I keep feeling like I need to give advice to the entrants. I touch on this in an upcoming article for Edible Artists Magazine (I am a columnist for the next four issues). I wanted to really go into detail about why this is a significant issue in cake competitions.

If you come up with a great design for one tier, it does not become MORE great by doing that same pattern on three more tiers. Let’s look at it from a judging standpoint: on one tier, you have already showed me everything you can show me of that technique. Why add the other tiers? Are you showing the judges something more? (To me, this is a big difference between a cake for a real event and a competition…the customer only sees the pretty tall design, not the fact that one technique was done into the dirt). Simply put, for each new tier added, you should be considering what that tier adds to your competition package. Are you at least doing the same technique in a different pattern? Is there a style or design change that makes it more visually compelling?

I don’t mind when designs alternate on tiers. Even though two tiers repeat on a four tier cake, you are showing two different design and technique elements to your judges. If you plop the same exact mold on every single tier in exactly the same place, what do YOU think you have shown the judges?

The next part of this issue is trickier. Some people get stuck repeating a cake design over and over. Everyone who walks into the cake show knows instantly that it is their work. Perhaps you always do a single tier cake covered in stencil work using metallic colors. Perhaps you always do tall square cakes with hand painting. Perhaps you always do faces/busts. Perhaps you do plain cakes with the same flowers in the same three colors.

I can hear you now, screaming at your computer: “but that’s my signature style!” Yes, yes it is. And that is great for branding yourself for your classes or your bakery. But if you are trying to stretch yourself and challenge yourself as a decorator, you must leave your comfort zone behind. I forced myself to do this at cake shows. I often challenged judges, after they were done judging, to pick out my cake. I knew I had taken my art to a new level when they could not figure out which cake was mine.

Am I asking you to give up on what you do best? Not at all. If you love painting on cakes, change the oversized square into a shorter hexagon cake. How will that panel size challenge you? If you love sculpting faces, try an animal or try a torso this time. Take what you are good at, but push it to the next level. If you always work in a defined color palette, add one new shade or go lighter or bolder. Change it up and you may find yourself inspired in new ways!

I hope you will think about these words. Judging is supposed to be blind and I honestly love it when I have no idea who made a cake. I cannot wait to see what you guys make this year!

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It’s What Inside That Counts

A lot of decorators have been writing me lately as they prepare for upcoming cake shows. Many are doing sculpted cakes and are nervous about what is allowed for competition. I thought it might be nice to give you a judge’s perspective on this category.

I know we aren’t supposed to judge a book by its cover, but in cake, we do. Your sculpted cake will be judged on how well you DECORATED, as these are decorating competitions. Judges will look at how well you covered the cake, the difficulty of the design, your neatness, the difficulty of the techniques you used on it, etc. I often see cakes that excelled on the outside, but they don’t score well because the inside was overlooked.

Use a proper cake
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It seems that people want to use their yummiest cake for the inside, without regard to how that cake holds up. You have to divorce yourself of the thought that people will be eating this cake. They won’t be. It is going to be hanging around for several days to a week, at least. You need to use a firm cake that will not settle. Bronwen Webber always told me she preferred pound cake for this.

One of my mentors, JoEllen Simon, used to compete in major chef competitions. She told me that her team learned to over bake the cake. Make it dry. If a pin was inserted into the cake to ensure it was real, crumbs would come out, but the cake itself was essentially a briquette. You basically bake yourself a dummy cake.

I cannot list the number of shows I have attended where the sculpture started to sink and compress as the show went on. I have seen icing buckle as the sides become lower. Please don’t spend all the time on the outside without first giving yourself a good foundation.

Use proper supports
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For some reason, newer decorators think that they cannot or should not use supports inside the sculpted cake. The exact opposite is true. You MUST have support for the weight of the cake. Gravity will not care that you are at a cake show. You are allowed to use your own supports, a purchased armature or stand or whatever you need to make your cake hold up throughout the event.

One year at a show, a decorator created a dragon and had hired someone to build her armature. Another competitor felt this was unfair. But remember that the judges are only looking at the decorations. If you are allowed to use plates and pillars from Bakery Craft, dowels from Wilton and cake circles from your supply store, then you can certainly use PVC and pipes from Home Depot or Lowes.

For every cake I have seen buckle from using too soft cake, I have seen double that completely collapse or have part of the cake take a nose dive. Headless figure sculptures become the norm when supports are not used. I saw a stacked waffle cake, with NO SUPPORT BOARDS AT ALL UNDER EACH TIER, that fell over and barely missed taking out multiple other entries. If you don’t defend against gravity, it will win every time.

Show your process
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Every sculpted cake category I have judged has asked for three in process photos. Nothing makes a judge sadder than having a stunning entry that they have to disqualify because the competitor did not provide the three photos.

Please, don’t give us photos that show who you are! We are judging blind with regard to names, for ultimate fairness. Don’t give us pictures of you mixing the cake or coloring the icing. We need three phases of the carving. Pic one: the stacked cakes prior to carving. Pic two: the cake, as carved. Pic three: any stage during the icing process. We also like to see your structure, but you don’t have to take a picture of the armature. The people attending the show, however, are always grateful to know how you supported the cake.

Use cake.
This should be a given, but many people want to do the entire piece from Rice Krispie treats. If the rules say cake, then the bulk of your piece must be cake. Some shows will give you a firm percentage that must be cake. You ARE allowed to use Krispies or styrofoam only where necessary to complete the design. Modeling chocolate can also be used where needed.

Size doesn’t matter
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You can do something life size or tiny, it doesn’t matter to the judges. The key is to have all proportions be proper. The larger your cake, the more surface area of decorating you have to get right. Last year, the Best of Show winner at Austin was a small bust of Willie Nelson. The cake was impeccably done.

Don’t be afraid to enter
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You will learn a lot as you create your entry. You will bring joy to the spectators. You will become a better decorator by challenging yourself! I cannot wait to see what you guys create!

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Ruth’s Favorite Decorating Tools

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I’ve been wanting to write some blogs about my favorite things for a while. I really enjoyed writing the Top Ten on the cake events and wanted to do something similar on other parts of decorating. When I started making lists, I found it was hard to keep things at 10 all the time. So, I decided it would be easier to do like Oprah and just call these my favorite things…that way I don’t have to worry about how many I have.

favorite tools

I’m going to start with tools. These are the things that get us through every project or class. I know some of you will think this is horrendous because I am not listing my mixer, but I am making a list for DECORATING this go round. For each tool, I will tell you why I like it, where I got it and how I use it. Some of these are very cheap; a few are not. The key for all of them is that they make my life easier.

fondant mat

My Mini Ruth Mat

I used to use large silpats or pieces of upholstery plastic to work on. I still use those when I cover cakes. But most of my time is actually spent on making smaller things like flowers and figures or rolling out small pieces of paste to cut out designs. As I was teaching, I realized that when I gave my students a large placemat to roll out on, they would grab a larger piece of paste and never quite got it thin enough. My employees at the shop faced the same issue. One day I realized I wanted a small silpat for my students, to make them work smaller and thinner. After an online search, I bought all the 6″ round silpats on the market.

They worked like a charm. People’s flowers were better than ever! There was just one problem; they worked so well the students all wanted to take them home. I tried and tried to find more of them, but the company had stopped making them. I found a place in China to make them for me. Now I have 8″ mini Ruth Mats. They work perfectly for my classes and now people can buy them to take home. The other reason I like them is that they are small. I can tuck one in my tool bag, in my purse or in my delivery kit. They are awesome for kneading color into fondant…I work on them and don’t get color all over my work space. Washing them off is a breeze. They also fit in my 8″ baking pans, so I don’t have to cut parchment circles at home. They work with modeling chocolate, gum paste, fondant and isomalt. They have been exactly what I needed. Before you ask, I sell them on my web page, www.ruthrickey.com, click on online shopping.  They are $6. NY Cake now makes a 9″ mat like mine. Check their page for more information.

clay gun

My Clay Gun

This isn’t a tool I use a lot, but it is invaluable to me when I need it. I tried many of the smaller, cheaper ones on the market, but they hurt my hands or gave me trouble when I tried to extrude from them. This one is a bit pricey, but I looked on it as an investment tool. If I only need one and it will last me 10-40 years, it is worth it. I have had mine for well over ten years, making its price seem affordable.

I use this to create hair, flower centers, borders, tassels, ropes and so much more. I checked and Global Sugar Art carries these.  www.Globalsugarart.com. Norman Davis has become a huge fan of a giant extruder. I have used it in a cake challenge and it is very efficient for large projects.  Earlene Moore came up with a holder for the large extruders. You can buy that on her page. www.earlenescakes.com

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My Dusting Brushes

Oh the joys of a good brush! I have tried so many brushes over the years, but my favorites are absolutely my shaders and filberts. These are available from all your arts and craft supply stores. I usually use a 6 or 8 for dusting. I will use a 2 or 4 for brush embroidery or more detailed dusting. These also work well for spreading gelatin on the sheets that they sell at Cake Connection.  www.Cakeconnection.com.   While I do sometimes offer these for sale when I teach, I don’t offer them online. A quick online search will show you lots of places to get the brushes!

baby spatula

My Baby Spatula

It is actually a mini spatula, but the girls at my shop called it a baby spatula and the name stuck for me. This is an artists spatula and is much finer and thinner than the cake spatulas. I use this for everything. I lift delicate gum paste petals with it. I cut with it. I mix tiny amounts with it. I always have three or four in my tool bag. When I closed my bakery, the one thing every single employee wanted from my supplies was a baby spatula. Wilton has come out with a new tool set and it looks like they have gotten close to this spatula. I tried the Wilton one the other day. It is thicker and stiffer, even though it looks the same. I do sell these online and at my classes because my students fall in love with it just like I did. Mine is available here, www.ruthrickey.com, click on online shopping,  but many other artists carry it on their webpages.

ribbon cutter

My Ribbon Cutter

This is made by FMM. I had one in every delivery kit at the bakery, as well as several more at the shop. I think I’m pretty good at free handing straight lines, but always use this for even bows and stripes. It comes with some groovy cutting wheels, but I only use the smooth edged ones. I love it enough that several times when we would lose the tiny nut that held one together, I would go to Lowe’s and go through all the drawers until I found the perfect one to put it back in operation! These are available through a number of web sites, including Nick Lodge, www.nicholaslodge.com/shop/index.php?main_page=product_info&cPath=0&products_id=7896.

ball tool

A Great Ball Tool

There is something wonderful about having a ball tool you love. It fits your hand just right, the ball is the size you need every time and it lasts a long time. The plastic ones are fine to start with, but when you can, graduate to a metal or acrylic one. If you find one with an ergonomic handle or a cushion grip, all the better. I carry three sizes from Geraldine Randalsome. www.ruthrickey.com, click on online shopping.  I also love the one that Dianne Gruennberg sells on her site, www.avenueschoices.com.

face brushes

My Face Brush

Oh my goodness I love this brush. It is an 18/0 spotter. This is the kind of brush that, once you discover it, you cannot live without it. Just ask anyone who has painted faces or brooches with me! The key is that there are few hairs and that they are short, so you have perfect control of your paint. A liner brush is just not the same. I’ve used this type of brush for years. I used to keep my newest ones hidden so that no one at the bakery would use them. I am happy to say that I sell these, because they can be hard to find at the craft stores. Buy mine here:  www.ruthrickey.com, click on online shopping.

fondant knives

My Fondant Knife

Ok, it is really a lettuce knife, but I like calling it a fondant knife. Nick Lodge figured this out. He told Susan Carberry, who showed it to me. Oh my, I was hooked! It slices through fondant, gumpaste, modeling chocolate, Rice Krispie treats and so much more without sticking. Yes! Metal knives and spatulas gum up all the time and make me nuts. I was constantly trying to clean them off before the next cut. The plastic knives even cut through fondant covered cakes nicely, I hear. I found some in fun spring colors and carry those on my site, www.ruthrickey.com, click on online shopping.

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My Embroidery Scissors

When I first started doing gumpaste work, people told me to get the stork scissors from the sewing department. So of course I did. I loved them. They were a little pricey, but the blades were thin and sharp and I could get perfect cuts on flower centers. When I started teaching, I needed to have scissors for every student. That was going to be too expensive if I bought the stork scissors. I started wandering around the sewing department to see what other options were out there. I found the scissors pictured above. They are comfortable for my hand, they can achieve tiny delicate cuts on even the smallest orchid center and they cost around $5!! These are the scissors I use in all my classes. Buy them at Michael’s in the sewing department.

cel shredder

My CelCakes Cel Shredder

I didn’t want to buy this. It costs around $60, which seemed crazy to me. I bought a cheap yellow tape shredder to cut my floral tape. It gummed up constantly. It was unwieldy and irritating. I had studied enough that I knew I needed to cut my floral tape to achieve better results.  I use a third width tape.  I even tried cutting the tape by hand…time consuming and anything but straight!

Finally I gave in and bought a Cel Shredder. I swear I could hear the angels sing when I used it. You just place a roll of tape against it, rotate the tape and it cuts through several layers at a time! It has a dial system to let you choose whether to cut the tape in halves, thirds or fourths. Genius! It is easy to take apart to replace the razor blades when they become dull. This is another investment tool that is SO worth it! Bye them here: www.nicholaslodge.com/shop/index.php?main_page=product_info&cPath=0&Products_id=7506,  You may notice that Nick has a new one with his name on it for around $30.  I just heard about it and hear it works really well, too.  It cuts into fourths and halves.  I will pick one up at Cake Camp and experiment!

So there you have it, a few of my favorite things. I know I haven’t listed them all, which means I will probably follow up with more information about tools in future blogs. Coming soon is my blog on my ten favorite books/book series that I highly recommend. I can’t wait to share those with you!

Now that you’ve read my list, do you agree? Are you tempted to go buy anything that you don’t currently own? Which favorite of yours did I leave out?

A Tale of Two Cakes

I love American Idol. I think I have watched every season. One of the things they always tell singers is that it seemed like a karaoke performance, implying that it was less than a show performance. Similarly, consider the difference between high fashion runway models and catalog models. As I was watching Idol the other night, I started thinking that there is a similar comparison in the cake world. I know that I have judged cake shows and, at least once, written “this would make a lovely cake for a bridal show.” I am betting that people don’t all see the difference between a display/bridal show cake and a competition cake. My friend Barry Dickinson asked me to write this blog to help folks understand.

A competition cake is supposed to show off the best features of your design and decorating skills. It is supposed to take longer than a regular cake order for most people. It often shows off advanced skills that no one pays you to do. It isn’t necessarily something you would do for a real event because almost no one would pay you enough to do that design. These cakes are fantasies. They are your dreams, your visions, your secret artistic desires.

A display cake is one that you know you can and will replicate many times in a very quick fashion. It is more commercial. It is production oriented. The designs are “dumbed down” so that they can be created efficiently for a profit.

A bridal show cake is similarly designed…for immediate visual impact from a distance, which can be reproduced easily on busy wedding weekends. While the designs might be impressive and detailed to a customer, we know that piping large scrolls with a tip 3 can be pretty fast. They might take longer than a birthday cake, but they still must be a profitable design. This necessarily limits what you do.

I often think of display and bridal show cakes as something you look at from a distance, like a full page in a magazine. They look amazing and really catch your eye, but if you go closer, you don’t usually get a whole lot more detail. The competition cakes, however, when done right, draw you closer and you keep noticing more details. It takes numerous photos to do the cake justice. It may need to be viewed on all sides or from different angles to take in everything that is special about that cake.

The next time you design a cake for a competition, think to yourself, is it runway or catalog? Can one photo capture all the details? Have I unleashed my full decorating potential? If not, bring the cake anyway. As I discovered at the last show, once in a while a display cake just might be done well enough to be a winner.

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Picture Perfect

A dear friend of mine works for Young Life. YL had a seminar about how social media was making people feel bad about their lives because they only saw the perfect Instagram photos their friends would post. I thought about that for a while and realized that all of us who concentrate on happy, upbeat posts might be sending an incomplete message.

Mike Elder wrote a series of blogs called Fake it til you Make it. It kind of woke up the decorating community to the fact that we post our successes, rarely our failures. His blogs resonated with everyone. I’ve tried to be really honest with you guys in my blogs and tell you about the trials I faced in my baking life. But are my Facebook posts as honest? Maybe not.

When we see people cooking the perfect meal, taking the perfect trip, making the perfect cake, whatever…somehow it seems to make us feel a bit envious of their life and bad about ours. But the fact is, that the Instagram photos and Facebook posts are just like dust jackets on books. They show you the what the author wants to show you. Behind that dust jacket is the real story.

If I let myself, I can get really sad that friends of mine are doing things that I am not. I can wish my house looked like theirs, my abs were as tight as theirs, my teaching schedule as world bound as theirs, my family as picture perfect as theirs. What I have to remember is that the picture simply shows one perfect part of their life. No one really seems to have it all, at least not at the same time. They might be teaching in numerous countries, but be going through a divorce or be unwillingly single. They might have perfect abs but be going through a major financial crisis. They might have a huge house, but hate their job and wish their children would behave. They might have any number of health, relationship or financial problems.

There’s probably even someone who has thought my life was perfect or envied the good things I have posted. I want to be clear. I focus on presenting happy, encouraging, upbeat posts and try not to complain. But my life is far from perfect. People always tell me how lucky I am to be thin, but don’t forget that if you take my body, you have to take ALL of it. You get asthma, leukemia, adrenal insufficiency, hormone replacement, thyroid replacement and arthritis in the back. You get to have 10 prescriptions to keep up with. You have a doctor for everything. You have awesome surgery scars all over your belly. For each happy part of my life, I could show you the flip side.

You see, there is always more to the picture. Don’t let a moment in a photo change how you feel about you. Don’t let anyone’s success on one thing change how you feel about your journey. Remember, only you know your whole story. Show the world whatever you want, but don’t forget the human side to all of this. Instead of posting on someone’s timeline, give them a call or send them a text. Reach out to the real person, not the picture. Don’t let social media take away your social interactions. It should enhance your life, not undermine it. The dust jacket is only the surface. Get into the novel and you will see what is real. And, hopefully, find a way to feel blessed about the good things in your own life.

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Why, Ruth, WHY???

Following my last blog on choosing your division for cake shows, people started asking me why I made certain comments. They started writing my friends to see whether they agreed with me and some wrote to tell me I was wrong. I decided that maybe you guys could use a little clarification on my opinions. And they are just that….MY OPINIONS. I am not saying this is the rule; rather, this is how I have interpreted things for my many years of competing. As I said in my last blog, to know for sure, you have to contact the show directors for the show you want to enter. Every show has different definitions of the divisions. Only the people who wrote the rules can tell you what they truly mean.

WHY DON’T YOU COUNT BEGINNER CLASSES LIKE WILTON?

I had people thinking I was bad mouthing Wilton teachers by saying this and nothing could be further from the truth. Let me start with where my opinions came from and go into more detail from there. When I was first starting to compete, I was talking with a well respected show director for one of the major US shows. She told me that for her show, she did not count demos, days of sharing, or beginning decorating classes like Wilton. Back when we had this conversation, there was no such thing as Internet videos and Online classes.

So why don’t we count these? Remember, we aren’t saying they aren’t valuable or that they aren’t good…we are saying not to count them in determining whether to move up a division. Many decorators have a great fear of being bumped up to the next division. They worry that they don’t have the skills to compete at that level. They consider it a bad thing to have to move to a higher division. Since people consider the classes as counting “against” them, we only want to count the classes that legitimately SHOULD push them higher.

The best way to think of it is that we only want to count the classes that give you more skills, that could enable you to compete at a higher level. Beginner classes just put you on the playing field as a beginner. For that reason, I personally do not count the first two Wilton classes and the introductory classes at many cake supply shops. They INTRODUCE you to the skills and techniques for cake decorating. Those beginning classes should not be used to move you up a division. If you continue on to Wilton 3 &4, you can count those hours towards moving up, since they are teaching you ADVANCED skills.

WHY DON’T YOU COUNT ONLINE CLASSES?

I have written before about online classes and how they can be incredibly helpful. Many of the ones today, especially those from Yummy Arts and Craftsy are well made with quality instructors. They are certainly worth your money. But, should they count “against” you to move you to a higher division? My personal opinion is that they should not. If you just watch the class, it is like watching a demo…you have not done the technique yourself. I have only seen a couple people post on Facebook that they worked alongside the video to create the class project. There is not a teacher there to correct you if you hold your hand the wrong way or do the technique wrong. No one is at your house to tell you if you got it or not. So, use these classes. Learn from them. But I don’t think you have to count them against your class hours when looking at cake show divisions.

WHY DO THEY HAVE TO BE ICES APPROVED TEACHERS?

Oh people, I did not say that…I said that was a STARTING place! You just want to be sure that you are counting classes from respected, knowledgable teachers. I don’t want you to feel like you have to count a class with a teacher that YOU thought was inadequate. I’ve read the students’ thoughts on teachers and know that some of you have taken classes that you believe were a complete waste of your money. For God’s sake, don’t count those. Count the classes that enhanced your skills as a decorator.

WHY DON’T YOU COUNT DEMOS AND YOUTUBE VIDEOS?

Just like with the online classes, you are just watching these things. You aren’t practicing under the supervision of an instructor. These are great and valuable tools to use as a decorator…watch them all! I just don’t think you need to count them against you for moving up a division.

WHY SHOULD I MOVE UP?

You should compete against people at your same competency level. In my opinion, that is what you really want to focus on. If you have very rough, beginning skills, enter Beginner. If you are becoming proficient at several techniques, I think you should look at Intermediate or Advanced. If you are proficient at many skills or do cakes for a living, I think you should enter Professional. If you are a teacher, author or recognized expert, you need to be in Masters. In the end, you are answering to yourself and your conscience. Where do YOU realistically believe your skills fit?

WHO APPOINTED YOU THE PERSON TO TELL US WHAT TO DO?

Not a soul. I never said I was right, only that I was sharing my opinions based upon many years of competing. I know enough to know that I don’t know everything. I am always willing to listen and revise my opinions. I offered my opinions at the request of many people who told me they had trouble figuring out their division. I am just trying to be helpful. If you disagree with me – fine. Do your own thing. That is the beautiful thing about America!

In the end, I get back to my same old preach: enter the cake shows! Attend the cake shows. Support the sugar arts. And thank you for reading my blog and letting me express my opinions.

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An Ode to Vendors

I’ve been attending Days of Sharing, Cake Shows and the ICES Convention for years. I have shopped until I dropped. I have, at rare times, purchased nothing. I try to make a point of thanking the event organizers for all they do. I even try to thank volunteers. The group that I never fully appreciated until I became one, is the vendors. I am certain that I never thanked them for being there.

There is an old adage that you should never judge someone until you walk a mile in their shoes. I started to get a slight peek into the world after convention one year when I helped Nick Lodge and Scott Ewing load their van afterwards. There was a never ending line of vendors carrying boxes and displays and Lord knows what else out to their respective vehicles. That was when I started to pay attention.

I watched as Diego from Fiesta Cake lugged in several boxes and suitcases of goodies in CT. He was given a dolly with a nearly flat tire, but he persevered. I watch Susan Carberry weigh and reweigh her luggage to figure out what she could bring for sale. I watched Ximena from Cakes by Ximena spend hours setting up her products and all of her display pieces. I’ve watched Edward Frys from The Sugar Art come in and be pleasant and helpful to customers even though he drove all night to get to the event.

I never really thought about what it took to be a vendor. I remember a story that Scott Ewing told me once….a customer came up, pointed at an item, and said that she could get it cheaper online. She wanted Scott to lower his price. He said, I had to package and label this product, pack it, get it here, unpack it, display it and now you want me to sell it for less than I have it marked? What a huge point Scott made. The vendor is giving you the convenience of getting your item right then and there. That is worth something. It is unfair to make the vendor feel bad about what they have to charge. Remember, they didn’t have to just pay for the product. They also pay for the overhead at home and the cost of the booth there. They pay for the bag, the label, the shopping bag, the labor to price it/pack it/ unpack it. They may have paid shipping charges to receive it. They certainly had to pay to drive it or mail it to the event.

Think of it like your cake orders. Your customers rarely appreciate all the things that go into the cake on their table. Likewise, we shoppers don’t appreciate what the vendors do for us. I’ve now spent a little time walking in the shoes of a vendor and have so much appreciation for those who do it well. Beautiful booths take hard work and money. Ximena, Nick and Diane Simmons at Cake Connection always seem to go all out. It takes a day just to pack for shows sometimes…maybe even longer.

I have now taken over much of my house when it is time to pack. I spend days putting cutters and veiners into bags, making labels, filling them out and then trying to pack in an organized fashion. I’ve learned to pay for extra baggage fees and to gear up for long drives. I’ve accepted that I don’t get to shop at other booths or visit with friends as much as I used to…I need to be at the booth. So why on earth would I do this? Because my class prices are lower and my enrollment is often lower, so I may not break even if I don’t sell products.

So, since my eyes have been opened to the gifts from the vendors, I want to say Thank You. Thanks for being there when I really needed that tool, fondant or cutter. Thank you for all your hard work before, during and after the event. Thank you for supporting my addiction to sugar art and for always bringing out the latest products to inspire us. Thank you for all the free demonstrations on how to use the products. Thank you for your giveaways, for your newsletters and for your sponsorship of the events. I am grateful.

On a final note, to those of you who have shopped from me over the last year, thank you! You help me get to the locations to offer my classes, which is my true dream.

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Are You My Mother?

I just got home from the Austin cake show (That Takes The Cake). One of the coolest parts of it for me were the sheer number of decorators who came up to me and said they entered because of my encouragement. They had read my blogs and realized that cake shows would die without people bringing cakes. One of the biggest questions I get is from people asking me what division they should enter. Are they Adult Advanced? Professional? Beginner?

Judging this weekend, I saw several instances of people entering below their skill level and/or below their professional level. Did they do it out of ignorance? Maybe. Did they do it out of fear that they weren’t really a “professional”? Maybe. Did they do it to win lots of awards? Makes me wonder….. I decided that maybe you guys needed help figuring out your divisions so that people don’t think you “entered down” in order to win.

Here are the divisions from the recent Austin show.

While the shows are similar, each show will have its own particular guidelines and you need to follow those. I want to walk you through reading these divisions so that you understand how to classify yourself.

Adult Beginner
In Austin, this means you have basic skills (think Wilton first class), have been decorating less than 2 years, have taken less than 30 hours of classes. If you exceed any of these three elements, you should probably move up. If you have only decorated six months, but are a natural and able to make cakes with very few flaws, you aren’t really a beginner in my eyes. I would not say that you had just basic decorating skills. For me, that is the most telling part of the qualifications. BASIC skills. If you know in your heart that your skills are beyond the entry level basics, you need to move up.

Adult Intermediate
In Austin, this was for people with developing skills, 2-4 years of experience and and 30-60 hours of instruction. I judged this division. I was surprised at the people who entered this category, even though their skills were clearly beyond the “developing” stage. This is not a category for anyone who owns a bakery business or who makes most of their income from cakes. It is unfair to the people who really do have developing skills if you walk in with your refined skills and sweep the awards. If a doctor entered the science fair against your child, you would be pissed. Well I am the surrogate mother of the new, developing decorators and want them to only compete against others of comparable skills. “But I’ve only been decorating two years” you say. I understand. But the length of time you’ve been a decorator is not the only guideline. You cannot pick just that to focus on.

Developing skills means that you have moved beyond the Wilton yearbooks and are trying your own designs. You might do a thing or two pretty well, but your skills across the board are still developing. You know that you have a lot to learn and are willing to admit it. You look at the cakes in higher categories and study them to figure out how they did things, because that knowledge is just beyond you for now. If you can look at the work in higher divisions and realize that your work is equal or better than that…then it is time to move up.

This is where my “Are you my mother” symbolism comes in. Just like the little bird, you have to walk up to each category and say “is this the type of decorator I truly am”? Pay particular attention to the skill level descriptions and less to the number of years or hours of classes. I know people who have taken boatloads of classes, but still have developing skills. I know someone whose first cake in her life won Best of Show. I know people who are entirely self taught, yet incredibly brilliant. Those of you holding your hand out to a customer for money for your cakes, would you feel good justifying your price by saying that you have basic skills? Or developing skills? You should not “enter down” just to win a prize.

Adult Advanced
In Austin, this was for people with more refined skills, 4-6 years of experience and 60-90 hours of classes. These are folks who are considered good decorators by everyone who sees their work. They still do it for friends and family, not for a paycheck. They have really gotten the hang of several different techniques. At the lower divisions, someone might be a one trick pony…be good at just one aspect of decorating…not these folks.

Let’s also talk about classes. What counts towards your hours? Wilton classes and other beginner level classes taught at supply stores do not count. Online classes like Craftsy do not count. You only need to count classes with recognized teachers. An easy way to figure that out is to look at the ICES Approved Teacher list. That will give you a good starting list.

Professional
In Austin, this was for decorators with a high level of skill, who have decorated more than six years, have taken more than 90 hours of classes or who work as a decorator. My very first cake show, I had only taken the three Wilton classes and been at the grocery store bakery for a couple of weeks, but had to enter this level at the Oklahoma Show. Was it fair to make me jump all the other levels? Yes. It truly was. I took money for decorating and that made me a professional. I know my skill level wasn’t that high at that time, but it forced me to work harder to do work befitting that division. If you took money once or twice, I probably wouldn’t move you here, but if you get most of your income from doing cakes, you need to enter this division. I personally think that if you have a Facebook or web page dedicated to the solicitation of cake orders, you are a professional.

Masters
In Austin, this was reserved for teachers, authors and people considered experts in the sugar art field. This includes people with more than 120 hours of classes. These decorators are known to have mastered several aspects of sugar art. If you take people’s money as a teacher, we should see you here. I do not include Wilton instructors in this statement, just those teaching advanced sugar art skills. I personally think that if you have a CMSA certification, you need to be in this division. If you have DVDs for sale, this is you. If you sell tutorials online or filmed a Craftsy class, this is you.

I was looking at the Divisions for the upcoming North Texas Show and have to say that I love how they described the divisions. I wish I had seen it before I was almost finished with this blog…but they are awesome. Check them out at http://www.northtexascakeshow.com. They are common sense wordings!

North Texas includes hints for entering. They say that if the category seems like it would be too easy, even though you technically could fit there, then enter the next higher category. If the category seems too hard that you should be in, then enter one lower. You are allowed to move yourself higher at any time. You cannot enter lower than you did prior years.

In the end, you have to do what is right for you. If you aren’t sure, ask the show organizers or someone who regularly judges cake shows. In the end, you have to go with your gut.

I want to end telling you about two seventeen year olds at the Austin show. Tyler Gary entered a spectacular wedding cake in the teen division. Could he have entered a higher category? Yes. With his skill level, he could easily have placed in Adult Advanced or Professional. But he was ALLOWED to enter as a teen and he did. Sidney Galpern, also 17, entered Masters. Why? Because she looked at the categories and knew that it was the right place for her. She teaches internationally. She has her own product lines. She sells DVDs. She is exactly who needs to compete at the master level. The point of this story is that you must look beyond the surface to see where someone really fits. Think about what is fair to you and about what is fair to your competitors.

Wherever you fit, I am glad that you are entering. I cannot begin to tell you how amazing it felt as so many of you came to me at Austin and said you entered because of my encouragement. Together, we are keeping cake shows and the future of sugar art alive!

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Now Boarding

now boarding

I am embarking on my long series of flights to England for the Cake International show as I write this. As always, I seem to find myself writing blogs during this time. Someone commented to me that I must be really good at flying to events with cake things and that I should share my tips. I know I did my tips on Traveling to Cake Shows, but that was really written for people who drive, so I am going to share what I have learned over the past year of constant plane flights.

1. Get the app for your airline.
If you have a smartphone, download the app for Delta, Southwest or whichever airline you fly. It is a quick way to see what gate you fly into and which one the next flight leaves from. You can check in on it, book flights on it and check your mileage balance. For instance, today four of us are flying to Birmingham from three different airports. We all meet up in Minneapolis. I was able to check the gates for everyone, since they have tight layovers. They got my text and were able to head to the right gate area as soon as they landed.

2. Pack intelligently
We have all learned the hard way what we can and cannot pack. Here is what my sugar teaching sisters and I would recommend. All fondant, gumpaste, modeling chocolate must go in the checked luggage. Know that you will be inspected by the TSA if you carry these. The glycerin will make them go through your luggage. If you carry airbrush or liquigel colors, glaze or piping gel/glucose, you should double bag the items. I promise. Those leaks are terrible! I always bag my tools in ziplocks. I tend to wrap my large rolling pin inside my FondX mat, to keep it from getting beat up.

3. Introduce yourself.
For some reason, all these cake tools look like weapons to the TSA. Since we know they are going to open our bags, the smart choice is to let them know who you are and why you have this stuff. I have a sheet that includes my logo, explains who I am and that these cake tools are for my classes and demos. I include my cell phone number so that they can reach me quickly if they have any questions. I put the sheet inside a page protector and put one in every piece of luggage I check. I have never had a problem since I started doing this.

tsa letter for luggage blog

4. Fire bad.
If you use torches on isomalt or sugar, you have to make sure that the torch is completely empty. This means not just pouring out the liquid, but actually turning your torch on and letting the fuel burn dry. You cannot carry any of the fuel in your luggage. You must buy it at the destination. The TSA will call you to security if you don’t do what I wrote. Just ask Peggy Tucker! She is the one that shared the information with me. The fuel is considered combustible and they aren’t going to look friendly upon it in your suitcase.

5. Protect fragile items.
When I pack, I always put the heaviest items at the bottom of the suitcase, closest to the wheels. I see people lay their cases out flat and they put a full layer of heavy down then put other things on top. When they tilt the suitcase up to roll, the heavy things all push down towards the wheels and settle. They can damage your fragile items if you do that. I always put the icing down by the wheels, veiners and molds above that, then cutters on top. I want to be sure my cutters do not get bent.

6. Carry on my wayward son.
If you are taking an entry or display on a plane, it is almost always best to carry that onto the plane. If possible, use a plexiglass box or clear container so that the TSA can see what it is and why it cannot be turned on its side. You can create a carry strap for your box like Susan Carberry did

susan carry on

or buy a commercial one like Kathy Lange did.

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Often, I have to put the Tupperware into a rolling duffle because of how much I need to carry on. In that case, I fill the box so full of tissue, foam or packing material that my pieces cannot move no matter how I turn that box. My friend Kim Denis actually packed a cake so well in his checked luggage that it made it from London to Vancouver without damage! If you put your item in a regular box, consider cutting a peek hole on one side and taping Saran over the hole so that the TSA can see inside without completely unpacking the box.

7. Tears for tiers.
Usually, single tier cakes are best for airline travel. Some folks have been brave and check the tiered cakes inside a large box. They mark what side is up and think it will be fine. Unfortunately, the guys moving your luggage around are usually in a hurry and may not handle your piece the way you ask. I have been at the Oklahoma show several years where people opened up their checked wedding cake entries only to find shattered messes. This might be a good time for the Cake Safe! Barb Evans flew to the Virginia show one year and put her cakes in photography (Pelican) cases, lined with industrial foam. She had ridiculous oriental string work safely fly to Virginia this way!

pelican case for blog

Mike McCarey ships real cakes across country. He advises a sturdy box with the peek hole. He says that choosing to ship cake orders or other supplies is an expensive proposition.  He is a “known shipper”, which means he has paid a fee and passed security tests.  He must ship a certain volume each year to maintain this status.  He can ship counter to counter, but it is only for those who know they will be doing this a LOT.  It is not cheap.

8. Southwest and Frontier are your friend.
Luggage costs money to check with most airlines. Southwest and Frontier are the real exceptions. If you are hauling a bunch of things to Cake Camp or a competition, you may cherish having up to 100 pounds of free luggage!

9. Bag in a bag.
When I go to convention or the NEC, I either take a larger suitcase than I need or I pack a smaller carryon inside my checked bag. You know you are going to buy things. You are. So plan ahead for it. At the NEC, they do not give out the awesome bags we get at convention, so I had to buy one last year. This year, I have two of the purple Choco Pan bags from ICES in my checked luggage. It will make it so much easier as I purchase items at the show. The plastic sacks just don’t hold up as well, especially if your purchases are heavy.

10. Cart it.
I never used to use the luggage carts. I was stubborn and certain that I could handle things. I remember pushing four bags and two carryons through the Orlando airport for Florida Mini Classes one year. What was I thinking?!!! It is worth the $4 or $5 to not kill yourself or damage a display.

11. If it fits, it ships.
Consider shipping item separately. If your hotel will allow it, it can make your life much easier! The day after convention, there is always a line of people shipping their purchases home.

I hope that some of these tips will help you.  I will see you on the road, or at an airport somewhere down the line!

Lessons From Lombardi

I know what you’ve been thinking! You’ve been patiently waiting for me to tell you how to succeed. You want to win the cake show. You want to run the best bakery. You want to know the secrets of success. I’m not sure that I am the perfect person to tackle this subject, but I do know that I am passionate enough about the subject to give it a try.

I tend to hold jobs a long time. My second job was at Casa Bonita in Little Rock, AR. (Some of you may know the restaurant chain from Southpark episodes). I had just moved from Oklahoma to Arkansas and turned 16. Casa Bonita had a rigorous training program. You had to attend six training sessions before you ever waited on a customer. I think that some of the principles I learned in those six meetings helped to shape who I am today. In one meeting, we were given a card with five rules for success, which I have kept to this day. (It lives on my makeup mirror and reminds me of what I need to do). I am going to share this with you, in hopes that it will guide you as it has me.

I think that all these principles came from Vince Lombardi. I am a huge fan of his philosophies on life and business and encourage you to read about him. I am not going to try to tell you what Vince would say to you, or even what Casa said to me. Instead, I am going to tell you what these five principles mean to me today.

Mental toughness is essential to success

The bakery business is tough. Entering cake shows can be intimidating. The only way to thrive in this industry is to be mentally tough. You have to believe in yourself and your talent. You have to be able to hear a customer tell you that you are a terrible decorator and be able to let that roll off your shoulders…because YOU KNOW BETTER. You have to see judging scores lower than you’ve ever imagined, and yet know that you are far more than the scores on a piece of paper. If your self image is wholly dependent on the opinions of others, this business will break you.

How do you gain self confidence if you don’t have it? Do as Vince did when he began his NFL career. He didn’t try new plays, bring in new players or revamp the entire program. Instead, he set out to have his team master the basics. He believed that if you have the basics under control, success will follow. For us, this means that we master mixing our batters, knowing when something is done, knowing how to preserve moistness until you decorate, knowing how to ice a cake well, knowing how to pipe borders and write on a cake and knowing how to take a customer’s order. If you get good enough at those things, they become second nature and you gain confidence as you go. This is your foundation. No matter how extreme a cake might be, how original or jaw dropping…it still has to start with great basics. Master those and you will find you have increased your mental toughness. I promise.

Control the ball

I have written before about retaining control. To be successful, it is imperative. Your customers will try to “steal the ball”. Your employees might fumble it. It is up to you to control your business. You are the only one who can. You have to decide how much notice you require, what customers cannot order, when to take deposits, when to turn down an order and all the other decisions that are part of being the boss. You have to train your customers and enforce it.

Every time I read people posting on Facebook that they are burnt out, frustrated or sad, it almost always stems from a lack of control. When you pass the control of your business to someone else, you will start to hate making cakes. It is not easy to define your comfort zones and it is even harder to stick to them, but for your business, you MUST!

Fatigue makes cowards of us all

I used to think it was a badge of honor to tell people how many hours I worked or how little sleep I had. I was wrong. It only showed how poorly organized I was at that time. Every time I worked past the point of exhaustion, I became weepy. I felt insecure in my work. I lost confidence. I’ve watched it happen to you guys, too. I have seen one of my closest friends burst into tears over simple things going wrong. When you are THAT tired, you simply cannot handle life’s every day stresses.

There are days that it may seem impossible, but you have to allow yourself to rest. You have to take care of you. Your entire business depends on you.

Operate on Lombardi time

Vince Lombardi said that you had to be fifteen minutes early for any appointment. If someone showed up ten minutes early, he considered them five minutes late. You know how irritated you get when brides don’t show up on time and when people don’t pick up their cakes when they are supposed to do so. You owe it to the customers to have the cake ready fifteen minutes before the due time. You need to be at the delivery fifteen minutes early. At weddings, someone always freaks out until the cake arrives. I learned quickly that being on time was rarely enough for them. I had to be early.

Make that second effort

Sometimes I have started a cake, only to think that I could not finish it. I’ve considered throwing in the towel. Invariably, it was my second effort that helped me get it done. So many people stop right before they are about to succeed. You may feel like you’ve given a second effort and maybe a third, too. I still say, don’t give up.

I watched a special on Lombardi as I was writing this blog. I only knew what Casa taught us about him and that he was a successful NFL coach. I only saw the end. That is the part of the story everyone remembers. The reality was that Vince was repeatedly passed over for head coaching jobs. That Vince was not respected as a coach for many years, in that they thought he could only be an assistant. He wanted to coach in the NFL so badly, but it just wasn’t happening for him. When he got his big break, it was to coach the worst team in the smallest, most out of the way (at the time) market. He knew that it was finally his chance and he took it. Even then, he struggled to make things work with the team. It took a great second effort for him to realize his dream.

You could name almost any decorator that you think is a great success and I bet they could tell you stories if failures. They could tell you about disappointments. They plugged along until they changed their circumstances. One of my favorite movies is “A Knight’s Tale”. In it, the father tells the son, “You can change your stars”. That has largely been my philosophy in life. When I think about where I came from, how I grew up and how my life is today, I know that I changed my stars. And the key on all of it has been that I make another effort.

Conclusion

So that’s it. My five rules for success, via Casa Bonita, via Vince Lombardi. Try them in your life and career and see if they help you. I wish you all the best.

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