Here Comes The Judge

I am addicted to cake shows. Not the ones on tv that call to most people. Nope,
I love the local cake shows where hobbyists and professionals spend a few
sleepless nights working on cakes and then bring them in to be judged. I was
affectionately called. “Show Ho” by many of my friends. I would load my mini van
and go to any cake show that I could get to. I have driven over 22 hours to get
to shows more times than I can count. I recently tallied up how many shows I
have attended and was surprised that I had been to 25 different shows at least
once! I stopped keeping track of my ribbons and awards a long time ago. When I
was inducted in The Sweet Life Hall of Fame, Norm Davis introduced me as the
most award winning decorator on the circuit. Is that true? I have no idea. I
never won the biggest prizes, but I consistently did well at shows.

Ruth Rickey with some of her ribbons and awards, 2010

I now spend most of my time at cake shows serving as a judge. While I cannot
speak for every judge, I can tell you that there are certain universal dos and
don’ts. I have been sharing these tips at Days of Sharing and this year at the
ICES convention and want to share them with the rest of you now.

DO read the rules. If it says buttercream only, don’t put glitter or royal icing or
anything other than buttercream on it. If it says to show in process pictures,
make sure you provide them. If it says six cupcakes, don’t bring only five.
While this should seem ridiculously simple, failure to read the rules results in
the majority of problems at shows.

DO write good notes for the judges. I don’t care if the show gives you a form or not…write down what you used.
Don’t assume that they can tell that you used edible luster dust. Don’t assume
that they know what flower you made or that you intended it to be fantasy, not

DO work with dummy cakes unless the rules require you to use
real cake. I have seen so many real cakes bulge and pucker. It isn’t cheating to
use dummies. It is allowing yourself the chance to show off your best work.

DO think about the board. It needs to be 2-4″ larger than the cake. It
should be covered in fondant and decorated in keeping with the cake design. It
should be finished with a ribbon around the edge of the board. Do use
accessories like fabric under the cake if allowed and if the enhance your
design. Do think about the shape. Sometimes putting a cake on a different shape
board can enhance the overall presentation.

Use of a different shape board to offer a place to display flowers.

DO start with a great work surface. The cake covering will make or break how you do. If it doesn’t look
good, don’t settle. Recover the cake. As many times as it takes. I personally
knead a little buttercream into my fondant, then roll between two pieces of
upholstery plastic. It makes a huge difference!

DO be neat and precise.
If you see the error, we see it. So fix it or hide it. Clean the edges of
cutouts. Don’t use huge globs of icing to attach things to the cake.

DO go beyond the mold. I see so many “lick and stick” cakes. If you are just
cutting things out or popping them out of a mold and putting them on a cake, you
are not showing your true skill as an artist. Do something with your hands!
Pipe. Paint. Model. Make a flower. Add something to take the cake to the next

DON’T use silk flowers, plastic or real ribbon on the cake.
Judges have to ignore those like they aren’t even on the cake. Make sugar
flowers. Use fondant or gum paste ribbons.

DO think about the colors. It doesn’t matter if the colors are bright or pale, just make them appealing. Make
sure your color combinations work together. I have a friend who is a little
color blind. Her mother in law would always advise her on colors. If you can’t
see it, ask a friend.

DON’T let your cakes fade. Or get dusty. Use
powder colors to help keep colors from fading. Steam your flowers to set colors.
Keep the cakes boxed or covered when you aren’t working on them.

DON’T use straight pins to hold on decorations. Seriously. I will catch you.

DON’T use hot glue on your cake!

DON’T stick wires right into your cakes. Use a flower pick or a straw. Tell the judges in your notes that you
followed the correct procedure.

DON’T forget to put a board under your
cakes if the are separated. We always check. We should never see the cake
dummy! Remember, the dummy is a substitute for the real cake, but you have to
treat it like you would a real cake. Great decorators will even embellish under
the board, as a treat for the judges.

DON’T ever, ever, ever use tin foil to cover your cake board!

DON’T use inedibles like disco dust and
accent metallic dusts all over your cake. Those products are meant to be used on
items that can be removed from the cake prior to serving. (I have a whole blog
coming on disco dust…watch for it). Don’t spray the entire cake with super
pearl. Remember that it is a highlighter. Think about the focus and highlight

DON’T copy something out of a book or magazine. Be original. Make
the cake your own. Be inspired by something and design your own

DO focus on what you are best at. Don’t worry about what you
think the judges want. If you are great at figure modeling, do that as your
focus. You always do a better job on techniques you enjoy.

DO think about the standards for your technique. For instance, if doing extension work,
the strings should be close enough that another cannot fit in between. Think
about the level you entered. We expect more difficult techniques and better
execution from a master than from a beginner.

My dear friend Kim Morrison says that the person that wins at cake shows is the one with the fewest
mistakes. In many respects, that is true. If you make a mistake, think of it as
a design opportunity and Find a way to hide the mistake that brings out the
design. My mentor, Eleanor Rielander once made gum paste fruit for a
competition. Her husband walked into the room and took a bite before she could
stop him. She took that sugar piece, added some shading and displayed that
mistake. She won because the fruit with the bite out of it looked so real!

I hope these tips help you out. This is just a very quick overview of
the speech I give, but hopefully it will give you a little guidance. Be sure to
read my earlier posts on why you should enter, the cardinal sin of cake shows
and why you should not take it personally if you don’t win.

Cake shows are meant to be fun! Challenge yourself to a new technique or flower. Push
yourself to be a neater, cleaner decorator. Grow as a cake designer. Celebrate
your art!

12 thoughts on “Here Comes The Judge

  1. A GREAT post, especially for those of us who are still “show virgins”!
    I’m looking forward to participating in my first shows in 2013. Got my thinking cap on, notes aplenty, and confidence bolstered by people like you.
    Many thanks, Ruth! 😀

  2. What do you recommend to cover a board if it is a buttercream cake? I do buttercream not fondant and wouldn’t use fondant to cover a board if the cake was buttercream.

  3. I had the pleasure of being in your presentation on “What judges Look For in Ocala”, Florida, and made me understand all my mistakes. I hope I am a good pupil when I participate in the contest again. Thank you so much for sharing your talent

  4. I think there should be a school to become a judge and you should be one of the instructors. It does not only take to make nice cakes and know many techniques to know how to judge. It takes general culture and wisdom. You are good at judging. . I wish you could judge my competition cakes all the time. because you are very good at that.
    Even if I did not win, after the competition, you told me what I did wrong.
    You know how to inspire to improve. I can only say that about you and Edna de La Cruz. (I have been in three Cake Competitions). I love to compete. Thank you for all your advises.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s