Archive | February 2014

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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Confucius and the Cake

I have numerous friends on Facebook who post pictures or status updates, only to get a derogatory remark from a “friend”. Friends and I have talked about how we are reluctant to offer advice in Facebook groups because someone will invariably disagree, but in an unpleasant way. I’m watching a thread on the ICES page now that keeps getting dangerously close to name calling. I’ve watched friends inadvertently hurt others by repeating “warnings”they receive about others – it put that negative energy out into the world.

I flashed back to jr. high, when I had witty saying written all over my notebooks. One of my favorites was attributed to Confucius. Turns out, it was actually Adlai Stevenson who said it. “He who slings mud, generally loses ground.” It is so true. If you start slamming someone else on fb, your readers associate that negativity with you. Every single time. You might think you are being funny or that it is all in jest, but you will still be connected to the bad things you said.

Why do we feel like it is ok to post such hurtful remarks on social media?

The other day, a dear friend was brought into a conversation about copyrights as they pertain to cakes. This friend tried to answer respectfully, giving information on the research she had done. One lady disagreed with that research, but went too far in how she showed that. She attacked my friend saying that she was immoral and unethical. Wow. Wouldn’t it have been enough to simply say “I disagree”? If she had clear reasons for the disagreement, she could have given those. But no! She attacked the PERSON, not the logic. My friend was crushed to be called such things.

In the end, what did people in that chat group take from this interaction? They could only perceive this attacker as a bully. Even if they agreed with her opinions on the topic, they now see her as someone who looks to abuse others with her words. Her mud slinging lost HER credibility, not my friend.

I caution all of us to really think before we post. Is our comment helpful? Is it hurtful? Is it necessary? Enough of the negativity! I’m really focused on making positive social media messages. I hope you will join me.

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