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
.
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
.
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
.
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
.
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
.
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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