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Lines Drawn in the Sand, an open letter to Cakes Decor

My heart is heavy right now and this is a very hard article to write.  An editorial appeared on Cakes Decor recently and has divided my little cake community in ways I never thought possible.  You can read that editorial here.  I am going to address each of the points made in the editorial giving my opinion on them.  And it will be just that:  my opinion.  I also intend to discuss the MANNER of the editorial.

Before I start, I guess I better give my background…just in case you haven’t read the “About Ruth” page or don’t know who I am.  After all, I was told today that I am just a writer and an attorney, not a “real caker.”

I started cake decorating around 1994.  I worked for Quail Plaza IGA, first as a cake decorator, then as the bakery manager.  In 1999, I was named top Bakery Manager in the world for all the IGA’s.  I then opened my bakery.  I started with just me in 400 square feet and it grew to 16 employees in 4000 square feet.  We made hundreds of cakes a week.  I closed my bakery at the end of 2011, to travel and teach advanced cake decorating.  I have made real cakes.  I have baked them.  I have made styrofoam cakes.  I have baked from home, worked for others and run my own commercial shop.  I truly have been in most every bakery/caking situation you can name.  I am a Certified Master Sugar Artist, one of very few in the world today.  I have won a ridiculous number of medals at cake shows.  I have been published in numerous magazines.  I’ve done the tv cake competitions and won.  I’m incredibly far from perfect, but feel like I have sufficient background to talk to you about this editorial.  Oh!  And before someone brings it up, yes, I practiced law for years.  I AM A CAKE DECORATOR.

fake

To begin, I want to talk about the tenor of the editorial.  This is America.  We have the right to free speech and to express our opinions.  I love that about America.  In law school, we were taught that our rights extended to the end of our fingertips, but not so far as to touch someone else.  And that is paramount.  Yes, we can say whatever we want…SO LONG AS WE DO NO HARM.  For instance, if I walk into a crowded theatre and yell “fire!”, inciting a panic and someone is harmed running out of the theatre, I would be liable for those injuries sustained.  It only makes sense.

In today’s world, cyber bullying has become all too real.  I wrote about it previously in my blog called Unsweetened.  The editor chose to use derogatory labels such as “faker caker” to put down people who do not offer cakes for retail sale.  Apparently, you are only a “REAL” caker if you sell your cakes.  Does this mean that your grandmother is not a real caker because she decorates just for family?  Does this mean that a retired bakery owner is no longer a real caker?  If your state or city prevents you from selling, did you just become a fake decorator?  And how many cakes does it take to be real?  If you get one order a year, are you real?

This happens from time to time in the athletic community.  People will say that you aren’t a real runner if you can’t run a certain time per mile.  Or you aren’t a real triathlete if you haven’t done a full ironman.  In the end, it is just an effort to put someone else down and to raise yourself up.  Here’s the problem with that:  when you try to make someone seem like less, you never ever make yourself look like more.  This is why I belong to several Facebook athletic groups that are inclusive of those #pathetic triathletes or #backofthepack runners.  If you run, you are a runner.  If you decorate cakes, real or styro, you are a cake decorator.  If you decorate cakes for the sheer joy and delight of it and make no money, you are a cake decorator.  If you teach cake decorating skills in person or online, you are a cake decorator.  Please, do not let this editorial make you feel unworthy.  You decorate.  Let’s celebrate that!!

Now to address the fallacies in the article.

Decorating a styrofoam cake is easier.

Sometimes, it IS easier.  Sometimes it is way harder.  The thing is, styrofoam is light and moves around on you.  The edges can be very sharp and tear your fondant.  Generally, I think it takes about the same amount of time to decorate the outside of a real cake vs. a styrofoam cake.  The decorating part is unchanged.  As we always told our customers at my shop who looked at our styrofoam displays…they were styro inside so that they could stay on display without drawing bugs, but every item on the outside was exactly as if we were decorating their cake.  It is true that the styrofoam cakes won’t bulge and are generally pretty stable when stacked.  If you work with the right cake and stacking techniques, the same is true for real cakes.  I have friends that have stacked real cakes 6 and 7 tiers high and driven with them on back country roads in Texas and Louisiana without any problems.

Classes should be taught in real cake.

Sure, when possible.  But it is not always possible.  Let me give some examples.  At many mini class events, they are held at facilities that have in-house food vendors.  Teachers are not allowed to bring in their own cake.  You must purchase cake from the vendor.  Those are often not the type of cakes you would use to carve and create structured cakes.  For that reason, a teacher may choose to use styrofoam.  Sometimes, students fly or drive to take a class.  Taking home a real cake on a plane, or shipping it home, is not always realistic or desired.  The better question is, did the teacher demo or provide info on how to do the project in real cake?  I have first hand knowledge of many teachers who teach structures and know that they do.

A few teachers, including the one who said I wasn’t a real caker,  posted that they only teach with real cake.  That is great!  I’m so glad it is something that you can do where you teach!  My Wilton classes always used real cake.  I am glad I learned with it…at the beginning.  Would I need to have it in real cake now to understand the process?  Probably not, but I’ve been caking for a long time.  If you are newer and NEED to see it done in real cake, then by all means look for those classes!  Read your class descriptions carefully and choose the ones that are right for you.

Designs done in styrofoam are not realistic to be done in real cake.

Didn’t we learn anything when a certain decorator belittled another on his gravity defying cube cake??  She said it was a nice piece of styrofoam, but couldn’t be done in cake…so he cut into his cake and proved her wrong.  I remember when the Topsy Turvy cakes were all the rage.  Colette Peters and Polly Schoonmaker pioneered these and everyone said it couldn’t be done in real cake.  But it could.  And across the country, it was!

I always think of cakes for competitions and photo shoots as your couture runway shows.  This isn’t the ready-to-wear commercial line of cakes…these are the dreams, the fantasies, the desire to explore the ultimate in possibilities.  While it is highly rare that one of those cakes is practical to be recreated for a customer, it is also true that many of our trends arise from them.  There is a difference between commercial cakes and competition cakes…I covered that before in this blog.  I know that sometimes it is hard to explain the difference to a customer, but that is part of your job:  educating your clients.  I had competition cakes in my display window and was always able to design a commercial approach to it for my customers.  That is your creative challenge.  If it simply isn’t possible or feasible for any reason, just be upfront with them.  Your customers deserve your honesty.

The fake cakes aren’t realistic to be done for customers.

You might think this is the same as above, but not really.  The editor said that the class designs were so “wonky” that they weren’t realistic for a customer’s budget.  The editorial implied that people should not take classes for cakes that they can’t turn around and resell.  I addressed the factors that help me decide whether to take a class here.  Many people do not take a class solely to recreate that project for retail sale.  Sometimes, they take class to meet the instructor.  Sometimes, they want to learn the techniques from that class to use on a different project.  Who really cares if a class is realistic for retail sale??  What if it is my child’s dream cake?  Can’t I take that class?  The project, in the end, is just the embodiment of the techniques taught in that class.  Let each student decide if it is right for them.

Cake shows should require all cake designs to be real cake.

The editor probably doesn’t know this, but one show tried that.  Cakes had to be real and you could only spend a limited amount of time working on them.  Awesome.  Then the cakes arrived.  And the work was very limited and commercial looking.  The show organizers were surprised, I think.  Those viewing the cakes were disappointed.  They didn’t want to see the cakes they could get at their local shops and grocery stores; they wanted to see the magical side of our art.

There are shows overseas that require the cake to be real.  There are chef organizations that require real cake.  There are divisions at cake shows for real cake.  If that is what you want to make, then please…enter those!  There are rarely enough sculpted cakes at shows.  If you do enter that division, grab my tips here.  I’ve looked at class projects and thought “I would never make that in a million years!”, but others looked at the same class and saw a project they couldn’t resist.  Who am I to say that they shouldn’t take it?  Often, they don’t recreate THAT project…they take the skills and knowledge gained in class to create something else.  And isn’t that what education is all about??!!

Fake cakes should be labeled as such.

So, this has been the biggie in all the Facebook groups.  Don’t act like it is a real cake if it is a fake one.  I honestly don’t recall anyone trying to mislead the public on this.  I’m not sure I even care.  I can look at a design and determine whether I personally am able to do it in cake or not.  I can’t look at it and determine whether or not YOU can do it.  I’ve seen cakes that seemed almost “too perfect” to be real, but then a slice was cut out of it and my jaw would drop.  There are people with skills far beyond mine.  I’m not threatened by that.  There are people with skills below mine.  I’m not better than them because of that.

I’ve seen work by many highly talented sugar artists and I cannot tell whether it is one of their real cakes or their fake cakes.  Why should they HAVE to tell people one is styrofoam?  What does it matter?  So many cake decorators said they felt better by the editorial because it made them feel ok about their work.  People, I want you to feel better about your work regardless!  You are creating an edible artform and doing it to the best of your ability today!  Don’t stress about whether someone else’s cake edges are sharper or their buttercream is smoother.  If you personally aren’t happy with how something looks, that’s different.  Take a class or practice on a dummy to improve.  No other artist’s work makes yours less.  Your customers, friends and family all love YOU.  They love your cakes.  Don’t be distracted by things outside your business or hobby that have no means to hurt you.

Don’t do fake cakes if you can’t do a real one.

This is where I felt like the editorial really missed the mark.  Are there actually a bunch of cake decorators running around making magnificent fake cakes who don’t know how to make a real cake?  I cannot think of a single one.  Not ONE.  Is there a community of cake artists out there teaching classes but they don’t know how to bake a cake?  Seriously??  No.  I can think of several decorators who work on styrofoam for projects, but also have numerous baking tutorials.  I would trust any of them to make me a cake.

Why was I hurt by this article?

This is a tough industry.  The hours are long and the pay really isn’t great.  As artists, we already second guess ourselves and our work every single day.  We know that when we post our work online, it is being judged by every set of eyes that sees it.  We need to find ways to build a strong, supportive community.  Dividing people into groups, especially with a derogatory term like “FAKER CAKER” is just a means to make someone feel less about themselves.  Why, oh why, would you want to try to hurt someone?  I know when the decorator told me today that I wasn’t a real caker, I was shocked and hurt.  I’m sad for her.  I left her group, so she won’t know that I have a really good background of information and could have been a helpful adviser in that group.

Today, I would like to celebrate all of you who make cakes.  Thank you for keeping this beautiful art form alive.  Thank you for sharing your talents with the world.  Just thank you.  

 

The Scoresheet

The Scoresheet

Cake show season is upon us. Maybe you are entering for the first time. Maybe you’ve been competing for years. Regardless, once you have that scoresheet in your hand, your eyes race to take in the notes from the judges. Did they like it? Did they catch the flaws you didn’t have time to fix? Did they understand your piece?  
Often, when I visit with a competitor after judging, they don’t understand what makes one cake score better than another. I’ve written before on what judges look for (Here Comes the Judge), but thought it might be helpful if I took a judging sheet and broke down all the categories for you. Jennifer Bartos from That Takes The Cake Show in Austin, Texas and B. Keith Ryder from the National Capital Area Cake Show in Annandale, Virginia were both kind enough to provide me with their show’s judging sheets. 
The Wedding or Showcase cakes are judged on a more strict basis, so I’ll tackle those after the regular divisional entries. Here are the divisional sheets:

  
  

PRECISION/NEATNESS

This category has us focus on the basics. And, quite frankly, this is where most people quickly lose points. The first thing every cake judge does is look at how well you covered your cake. A fondant cake should not have elephant skin, rips, tears, seams, pock marks or other distress. Fondant should be smooth. The entrants at Cake International in England do this very well. You must take the time to get this part as close to perfect as you can. It sets the stage for all the decorations to come. A rough cake covering will detract from the rest of your work, no matter how nice it might be. 
But this category is more than just the surface icing. How neatly did you apply your details? Can we see blobs of royal where you attached things? Are there rough edges on your cutouts or flower petals? If you have a design pattern, does it stay uniform? Do your borders stay uniform? To score well in this category, you need to be as neat as possible. 
ORIGINALITY/CREATIVITY

Did you recreate a famous cake? Is your piece from a class project? Have you seen this design before? If so, you will suffer on your originality and creativity scores. Most of the cake show judges are well versed in current trends. If you are doing a design that is popular at your bakery or with your brides, chances are that it isn’t very original anymore. 
To score well here, take an element you like from a cake design, but put your twist on it. Or combine it with unexpected elements. Let’s say you made something as simple as an orchid. If you plop it in a store bought vase, it isn’t very creative. If you put it with tropical items that you make out of sugar, it becomes more creative and original. I know people say that there is nothing new in cake decorating, and maybe that is true, but I still see refreshing spins on designs all the time. This is when you need to design from the heart. Don’t copy; be inspired. 
SKILL/ATTENTION TO DETAIL

For this category, we take into consideration your decorating level. If you are a Beginner, you do not have to meet as high a skill level as a Master. Why don’t we take that into consideration on the two prior categories? Because EVERYONE can be neat. EVERYONE can be creative. In this category, we start looking at the techniques you used to create your cake. Taking an orchid as the example again, we will want the shape to be right regardless of your level. A Beginner will often have thicker petals and will be less adept at dusting the flower. We cut them slack. If you are a Master making that same orchid, we will want to see something more botanically correct. 
And this applies to all techniques. For piping, Beginners get to use larger tip sizes than would be ok for a Master. As your skill increases, you can move to the smaller tips. In the end, this is a judgement call by the judges as to whether they think your decorating skills fit the level you entered. Sometimes the skills fall short. Sometimes they surpass a person’s level. The bottom rule here is: if you choose a technique, do it as well as you can on a competition piece. 
COLOR/USE OF COLOR

We aren’t here to tell you that your pink cake should have been purple. Although, I’ve heard that judges in England sometimes do make such comments. Our role as judges is not to redesign your cake, but to judge it based upon what you presented. If you choose a design for a college team, for example, and their colors are burnt orange and black, you need to use those colors. If you use a bright orange instead, we would mark you down on your use of color. You didn’t stay true to your design. 
More often, color issues are more tricky. The color faded as you worked on the cake and we can tell. You chose colors that clash instead of complimenting each other. You have one spot of color that doesn’t fit your design at all and almost looks like a mistake or an afterthought (or a leftover flower used in an emergency). I have a friend who has trouble with colors on the pink/red spectrum. She kept getting notes that her colors didn’t work. She finally figured out that she was a little color blind and got advice as she worked on the cake to make sure her colors looked right together. 
It is possible to use too many colors, also. I judged a beautiful piece of royal icing piping once…it was maybe 4″ in diameter, but had at least a dozen colors. Even that would not have been a problem, but the colors were randomly placed, so that it looked like they used up every bag they had to complete the piece. There wasn’t an art or design to the numerous colors. 
Some entrants feel that judges are biased for or against certain colors, but I’ve never found that to be true. If you are doing a dark or horror piece, dark colors and gore are appropriate. If you are doing a sweet baby shower cake, we will expect most of them to be in pastels, but that doesn’t preclude a brightly themed design for a baby shower. Let your design guide you and use the colors that enhance it the most. 
DIFFICULTY

Not all techniques are created equally. Some things are, quite frankly, harder to create. You don’t lose points for doing an easy design, but you sure don’t gain any, either. What are the harder techniques? I always tell folks to go to the ICES.ORG website and look up the rules for becoming an ICES Certified Master Sugar Artist. There, they outline the most recognized techniques and rank them from level one to level four. 
Level three and four techniques are the more time consuming and exacting ones. These take skill and practice to master. If there were two cakes that were equal on all other merits, but one used more difficult techniques, it would usually place higher than the one with the easier techniques. This does NOT mean you have to throw extension work or Lambeth on your cake in order to win. In fact, you should never use a difficult technique unless you can do it justice. Poorly piped Lambeth will not out score a cake with easier techniques if that cake is done at a higher skill level. 
Please also keep in mind that the higher your level, the more difficult we expect your techniques to be. A Master should be able to execute something more challenging. That doesn’t mean that a Master can’t do an easy technique, but they should probably do it nearly perfectly! Please don’t throw in a hard technique just to get more points. If you attempt extension work, and do it very poorly, the fact that it is difficult will not work to your benefit. The real key to cake show competitions is to do the most difficult techniques at which you excel. Show off your best. 
NUMBER OF TECHNIQUES

Oh, the problems this category has created. So many newer competitors read this as a challenge to throw everything they know onto a cake. Yes, we would love to see more than one technique, most times, but let your cake design be the guide! Do not throw things together that don’t go with the design. If you do that, your cake can start to look like a jumbled mess. 
Many times, we will run into two cakes that are pretty equal in terms of their decorating skill and execution. At this point, judges often consider the number of techniques as a tie breaker…or at least I do. If someone has done a great job and done three things, that should count for more than someone who did an equally great job, but only did one technique. Make sense? The one who did more techniques had to excel in three different categories. 
Is there a magic number for how many techniques you should include? Not at all. Again, the cake design should determine what is right. And let me be very clear: if you just do one technique and do it nearly perfectly, that will out score a cake with several techniques that is poorly executed. Do not throw the kitchen sink on your cake. This is not the time to show us everything you know how to do. It is the time to show us what you know how to do WELL. 
OVERALL APPEARANCE/EYE APPEAL

I’m sure you’ve been scrolling through your Facebook feed when a cake stops you in your tracks. It grabs your attention and makes you go in for a closer look. Some cakes truly have that magic. Those always score high in overall appearance. Sometimes you will see a cake that just seems “off” somehow. Maybe the background distracts. Maybe the sizes don’t work together or the colors clash. Those cakes will score lower on eye appeal. 
This is obviously a very subjective category, but if I put a group of ten decorators in a room, they almost always gravitate to the same eye pleasing cake. I wish I could explain it better, but here is my suggestion. See your cake as a full page in a magazine. Does your design and your work grab you so much that you would want to see close ups of the cake on the following pages? If so, you have probably got eye appeal in your favor. 
CONCLUSION

I read an article from a friend who said that every cake starts as a Gold in England. In the US, you could say you start with a perfect score. You only lose points if you don’t execute to the standards of your level as a decorator. Some judges think that everyone starts as average and get marked up or down for work that is above or below average. Whichever judge you encounter, remember that they judged every cake in the exact same manner. Remember that the judges are not trying to hurt your feelings! They have a job to do. Sometimes the money and prizes are of such value that they have to be extra strict. None of this is personal. You should take it as an indicator of where your skills are and a challenge to improve on those items that are lacking. Every time I worked on one of my weaknesses, I became a stronger, better decorator. 
Best of luck at your upcoming cake shows! Enjoy your design. Make the cake for yourself and to share your gift. Bring beauty to the world. 

The World View

When I started decorating cakes, I only knew the decorators in my local cake group. The Internet was relatively new and message boards were in their infancy. It was difficult to meet decorators from other areas unless you went to a cake show. 
To build a reputation, you had to travel. You had to build a great web site. You had to compete in cake shows. You had to do great work. If you were lucky, you got on some of the early cake tv shows and the world learned your name. At least, the United States did. 
I am just flying home from Cake International in Birmingham, England. It is the largest cake show in the world. It is a true melting pot of accents, cultures and decorating styles. 
I was lucky enough to attend the Cake Masters Awards for the second year. As I listened to the presentations for the nominees and the winners, it became clear to me that there truly is a world cake decorating community. 
Mike McCarey was named the Cake Hero. While he rarely teaches outside of the US, his social media accounts and Craftsy classes have taken him into the homes and hearts of decorators across the globe. 
In almost every instance, the winners were people who have a strong social media presence. The value of that presence is that it helps to connect them to people everywhere. A picture can go viral in minutes. A Periscope can be shared repeatedly. The new applications keep making it easier and easier for people to interact with their cake heroes. 
Many decorators tell me that they wish they had more recognition for their work. I would tell them that they simply MUST promote themselves. They aren’t just sharing with potential customers…they are connecting with future friends and collaborators. 
We all need to take a world view of our work and our social media influence. I am constantly surprised at the number of people who follow my cake journey, my triathlon journey or even my posts about my puppies. It reminds me to be very conscious of the things that I post. 
Too often, I see decorators posting negative comments about their customers or, even worse, their families. I wish so badly that I could help them realize that their constant negativity is how the world views them. Why on earth would you want that reputation?? I’m not saying you have to be fake and only post happy things; I am saying that social media is rarely the place to air your personal anger or laundry. 
Social media just gives us the slightest glimpse into a person’s life. If you think of it as a snapshot of your life, what is the picture you want to give the world? Will you be known for your talent or for your attitude? The world is in your hands. 

I’ll Be The Judge

Lately, I’ve read some complaints about judges at cake shows. It prompted me to ask my friends what made a good judge and what made a bad judge. I received some great comments and thought I would share these thoughts with all of you. 

I should preface by saying that I have judged at or competed at over two dozen cake shows. I have served as Head Judge for one of the largest shows in the U.S.  I am regularly asked to train new judges. I am also serving on a new ICES committee to establish guidelines for certifying judges. 

 
Here are my notes for those who judge or aspire to judge at a cake show:

Judges should know the rules

At a recent show, the cakes had a height restriction. A few of the competitors complied, but others noticeably did not. Surprisingly, the “too tall” cakes were the ones that placed, without mention of the height infraction. Good show directors will provide you with a copy of the rules when you judge. Good judges will read those rules!  

When you find a rule violation, the judge has to decide whether it is so egregious that you must disqualify the entry, or simply lower its placement/score. For me, this depends on the level of the competitor. I am frequently more strict on professionals and masters, but try to give the lower levels a break and just reduce their score. 

If a judge blatantly ignores the rules, it puts a black mark on the entire competition. It makes competitors doubt all the rules. Following the rules is paramount. 

Judges give constructive feedback

This is such a biggie!  “Good job!” gives the decorator no useful advice. Even worse is no comment at all!  As a judge, I try to tell the person something I like, then something they can improve, then end with a positive note. 

Helpful notes can include information on what judges look for:  covering your board, adding a ribbon around the board, evenly piped borders, smooth cake covering, using gumpaste instead of fondant. It is NOT helpful to redesign the person’s cake for them. You must be able to tell them how they could improve their work on their chosen design. 

Rude comments are unforgivable. Judges have not been invited back for comments they leave. Words can hurt and we judges have to be incredibly careful in HOW we say what we say. The last thing we want to do as judges is to discourage someone from playing with sugar. 

Put your preferences aside

This may be the hardest thing for many judges. When we see ourselves reflected in someone’s entry, we react favorably. The key is to not allow your personal preferences to make you score something higher than it might deserve. I can think of two instances when someone I was judging with saw a cake that could have been in their portfolio. Instantly, they both declared that cake first place. I had to work with them to see if it truly deserved first place. 

A judge may hate yellow cakes or gory cakes or whatever personally, but must judge those entries in the work presented, not on how they feel about the design choices. It isn’t always easy. Judges are human and I’m sure we all let our hearts into our evaluations. They key is to be conscious of that influence and to try to minimize it. 

Judges must know a wide variety of techniques 

I believe the best judges are well rounded decorators. If you only do buttercream cakes, it could be hard for you to judge proper royal icing techniques or gumpaste flowers or sculptures. You should keep up with current trends. You should know what a proper version of most techniques looks like. 

It is even better if you, as a judge, have actually worked with a variety of mediums. You will then be better able to troubleshoot and help guide the competitor to a better entry. 

Judges Should Not Be Overly Critical

Feedback is great, unless you become abusive in your words. I have seen judges mark every cake low and justify it because they treat everyone the same. Seriously?  If the judging scale goes to 10, you CANNOT limit the scores you give to a high of 6 or 7 or whatever. 10 does not mean perfect. It means that it is excellently crafted. 

We get that you are the best decorator in the world (in your mind), but you don’t build yourself up by tearing others down. If your judging sheet is a nitpicky list of errors, without also celebrating the things done right, you need to take a step back from judging. You are not helping the contestant with your hypercritical attack of their work. You must be able to find balance in how you both judge and in how you give comments. 

Judges Are Not Just Cheerleaders

Yes, we want to encourage the entrants, but not every cake warrants an 8 or above. This is the flip side of the overly critical judge. If you just tell some one it is beautiful and that they did great, what have they learned?  Even the most incredible pieces of art I have judged have had one or two areas where they could improve. 

Judges owe the contestants their honesty. You must be able to be realistic about the entry and be able to tell the person what is wrong as well as what is right. 

Judges Do Not Rush The Process

Judging is hard work and will kill your back and your feet by the end of the day. Some judges love being known as a judge, but don’t take the time to properly do the job. There is no prize for speed judging. If you are just going to gloss over the process, you should not be judging. 

Judges Do Not Dominate Other Judges

Every now and then, you’ll run into the judge who is loud, opinionated and dominating. They run roughshod over their fellow judges and their opinion is the only one that counts. This is really just another form of bullying. 

When I judge with someone for the first time, I start out asking their opinion for the first few categories, so we get a sense of each other and so that we each get input in the process (for consensus judging shows). Judges need to be willing to listen to their fellow judges and to respect their input. 

Judges Show Up For The Job

If you are tasked with judging, you need to show up on time and ready for the job. Most judges will wear their chef coats, to add an air of professionalism to the process. Judges should not cancel on a show unless their are legitimate reasons. When you agree to judge, you are agreeing to pay your way there, put yourself up at a hotel and to do a job. If you need to teach a class to cover expenses, that is fine…but when your class doesn’t fill, it does not relieve you of your commitment to the show. Finding qualified judges to take your place at the last minute places an unfair burden on the show. 

Judges Pay Attention to Details

Nothing frustrates a show director quite like having to track down a judge who left a score card incomplete. Judges have a duty to make sure that each score sheet is filled out properly. Competitors who find part of their sheet without a score are rightfully upset. Would they have placed higher?  We must always take the time to look over our sheets to make sure that we have filled everything out. 

Judges Help Promote the Show

Cake shows will die without support. As judges, we often have a social media following and can use that to help the show. We can put the information in our newsletters and on our web pages. We can share the event on Facebook. We can encourage people to enter. 

Judges Do Not Enter Categories They Are Judging

Some competitors do not think it is fair for a judge to compete. I personally have no problem with it and have done it many times. In that situation, the show director is notified that I entered and I am not assigned the Master division. Since judging is anonymous, my fellow judges who are assigned the Master category will not know who created what cakes. There is no unfairness to other competitors. 

Often, the judging panel is largely comprised of Masters. If some of them don’t enter, the Master division looks very empty. We need every possible entry for cake shows to thrive. 

Judges Are Available Afterwards To The Competitors 

Some shows have a designated time to meet with the judges. The judges will show up for this “kiss and cry” portion and help explain to a competitor why they received the score they did. Sometimes the competitors may contact the judge after the show. I feel just as strong a duty after the show to help them understand what they did right and how to fix what they did wrong. Numerous competitors have sent me pictures of their entries and asked for critiques, even when I did not judge the show they attended. I think that judges should always stand ready to offer advice in this manner. 

Judges Will Read The Information From The Competitors 

Many shows allow the competitors to write notes for the judges about what they did and how they did it. These notes are often crucial to a better understanding of the entry. I have seen judges dismiss a cake, until I point out the novel approach used by the competitor, as explained in their notes. Just as a competitor should not assume that the judge knows every flower variety, the judge should not assume that they know how something was done. 

So that’s it. Really, it boils down to being a good person. Play nice with the other judges. Be kind, but fair in your comments. Give comments. Do the job you accepted. If you do those things, you will find that you are a good judge. 

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

dusting brushes

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?