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A Girlfriend’s Guide to ICES Certification

This is a guide I wrote shortly after taking the test. I plan an update soon.

You’ve taken the plunge and signed up for certification testing…now what? I’m going to share with you what I did, what I wish I had done and where I’ve seen others go wrong. This is by no means an official document, and you should always refer to the Candidate Handbook for the “real” answers to things. This is simply what I would tell my good friends about the experience.
First and foremost, read the Handbook. A lot of work went into it and it answers more questions than in prior years. After reading the rules and the Handbook through completely, go through the skills and mark every single one of them that you know how to do. Now, go back and put a star by the skills that you know you can do almost PERFECTLY. What are your strongest skills at cake competitions? What can you score an 8, 9, or 10 on? Those strengths must be included in your final plan! I first grabbed one skill from each of the point levels, to make sure I had that covered. Then, I started adding the other skills in order of how well I do them until I had 8 techniques that totaled 21 points. It’s ok to have 22 points, but if you start having totals of 23 or more points, you’ve probably overloaded yourself. You don’t get more credit for whipping out something that can score you 25 points. A plan that is heavy on the most difficult techniques means that you have a plan that is going to eat up time and you might not be able to finish it!!
Now comes the tricky part: designing the actual plan. In my experience, it is this element that will make or break whether you will get CMSA, CSA or not achieve certification. You cannot design a plan that will take you 8 hours – you won’t have that long. Something is going to go wrong…horribly, frustratingly wrong. Design a plan that will only take 6 to 6 ½ hours to do. That will give you a cushion so that you don’t panic when you have the problems on test day. If by some miracle everything goes perfectly for you and you have an extra hour, you are able to go back and make sure that everything you do is as close to perfect as possible.
Start with your 3 tier cake. This is your largest project and should probably show off the majority of your skills. I saw someone only use 2 skills on this…why?? You have the most cake surface to show off your work! You want your wow factors on this cake. I know that it is tempting to do a 6/8/10 for this cake, the bare minimum, but don’t forget that if you choose that set up, you’ve already given yourself a skinny, plain set up. Artistically, is that the best choice? I did a larger cake on the bottom so I could offset the tiers and have a “shelf” for my flowers. I don’t know how many times I saw people struggle to display flowers on a ½” ledge…give yourself a break and just go up a size.
You have to cover a cake in fondant, and most of us have done the middle tier as that portion of the test. Yes, it would be so cool to have intricate shaped cakes all stacked up, but if you suck at covering an odd shape, just do rounds!! This is not the time or place to tackle a hexagon or square if you aren’t great at covering them! Do not choose a marble for your background icing. It doesn’t show off how cleanly you covered the cake and it makes it hard to have other things look nice against it. Once you have your cakes covered, for God’s sake, stop! Don’t add designs, texture, paint or anything else! You don’t want to walk in and already be disqualified! Think about the board the cake is going on – have it ready to go. Put feet or lifts under the board so that you can easily move the cake once it is all together.
On my 3 tier, I had gumpaste flowers, painting, fabric effects, extension work and oriental stringwork – 5 of my techniques. You don’t have to go that far, but you want to be sure that the cake is a real representation of who you are! Think about color! I cannot tell you how blah cakes are that are just white on white – it might be beautiful for weddings, but this isn’t a wedding. The better scoring cakes over the past few years have had a white background with colored piping or the reverse of that. Think about the colors you introduce. Harsh contrasts are tough for the judges to swallow…sometimes it is better to make the colors a bit softer and more palatable. A stark white cake with one pop of deep red seems disjointed. On my cake, I had a white background with a medium purple piping, with flowers and painting that brought in that color range. It is incredibly hard to judge a white cake with white stringwork on it – some of us have old eyes and can’t see the beauty of your work!
Once you have a workable design for the 3 tier, think about the buttercream cake. You HAVE to ice it smoothly. You cannot cover that smooth surface totally with fondant, basketweave, etc. So, what the hell do you do if you don’t work with buttercream all the time? You better start practicing!! This is a great place to add your piping work that doesn’t have to be done in royal. You can add figures, flowers, modeling chocolate elements, etc. You can have fabric effects here. I saw a lot of people consider this their “throwaway” cake and just not put time or effort into it. This proved to be the downfall of many people. Don’t leave Styrofoam showing! If using real cake, don’t leave crumbs showing! If you suck at buttercream flowers, maybe you shouldn’t pick that! Or choose something other than a rose that might be more forgiving for you!
Last, but not least, you have to come up with a non-cake display piece. This has to go on a 10” board. I nearly put mine on too small of a board! READ THE RULES! I could have been disqualified if I hadn’t re-read the rules the night before! For this portion of the test, you want to think about what would go well just on a board. Is it a flower or pulled/blown sugar piece? Is it a brush embroidered or quilled design? What can be beautiful and be only one or two techniques? Yes, you can do more techniques, but it has worked out best for most people to just do one or two on this. This is another place where I have seen color take people down. Make sure that whatever you make is in a pleasing color and that it looks good on the board color! Don’t forget to embellish the board or make the piece look complete, not like something has just been plopped on it for no good reason.
So, now you have 3 pieces designed. Do you have any skills left over? You may have to do a 4th piece. That is fine. Make sure it is worth being a separate piece. You have total freedom here – it can be a sculpture, a single tier cake, a non-cake display, whatever. Once again, make sure that the piece can stand on its own. It has to look complete when you are finished with it – not like you had one more skill to put somewhere, so here’s a cake with a bow. You’ll get an artistic score on every single display piece.
I would love to tell you that I practiced the test over and over, but most of you know me and know that I wouldn’t do that. I did time myself on my sculpture to see how efficiently I could do it. I did choose designs that I was experienced with and knew I could do well and quickly. If you normally work slowly, you need to practice!! I’m used to whipping out a competition piece in an evening, so I knew I could work quickly enough to get this done. You know how you work.
Sketch out your designs and think about the artistic value of your cake as you design them. You want each of the techniques to be enhanced by whatever you put on each display. You are going to have some un-judged skills in each design – that is normal. Just make sure that they ADD to the look of the piece or don’t put them on it. As you design your 3 pieces, please think about sizing! The biggest, tallest display doesn’t win!! We don’t need to see a 5 tier cake. We don’t need a 24” x 24” sugar piece. I would much rather see something in the 10” to 14” range that is impeccably done than a massive piece that is only half finished! Watch out for “over-decoratoritis”! We don’t need to see 25 of the same thing to know that you can do it…can you simplify the design and still make it attractive?
Ok, so what else have I seen that led people astray? When you choose flowers (whatever kind), you do NOT need to do 6 or 8 different kinds…choose one and do it well. Think about coloring. Did you leave it a flat color or did you dust it to make it look better? Did you steam the flowers? Did you finish the flower with greenery or leaves? Does the color of the flower have anything to do with the display piece? Bring your colors together in harmony. DO NOT STICK THE FLOWERS IN YOUR CAKE.
I personally saved almost everyone I evaluated last year from disqualifying themselves. I cannot say this enough times: READ THE RULES!! Don’t pre-wire sprays. Don’t pre-dust flowers if it isn’t allowed. Don’t try to use arm molds. Don’t put non-edible things on your cake unless they are specifically authorized under the rules. Don’t let your assistant touch anything on the front table. Don’t put anything pre-made on your cake if you haven’t shown us how you made it. No one wants to disqualify someone for something stupid!! On test day, the adjudicators are not allowed to tell you that you are about to disqualify yourself – we have to find the Test Administrator who can bring it to your attention.
Leave “it’ll do” at home. Bring your “what would a Master do” mindset instead. I cannot tell you how frustrating it was to see people pipe a line that squiggled or went too short/long – only to NOT even fix it! This is a test to be recognized as a Master!! A Master would get rid of the points on dots, would make sure the border shells were consistent, would remove something that fell short of expectations and would do it again. The test isn’t about not having any errors, it is about recognizing that they are there and then either fixing them or altering your design to accommodate them and make them “work” in the design. This is the day to hide every error you can. This is the time to show the adjudicators that you KNOW when you deviate from Master level work, pull off the bad part and fix it!!
Conditions are going to suck. Like a lot. Do you get hot? Bring a fan. Do you need extra light, bring a lamp or two. Will the air conditioner vent being overhead affect you? Come up with a fix for that. Do you need reading glasses or a magnifying glass for some part of your work? Bring it! Do you get cold? Dress in layers.
How did I pack for the test? I scored top marks on cleanliness and work process. I brought in upholstery plastic and covered my whole front table with it. I could always wipe things down easily and have a clean, beautiful work surface in front of me. I made a list of every single tool I needed for each technique…not each cake, each skill. I put every tool for each skill in its own baggie. Yep, if I needed a rolling pin on 4 different techniques, I had 4 with me, each in the appropriate bag. When it was time for, say, flowers, I grabbed that baggie and every single thing I was going to need to make them was in it. When I was finished, everything went back into the baggie and I handed it to my assistant. Could I have had a bag of community tools? Of course, but this way I knew I had exactly what I needed when I needed it without searching everywhere. Clean up was a breeze and I was never losing time looking for anything.
Baby wipes, baby wipes, baby wipes!! I saw dirty hands handling pieces to be judged, sometimes getting dust or icing on something unintentionally. Baby wipes are so easy to travel with and can save you in many ways!
Hydrate! You are going to forget to drink. You will hold your breath when you pipe. You are going to get flushed when something goes wrong. Your assistant should be reminding you to take in water every 15 to 20 minutes.
Do what you know! Ok, so some people tackle a new skill for this test and it works out for them, but this is the exception to the rule. If you don’t feel 100% comfortable with a skill, take a class. Nick Lodge told me that before the first test his advanced royal icing piping class was nearly full of people who were testing for certification. That was smart! If you have to do a skill, but aren’t confident in that skill – get with someone that you know does it well and work on it. You need to walk in feeling like you own the 8 skills you’ve chosen.
This is not a cake competition. You do not have to beat anyone in the room. You only have to prove that you have mastered these 8 skills. Do not get side tracked into designing a piece worthy of a national wedding competition. You are not being judged in comparison to anyone else testing or against anyone who has tested in prior years. This is all about you and your work on this one particular day. The adjudicators may know that you do stunning, master level work at shows or at your shop, but they cannot take that into consideration that day. They can only evaluate what is on display.
Listen to the adjudicators. If they tell you something is fine and to move on, for God’s sake, do it!! If you allow yourself to get bogged down in over-thinking everything and re-doing things they’ve told you are fine, you will run out of time. We know most decorators are anal and have OCD tendencies…do your best to let that go! Strive for excellence, not perfection. You may not have time to get a 10 on every skill.
Bring more supplies than you think you’ll need. It was killing me to watch people running out of buttercream and royal icing and fondant!! When you start stretching your icing, you are going to end up with an inferior piece.
If you do a sculpture, think about the crumbs. Carve on plastic where it is easily cleanable. Put a trash bag out and put your cake board and cake “in” it, then carve. You can brush everything into the bag surrounding your cake, lift out the cake, toss the trash bag and have a spotless surface. One person had 8 pieces of parchment down. Every few minutes, she removed a piece of the paper and all crumbs/cake on that paper. Her area always looked clean and neat.
Talk to those who’ve gone before you. Before I took the test, I contacted as many adjudicators and candidates from the prior year as I could. I asked them for advice and recommendations. I took that information to heart. Once your plans have been submitted, the adjudicators can no longer talk to you about the test. From that point on, you can only talk to the Test Administrator about the test. The time to visit with people about things is BEFORE YOU SUBMIT YOUR PLAN. Once your plan is in, you become a number to the adjudicators and they are not allowed to know who designed what. I firmly believe that designing the plan is where people pass or fail. An unworkable or overambitious plan will doom you. An under designed plan will doom you. The plan is the key to a good day – spend your time and energy to make designs that put you in the best possible light!!
Believe in yourself. You can do this! Take each step as it comes and do what you know. If you design something that is “you”, the rest will usually take care of itself.

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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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Mount Olympus

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Rumbles have been going for years now and started to really rattle the skies this year at the ICES Convention. People look at the Certification program and seem to have a few thoughts and misconceptions. My earlier blog, Certifiable, answered questions for some, but did not touch on the things that I have now heard about. My favorite comment is that the Certified Master Sugar Artists (CMSAs) think that they are gods and that these elitist people are trying to keep others from joining their ranks. The belief is that we are making the test harder. There are a number of beliefs that are being whispered about. I am going to tackle as many of those beliefs as possible and will try to address whether they are myths or facts. As always, this is just my opinion and not a statement from the certification committee, adjudicators or program.

Belief: CMSAs think they are Gods and want to keep others out of their “club”.

Myth. In any group of artistic folks, there may be some who are arrogant and some who are insecure. There may be some who are confident and some who are unsure. I can state with no doubts in my heart or mind that those of us who adjudicate WANT people to pass. We want people to achieve their desired certification levels. This year, there were two people named Certified Sugar Artists and one named Certified Master Sugar Artist. I can tell you that every adjudicator I spoke with was heartbroken as we watched people struggle throughout the day. Many of us were exhausted and nearly in tears…it hurts so much to not be able to give people the marks they needed to reach CSA or CMSA. For me personally, it was one of my hardest days ever at convention.

Could we have just overlooked what happened that day and just given people awards based upon the level of work we knew they could produce? No. The integrity of the program depends on us not giving someone the certification just because we like them, or know they’ve done great work at cake shows. How fair would that be to the people we do not know? I remember an incredibly talented M. Anthony Pena taking the test last year. The majority of us had never heard of him and were not familiar with his work. He was on the same playing level as Chef Mark Seamon or B. Keith Ryder -who were well known, award winning decorators. All were judged on their work solely on test day. Anthony not only passed with flying colors, he became the youngest to ever achieve CMSA status. Mark and Keith were named CMSAs also…based upon what they did on test day. No one gets a free pass to certification.

Belief: The test gets harder every year.

Myth and Fact. The first two years of the test, there was very little information for the candidates. The Candidate Handbook was written the third year to try to answer all the questions people had about what met standards for each of the techniques. In spelling it out, the committee tried to define exactly how many inches of extension work (for example) was required. In some areas, the test now requires more than when I took it. Is it so much more that I feel I could not still pass the test? No. Very little changed from last year to this year in the handbook. The clarification of standards cannot explain how 8 people get CMSA one year and only one the next.

Belief: The adjudicators keep changing the test.

Myth and Fact. The test itself, and the base requirements have not changed to any great extent. As we use the handbook and answer questions from candidates, we find that we need to clarify parts of the book. Perhaps the rule said one thing and the frequently asked questions section said something different. In the end, the rule is the law and the inconsistent question response has to be discarded. We learned that the FAQ section did not help as much as we wanted, so we are simplifying that to only give the rule. Sometimes, as we see someone choose a technique and recreate it on test day, we find that we can require LESS on test day. Sometimes we find that we should see MORE, depending on the point level of the skill. In the end, we are tweaking what I think are minor things, to make the test better and clearer.

I spoke with one candidate who did not receive certification for her pieces. She said she found that everything was covered in the handbook. The information IS in there, but we keep finding that many people still don’t read it.

Belief: There was a bad crop of candidates.

Myth. I actually had people say this to me this year, including some folks who hold a certification of one type or another. I absolutely disagree with this. Of the five testing years, two have had a lower number of candidates achieve certification. Each of the years with lower certification rates, people experienced problems early in the day that just put them behind. It was part environment, part timing choices they made and part things that just seem to go wrong on any given day. How many of you have baked a cake the same way as every time before, only to have one fall…for seemingly no reason? How many times have you cooked sugar or melted chocolate, only to find that you overcooked it? Have you ever over beaten your icing? Accidents happen.

This year’s candidates were great. Many of them wrote exceptional, ambitious plans. Many of them decided to go well beyond the minimum requirements. Most of them practiced. A lot. They just had a bad day. They are not bad decorators. They are talented, and brave and should be respected for standing up to take the test.

Belief: If I take the test, I have to do sugar work. Or extension work. Or Lambeth.

Myth. There are several dozen techniques available for selection. You must choose 8. You must have at least one technique from each point (difficulty) level you pick. If you are strong in figure modeling or piping or sugar work, you can weight your test toward your strengths. In my Girlfriend’s Guide, I tell people to go through and mark the techniques they know how to do. I tell them next to mark what they know how to do Really Well. Choose your techniques from that list. If you choose techniques hoping to impress us that you have tackled a bunch of harder techniques, you may run out of time. No one is going to make you do something at which you do not excel. Remember, we want you to succeed. That is why YOU pick.

Belief: I need to know how to do every technique to take the test.

Myth. You must know at least 8 techniques very well. Very few decorators, if any, can excel at everything on the list. That being said, however, most who achieve CMSA status are probably more familiar with the bulk of the techniques than the average decorator.

Belief: If I can do 7 techniques really well, I can sign up for the test and learn one more technique before the test day.

Myth and Fact. You probably CAN do that, if you practice hard enough and study with someone who excels at that technique, but I do not recommend that. This probably isn’t the time to self teach yourself a technique -remember you are being held to the accepted standards. A teacher can help you identify those. Watching a YouTube video might give you pointers, but without an instructor there to tell you your hand is in the wrong position, you might not ever achieve the standard. If it is important enough to you to take the test, then it must be important enough to you to prepare properly.

Belief: Icing the cakes in buttercream or rolled fondant is the easy part of the test.

Myth. Sadly, this is a problem for people. If you have ever spent hours smoothing a buttercream cake for a bride who has no decorations on her cake, you know what I am talking about. Every time I have seen people struggle with icing a buttercream cake, I ask if they are using their usual icing. The vast majority say no. Why would you enter a race and wear your friend’s shoes? You wouldn’t. This is the time to work with things within your comfort zone. Some people made their buttercream at the various convention sites, only to discover that shortening they purchased in that state has no trans fat and their icing worked differently. Some people’s recipes were too loose. Some were too stiff. You have to adjust to the conditions of the city and room that you are in.

While covering in fondant goes better, I am still surprised at the troubles people experience. It reminds me of my experience in law school. I always studied really hard in the difficult classes and would get an A. I would blow off the easy classes and would not get the “Easy A” that everyone else would get. On certification day, everything matters. You can not blow off icing the cakes!

Belief: Some adjudicators are easier, or score higher, than others. Some adjudicators are the mean ones, or score harder.

Myth and Fact. I am sure that I am considered to be one who gives people higher scores. I have thought that some adjudicators scored low. As I have been rotated to work with different people, I have learned that we are all exceptionally consistent in our scoring. If one person considers an 8 to be a strong score, they will consistently give 8s for the same level of work from technique to technique, candidate to candidate. The scores actually come in pretty closely together between the three adjudicators. I would say that the comments written are really similar! Since we are judging against the same standards, we tend to notice the same problems. I firmly believe that passing work under one team is passing work under any team.

Belief: Everyone takes the test because they want to be a CMSA.

Myth. This surprised me. I have spoken to some candidates who say that they took the test just to see how they would do. Others take it to push themselves. I had assumed that everyone who signed up would be highly motivated to pass the test. It turns out that I should not assume. (Don’t we all know this?). My husband asked why we cannot be sure that the people who take the rest really want to pass it. I simply cannot think of how we would determine that. We have to believe that everyone is there because they want to try to pass.

Belief: ICES should stop giving the test until everything is nailed down.

Myth. This is a five year old program. Let’s compare it to any of the sports in the Olympics. Every year, the rules are evaluated for World Cup competition. Every four years, changes are made to the rules for the Olympics. It isn’t to make it harder or to lower scores; it is to keep up with the changes from the athletes. Degrees of difficulty change in diving and gymnastics as new techniques are developed. Likewise, people are always experimenting in the sugar arts. We want to stay current and be sure that our requirements reflect what is truly achievable. I believe that there will always be slight adjustments to the test, but that they are made for good reasons. I think that people who choose skills they are good at have a really good chance of achieving certification.

My conclusions after this year? These candidates did the best they could do on test day under the circumstances. Would some of them change their icing, technique or design? I think so. Will they take the test again? Most that I personally spoke with said they would be back. Do I believe certification is beyond any of this year’s candidates? Not at all – they each showed talent and tenacity and I think that on any given day, the results could have been different. I still believe they are all to be applauded and respected for testing themselves in such a difficult manner. They are my heroes.

Certifiable

On August First, a room full of decorators will attempt to become Certified Master Sugar Artists at the ICES Convention in Reno, NV. (If you are not familiar with ICES, please check them out and consider joining – http://www.ices.org). When people see CMSA after my name, they often ask what the letters mean and what it means to be Certified. I thought this was the perfect time for a blog post on all things related to certification.

Let’s start with a definition.
Adj. 1. certifiable – fit to be certified as insane (and treated accordingly)
certified
insane – afflicted with or characteristic of mental derangement; “was declared insane”; “insane laughter”
2. certifiable – capable of being guaranteed or certified; “a certifiable fact”
certified – endorsed authoritatively as having met certain requirements; “a certified public accountant”

Clearly, the second definition is the one we are really using, but I find that people use the first almost as often when speaking of the Certification Program. When I took the test, the program was truly in its infancy and people thought that I had lost my mind to try for my CMSA. After all, wouldn’t I be embarrassed if I didn’t make it? Did I really want to be judged in a live situation? Isn’t it better to do the cakes without being under a time limit? Sometimes people look at the certification cakes and think that the adjudicators must be crazy to give someone CMSA status for those cakes. Sometimes we adjudicators think we must be insane to take on our role and several THOUSAND emails. I will tackle all of this and so much more! Please note that these are my opinions only and that this post is a quick overview of the program. I could not possibly put everything in this blog….well I could, but it would be really LONG! Here’s my cliff notes on Certification:

1. What is involved in becoming certified?

Certification testing only happens at the ICES convention. You can sign up about a year in advance. You must pay a fee and fill out an application form. It is first come, first served – we do not make a judgement call as to whether you are ready. You decide if you are ready. You will have to file a plan by a set date. The adjudicators will review your plan and notify you whether – on its face- the plan meets the minimum requirements.

On test day, you have 8 hours to complete a three tier cake, a single tier cake and a non-cake display piece. There are several dozen techniques divided into four technique levels (1-4) and you must do one from each level. The technique levels are assigned point status the same as the level – a level one is worth one point. You have to do a total of 8 techniques during the test and those techniques have to be worth 21 points. You get to choose the ones you do. You are judged on how well you perform every aspect of that technique, by its traditional standard. You receive a score from 1-10. If you receive lower than an 8 on ANY technique, you cannot be a CMSA. ( You can achieve Certified Sugar Artist, CSA, if you do not score lower than a 7 on ANY technique, but fail to achieve CMSA status).

It isn’t enough to do your chosen techniques well, you have to also cover a cake in fondant, ice a cake smoothly in buttercream, have a clean work process and – perhaps hardest – put together attractive pieces that do not look like you randomly stuck 8 techniques on them. Please understand this isn’t going to look like a major cake show competition piece most of the time…unless you are incredibly fast, that simply isn’t possible!

2. How hard is it to get CMSA?

It isn’t a cakewalk…no pun intended. On any given year, 16-24 people attempt certification. Our lowest year, only two people became certified masters. On our highest, it approaches half. Those numbers might seem daunting, but the scarier number is those that fail to complete the process. Every year, we lose several people during the plan approval process. Every year, by the lunch break on test day, we have several tell us they are so far off track that they will not finish in time. Every year, the conditions in the room are tough and it affects almost every candidate.

You have to remember that you are in a new environment. It might be too hot, too cold, too drafty, too dark, too anything for you that day. Although we warn them not to do this, someone always finds themselves working with a different type of fondant, royal or buttercream icing, often with disastrous results. You could have won every major cake show in the USA or your country, but that doesn’t guarantee you certification. As adjudicators, we have to look at only what you do on test day. We cannot compare your work that day to work you have done in the past. It is just your work done that day!

You are also not judged in comparison to anyone else. The adjudicators do not compare one person’s lace points to another’s…only to the recognized standard. It does not matter who else is taking the test when you are. You only have to do YOUR personal best, in relationship to the standards for the techniques.

The test is hard enough that some people have taken it two to three times before achieving certification. Some have received CSA status, but keep trying again for that elusive CMSA. Does that make them “certifiable”, as in crazy? I think not. I think it shows how very badly they want certification and how incredibly dedicated they are to achieving it.

3. How do I get ready for certification?

First, you need to go to ices.org and download all of the information on the test. Read everything you can get your hands on. As an adjudicator, I find that people often put together plans that show that they have not fully read the handbook. There is nothing as frustrating to an adjudicator as to have to directly quote a rule from the handbook to a candidate who designed a plan that does not meet the rule. The plan must be written with the complete guidance of the handbook. The handbook isn’t perfect and cannot possibly tell the candidate everything, but it tells them so, SO much. Every year, the handbook is revised and tweaked in an effort to make everything as clear as possible.

Second, you need to have an arsenal of skills that you can do at MASTER level. That often means taking classes with the best teachers on the subject. That means that you have to be able to do more than the minimum standard for that technique. A master does more than the minimum. This is not the time for “It’ll do”.

Third, you have to put together an achievable plan. I recommend that you design one that will take seven hours, not eight. You need that cushion because, invariably, something is going to go wrong. For me, it took almost an hour for me to get my extension work strings to stop breaking. If I had made an eight hour plan and lost that hour, I would not have finished the day I tested. I would not have those pretty letters at the end of my name.

Finally, you have to practice. A lot. And then some more. And then again. The adjudicators are surprised at how often we can tell that people did not sufficiently practice. This is especially true for people who work at a leisurely pace. Working against a clock is incredibly difficult if you are not used to it. I will admit that I did not practice my entire plan before I went. But, I worked in a very busy commercial shop and was used to playing “beat the clock”. This could have gone poorly for me and, looking back, I see that I was really lucky and blessed that my lack of practice did not bite me in the butt!

4. Do I really need to be certified?

That is a question that only YOU can answer. For me, it was important. I wanted to be the first from Oklahoma. I knew I was working to become a respected instructor and I felt like those letters gave me validation for that career path. Did I NEED it? No. Do those letters earn me any more money? No. Did achieving a CMSA mean that the cake tv shows wanted me on their shows? No. Did I WANT to be certified? Yes. Do I believe in the program? Absolutely. Do I think that having CMSA after your name will come to mean more as the program progresses? You bet.

5. Who are the adjudicators?

There are two types of adjudicators. When the program started, someone had to be able to decide who passed the test and who did not. The ICES Board approved six Honorary CMSAs. These six ladies carried the program the first year. As people achieved CMSA status, some have moved into the role of adjudicators. The Test Administrator and the Certification Committee Chair for the Board have selected the CMSAs they believe are qualified to adjudicate. Not every CMSA has the background, skill or desire to adjudicate.

Three of the Honorary CMSAs no longer adjudicate. It now takes nine adjudicators to handle the load on test day, so that means that six people are ones who passed the Certification test. There was a working thought that eventually the Honorary CMSAs would not be needed as adjudicators. Whether that happens or not does not matter much to me. I respect ALL the adjudicators and am excited that this year we are starting to train Apprentice Adjudicators – people with CMSA certification who have not judged as much as the current adjudicators. We are hoping to build such a large, talented pool of adjudicators that we could test more people or at more than one time during the year.

The adjudicators travel at their own expense to convention, two days early. They answer hundreds and thousands of emails about the Certification plans. They help edit and write the handbook. They are currently working on an adjudicator’s handbook. They are part coach, cheerleader, counselor, advisor, judge, jury and role model for what it means to be a CMSA. They are often the face of the program. I am honored to be part of this group.

6. When do you find out if you passed?

The announcement is made Saturday night of convention during the awards banquet. No one reads the names of those who fail to achieve certification. First, the Certified Sugar Artists are introduced. Then the Certified Master Sugar Artists take the stage. YOU would know if you did not meet your goal, but ICES will never announce that. No one wants to embarrass anyone. You can fill out a confidentiality agreement and you will be told before the banquet where you tested. You cannot tell anyone or talk to the other candidates about how you did. You are not told how anyone else did.

7. I think I want to take the test. Now what?

Come watch this year’s test! Spectators are allowed and we want you to see what is involved before you take the test.

Email me. I wrote a Girlfriend’s Guide to Certification. I am happy to share it.

Talk to everyone you can find who has taken the test and get their advice. Listen to their information. They may save you from committing a costly error.

8. Applaud those who take the test and honor those who achieve certification on any level.

The people taking the test on Wednesday are brave and deserve our respect for reaching for their goal. This will be a long, tiring day for everyone involved in the certification process. When you see the cakes in the Cake Room…think to yourself -could I do all that in eight hours? The next time it takes you hours to decorate a zebra stripe cake at home, think about people trying to do extension work, plus seven other skills in that amount of time. It is truly impressive that people are able to work under pressure in a foreign environment and be able to create master level work. I am incredibly proud of the candidates and wish them all the best of luck. I hope that some of you will consider going for certification. It won’t be the easiest thing you ever do, but it will be one of the proudest. Are you certifiable?