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.