Tag Archive | Cake decorating

Book Review/Interview:  Artisan Cake Company’s Visual Guide to Cake Decorating by Liz Marek

Recently, one of my “cake daughters” wrote her first cake decorating book. While she is the master of social media and openly shares her life’s ups and downs with her friends on Facebook, I felt like we could all get to know her and this project better. 

When you dive into the book, you will find actual guidance on support for figures and cakes. Most decorating books on the market do not focus on this info. The part that I thought would be a “must read” for people is The Elements of Cake Design”. As a judge at most of the major cake shows in the U.S., I will tell you that most cakes rise or fail at the design stage. Take her lessons to heart and you can be creating more visually impactful cakes!  

Here is my interview:
1.  What was your favorite project in the book? It’s hard to choose but the owl was my favorite. He was just so cute I wanted to smoosh his widdle cheeks! 

2.  What was the hardest part of writing the book? Writing a book was so much harder than I expected! Coming up with ideas was easy but then practicing the project, working out the bugs, taking photos and writing it in a way that could be understood by even a novice was very hard and I went to bed many-a-night with a migraine from thinking too hard lol

3.  What decorators influenced you or inspired you as you were learning decorating? I loved and still love many decorators I looked up to when there was no fb and only flickr haha. I used to devour photos from karen portaleo, debbie goard, mike mccarey and melody brandon from sweet and saucy. All very different from each other but each had something special that I wanted to achieve in my own work. Creativity, clean work and beautiful details. 

4.  How did you get started decorating? I started by doing. I watched a few episodes of Food Network challenge and Ace of Cakes and got the bug. No youtube tutorials existed yet so I just winged it. My first cakes where not pretty at all lol

5.  What is your biggest wish for your book? My biggest wish is simply that people find my book useful and that it is used. It is not placed on the shelf to gather dust but the pages are worn from use, dog-eared and stained with batter. I want this book to be a tool, not a decoration for a book shelf. 

6.  What did you learn yourself as you wrote this book? I learned that I take way too many photos of my cakes haha I also learned that I work best at night and that I cannot sleep until a project is done. 

7.  Who is your target audience for the book? My target audience is beginner to intermediate cake decorators who need help getting beyond the basics or advanced decorators who need some inspiration to take their ideas to the next level. 

8.  Do you hope your daughter follows in your footsteps someday? I hope my daughter feels passionately about whatever she chooses to do in life and I hope to help her find that passion no matter what it is. I did not find my passion until I was almost 30 years old and spent a good portion of my life thinking I wasn’t good at anything. I want my daughter to be inspired every day and try everything until she finds the thing that makes her happy. 

9.  Tell me about juggling your bakery business with writing a book. Writing a book while baking cakes for clients was a nightmare. There was never enough time in the day to get everything done. I still do not know how it happened. I also was 9 months pregnant and approved my final draft of the book the week I went into labor. I joked that writing a book was more complicated than having my baby and definitely more painful haha. But def love my book like she was my own baby. 

10.  How many copies have been sold so far? We have sold over 4 thousand copies since December 2014 and counting! The book is getting great reviews and the publisher is talking about another book but I’m not sure I’m ready for that lol.

You can buy Liz’s book on Amazon. http://www.amazon.com/Artisan-Companys-Visual-Guide-Decorating/dp/1937994694
   
    

How to alienate the cake community

o-ANNOYING-facebook

Every day, I see people make mistakes on Facebook, Instagram and other social media.  I honestly think that most of these folks are new in the cake community and simply don’t realize that what they are doing irritates others.  Rather than continuing to read rants from folks about everything these newbies do wrong, I thought it would be nice to take a tongue in cheek look at the things that get on the nerves of the decorating community.  The saddest part is, I’ve seen each of these personally!  If you want to alienate others, here are my suggestions:

Steal Photos of Other’s Work

Choose a photo of a beautiful cake. Go into photo shop and erase their watermark. Put yours on there. Publish it on your Facebook page. Deceive your customers into thinking you are “that good.”

For Bonus Points:  Build a photo album completely comprised of cakes made by others. The more famous the sugar artist, the more cakes of theirs you should use.

For Bonus Bonus Points:  Apply for a TV show using cakes you did not make. Brag about your work in chat groups. OR tell your customers that the famous decorators pay you to post their pictures. (You’re just helping them out.)

Whine About Being left Out

Complain loudly and often that you were not included in a collaboration. Bitch that the TV producers never give you the time of day. Whine that your cake picture has been ignored and is not receiving hundreds of likes. Cry that no one answers your desperate pleas for help when you need that tutorial for free right now so you can do someone’s cake order. Who cares if you promised a cake you don’t know how to make? People should help you.

For Bonus Points:  Write hateful letters to the collaboration organizers, complaining about how unfair it was to leave you out. Write demanding letters to the person who just posted the cool cake–they owe you an explanation of how they made it!!

Pick an Unwinnable Fight

Tackle divisive issues like politics, religion, same sex marriage or box v. Scratch. Do this in a pleasant, fun cake chat group. Argue with anger. Use hurtful words. Be intractable. Never, ever agree to disagree.

Bad Mouth Your Customers or Competitors

Talk about how stupid your customers are. Show screen shots of conversations. Never explain the order process to them. Assume they know as much as you. Ridicule the work done by other decorators. Publicly humiliate them at every turn.

Bonus points for:  Not blocking the names of the “innocent”.

Bonus Bonus points if you can make a decorator cry or quit caking altogether.

Undercut your neighbors

Always offer to make cakes at ridiculously low prices. When competitors post cake photos, post a comment about how much more cheaply you will do it. Tag your friends on their photos. Conduct business on another bakery’s page.

Demand Classes and Tutorials for Free

Clearly, everyone should help you run your business. You should not have to pay for something that you NEED. Your need surpasses their right to get paid. It isn’t fair that they have this knowledge…even if they experimented for days to develop it. Isn’t caking about sharing?  Then tell them to share or else they are being mean and unhelpful.

For Bonus Points:  Take information from a paid tutorial or class and share it with the world. Why should anyone else have to pay?  Teachers are rich.

Shout that the Competition was Unfair

You should have won at the cake show. The judges are too old/too young/too behind the times. Let the world know that you deserved first place. Tell everyone how crappy the other cakes were. Brag that everyone said YOU should have won.

For Bonus Points:  Tell off the judges or show directors. This is even better if you scream and yell in public where everyone can watch.

Teach the Class You Just Took

You paid good money for that class, so you can do what you want with it.  You can share the tutorials with screen shots for your friends.  You can offer the same class you took – just remove the owner’s watermark and put yours in its place.  Steal their handouts and use them as your own.

Arrogantly Call Someone a Liar.

See an awesome cake.  Make a point of telling the designer that it is not real cake, even if they swear it is.  Even when the person posts pictures of the cake served, refuse to apologize.  You are ALWAYS right.

Tell People How They are Doing it Wrong

Wait for someone to post a recipe.  Tell them that they are making it wrong.  Announce how it should really be done.  Always be belligerent to the sweet person who posted the recipe.  It is even more fun if you list the ingredients you changed and complain that the recipe did not turn out.

Use the Dreaded “f” or “following” in a Thread

No matter how many times the administrators of groups show you how you can click on the top right corner and get notifications for a thread, it is just more satisfying to throw that “f” or “following” out there and see how many people you can upset.

Never, Ever Google for Cake Ideas, Tutorials or Recipes

The cake community is there to do your research for you.  You don’t have time to open a Google window, click on images, then enter your search terms!  It is so much more fun to go into a chat group and ask them to do the work for you.  It is even more fun if you post it in multiple groups at the same time!

 

I’m sure I’m forgetting lots of things, but this is a good start.  If you saw yourself in any of these, please take a moment and think about how your actions affect others.  Please take responsibility for your work.  Please stop stealing.  Please stop being mean.  Let’s all spread a little good in the world.  The Golden Rule isn’t just for Sundays!

The Cover Band

Step into a smokey bar somewhere and you’ll find a cover band. They make a living singing songs made famous by others and getting as close as they can.

This encompasses many beginning cake decorators. They are recreating something designed by another artist. There is nothing wrong with this, so long as you are honest with yourself and others. My bakery seemed to create a lot of hits by Anne Heap and Lauren Kitchens. We never, ever acted like it was something we dreamed up.

Every now and then, brides and customers let us work with them on a custom design. On those days, we were closer to being a singer/songwriter. We were sugar art DESIGNERS. We created something different.

To me, people are cake decorators, cake designers,or a combination. Cake DECORATORS recreate cakes from Pinterest, books and the Internet. Cake DESIGNERS sketch and create designs for their customers. Both are sugar artists.

I think many of us are a bit of both. There are some notable exceptions who refuse to do cakes they have not personally designed. While that works for them, I find that the majority of bakeries that do a bit of both are the most profitable.

Are you a cover band or a singer/songwriter? Or are you like me?

IMG_0207

The Last Minute

What is it about a deadline that makes us focus? Why do we become our most create five minutes before something is due? I read this quote and it got me thinking:

To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan, and not quite enough time.
(Leonard Bernstein)

Procrastination without planning usually is a recipe for disaster. If you don’t know how to create an internal structure and you start the cake at the last minute, the bookies in Vegas will lay odds that your cake is going to collapse.

I’m sure I look like a procrastinator to folks a lot of the time. On the last day, I turn in my class applications to teaching events. However, if you could get access to my cell phone, you would see the lists of class ideas I have there. I’ve often been designing in my head as I drive across the country to get to my next teaching location. I probably have more “in process” new class parts laying around my house than anyone except Norm Davis.

I’m hoping that if you are a “Last Minute Lucy (or Linus)” that you are building a plan in your head as you watch that TV show. I hope you are watching tutorials as you kill time. The plan is often where you spend the most time.

I wish you greatness in those last few minutes of your work day.

2015/01/img_9621.jpg

The Real Decorator

I have participated in 20 marathons and half marathons since 2005. I am a fast walker and love these events, but always feel like an imposter around “real” runners. Each time I make a comment about not being a true athlete, my Boston Marathon friends are the fastest to correct me and tell me that I am, indeed, an athlete. I came across this quote and it probably says what my friends have been trying to tell me for years. If you run, you are a runner. If you do athletic events, you are an athlete.

I constantly hear decorators say that they are “just a hobby baker”, “just a home baker”, or just “not a real decorator.” In their minds, they consider the real decorators to be those who run storefronts or large, busy operations. They think you have to be famous to be real. They think that they have to have a pastry degree, ICES certification or some other recognition. Nothing could be further from the truth.

My grandmother was a real decorator. She was a nurse by trade, but loved to make all our birthday cakes. The joy we felt receiving them meant that she was absolutely a decorator. Every person who takes the time to bake a cake (scratch OR box), who ices that cake and attempts to embellish it, is a real decorator. Even if you are peeling off Royal icing decorations from a sheet you bought from the grocery store, you’ve still decorated.

Sometimes, I find that some of the established cake artists post about customers making derogatory remarks, e.g., “Her mom “”decorates”” cakes…then why isn’t she doing the cake??!!). What we forget is that these artists have at least acknowledged that the cake they are ordering is beyond their skill level or time availability. They might not tell you that, but most of them know their limitations.

Just as there are a myriad of athletic levels and abilities, the same is true for cake decorators. There was a joke going around law school as I took the bar exam. Do you know what they call the person with the lowest passing score on the bar exam? A lawyer. Words to think about.

2015/01/img_9559.jpg

2015/01/img_9558.jpg

Letting Go

When I decided to close my bakery three years ago, it caught the cake world by surprise. I was running a fairly large, successful shop. Why would I quit when I was successful? The other day, Courtney Clark announced that she was selling her business. With small children at home, she decided she had something more important to focus on. Today, my friend Michelle Klem, announced the closing of her bakery.

I’ve actually had a fair number of friends close in the last few years. The reasons are as varied as each person and each business. Some simply could not financially justify the shop any more. Some wanted more time at home. Some wanted to semi retire and do fewer cakes from home. I found my leukemia coming back and knew I had to cut out the stress of 16 employees and a crazy busy bakery.

Whatever the reason, you will find that you have to go through a mourning period. Even when you want to close, it feels like a piece of your heart is being cut out. I knew my life would never be the same and I would not see the employees, who were more like family, nearly as often.

Watching others move out your ovens or pastry cases is monumental. Driving by the site of your shop will get to you for a bit. But it also frees you up for the next adventure in your life.

I love the show “You’ve Got Mail”. Meg Ryan’s character is going under financially. She meets with a friend and co worker to give her the bad news. Her friend tells her: “Closing the store is very brave. You are giving yourself permission to imagine another life. ”

How often do we let ourselves stay in jobs, relationships or situations just because we are scared to do something for ourselves? All too often, I’m afraid. I had wanted to close my shop a year and a half before I did. My heart was in teaching and I was resenting my time tied to the bakery.

The day I told my employees it was over, was the scariest day of my life. I was surprised to find that the majority of them had been wanting to embark on new futures themselves. All of a sudden, we all had permission to live the lives of which we had secretly been dreaming. Letting go was hard, but living fully was the best decision I’ve made in a while.

IMG_9058.JPG

IMG_9059.JPG

The Pig And The Chicken

My brother and I agreed to do a full marathon together in October in Key West. I always found a good reason why I was just too busy to go train. I was lucky to average one training session every week or two. Meanwhile, Robb got up at 5:30 every morning to run mind numbing laps on his long driveway in the country. Then he got dressed for work and drove an hour into the city for a full work day and another hour drive home. He was relentless.

I saw the following quote and realized I was the chicken.

“The difference between involvement and commitment is like the difference between ham and eggs. The chicken is involved; the pig is committed”…. Martina Navratilova .

He was the pig. I really wanted to become a run/walker. I wanted to shave major minutes off my normal race time. I wanted to finish by my brother’s side and not slow him down. As you might expect from reading my training regimen, I had to switch down to the half marathon and did not cut my time at all.

Robb was fully committed to what he was doing. I was INTERESTED in doing better, but never fully committed. I think many of today’s newer decorators are chickens as well. They are interested in running a business, but unwilling to compute their own costs…despite numerous blogs, webinars and software packages out there to teach them how to do it for themselves.

A representative post the other day said “I have an order for x cookies this Friday. Can someone give me a good recipe for the cookie and the icing and give me a tutorial on how to decorate those?” Are you kidding me??!! Should we pop over to your house and bake it for you as well?

What on earth are you doing taking money from an unsuspecting customer? Why are you experimenting on someone paying you money? What makes you agree to do these cake, cookie, cupcake or other sweets order if you don’t already possess basic skills and recipes?

“I’m ready, but I’m not sure I’m prepared.”…….Singer on Rising Star.

It is time for us all to become more committed to our work. Success is going to come to those who show up, do the work and prepare. I’ve agreed to do a half ironman race in April with my brother and my husband. I’ve committed to ride my bike at least thirty minutes every day I’m home. I’m finally ready to do the true work it takes to achieve better results. Won’t you follow my lead with your bakery business? Are you PREPARED for success? Or just ready?IMG_8999.JPG

IMG_8998.JPG

Left Out

Collaborations are hot right now on Facebook. It seems every few weeks, another is revealed. For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, collabs are when 30-100 sugar artists from all over the globe all create a sugar art piece based upon a theme. No one gets paid for these. Sometimes they get published in magazines; sometimes they live only on Facebook.

Every time one debuts, I search out all the artists. I like their business pages. I send friend requests. Why? Because I celebrate their artistic joy and freedom. They do this, essentially, for themselves! How rarely do we treat ourselves in this manner?

For every person like me who loves to see them, there are just as many folks who are hurt or angry over not being included. They feel snubbed. They feel left out. They feel like the “cool kids” are in a clique and they are at the uncool kids table.

I will admit that the first few collabs, I was sad that no one thought of me. I really wanted that chance to be a part of something so cool. One day I realized that I had never let anyone know that I would be interested in such a thing. People may have thought I was too busy. People may have thought that teachers wouldn’t want to do it.

I was lucky that one day in a chat group, a subject came up and I expressed interest. Next thing I knew, I was in a collab. The comradery was beautiful to see. Artists supporting and encouraging others, regardless of skill level.

There are a lot of collaborations coming out before the end of the year, and I know that more people are going to feel hurt that they weren’t included. It is hard to watch a friend get to be part of something. You wonder why your friend didn’t bring you along. The feelings you have are totally normal. The key, however, is to not beat yourself up over being left out.

So what do you do? You have a couple options. You start telling people you would like to participate in one. Or you create your own. There are no rules. You can start a collaboration, even if you are a newer decorator. Choose a theme. Set a deadline. Invite friends, heroes, mentors or simply folks whose work inspires you. Set up a private group to discuss the collaboration rules and requirements. Just do it.

You never know who you will become friends with. I genuinely have made some great connections from the groups I’m in. Don’t do it to try to grab fame…people can tell who the team players are. Do it for the love of the theme and the love of creating something that YOU chose. That will be its own reward.

IMG_4041.JPG

Video Killed the Radio Star

I remember the 80s when MTV debuted. It was huge. People sat for hours on couches watching videos. We didn’t turn on our radios. We didn’t play our albums. We got sucked into the video world. Radio began to feel the pinch. Advertisers switched to video channels. We put aside our imaginations about what a song should mean and we took the given video version of a song as gospel. A great video could make a bad song a hit. A bad video or (gasp) no video for a song meant that it did not make money.

Lately, I have been receiving a lot of messages about the online world of cake decorating. Some sing praises. Some hate it. Some think that people are being led astray. As with most things, there is truth in all of it.

Theory: online classes are hurting in person classes
Reality: true.

The advent of classes by Craftsy and all of the other online classes has been greeted with open pocketbooks and joy from decorators world wide. The simple truth is that many young decorators could not afford to take in person classes, nor could they afford the time and expense of traveling to do so. The online classes let someone gain exposure to techniques, instructors and methods that they would not receive without such courses.

Meanwhile, some folks who normally would travel to take a class now decide to stay home and “study”. They cannot justify taking a class with the big name instructor when they can get that person’s knowledge on their iPad for $20 or so. Can you blame them? It is this group of folks who are not taking in person classes.

There is a group of decorators with a huge stash of online classes, who also take all the in person classes they can. Every time a teacher posts pictures from class, I count how many folks attended. The numbers, for all teachers, have been steadily dropping. The teachers blame the video groups. The students blame the rising costs of the classes. The truth is, both. Some classes are probably priced too high. Some online sales are impacting the in person classes.

For my own experience, I have not filmed with any of the online schools. If you want to study with me, you must do it in person right now. While I have experienced low numbers in some places, I am finding that my student counts are climbing. Why? Because I have held my prices. Because I supply everything. Because I constantly come up with new classes. In short, because I am doing my job as a teacher. I am seeing numbers start to climb for other teachers, too. It doesn’t seem to matter if they have videos nearly as much as it does if they give a good price on a new or different project.

Theory: free tutorials and videos are worthless
Reality: sometimes

Oh, how I cringe when I see someone advertise a free or nearly free tutorial for something that is, quite bluntly, done wrong. It would not pass muster at a cake show and would be blasted at certification testing. Unfortunately, there are no restrictions for someone to put out a tutorial or video. Anyone can do it. Many “anyone”s are. I want so badly to tell people not to believe everything they see. Not to pay. Not to follow these folks. But I say nothing.

Why? Because I honestly think that people will think it is sour grapes…that I am afraid of losing students or something. I worry that I will get pulled into one of those online drama battles I see too frequently. No, thank you.

In this instance, I think it should be Buyer Beware. If you get something for free, you should expect that value to be worth just that. While sometimes it will be like Liz Marek’s recipes and be worth more than you can imagine…I think those instances are rare. Some of the bloggers out there legitimately want to help their fellow decorators. I find those easy to spot. Some are simply trying to gain fame. I find most of those equally easy to spot.

In a recent blog, I talked about folks who watch decorator Darla’s online class or attend her class, then make their own tutorial for sale based on Decorator Darla’s work. A new decorator asked how the newbies can know who to trust. What an excellent and perplexing question. I forget that you guys haven’t been doing this as long as me. I forget that you don’t know the folks on the teaching circuit. I recommend that you take a look at the ICES Approved Teachers list. Here you will find the well respected, internationally known and proven teachers. The list doesn’t cover everyone, but it is an excellent place to start.

Do a little research on those names. You will be impressed with what many of these people have done. They are the foundation of our industry. Then look to see who teaches at the major mini class events in the US. There is a strict screening process for those. If someone teaches there, you KNOW they know their stuff.

Does this mean that new folks cannot be trusted? Of course not. It only means that you need to do your OWN research on them. They have not been vetted by ICES or Cake Camp or whomever. There are some newer decorators that I think are outstanding teachers and demonstrators. There are some who are great artists, but have not learned how to TEACH effectively yet. Teaching is a developed skill just like decorating. One does not beget the other.

Theory: online classes teach as well as in person classes
Reality: false

I wish this could be true, but it just cannot be. The online instructor is speaking to a camera and a producer. They cannot see you furrow your brow when you do not understand. They cannot see you hold the piping bag at the wrong angle. They cannot talk you out of beating yourself up when your first attempt doesn’t look like theirs.

They can be excellent sources of information. I think of them like a documentary, explaining and showing all the process behind a project or technique. You can chat with someone, through the chat portal, but it will never replace live interaction with that teacher.

They are not, however, bad. The videos serve a valuable purpose for our industry. They expose people to numerous aspects of sugar art. It is likely that you might not try something but for that video. They help the person miles from classes learn…just not to the full potential possible. I am glad that people have this resource, but want everyone to understand that watching something is not the same as doing it.

Watching the Emmys the other night, Seth Meyers said that tv was like the late night booty call whereas movies were the dates. What?? He said that tv was available any hour. Movies, you had to plan to get to the theater at a certain time. They are very different experiences.

Online cake videos certainly are the late night booty call of decorating. You can be in your pjs at 3 am, stuck on a technique and can visit your friendly decorator through their online class or YouTube tutorial. How glorious ! The videos don’t judge you for being a procrastibaker. They just give you information.

Final Thoughts

Online classes are not a bad thing. While they are impacting in person classes today, I think that their use will fade over time and people will go back to studying with live teachers.

I think we are blessed in this industry to have so many options for learning. I think that the cream of the teachers will rise to the top and they will survive every new challenge. A great teacher is a great teacher, whether in an article , in a video, in a book or in person.

IMG_6831.JPG

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.

IMG_2175 copy 2.jpg