Me: "Hi Cameron!"
Him: "Hi, Addie Keh-yee."
Me: "What kind of cake would you like for your birthday?"
Him: "Ummm...trad-far-er cake." (His mother translated for me: TRANSFORMERS CAKE)
Me: "A Transformers cake!? Ok. Which Transformer do you want?"
Me: "Ok, and what flavor cake do you want?"
Him: "Buh-ul-bee!" (Hmmm, I thought, time to change tactics)
Me: "Chocolate or vanilla Bumblebee cake?"
Him: "Chaw-lit. Bye bye!"
The follow up confirmation took place a few days before his birthday in which he confirmed that he definitely wanted a "chaw-lit trad-farmer cake bum-bul-bee cake" (his enunciation got better on it). I got a kick out of the fact that in his head they were two different cakes. And even better was that his older sister Madeleine was very concerned about his cake and ALSO confirmed with me that I was, indeed, going to bring a Transformers Bumblebee cake for her little brother. Here is how it turned out:
Photo by Anthony Marino of Austin Area Photo
This is probably to date the most complicated cake I have done and yet it is very simple. I'm not entirely thrilled with it (I am a perfectionist), but I have to admit, for a three year old's birthday, this was pretty effing cool! And most importantly, Cameron LOVED it. In fact, if you look very closely on Bumblebee's right cheek, you will see a pockmark caused by Cameron's finger when he touched it in amazement. He practically hugged the damn thing, he was so enamored and that made it pretty darn near perfect in my book.
In case someone would like to duplicate something like this, here is my advice:
1. Decide on your approach and design. One of the things I do when researching a character cake is a Google image search for other cakes on that character. A character cake can be 2D or 3D and looking at other cakes helps me decide which approach I want to take. Do I have the materials needed to create a 3D approach? Given my time constraints and the cake recipient's request, what could I accomplish? What might be the hardest part? The easiest? What colors or other materials have other bakers used? How can I take a design I like and make it my own? These questions are very important and need to be answered before I begin construction. I also find inspiration and may like an element of what someone did, which I might incorporate into the design or even into a different cake down the road. Copying another baker's design is not a bad thing when you're starting out. It's a powerful learning tool in developing your design skills as well as helping you to learn what happens in the creative process and how to engineer other cakes down the road. If you do copy someone's idea, make sure to give credit where credit it due!
2. Know your subject well and study them from all angles. Once I've looked at other cakes to determine the approach, I then search for images of my subject matter. I try to find large hi-resolution pictures that feature the subject from every angle so I don't miss any details and can create as similar a reproduction as possible. For Bumblebee, I pulled movie stills, concept art, costume and toy pictures, and even images of vintage cartoon Bumblebee. From these I was able to flesh out a basic shape that made me ultimately decide to use the soccer ball pan (see #4). I also used the images to create a 3D skull model of approximate size out of paper. I cut the individual pieces out to mimic his facial features and then used them like you would a sewing pattern with the fondant.
3. Set up a timeline. I can bake a simple layer cake and decorate it in about three hours (that includes baking and cooling time; actual hands on time is closer to about 1 hour), but a sculpted cake has a lot of steps that need to be taken into consideration–baking, cooling, carving, crumb coating, fondant coloring, decorating, etc. And if you're a busy gal like me what with my job, my busy social life, AND being Super Mom, you need to make sure that you leave enough time to complete everything. My suggestion is to make a list of everything that needs to be done, from gathering ingredients to cooling, to dyeing fondant, etc and then determine what you can do during some of the downtime. For example, while my cake is baking, I am mixing up the icing and dyeing fondant. And I always bake the night before the cake is required after my daughter goes to bed so that I am uninterrupted in that time. Figure out what works best with your schedule and ALWAYS give yourself more time than you think you need; if you end up having extra time, you can clean the kitchen or the house!
4. Choose the right pan(s). I chose the Wilton soccer ball pan which resulted in very little carving to create a more skull like appearance. I don't normally buy character pans or specialty pans, but a dome shape is a great shape to start with for many different designs and a true dome is hard to carve. Also, the more you have to carve off means less cake to go around which could result in additional baking and given Tip #3...well, let's just say it pays to be proactive instead of reactive in all things, even baking! So how do you choose the right pan? Well, I think of everything in basic shapes: cylinder, square, cube, circle, rectangle, sphere, etc. If the final product that I am creating can be fit into one of those shapes, then I look through my pans for something that will come the closest to fitting it and go from there.
5. It's all about the details. Granted, I have an art background and years of theatre set work and costume design that give me an upper edge here, but the thing that sets a great cake apart from the so-so is the amount of detail you put into it. If you look at Bumblebee's face, you'll notice that I tried to distress different parts to create a battle worn look. Bumblebee may be a shiny, spiffed up re-designed 2009 Chevy Camaro when he's not transformed, but when he changes to his humanoid shape you notice the nicks, scratches, dings, and dents that he's gathered from years of fighting the Decepticons (and yes, I realize I just revealed the extent of my nerdiness). Using my fondant coloring and a bit of vodka I created a color wash that I then sponged on with a paper towel. I also didn't worry about the cracks that the fondant got from drying out too soon as they added patina and character and I didn't sweat it when Cameron added his own touch (pun fully intended, ha!). Details are incredibly important to any design and you should always ask yourself what you can add. Just don't go overboard with the details! If you find yourself asking what constitutes too much, head over to Cake Wrecks (I've linked to it in the sidebar) and you can see for yourself.
Lastly, all I can tell you is to keep practicing. I admit, there are lots of way in which I could have made this design better, but that's part of the learning process. Just like everything else in life, you have to work hard to get what you want. As gifted as I am in baking and sugar arts, there will always be challenges and things for me to learn, so I keep trying and trying until I feel satisfied and then try some more. Good luck and should you ever want some guidance, feel free to contact me!