After a solid month of putting all my spare time into my competition cake, Pastry Live’s The Art of Cake competition is over! You may have already seen my finished piece on Instagram or Facebook, but for anyone who missed it, this was my piece:
I’m happy to say that I won 2nd place! Considering the insanely high standard of work I saw, I’m extremely honored by that. Now that it’s over, I’m going to dedicate my next few posts to outlining the process of competing in pastry, and specifically what I did to make my cake.
A bit of background on Pastry Live:
Pastry Live began in 2011, and is essentially a 3-day Pastry Chef event. There are many competitions (Sugar and Chocolate showpieces, Chocolatier of the Year, Plated Desserts, and of course Art of Cake), and people fly in from all over the country (and in more than a few cases, from outside of the country) to compete. Some of the best chefs in the world come to judge, compete or just experience the event. There are also tons of awesome seminars, product booths and more.
In short: I love Pastry Live.
It helps that the competitors are absolutely awesome. This was my third time competing, and my third time walking away with a huge smile on my face. There are no dirty looks or sly comments from the other competitors. Instead there is a TON of swapping tips and sharing techniques and compliments. Everyone is genuinely supportive. People were lending one another carts, helping others carry cakes, and just generally being super friendly. It’s truly a positive experience, which can’t be said for every competition. It’s no secret why: this attitude trickles from the top down. The organizers of this competition are fantastic people and foster an almost family-like environment. There’s a reason I make time to compete here when I’m not usually that into competitions.
With that bit of background, let’s get right into how I made the piece!
The absolute most important thing when competing is to plan thoroughly and adhere to the rules! Every competition is unique, and even if you put an amazing piece up, a broken rule or two can tank your points or even get you disqualified. Take it from someone who once accidentally worked on their piece outside of the designated finishing time: you want to be careful even when you’re stressed.
This particular competition had the following rules:
- Theme is “TOYS”
- Provide 1 sculpted showpiece cake, made either with real cake or styrofoam cake dummy (since the cakes would be displayed for multiple days at room temperature)
- Showpiece must be 36″ tall at minimum, and the base can be 24″ in diameter at maximum
- All visible surfaces must be covered in edible materials, heavy reliance on inedible materials inside of the structure will be penalized
- Must be a design that can realistically be sculpted out of real cake (should you use a dummy)
- 1 6″ round tasting cake must be provided
- Tasting cake must be realistic for a sculpted piece (i.e. no mousses, angel food cakes, entremets, etc.)
First and foremost, I sat down to make sketches and gather reference photos. I decided to interpret the theme in a very personal way, basing the entire design on the toys and fashion of my grandparents’ childhood in rural Germany. My first order of business was gathering up as many relevant family photos as I could. (I would post them with the faces showing, but I’m not sure how my grandparents and their siblings would feel about me putting their baby mugs on the internet, so they’re all heartheads for now!)
I also looked up general toy references for the period, but 90% of my cake design came from these photos! I also had a few conversations with my grandmother to pick her brain. Those talks resulted in a lot of cool details that ended up being very useful.
Next up I made a basic sketch. You’ll see there are some major differences from the finished product, which was somewhat planned. The sketch was there primarily as a reminder for the components I’d need, but the details were flexible.
I also sketched out a basic plan for my tasting cake. Just like the showpiece sketch, this was intended as a rough guide. The plan was essentially to transform the flavors present in my Gooseberry Baiser (Schwimmbadtorte) Cake into something more suited for stacking and decorating.
Once I finished sussing out what I had ahead of me, I created a loose schedule so I wouldn’t be surprised by a task and end up rushing at the last minute.
I started actively working on the piece about a month out.
DISCLAIMER: If this were a cake for a customer, I would have condensed the entire working time into a week or less (with the actual cake part only being added in the last couple of days). Since this is a competition and the piece wouldn’t be eaten, I was able to instead work on it in my spare time well in advance. I would not feed people month old gingerbread.
My very first order of business was figuring out the supports. I settled on a large wooden board (24″x24″) for the base, with two weight plates hidden inside to level out how much lighter the side with the sled would be than the side with the girl. This ended up being a very good call; the girl was still significantly heavier even with the plates under the sled. I can’t imagine how much worse that would have been without them!
For the girl’s body support, I used galvanized piping of various lengths, and flanges. I really just planned out where to cut the pipes based on standard proportions. That is, 6 heads tall at 7″ per head for a roughly 7-year-old child’s proportions. I considered PVC piping at first, but in addition to having iffy joints available, they had way too much flexibility. Since I was using a stiff chocolate for most decorations, I needed things to be very sturdy to prevent cracking.
When it came to actually putting this thing together, the Home Depot employee I asked for help kind of rescued me. I haven’t done much in the way of building pipe structures, so I was extremely grateful. What I ended up with was extremely sturdy and easy to work with.
My next order of business was baking the gingerbread for the sled. I used a very stiff, leavening-free recipe specifically suited for houses and showpieces. I made a paper template to test the design first, and then got to baking the (considerable amount of) pieces I’d need.
The gingerbread was pretty stiff on its own, so aside from a cake board under the main slab and some bubble tea straws in the bottom supports, I didn’t add anything inedible. Even those things were just a precaution; between the gingerbread and the royal icing I used to glue things it was plenty sturdy on its own.
I covered these pieces in royal icing as soon as possible to prevent the gingerbread absorbing moisture from the air. I then covered it in pastillage, which I textured with ridges and holes to give an “old wood” texture. I let it dry completely before sanding everything down to smooth out any unwanted imperfections.
At this point I had all the basic structures set to go, and it was time to begin properly sculpting! That’ll be in the next entry. Here’s a (terrifying) teaser: