The SAIT 100th Birthday Cake

I realized long ago that in the hospitality industry we are not here just to deliver the cake, dessert, or food – we deliver happiness. It’s not about the cake, it’s about the experience. And in this case, the people which make the experience happen!

I’m aware it has been a long time since I have posted. The reason is I have been submerged in my dream job – teaching full time as a baking & pastry instructor at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT), the same college which I graduated from over 10 years ago.

As we near the end of the year, I tend to self-reflect. Here I wish to share with you one of the most meaningful cakes I had the opportunity to be a part of last year – the SAIT Centennial 100th birthday cake.

This cake project involved:

  • 70+ volunteers; including students, instructors, and community & industry members
  • 14 tiers, with a total height of 7+ feet tall
  • Serving 2000+ people from this cake & side serving cakes
  • An estimated weight of 350+lb in the centre ‘tower’ of cake
  • An overall weight of approximately 640+ lbs including the front sheet and back mountain sections

Planning to Make a Big Cake

There have definitely been cakes I’ve made without planning. But when others are involved, I believe it really helps to have a tangible (a.k.a. written or visual) plan. To me, a plan is a way of communicating ideas and actions to others, instead of it all staying inside my head. For a cake, this is usually in the form of sketches, reference photos, schedules, and to-do lists.

For me, the process of planning for a large cake usually involves:

  1. Identifying the parameters
  2. Collecting all relevant ideas and references.
  3. Drawing the initial sketch, followed by refinements and design approval.
  4. Creating a to-scale diagram or in this case, cardboard model. I cannot emphasize the importance of this!

In regards to the parameters, I had to first determine the purpose of the project. I was torn between exclusiveness versus inclusiveness – was it better to work with a small group of highly skilled volunteers or a larger group of volunteers with varying skills levels? I tried to pinpoint the purpose and essence of this cake, all while battling my ego. In interacting with the SAIT party planning team, and learning about the views of SAIT, two themes started to stand out to me – friendliness & collaboration. I decided to allow anyone to help with the cake and started welcoming any volunteers who were interested.

Early in the year, we started collecting ideas for the cake. We sent out a message out to all the staff and faculty of SAIT asking for what they would like to see on their Centennial Cake, and got some great ideas representing the different trades and technologies at SAIT. I think one of my favourite ideas was a superhero in a cape called the Learning Man.

After, I held a planning session with interested past and present baking students. I’m not sure if was because of the method, or because of the people, but the ideas were very different from those collected from staff & faculty. They were immensely creative ideas, clearly from a student’s perspective, such as students enjoying treats such as Tim Horton’s coffee & lying in the grass eating chocolate bars, or students launching candles at the cake using a candle cannon.

I did notice many ideas, whether from staff or students, had one thing in common – they involved people. At first, I had difficulty welcoming this. People in the form of edible sugar figures are notoriously difficult and time consuming to make. But the number of volunteers interested in helping with the cake grew, and soon I realized this was perfect. The detail and number of figures could easily be adjusted to the number of volunteers and their skill level.

I believe if it can work on paper, it can work in person. The initial sketch is always a rough one for me, often happening late at night in a spontaneous and creative manner, with the main focus being the overall shape or “feel” of the cake. From there, refinement happens as specific ideas are incorporated and the sketch is shown to others for input and approval.

The very first sketch, in blue ink.

One of many refined sketches, after specific details are added.

I believe the more accurately the end goal can be visualized, the easier it is to work towards. Thus came the life-sized sketch, then cardboard model. This made many things easier to figure out, such as the:

  • size and number of figures needed
  • the height of the internal structure
  • the overall height of the cake
  • width and height of each cake board
  • width and height of each tier
  • how much cake to bake

It also made great visuals for everyone involved!

I like to challenge myself and wanted to make this the tallest cake I have ever made. In the initial brainstorming, I was confident I could make a cake upwards of 20 feet tall, and there was a very real conversation exploring the use of scaffolding and a bucket truck, which I soon realized was beyond the scope of the parameters. Shortly after I scaled things back after determining these limits, which was a good thing as I can be known to get carried away. 😊 One of my philosophies is to dream big – don’t just reach for the stars, reach for the galaxies; and if I land partway there, I’m happy.

Did you know 80″ doors and 10 foot PVC can fit in a Toyota Corolla?

Fellow instructors helping with the cake board. Here pieces of wood are added to the bottom of the board as a footing to make it easier to lift if there is weight on top.

My focus was still to create an emotional impact, a.k.a. wow factor. To me, a wow factor is about creating a memorable feeling of a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I felt the cake needed to have enough presence to suit the large hall it would be displayed and decided to increase the size of the cake design at least twice. With the replica, I felt the wow factor was reached when it was tall enough to tilt my head back to view it.

Starting with Dry Decorations

I learned quickly to adapt to the availability and schedules of others – it was their time which determined what would get done each day. It was interesting to learn about how unpredictable and last-minute everyone’s lives were, with many not knowing where they had to be until the day of.

What also surprised me was my loss of creativity. This was due to my thoughts consumed by planning, coordination and time management. As a naturally creative person, this was hard. It felt like the creative part of my brain shut off. I had to focus on organizing work and rely on others to develop the creative ideas.

I had to accept it was not my job to be a technician, but to be the project manager. There was no other person better suited for this. Every minute I spent working on the details of the cake was a minute I could be coordinating the work to someone else. This was a challenge as I often felt in my life that I am a technician. My skill is what got me here, and skill is what I can always fall back on. I had to learn that my purpose was to pass on skills to the students and volunteers by allowing them to do the work. And the more work I delegated to others, and the more I stepped back, the more meaningful the project became.

An excellent idea contributed was to have a hundred figures because it was a hundredth birthday. Making the figures was probably the most time-consuming. For consistency, I created polymer clay figures which were then cast into a re-meltable mold making medium. Our team of volunteers would then use these molds to create the bodies, then dressing them as needed. And what really gave a sense of diversity were the hair different styles! By the end of the summer, we had well over a hundred dried sugar figures, tucked away safely in airtight storage.

My buddy. Made of polymer clay.

The first trial of the custom mold, made using a product called Composi-Mold.

Linnea Neels, figure making extraordinaire!

Amethyst Thompson & Nicole Padley, fellow members of the hair & accessory team among many other things!

Ekaterina creating a miniature version of the cake!

SAIT President, Dr. David Ross.

Kim Hambley creating figures.

Leading up to the Day of the Event

Most elements of this cake were built on previous experience from cakes I had done before, such as the globe, mountains, topsy-turvy shape, large sheets of cake, buildings, and figures. There were however definitely risks involved, such as the use of electronics and being the tallest & heaviest cake I had ever been a part of.

As we neared the day of the event and things began to build together, I had one frazzled weekend where the weight of the cake far exceeded what I had first planned, and I questioned the stability of the cake boards. We found ourselves stacking multiple bags of flour on top of the boards to observe if they would collapse. Luckily, they only compressed about 1mm, even with about 500lbs stacked on top overnight.

Sometimes there is too much cake in the cooler to get out & one has to compromise.

Rebekka and Vicky doing a dry run of the stacking. This is where we realized things were getting heavy.

After weighing the tiers we could, and estimating the rest, we realized the centre tower of tiers was over 350lbs, and the overall cake weighed over 640lbs!

Testing to see if our cake boards would compress or not.

Moving forward with the world.

The to-do list looking a little chaotic leading up to the event.

The night before, Rob Hambley, among many others, starting to place figures on the cake. This was a late night.

I was so happy on the day of the event – most of the planning paid off. Everything fit together like a streamlined puzzle. Asides from a few small decorations falling, nothing major fell down and nothing melted.

Madison Nussbaum, Amethyst & Rebekka helping to assemble the cake, among many others.

Surrounded by some incredible individuals here. This is only a fraction of those who helped with the cake.

(Photograph courtesy Rebekka Lenz)

(Photograph courtesy Rebekka Lenz)

The cake had a strong presence. It was a clear collaboration. There was the smell of buttercream and cake. It looked like a balancing act. There were small delightful details for the crowd to discover, such as miniature slices of cake enjoyed by the figures, or the school’s mascot. I was thrilled all the electronics worked, such as the light for the candle, switchboard, and the spotlight for the mayor. The Learning Man, and Learning Woman were there. And the cake was of a height where you had to tilt your head up to take it all in.

(The above four photographs are courtesy of Rebekka Lenz)

As always, my favourite part was to see the cake get dismantled, cut up, and served. Not only did people get to see the cake, they got to eat it. And many children enjoyed the 100+ sugary figures.

(Footage courtesy Nolan Moskaluk)

Reflection

What were the proudest parts of this project for me? I estimate I worked on less than 5% of the actual cake and decorations. What I did on cake included:

  • modelling & baking the polymer clay figures used for casting the molds
  • creating the faces for the figures of the SAIT president, executive team and a few other special requests
  • smoothing the buttercream on the Heritage Hall and Aldred buildings,
  • assembling the internal structure for the top three tiers & touch ups for these tiers

I was also pleased that no styrofoam used in the making of this cake, however, some of the bottom tiers contained rice cereal treats – making it a truly heavy cake.

Most of all, my proudest part was my ability to trust a group of volunteers to make this cake from start to finish, ending with assembling the cake, final decorations and serving the cake. They had it handled, they knew what had to be done. I didn’t even have to be there, which is exactly what I wanted. I wanted it to be their experience, their day, not mine.

I am glad I to decided to welcome as many volunteers as possible. Not only did this disperse the workload (especially with so many unpredictable schedules), each person helped create more conversation about the cake, sharing their story of their involvement with others.

I learned deeply about myself and my weaknesses: I don’t always respect my own time, I doubt myself, and I often feel grossly unorganized. On the other hand, I learned about my strengths: I remember details about people, I adapt according to needs, and I consider myself compassionate.

I noticed some areas of improvement in planning, management, and communication on my behalf. This project taught me to be a better team lead and the importance of clearly communicating my expectations. There was no one to do quality control other than myself. On the day of the event I think I could have been more prepared for the publicity; managed the serving of the cake in a more streamlined way; and been more intuitive in delegating, especially as the energies of the team and myself became depleted later on in the evening.

This cake taught me to predict the unexpected. I didn’t know who would sign up, who would pull through, or that I would even have this task. Sometimes in my mind, I plan things to go one way, and then they take on a life of its own and evolve to become completely different. Many students surprised me with their drive and capacity, with often matched or exceeded my own.

I maintain my belief it is people who create meaning in this world. Being in the hospitality (and now, education) industry I am in essence, servicing people. This cake was representing the people of SAIT, made by the people of SAIT, to feed the people of SAIT.

After the cake was done I was often asked if I was happy it’s over. If anything, I was sad. Having a large project in my life has been my status quo. I missed the one-on-one interactions, the thrill of doing something different, and missed working collectively together to reach a common goal.

But I know from experience it’s necessary to take these breaks between projects to rejuvenate and step away and to miss them, yearn for them, so I remember why I love the things I love. What the next project will be, who knows, but I know it will be easier with the experience gained from this cake.

Feel free to check out my other writings as an educator at ingredientsforlearning.wordpress.com.

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The New World of Cake Decorating

Recently cake decorators all over the world have been creating and sharing free cake tutorials, photographs, and information online using a variety methods. These are the top sharing methods I currently see:

1. Cake Decorating Tutorials on Pintrest

Pintrest has been fast exploding with collections of cake decorating photo tutorials, allowing users to group, or “pin,” these photos onto a shared board. The photos are either hosted on an outside website/blog, or they have been uploaded by the user.

I welcome users to pin my work.

Examples of some popular boards on Pintrest:

2. YouTube

YouTube allows users to upload videos, allowing the audience to visually see cake decorating techniques. The quantity of cake decorating videos has increased substantially.

While videos are not necessarily grouped, the YouTube experience rather takes you on an adventure of video browsing by following recommended or suggested videos or channels.

3. Discussion Forums

Discussion forums are a great place to ask open ended questions. Users reply with their own personal experiences or opinions.

Anyone can ask and find the answer to any cake decorating question. My favorite discussion forums are at CakeCentral.

Tip: Instead of searching within the website, you can easily use Google to search within a website by adding “site:url.com” to the end of your search query.

For example, if I wished to find out how to make fondant shiny, but wished to search the CakeCentral website without going through the pages of the site, I would type into Google: “how shiny fondant site:cakecentral.com”

Final Notes

Because of open sharing, the skills of the cake decorating community has grown together as a whole. This is not limited to just cake decorators, but all other interest groups. I hope that the net will be used as a tool to make our world a better place, by becoming a representation of shared knowledge and wealth. I foresee people creating more quality, concise content, and by doing so with intent.

Remember, just because it isn’t online, doesn’t meant it didn’t happen. Although great to look at, it’s hard to eat cake through a computer screen. 😉

Royal Icing Victorian Style Cake

Royal Icing CakeVictorian Style CakeFine Piping on CakeVictorian CakeRoyal Icing Piping on CakeVictorian Lambeth Style CakeCake Piping DecorationPiping on Cake
In my eternal study of cake decorating, my latest obsession involves delving into the history and beginning of cake.

So far I have learned that it began in the ages of kings and queens – from this I realize where the name “royal” icing must have come from. Before fondant and before soft buttercream icings, fruit cake was covered in royal icing, a simple mixture of two ingredients: icing sugar and egg whites. And with such a pure & simple medium, I am amazed that so much can be created with it!

The practice dummy was first iced in several thin layers of royal icing, allowing it to dry hard in between. 3-4 layers were needed to coat the cake. To decorate this, no molds were used here – just simple piping with a piping tube and some tips. The borders and lattice are built up with several layers of piping on top of each other, allowing the layers to dry in between.

Marian was the one I went to learn the secrets of royal icing – and she graciously shared her amazing skills and techniques. For that I owe her a forever thank you.

I’m very grateful for all the cake decorators I have had a chance to meet, whether they be beginners, professionals, or hobbyists – I find that these are all people of kind hearts and of giving and they have taught me so much. Cake & life is about sharing after all, and the people and cake decorators I meet really get it. I want to keep this as a keepsake piece as a reminder for me that the foundation of cake decorating is not necessarily just technique, but also the generosity of people in passing that technique on.

Making Gumpaste Sugar Orchids

I’ve been practicing lately. Sugar flowers that is. The last time I even attempted gumpaste sugar flowers was nearly four years ago in Baking and Pastry Arts school at SAIT.

The perfect opportunity came up for me to get back into it again. And it was also an opportunity to test out the new camera!

Gumpaste Sugar Orchid

Gumpaste Sugar Orchid

Gumpaste Sugar Orchid

Gumpaste Sugar Orchid

Gumpaste Sugar Orchid

Gumpaste Sugar Orchid

Gumpaste Sugar Orchid

Gumpaste is an edible cake decorating medium, similar to fondant. It is mostly made out of icing sugar, binding agents (such as corn syrup or egg whites), and vegetable gums (hence the word “Gum.”) To difference between gumpaste and fondant is that gumpaste can be rolled incredibly thin, and I mean really  thin. Think see-through-paper-thin. It also tends to dry hard and brittle, which can be very visually appealing, yet so fragile.

It takes a certain mindset to get into the groove of making sugar flowers. I compare it to the same attention-to-detail mindset one would need when cross stitching. It was also a great chance to get together with the girls, as each one of us worked on different parts of the flower. I think I’ll have to adjust the colour of them to be a bit more purply, but I’m pretty happy with the overall feel of them.

What I really love about making gumpaste flowers is the process of taking very basic materials and turning them into something that can be so pretty.

It’s like re-creating nature.

Gumpaste Sugar Orchid

What do you think? Does it look like the real thing?

Boston Cream Pie

In light of the Stanley Cup last week, I am very grateful to have the recent opportunity to create an over-sized Boston cream pie!

It was a special request for a very kind friend of ours that wanted to spread the joy of the hockey playoffs with both the Vancouver Canucks and Boston Bruins fans. (And I still can’t believe the four goals in the 1st four minutes!)

The Boston cream pie turned out to be 16″ in diameter, and was decorated with a hand-cut Canucks logo.

Boston Cream Pie

Boston Cream Pie

Boston Cream Pie

So what is a Boston cream pie exactly? Well it turns out it’s not a pie at all, but a cake.

Traditionally, Boston cream pie is white cake filled with a layer of pastry cream, then finished with a chocolate glaze on top. I used this  my favourite white cake recipe, this pastry cream recipe, as well as a ganache ratio of 1 part couverture chocolate by weight to 1 part heavy whipping cream by weight.

It was a simple dessert that I had fun putting together, and it brought back many memories of the projects we would create back in baking school. The cake went over so well, that he requested a second cake two days later in order to continue spreading the tongue-in-cheek “joy”. 😉


The Next Great Baker – new TV cake show on TLC – Review

Last night, I had a chance to watch the first episode of The Next Great Baker. The show is a fun spinoff of Cake Boss, where a group of cake decorators compete for the title of The Next Great Baker – along with a $50,000 prize and the opportunity to work alongside Buddy.

The show follows a similar format as other reality TV shows such as Top Chef, or Project Runway. The bakers/decorators are faced with challenges which they must complete in a limited time frame, and then are judged by Buddy and his team. A contestant is eliminated weekly.

It is a fast paced show that pushes the contestants to their limits, full of intense cake disasters major cake successes.

The Next Great Baker also has many colourful personalities and talents.   Greggy Soriano from Cake Lush, the self proclaimed “Lady Gaga of cakes,” 😉 has some fabulous cakes definitely worth checking out.  I’m also rooting for Brian Stevens from Crazycakes, who specializes in blow-your-mind cakes, full of special effects such as smoke, fireworks and explosions – seriously exciting & inspiring cakes!

Can’t wait to see what happens next!

Ace of Cakes Last Season

Read the message from Duff himself here.

Ace of Cakes is airing it’s last season in January.

It’s one of my favourite cake shows of all time –  I consider it the pioneer of the many cake TV programs that we have today. I was sad the hear the news, but I know that all good things but come to an end – and Ace of Cakes has been around for many years now. In my opinion, Ace of Cakes was one of the things that was essential to skyrocketing the huge cake culture that we have growing today.

If you haven’t seen Ace of Cakes, you can still catch it on the Food Network. The show follows Duff Goldman(the “Ace”), and his bakery & team, Charm City Cakes, through the making of many spectacular cakes. You’ll like the show if you enjoy detailed cakes, mellow/cool vibes, dry humor, and the occasional cake pun.

To me, it feels a lot less scripted than many other shows, and it’s much more about the special story behind each cake.

Ace of Cakes airs on Thursdays 10:00 pm EST in Canada. Check out the Food Network Listings for additional times.