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)


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.

Here is a video which summarizes the process of the making of the SAIT Centennial cake:

(Footage by SAIT)

Feel free to check out my other writings as an educator at

Royal Icing Practice

Royal Icing Flooding 02 Lambeth Technique 03 Piping 04 Lambeth 05 Cake Piping 06 Stringwork 07 Royal Icing Stringwork 08 Lambeth Piping 09 Lambeth Method 10 Royal Icing Lacework 11 Royal Icing Lace 12 Royal Icing 13 Australian Stringwork 14 Royal Icing 15 English Overpiping 16 Royal Icing Cake

“But all things must have a beginning, and the student who is about to embark on a career of icing and piping must study well the aspect of his own fitness for the work, his adaptability, his will to overcome obstacles, and his willingness to practice.” (Nirvana, 1953, pg. 1)

Edible Photograph Wedding Cake

(A project from Fall 2012…)

I like to say that cake is not always just cake.

It’s a symbol of the achievements of people and the relationships that we have with each other. It’s a tangible, and edible, representation of love & appreciation.

In my adventures in cake, I’ve been blessed to be part of these celebrations. This is no exception.

There is a special story behind this cake. A few years ago I made a Nikon D300 DSLR camera cake for the most amazing couple, as a special surprise birthday gift to him from her. This camera cake quickly became one of the most talked about cakes I have ever created.

I was overjoyed that not too long after, they were engaged! As a photography enthusiast, the goal for me was to create a wedding cake that featured their photos – personal photos that captured the spirit of their relationship and the special moments in their lives:

Edible Photo Wedding Cake Edible Photograph Wedding CakeCreating the look of this cake…

The plaque was cut out craft knife and template as a guide. It was then hand painted using a paintbrush:

Just Married Cake

Wedding Cake Topper

Tape was created using beige-coloured gumpaste, by rolling it out thinly, then “tearing” the edges.

Blue, red and white tacks were hand-shaped out of modelling chocolate:

Edible Photo Cake

The images were created by using a computer printer and food colouring ink to print on edible image paper. Each image was then cut out, then attached to a thin sheet of edible sugar gumpaste.

This is one of my favorite photos:

Edible Image Wedding Cake

I had the pleasure of seeing the cake cut, and was delighted when a little boy kept coming up to the table to pick up slices for his table. He was sure to pick up the slices with the edible images.

He knew that they were special.

(Congratulations to Erin & Tyler! May you enjoy many countless years of happiness together!)

Tips: How to Make & Carve a Sphere Ball Cake

I am fascinated by spheres. I find the shape of a sphere ball cake not only puzzling, but eye-pleasing.

A modified sphere shape used in a jack o’lantern cake:

Jack O'Lantern Cake

As a very angry, irate, bird:

Angry Birds Cake

In a global cake:

Globe Earth Cake

Another example in a modern chocolate cake:

Modern Chocolate Cake

Tips & Tricks


The issue arises when a sphere is carved out of all cake, the bottom of the cake sinks and compresses due to lack of support from the inward curve:

Sphere Cake How To

This results in gravity compressing the bottom few inches of the cake over time. The bottom of the cake or fondant may bulge and/or ripple.

The secret is to construct the bottom 1/2 to 1/4 out of material other than cake. This can include a number of materials. Most commonly used are rice cereal treats, modelling chocolate, or polystyrene foam.

A similar concept is used here in the building of a cylinder shaped cake, used here as a camera lens in a cake. Here the side of a fondant bucket was used in the bottom 1/4, to allow for maximum cake content:

Cylinder Camera Lens Cake

It is also possible to create the look of a sphere using all cake. This can be done creating only the top 3/4 of a sphere, and having a flat base. Another option is to use a heavy dense cake.


For carving itself, I prefer to carve from  sheets or rounds of cake, as they bake evenly, however ball cake pans do exist.

Here is an excellent tutorial on carving a sphere out of ice. The same concept applies for cake – start with cylinder shape as tall as it is wide, then round the shape from all angles. Another tip I have learned is to use a half circle (negative) template as a guide.


The greatest challenge is covering a sphere cake in fondant. To give plenty of fondant to work with, if my sphere is 8 inches tall, I roll out my fondant in a circle to at least 16 inches wide. About 1/3 of this fondant will be cut away at the bottom.

Considerable excess fondant will gather around the base. From my own struggles, I have learned to pinch and cut away excess fondant using scissors, then blend in seams.

Another option is to divide the job in two, by splitting into a front and back section, then blending the seams.


For more details about cake sculpting, the book “Cake Sculpture and Sculptered Figure Piping” by the amazing Roland Winbeckler helped me. This book contains practical directions on building internal cake structures, plus lots of detailed information on sculpting with buttercream. Also, the phenomenal Mike McCarey has specialized class events on cake sculpting.

And if you share my fascination with spheres, you might also enjoy the art of the dorodango mud ball. I made one once. It was neat.

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 “” 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”

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. 😉

SAIT Culinary Campus Display Showpiece

The SAIT Culinary Campus, downtown Calgary Alberta, is an amazing new place, focused  on education & entertainment through cooking and baking.

The campus is open to the public.

You can purchase lunch meals and delicious pastries here, participate in group and team building events, or take educational cooking classes and baking classes.

I had the amazing opportunity to create the showpiece in celebration of the opening of the campus:

SAIT Culinary Food Cake
3D Food CakeSAIT Culinary CampusSculpted Food CakeSchool CakeThis showpiece measured over four feet tall. It was hand sculpted, covered in fondant, then airbrushed and painted. It took about 30-40 hours of labour to create.

The Culinary Campus is located on the 2nd floor of the Scotia Centre (226, 230 – 8th Ave SW, Calgary AB).

To see the upcoming baking-related classes held downtown, check out their website.

I hope you will find the opportunity to enjoy the new campus!

SAIT Cooking School

SAIT Baking School

Cool Cakes

Here are some cool cake projects as of recently! It is the season of celebrating the people we love & the things that they love about life!

Book Cake

Maria loves writing! In this cake, each line of the page is individually marked using a ruler and the back of a paring knife, then pages airbrushed. The letters on the pages are hand painted using food colouring and a fine-tipped paintbrush. The ink jar is sculpted from modelling chocolate, and the feather from gumpaste:

Book CakeGumpaste Feather

Open Book Cake

Edible FigureGumpaste Figure

iPad Cake

Elma loves her iPad! In this cake, the iPad is made from a hard chocolate interior, which was then covered in gumpaste. Scrabble is one of her favorite games, so they kindly sent an image with the message written as the Scrabble letters. The image was then printed onto edible photo paper, using food colouring. The cake is covered in lime green fondant, the same colour as Elma’s case:

Edible iPad
Chocolate iPadiPad Cake

First Birthday Cake

It’s Tristan’s first birthday! The ball is sculpted out of cake – layers of cake are stacked, then carved from all angles to form a ball. The number one is made using modelling chocolate and gumpaste. The “torn” pieces of fondant were attached after, and blended in:

First Birthday Cake
Ball Cake

Cowboy Boot Cake

And last but not least, Erin loves shoes! Here are photos of the original boot, used as a reference. The embroidery on the boot was created using piped royal icing and the brush embroidery technique, then hand-painted using various shades of royal blue.  The stitching along the seams was created using a quilting tool:

Cowboy Boot CakeShoe Cake

How to cut cakeCake Slice