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Wendy DeBord

Tales of a Cake Decorator

74 posts in this topic

I've enjoyed reading your many posts since you've joined us. You really intrigued me when you posted this:

"Doing cakes runs in my blood, I do it well, and I love to share the knowledge. I was taught by one of the best cake designers in the country (Mike McCarey of Mike's Amazing Cakes) and it's the least I can do to pass down the awesome "secrets" he showed me. I am so fortunate to have mentored under him. If I were there, Wendy, I could teach you how to do cakes so that they are stress and worry free."

Any chance I could get you to show us some of your work and or share some of those tips? How long did you mentor with Mike? Did you study formally anywhere else or with anyone else? Is there any thing that stands out in your head that you've learned to be a shortcut or easier way of doing something then whats traditionally known...that you could share?

I've played played around doing cakes upside down on acetate to acheive a perfect shape. I've read of people that use paper towels to smooth sides. I now use a trowel as my spatula and find that it's much quicker then any other utensil I've tried. What do you like?

Other decorators out there--unite! Feel free to join in on eG.

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:hmmm: So I had to do a little "name dropping" to get a little respect, eh? Well, whatever works I guess! :raz:

Like I said, although I went to culinary/pastry school for two years (and graduated), my learning experience with Mike McCarey was probably the most valuable. It was the best (and the worst) time in my career. I won't talk about the "worst" part.....too personal. I worked with him for about 2 years. He hired me as the grunt to help him and his assistant John Auburn during a very busy wedding season. That August, the three of us worked our butts off to crank out more than 100 elaborate wedding cakes. That was in 1991. After he and John butted heads more than once with the clueless owner of the shop and he fired them, they opened up their own shop (just down the street) and that was the beginning of Mike's Amazing Cakes. I stayed behind at the old shop and took over as pastry chef there. Mike, formerly my mentor, became my chief competition. Lots of gossip and politics (and a lawsuit) between the two shops. Basically I was thrown to the wolves. I had only watched Mike do most of the difficult and elaborate cakes (he relegated the easier stuff to John and I since we were the "grunts"), and I had really never done any kind of sculpted work by myself.

But here I was, the only person left in the shop who knew anything about it, so I had to manage as best I could. It was like being a medical student in a war zone. If I didn't just "buck up" and DO it.....I would have had many cake "casualties"! I hired in two "grunts" of my own and immersed myself in specialty cakes for 2 years. I finally had to leave that shop because of burnout. Two solid years with an average 16 hour day 6 days a week takes its toll eventually.

I spent the next few years baking bread and breakfast pastries at a neighborhood bakery.....I

didn't care if I never saw another cake again! Eventually, I "recovered" and got back to it. Can't stay away.......it's in my blood sor sure! But now my workload is manageable because I manage it. I no longer work for other people doing cakes.....too easy to get screwed....believe me, I know. It's my own business now.

A lot of the "secrets" that I know aren't really secrets at all. But the more I read here, the more I find that there's a lot of myths and misinformation that some people subscribe to. If I see that someone is unduly stressing about something or doing something the "hard" way...I jump right in and make a suggestion....I like to help. On the other side, there's still plenty for me to learn and get better at too.....so any input you all have for ME is greatly appreciated! For instance, you all helping me with my quest for perfect pate a choux is a great example. By the way, I did it.....I got the choux results I wanted! Yay!

Anything ya wanna know......(about cakes) just ask.....it's my "thing"!

I've played played around doing cakes upside down on acetate to acheive a perfect shape. I've read of people that use paper towels to smooth sides. I now use a trowel as my spatula and find that it's much quicker then any other utensil I've tried. What do you like?

Upside down on acetate? Yipes! Too much work! One thing I've gotten good at is saving time.

When you do a LOT of labor intensive cake work and you know you're going to be in the shop a long time anyway, you try to think of ANYTHING that is going to make the job easy and quick (but NO sacrificing quality! NO SIR!). It used to be that I would use my elbow (some people call it an offset spatula) to ice and smooth my cakes. Worked well for me because I did it so much, but I usually had to crumb coat the cake first, then give it it's final coat. A lot of my day went into icing cakes twice....first the crumb coat, then the final coat. I knew I could save a lot of time if I could get the cakes iced perfectly in ONE STEP. Using my elbow spatula as carefully as I could

wasn't working. I still had crumbs showing...especially when I iced up chocolate and carrot cakes.

Then my wonderful pastry chef friend Robin introduced me to my very favorite time savin' tool. Or should I say, "tools". The first was a very large pastry bag with a giant basketweave tip to apply the icing to the cake. At first I thought that was stupid......I thought it would take more time to scoop my buttercream into a pastry bag, pipe it on my cake, then smooth it. I liked to just plop a big blob on top of the cake and work it down with my spat. Well, doing it that way, OF COURSE you're gonna have crumb problems. Piping my icing on in more or less an even way with the icing bag saved me a lot of work in the end......and significantly reduced my crumb problems. The next miracle tool that Robin showed me was something called a.......a.....I hope I get this right......a paint guide, or maybe it's called a paint masker. I can't remember. You can

get them at the hardware store or a paint store. It's a thingy that painters use to hold up to edges and corners so they can paint on something without getting brush marks on an adjoining wall. There are different kinds of paint masker thingys.....some are plastic, but the ones I use are a very thin flexible kind of metal. Aw heck....I got a digital cam....I'll just take a pic of it.....

paintthing.jpg

See? I love this thing! The edge is PERFECT for getting a perfect surface in buttercream, and I've also found it an invaluable tool for making perfect square cakes. It's also nice and wide so you get perfect tops and sides with no spatula marks.

I pipe my icing on with my large icing bag and giant basketweave tip (I do it so the smooth side of the tip faces me and the "grooved" part hits the cake), then make sure I adhere the icing to the cake with my elbow spat, and finish smoothing with my paint thingy. These two things helped me ice up a wedding cake in ONE STEP! No crumb coat! Now, I will say, I had to practice using those things a bit before I got the feel for it and perfected it. But if you just stick with it and practice, it ends up being easier....way easier....and the time savings......well, what a perk!

Also, the paint masker thingys are cheap, and disposable. I use one til it starts getting a little "bendy" or if I've put it through the dishwasher and it gets bent, it's no good. So I just pull out another one and it's good for a couple of months or so.

Actually, I think I have found more cool tools for decorating at the hardware store as opposed to a kitchen store!

And now I'll leave you with a couple of pics of a cake I did last December for the company that designs the Cranium line of board games. It was for their Xmas party......the cake is their "brain" logo, with all their game characters surrounding it. The characters were made entirely out of modeling chocolate.

cranium1.jpg

cranium2.jpg

:wub: Annie

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Thanks so much for sharing some of your background and the great tips (the cake makers where I work use the big piping tip to cover cakes like you do). Those Cranium cakes are amazing - perfect characters and very clean. What is the actual cake covered with? Fondant, I assume?

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Thanks Neil! :biggrin:

It's actually one cake.....I had to take two pictures so you could see all the characters.

Yes, the "brain" is covered with blue fondant. It was easy to do actually. I split and filled a

bunch of 18 inch round cakes and then carved out the general spherish brain shape. Then

I piped buttercream with large plain tip to make the "brain squiggles". I let it firm up in the walk

in, and I rolled out my blue fondant. Took cake out, and covered it with fondant, pressing the

fondant into the squiggles to make the grooves show. I then used an airbrush with black color

to add depth to the grooves.

The hardest part was engineering the red ring. I made it so 3 of the characters are supporting it. I used copper tubing running through the characters' bodies and arms for support. That wasn't very easy, but when I finished sweating that part out, it was foolproof!

:wub:Annie

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WOW! That cake is amazing!!!

I thank you too for all the helpful cake decorating/tiering tips you've posted. I, myself, studied a very condensed intense but shorter pastry program and then started working in the pastry department of a restaurant upon graduating. I've worked there for two years and a bit now and for the most part I've been on my own: researching/creating menu items, specials and wedding cakes! So I really appreciate you sharing your expertise/experiences!

D.

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Thanks so much, Annie, for sharing those "secrets", and the how-to on the cranium. I live for the day I get to do very different cakes like you! I'll definitely take you up on your "anything you wanna ask" offer! :raz:


TPcal!

Food Pix (plus others)

Please take pictures of all the food you get to try (and if you can, the food at the next tables)............................Dejah

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:shock: Aaaaack! My own thread? I don't do too well in the "limelight". That's why I like to

hang out in my kitchen.....so I can hide. I'm a lousy self-promoter.

Ok, so cakes are my "thing"... my "specialty".....but please please don't call me a "cake decorator". Makes me sound like I work at Safeway or something. I really prefer "pastry chef"....it took me a lot of sweat and tears to be able to feel I could call myself that, so that's what I prefer.

Very Weird Tip o' the Day:

How to make "fake ground beef" (like anyone really has a use for this....but you never know! I did.)

As you can see, in my taco cake above, I needed to make some "ground beef" for the filling.

This is how I did it:

I threw some chocolate chips in the food processor, and chopped 'em up so they didn't look like chips anymore......they looked more like unevenly chopped small chocolate chunks.

Threw my chunks in a bowl, and tossed them with some clear piping gel.

YUM!

It looks amazingly like the real thing. It's actually kind of......scary. This "fake ground beef" also

serves as wonderful fodder for practical jokes on your co-workers. Not that I've tried it or anything. :wink:

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Beautiful work Annie! I didn't mean to throw you out there all alone, sorry. I know theres several people here that do cakes (I do too) and I hope we all can share more about our work.

I too used to use an off set spatula and apply icing with it, like for years. Then I worked at a bakery and they taught me about the large basketweave tip. It took me a while to feel comfortable with that. Is everyone familar with that tip?...was I the last person to learn about this?

But I hate having to constantly refill the bag and worse I don't like to handle slippery bags. But inevitable mine gets frosting on the sides and I start to loose my grip. Anyone have a way of avoiding that?????? I do my best to keep it neat but unless you barely fill your bag some frosting always sneaks up to the top, then it gets all over the place.

Then I went to work at another bakery and they taught me to use the huge spatulas and hardware store equipment. Again it took me while to get comfortable with it, but now I can't believe I ever played with a little bent handle spatula. I use a different tool then you Annie. Mine is a half round metal shape with a handle. I'd post a photo, but I'm having issues with that right now. I think it's for putting "mud" spakle on walls.

Once on tv I saw a bakery that hung their pastry bags from bungie type cords on the ceiling. NO kidding, it looked weird but it makes sense to help your wrists from all the wear and tear....have any of you seem similar? I enjoy doing cakes but I know I couldn't do it all day any more. It's hard on your wrists, if I wear a wrist brace it feels too aukward. One day I'd like to figure out that bungie method....at least is would create a few laughs at work.

Tp(M'sia), you mainly do cakes too, right? Who else? .....Annie did bring up a interesting issue about what to call yourself. I can relate! You do want the respect and acknowledgement that your not at all similar to a grocery store 'decorator'....some people get it, others don't until you show them your work.

I like how you've used the whole cake board as part of your art. That's something that greatly interests me...I'm seeing more and more people doing that with some great examples. TP how do you find food proof papers...how are you going about this. I've done like Annie is showing in her taco photo, but never figured out how to do it other ways with-out alot of hand work. Help, how do you do that?

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But I hate having to constantly refill the bag and worse I don't like to handle slippery bags. But inevitable mine gets frosting on the sides and I start to loose my grip. Anyone have a way of avoiding that?????? I do my best to keep it neat but unless you barely fill your bag some frosting always sneaks up to the top, then it gets all over the place.

Yeah, once you lose your grip on the bag, it's a drag.....then you have to empty it and wash it to get all the grease off. I use a fairly large bag.....I do have to refill it often, but I don't overfill it and I don't have it leaking out the top, so it doesn't get greasy on me. Like I said, I used to think using a bag to get my icing on the cake would be too time consuming, but the actual time it saves me in not having to even the icing out and deal with all the crumbs saves me time in the long run. Again, the key is to not overfill your bag.

Once on tv I saw a bakery that hung their pastry bags from bungie type cords on the ceiling. NO kidding, it looked weird but it makes sense to help your wrists from all the wear and tear....have any of you seem similar? I enjoy doing cakes but I know I couldn't do it all day any more. It's hard on your wrists, if I wear a wrist brace it feels too aukward. One day I'd like to figure out that bungie method....at least is would create a few laughs at work.

How does hanging pastry bags from the ceiling save your wrists? I don't quite get it. I've never seen that before....how bizarre! And yes, my wrists and hands are TOAST. Arthritis and severe

carpal tunnel problems have me wondering how much longer I can really do this. It's kind of scary.

TP how do you find food proof papers...how are you going about this. I've done like Annie is showing in her taco photo, but never figured out how to do it other ways with-out alot of hand work. Help, how do you do that?

What are you talking about when you refer to "food proof papers"? Not sure if you were implying

it, but there are no "papers" on my taco cake.....all the decorations are made with chocolate and completely edible. What are "food proof papers"?

:wub: Annie

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Annie did bring up a interesting issue about what to call yourself. I can relate!  You do want the respect and acknowledgement that your not at all similar to a grocery store 'decorator'....some people get it, others don't until you show them your work.

I consider you artists in addition to pastry chefs. I can make cakes that taste great, but have no talent beyond the most basic of decorating. And certainly nowhere near the realm of Annie's creations. I think her signature line "Food Artist" is very appropriate.

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Annie ...thanks for sharing your story and your pictures!! We wanna see more!!

All the cakes are gorgeous .....but that book cake?? That is absolutely incredible! If you hadn't told me that was a cake, I would've believed it was a stack of books!!

And I'm right there with ya Mktye ---I can make cakes that taste good and could probably learn better decorating skills if I put my mind to it --but I haven't got one iota of that incredibly creativity and artistry.

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Maybe the bungie cord keep all of the weight semi suspended, so the wrist and arm isn't supporting it all.

I don't use huge piping bags, as I rarely, if ever, do the kind of work you all do but, I have been having a hell of a time carrying a big pot of hot nappage around a table while I brush glaze on Danishes in the morning,

For that I'm looking into this cool manual sprayer that JBPrince has in their new catalogue.


2317/5000

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I like how you've used the whole cake board as part of your art. That's something that greatly interests me...I'm seeing more and more people doing that with some great examples. TP how do you find food proof papers...how are you going about this. I've done like Annie is showing in her taco photo, but never figured out how to do it other ways with-out alot of hand work. Help, how do you do that?

Gosh, Wendy, you mention me in the same thread as Annie...aww, shucks, wow, As it is, I'm prostrating before experienced chefs like yourself and Annie and all the greats here on this board. I'm only starting to climb the learning curve...

A lot of well-meaning people give me used but cleaned cake boards to recycle, sturdy wooden plywood ones. I rip the paper covering out, re-cover with foil paper on top and parchment at the bottom. I also use foamboards if I've to work with an irregular shape. Yes, I love to decorate the board, when appropriate. What I do is decorate the cake first on the board. I don't like to cover the whole board with fondant, as I hate to have a sticky mess at the bottom of the cake, although that can be fixed by putting the cake on greaseproof paper cut into the outline of the cake. What I do is plaster the area surrounding the cake with some quickie fondant (sugar, egg white, glucose syrup). Let it dry for a while and paint on it or whatever, like this recent cake I did.

i7390.jpg

I'm really glad you started this thread and Annie is so sporting to share her work. Thank you, ladies!


Edited by TP(M'sia) (log)

TPcal!

Food Pix (plus others)

Please take pictures of all the food you get to try (and if you can, the food at the next tables)............................Dejah

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Annie, loved reading your story and loved looking at your cakes even more. Itoo have a passion for decorating, but just do it as a hobby. It is not a big thing at all in the Netherlands, so everything I know comes from trial and error and american books. As long as I'm enjoying myself it's fine :o)

I'm looking forward to seeing more of your work and applying your useful help!

TP: wonderful puppy cake!

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I'm going to be the party pooper here...I'm not thrilled with the idea of using plaster knives or paint tools on things people are going to eat. I have a 16-18 inch stainless bar that I use as a smoother...I can run it under hot water, wipe with a clean towel and the warmth smooths the frosting just fine. Also, I understand the copper tubing for support on the characters, but if someone at the party decided to try to eat one of them (I assume they are royal icing or sugarpaste), you'd have a dental bill on your hands.

I worked with Scott Woolley, who published "Cakes by Design"--the name of his business. I was actually surprised by the book, because the photos of the cakes were really much better than they reproduced in the book.

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Tracy they have never been used on non-food products and are sanitized and just like bent handle spatulas....it's stainless steel. It's completely safe.

Scott Wooley is so talented! How long did you work for him? Photos never do justise. They look even worse when it's not taken by a photographer. My digital camera doesn't show depth at all, the backgrounds blend into the foreground.

Are you working on your own doing cakes now Tracy....or have you gone a different route in the kitchen?

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TP, your dogs are wonderfully done, it's not easy to do those so realisticly!! I'd imagine there might be a huge market of pet lovers that would pay dearly for that cake. I couldn't tell in that photo your background was fondant.........that explains alot. How about the photos you showed with the floral cake boards.......tell my your not hand painting those too, please? I thought you were putting down a patterned paper and covering it with a clear acetate....or something similar.

I've used those self adhesive shelf lining papers to cover card board bases. But those come in limited patterns. Typcially I only use white. But I'd love to have a nice floral board when appropriate. TP, how did you do that?

Thanks again, Wendy...you make me feel so welcomed, in my own capacity. I love every purse you did...so real. :wub:

The doggies are bas relief - my first attempt. Glad you liked it. Well, almost everything I do is a "first" attempt as I'm so new at this, and there are so many techniques to explore.

On the boards, this one is covered with a present wrapping paper and the cake put on greaseproof paper. However, forthis one , it was a spur of the moment thing...it just came to me as I was brush-embroidering the lotus. I was supposed to brush-embroider the leaves too, but took the lazy way out. I just painted off my head on green fondant, and surprised myself how well it came out.

Oh, I heard about using contact paper, but can't find them here, so I'm forced to be a bit "creative".

Woo hooooo... I'm just hoping that more people will come forward and post more of these eye candies.


TPcal!

Food Pix (plus others)

Please take pictures of all the food you get to try (and if you can, the food at the next tables)............................Dejah

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Maybe the bungie cord keep all of the weight semi suspended, so the wrist and arm isn't supporting it all.

I don't use huge piping bags, as I rarely, if ever, do the kind of work you all do but, I have been having a hell of a time carrying a big pot of hot nappage around a table while I brush glaze on Danishes in the morning,

For that I'm looking into this cool manual sprayer that JBPrince has in their new catalogue.

Ted - you might be interested to know we use several different types of spayers in the kitchen. A couple different power sprayers that heat the glaze fruit tarts and such (love those things), Wagner power sprayers (of course), hand trigger spray bottles, and those pump-type canister sprayers normally used for bug spray and such (most likely purchased at Home Depot). They spray everything they can: clear glaze, sugar glaze, egg wash, chocolate, cocoa butter, etc. MUCH faster and you get a thinner, more even coating.

And Wendy - LOVE the handbad cakes! They're so cute!

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I do not think anyone is advocating the use of used tools - - like from the garage or tool shed - rather - using tools designed for other uses in the kitchen. I regularly shop at Home Depot for tools

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this runs up the thread a bit, but it goes with the dirty piping bag thought. do any of you have a budget for disposables?

you can fill several disposable bags with your buttercream or whatever you're icing with and tie them with plastic wrap "string". then you can have one clean bag with your tip in it. clip one of your disposable bags and drop it into your clean bag with tip and pipe away. when you're out, just pull out the disposable bag and throw it away and drop in a new bag.

clean and easy.

hope that helps.

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Hey all,

Been lurking for a while, but posting for the first time. I'm a cake person too -- I prefer the term "sugar artist" to "cake decorator"

Wendy - I use fondant on everything, and everything I do has to be refrigerated. As for the condensation, if the cakes will be sitting out for a while, it eventually takes care of itself. On really humid days, I can avoid most condensation worries by placing the cake in a box and sealing it before sticking it in the fridge. Leave it in the box for a while after it comes out, and any condensation will form on the box, not the cake.


B. Keith Ryder

BCakes by BKeith

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Yeah, I just want to re-iterate on the "tools" thing......I use them brand-new.....it's not like I

go do some painting, rinse them off and then smooth cakes with 'em! I never confuse my icing

and spackle buckets.....:-P

Also, regarding the copper tubing, it is all very very clean and sanitized before it goes into the

cake. I am also very clear to the people who are to be cutting and serving my cakes, exactly

where all the supports are and what to look for. It's all written down very clearly. Believe me,

I cover my butt in this litigation-happy world! When you engineer cakes like I do, there are

certain challenges you face. I would love it if I could do EVERYTHING with edible material, and I try if possible to leave as many "foreign objects" out of them. But sometimes you gotta pull out a little styrofoam, straws, skewers, dowels and copper tubing. Thems the facts.

Condensation! Man I hate it. I have found that after I finish a cake that is covered with fondant, marzipan, or plastic chocolate, if I box it up, then put the box in a large clean plastic garbage bag, it significantly reduces my condensation problems! Another bonus about putting the box in a bag is that it prevents the box from getting soggy with condensation. This prevents soggy box slipping accidents, or the walls of the box from caving in and touching the cake. I am thoroughly

into disaster prevention!

Wendy I LOVE your purses!!!! What a great Mother's Day idea!

I'll stay with the theme and post a pic of a purse I did.......

PURSE.jpg

This was a recreation of a Prada brand purse that a woman's boyfriend was giving her for her

birthday. Leaning against the purse is a chocolate replica of a Barney's New York credit

card....which I was told she maxes out constantly. Gee, wish I had that problem! I wish the pic was better quality.....I also wish I had enough brains to have stood the actual purse next to the cake because you almost couldn't tell which one was real and which one was the cake. I was

pretty proud of myself. It always happens to me though......I'm tired, it's late, I'm hungry, I wanna go home, so I never put enough effort into the photography. I always regret it too!

My husband bought me a digital camera two years ago, and my photography has gotten much

better since then.....now when I take a lousy photo, I know right away! Luckily, I also have

Adobe Photoshop, so I can edit out those mop buckets that always seem to be the background

for my lovely cake photos.

Oh, I cover my cake boards with something called Highlander Polyfoil. I love it......it comes in all different colors and it's very thick and sturdy, wipes clean like a dream! When I do sculpted cakes and I have quite a mess of cake scraps down at the base as I'm carving, it's nice to have the polyfoil since it wipes so clean. I haven't found anything better.

That's really neat how you decorate your cake boards, TP. I notice Colette Peters does that a lot too. Also a lot of the English sugar artists do it. It's weird for me though, by the time I get done doing the cake, I have no desire or patience to do the board too. Except in some cases....when I do a seashell themed cake, I'll usually decorate the board with "sand".

Ok...gotta go bake a Kransekake now.......

:wub: Annie

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by the time I get done doing the cake, I have no desire or patience to do the board too. Except in some cases....when I do a seashell themed cake, I'll usually decorate the board with "sand".

By the time I get done decorating the cake (and sometimes board), I have little left in me to do the writing. Hate having to mix that little bit of royal icing or buttercream for piping the wishes. Recently, I discovered a way out of that. I melt some of the fondant leftover and voila, that's piping icing. I envy those who print out the font they want and pin-prick it on the cake. It makes the finishing so much more professional.


TPcal!

Food Pix (plus others)

Please take pictures of all the food you get to try (and if you can, the food at the next tables)............................Dejah

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...Which brand of fondant do you guys like? I tried making my own but it didn't hold as long when sealed up for use later like the purchased stuff. I also have done the Gordon Rose chocolate fondant......I'm not sure I liked it. Have you tried all those chocopan ones and the assorted flavors?...

I am very interested in this question myself. I use pettinice, but I would love to hear about and try other products or recipes that might be better. I use pettinice because it is what I learned with and what I have had the best results with. I will admit that I have done very little experimenting... I'm not wild about the taste, but I am comfortable with the performance... Does this call for another thread?

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I have been to Annie's website and taken a gander at the cakes she has there. I know this might seem repetitive but I would like to say that not only are your cakes beautiful but inspiring and uplifting, and all those things that come when we see quality of this caliber. Yes, I agree with the others that in addition to being a pastry chef you are indeed an artist, a sculptor, Annie. The same goes for TP & Wendy - I have never seen such creativity before! It is truly inspirational!

I'd like to ask few questions about the creative process in this line of work.

How involved do your clients tend to become in the project, and what is your general point of departure from their requests? For instance, did the guy who ordered the prada purse replica come in and say - "I want to do a really special cake", and then did you ask a few questions and then did you suggest it to him, or did he come in and say - "I want this prada purse done in cake form"?

I can see well that your work for the game makers was based specifically on the design theme of the game. How involved were they in the design for the actual cake? Did they present you with a drawing or did you just go with the ideas you had?

About getting feedback from your clients - are you ever there when they cut the cake to see a client's reaction? Or do you simply deliver it and then that's it. I can imagine that it must be difficult to put so much creative energy into a project and then to hand it over to be cut into pieces and eaten. How do you handle that aspect of your work?

This board is an inspiration to me. I thank Wendy for all the hard work she puts managing it.

-Lucy

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    • By Daily Gullet Staff
      by David Ross

      I was pushing my shopping cart through the aisles of Yoke’s Supermarket on a recent “Fresh Friday,” when a spritely-sounding young woman announced over the public address system, “Attention shoppers, attention shoppers, two minutes until the next Cakewalk, two minutes.” Frozen with suspense and the anticipation of winning one of Yoke’s chocolate crème de menthe cakes, I stood pat on the number 36 yellow flower pasted on the floor in front of me. I wasn’t going to budge off that number 36 -- I wanted a cake. While I waited to hear my number called, I was overcome with a sense of nervous anxiety --the same emotion I had felt as a young boy waiting to win a cake when I was seven years old. I wondered why a boyhood fascination with winning a cake still left me with such a deep, lasting hunger some 47 years after I first danced a Cakewalk.

      What was it that tugged at my heart, telling me to delve deeper into the meaning of the Cakewalk? Why did I sense that there was an underlying truth I hadn’t discovered as a child? The only way I could unveil the mystique behind my relationship with this odd little dance to win a cake would lie in retracing the footsteps of my childhood, setting forth on a quest to discover the history of the Cakewalk.

      + + +
      We moved to Salem, Oregon from The Dalles, in the Summer of 1964, when my Father, Edgar Ross, accepted a position at the Oregon Department of Agriculture in the Commodity Commissions Bureau. My parents settled on a ranch-style, three-bedroom home on the corner of Ward Drive and 46th Avenue in the new community of “Jan Ree” Gardens. Our lot was bordered by new homes on two sides and to the East was a field of Blue Lake bush beans that would soon be consumed by the encroaching development. Mother and Father shared a few details about our new home. It had a second bathroom, a wood-paneled living room and an unfinished family room that my father promised would have a metal wood stove. But they kept one little secret from my sister and me until we were a block from our final destination on the day we drove to Salem -- our new house was next door to the grade school. I didn’t know whether to feel good or sick at the thought of living next door to the school where I would spend the next five years.

      Hayesville Elementary School was typical of the architecture of grade schools built in the early 1960’s-an L-shaped, non-descript building painted in drab green and grey. The assembly room, cafeteria and administrative offices anchored the building with the classrooms jutting out from the principal’s office. I started the school year in Mrs. Rhonda Sample’s second grade class. She was young, blond and attractive, totally unlike the spinster vision I had of the teacher that awaited me at my new school. The highlight of the school year was the annual “Open House at Hayesville.” Students showcased their talents, dazzling parents with displays of frogs and snakes in aquariums, samples of cursive writing on paper chains hung over the blackboard and paper mache busts of historic American figures like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. Mothers and fathers could take a tour of the gleaming, stainless steel kitchen where Mrs. Fox prepared our hot lunches each day-warm, billowing cinnamon rolls dripping with powdered sugar frosting and her buttery, oven-fried chicken. But the most anticipated event of Open House at Hayesville was the annual Cakewalk Raffle -- a silly fun dance around the classroom. The winner won a cake and the proceeds went to fund other activities at school.

      We cut footprints out of colored construction paper and pasted them in a large circle on the spotless, pink vinyl-tiled floor. Each “foot” was given a number from one to twenty. Red, white and blue streamers were tacked on the outer walls and then brought to the center of the ceiling to define the center point of the cakewalk circle. When the room was ready, Mrs. Sample turned on the lights and opened the door, welcoming a parade of Mother’s who pranced into the room carrying Tupperware cake caddies, Pyrex baking dishes, glass cake domes and disposable aluminum trays coddling their precious cake creations.

      Three long tables were placed against the wall and covered with proper linen tablecloths. The tables served as the stage upon which the cakes would strut their stuff. The chorus line of cakes went on and on through the annals of cakedom-Chiffon, Angel Food, Devils Food, Sponge Cake, Pound Cake, Marble Cakes, Chocolate Torts and Jelly Rolls. There were cakes garnished with coconut, dusted with nonpareils, frosted with peanut butter, sprinkled with peppermints, and dotted with spiced gum drops. I entered the Cakewalk over and over until I won, seemingly always at the end of the evening when very few of the best cakes were left on the table. While Mother’s “Burnt Sugar Cake with 7-Minute Frosting” was good, it would be a total embarrassment in front of ones classmates for a kid to choose the cake made by his mother. No, should I win the Cakewalk and should it still be available, I would choose the Spiced Praline Crunch Cake made by Bernie Bennett’s Mother.

      The historical importance of the Cakewalk wasn’t a part of Mrs. Sample’s second-grade curriculum at Hayesville in 1964. Living in the Pacific Northwest, we were insulated from the racial struggles of the South at that time. I was a young white boy in a middle-class American family. I led the colorful life of a kid, yet I lived in a country that saw only shades of black and white.

      Only three years before my second grade, in the Spring of 1961 the Freedom Riders set out on a campaign to test the Supreme Court Ruling that upheld the segregation of blacks and whites at bus depots, waiting rooms, lunch counters and restrooms throughout the South. The Freedom Riders were met with ignorance and violence. African-Americans couldn’t drink from the same water fountain I drank from. I never knew.
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      African-American slaves who watched the proceedings took the dance on as their own in the yards outside their shacks, mocking what they saw as the frivolous customs of the plantation owners. According to the oral histories of slaves and their descendants, the Cakewalk was a marriage of traditional African tribal dances and rhythms combined with the dance steps of the upper classes. When the land barons and ladies saw the slaves dance, they missed the satirical element entirely, but the popularity of the Cakewalk had been established among the elite and it now transcended the boundaries of class.

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      On January 1, 1863, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation with these humble words, “all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” Inspired by the renewed freedom gifted to them through Emancipation, a freedom that allowed them to express themselves openly through dance and music, African-Americans led a creative revival that would usher in new forms of dance and music that had never before been seen or heard. The artistic contributions of former slaves and their descendants would forever change the creative landscape in America.


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      + + +
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      I found my personal truth in the Cakewalk -- a truth far richer and deeper than the dreams of a boy winning a cake.

      * * *
      David Ross lives in Spokane, but works a one-hour plane ride away. When he's not tending to his day job -- or commuting -- he writes about food and reviews restaurants. He is on the eGullet Society hosting team.
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