Wednesday, March 2, 2011

A Cake Odyssey: Photo Journal

Master cake decorator Duff Goldman is my hero. After taking a decorating course at a local craft store, I was hooked. But poor. And also...not that good at decorating. I've made a total of five cakes and the most recent, a present for my aunt, was an ambitious undertaking. I documented the process, just in case anyone wanted to see how a cake like this is put together.

First you have to know that my aunt is a bookworm and loves birds. The concept of this cake was that it would be a book with a cover in the style of the series The No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency covers.

My first snag was that I wanted a bird on the cover of the book, which required me to be able to draw a bird. I realized I haven't drawn anything in about ten years. My first attempts were mostly ridiculous.

I gave up on drawing with a pen and hoped for better luck with chocolate. The day before I baked the cake, I practiced a few techniques to get the bird right.

Satisfied that at least one of these little guys would work on the cake, I sketched out the rest of the design and started baking the next morning. I made buttercream icing while the gluten-free yellow cake (from a Betty Crocker mix) baked. The books I wanted to replicate are small, about 8 by 5 inches, and I had used a square pan, so I had to slice off one of the sides to make the cake into a book shape. Then I covered it with buttercream icing.

Not wanting to waste any of the gluten-free dessert, I iced the slab I cut off, not sure what I would do with it.

For the bottom cover, which only peeks out from the bottom of the cake, I made a make-shift pastry bag and piped purple melting chocolate around the base. Next I wanted to paint the cake's top side yellow, which I did using yellow food coloring and vodka. Yup, vodka.

The alcohol evaporates, leaving the color on the icing.

Because all of the No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency books have a border around the cover, I wanted to make one on my cake. This was the hardest part of the whole process. I needed to make a panel of purple chocolate for the spine of the book and one panel for each of the four sides of the cover. The panels needed to be exactly the correct size to fit the cake and each other.

I needed a capenter's square to get the measurements fitted correctly. The chocolate was very delicate after I had melted it and spread it into the exact dimensions I needed.

I had written on only one cake prior to this one, so I was nervous about the spacing--rightly so. It's a little off. Because my aunt calls songbirds "dee-doos," I wrote "Dee-doo Agency" instead of "Detective Agency."

Now this seems like a big jump, but I did a bunch of very small details after this, which were much, much easier than everything else I've described.

I had made a few branches to go with the chocolate birds, so I placed those and used a leaf tip to add a few leaves. Then I painted a little green under the spot where the bird was going to be, to make his yellow feet and beak visible against the yellow background. Then I placed the bird, affixed with icing, and made two little flowers with the buttercream I'd used for the writing. I also used a star tip with white icing to make the pages along the sides of the book.


As for the extra cake brick, I cut that into petit fours and experimented. I tried covering them with melting chocolate, which was mostly a disaster, but I stuck some of the cuter rejected birds on them to hide the chunky surfaces. I tried placing little chocolate branches and adding icing leaves and roses, which turned out much better.

If you've made it this far in the post, you now know way, way, way more than you ever wanted to about how I made this cake. If you are a baker or decorator(or anyone else, for that matter) with questions or decorating tips, please don't hesitate to contact me.


  1. WOW. I'm seriously so impressed! (And I love your bird drawings with the Luxor letterhead)

    Have you checked out any tutorials on youtube? I've found that when I can't figure out how to do something, youtube is my best friend.

    I just finished the first book of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency - Andy's mom loaned it to me. It was a fun read!

  2. Yes, the books are fun! I've read about 5 of them I think. And I would never have pulled off anything remotely close to this complicated if it weren't for Youtube!