Behind the Scenes of an epic suspended birdcage smash cake

Last week I unveiled one of my most challenging creations to date at my very own 30th birthday party which was the culmination of month-long collaboration between Anna Maria Roche of Anna Maria Cake Design, myself and my dad (yep that’s right, my DAD!)

The Concept

A lot of people have asked me how I got the idea and the first inspiration actually came from the venue itself which had some really old vintage birdcages hanging from the tree. I’d always wanted to do a suspended birdcage cake but then I let my imagination run a bit wild as I thought a birdcage on its own was simply too boring and that it should incorporate techniques that I had not used much before – if nothing else but to hone some new skills.

The first thing was to do away with the traditional bell shaped birdcage I have seen so many times before and instead I though a square-ish atrium would be cool. I then added another concept which was of a “piñata” tier – I had seen a few piñata cakes online but none were executed very well and I wanted to be able to shatter the top of the bird cage with a hammer then have berries or candy flowing out for a bit of an unexpected twist to indulge the big kid in me! There were also going to be lots of kids at the party and I thought how cool it would be for them to see a ton of candy flow out of a giant cake.

A myriad of ideas cycled through my mind as to how to achieve this… and so many ideas wouldn’t work!

Idea #1: Chocolate?  Problem: Wouldn’t shatter enough and would look too different to the rest of the cake which would be covered in fondant.

Idea #2: Fondant? Problem: Wouldn’t dry hard enough to achieve a ‘shatter effect’

Idea #3: Sugar? Problem: Too transparent and again would not look consistent with the rest of the atrium plus humidity would kill it instantly!

Anna Maria and I debated for a while what to do and I finally had a brainwave and came up with pastillage!! If you have no idea what that is, it’s a fancy french name for a magical, super fast drying, extremely brittle, porcelain-like sugar when rolled thinly and looked identical to fondant.

For it to work we needed to make a former so I carved a styro tier with Anna Maria’s help to create a shape to mould dome and we tested multiple recipes to see what would shatter best. I even tried gumpaste and it was not cooperating with the humidity we had. We finally managed to figure out that Anna Maria’s pastillage recipe (adapted from famed pastry artist Ewald Notter) would work and we left the dome shape to dry overnight. For a copy of Anna Maria’s super fast drying awesome pastillage recipe, scroll to the bottom of this post!

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I hate styro carving!

Details, Details..

The last couple of ideas I incorporated in were some Cake Lace and royal icing bead piped trims. For more information on Cake Lace and how to use it, click here. I had originally wanted some birds in there but the complexity of getting every single line perfectly straight and the smash tier working took a huge amount of time.

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No room for any organic finishes here!

The Process

I had no idea how this was going to turn out but I figured if anyone could help me execute it, it would be my dad and the super fast, super talented cake decorating expert Anna Maria Roche.  Anna Maria and I worked like maniacs for 2 days stopping only for some awesome home made soup and prawn dumplings. I cannot thank Anna Maria enough for her generous guidance and support and working alongside a true industry pro really lifted my own working habits, speed and technique. I think I will always feel like a snail next to her but it was still an awesome experience to be mentored by someone who oozes speed from every pore.

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Anna Maria and I testing Dad’s structure with the full weight equivalent of the real cake (21kg of icing!) for the first time

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The painstaking process of 1.5hrs of applying extruded lines onto the cake after marking every line with a pin and careful mathematical measurement.. 

The Structure

Building the supporting structure for the cake was probably the most challenging part as there was quite a bit of physics and research involved. Suspending a cake that could potentially more than 20kg in mid-air, withstand a pretty hard hammer smash and stay up for 4-5 hours would require some serious hardware.

For the solution, I turned to my extremely handy father who not only had access to a proper metal workshop but also (conveniently) knew how to weld and had the tools to bend, drill and cut very long and large steel rods.

The stand itself was inspired by a tree shaped stand I’d found online and this was probably the most difficult part of the process. After dad constructed the stand, the finishing of the joints needed some refinement and luckily I found some very handy “Knead-It” which was like a polymer clay that is pliable but sets hard like concrete within 2 minutes and you can even sand/drill it. After priming and painting it, my beautiful new white faux-tree cake stand structure was ready for final testing!

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SuperDad bending steel rods to form the 1.8m tall stand and the final product of putty, primer and white epoxy paint by yours truly!

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Hard at work

The Final Test

Doing the final weight test on the stand was left to the last minute..up until this point the stand had only been tested for around 30-45min to withstand more than 20kg of weight and I wanted to make sure it would last for the duration of the whole party (4-5 hours). I was fresh out of icing buckets that were full so my trusty brother loaded it up with my golf set, a backpack stuffed with heavy books and yep in true Chinese family style, a huge sack of rice!

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30kg of golf equipment, backpack and a sack of rice loaded on the stand held up by one tiny chain!

The Result

So here is the final result after I managed to get it home in one piece…we’re both looking a little worse for wear but the result was totally worth it!

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For more photos of the cake, click here

The Smash!

Here’s a paparazzi style video of the big smash and I still had my doubts right up until the last moment whether it would work.. Thanks to Elliott for this video (and apologies for my mum-in-law and the giant helium balloon joining the frame but you get the idea!)

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With thanks..

I learned a lot pushing myself beyond what I thought I could achieve and setting a new personal best for my cake projects. I also learned the importance of counting on some true experts and developed a even higher level of respect for my Dad who worked his tail off to make my stand in just a couple of days.. you’re the best Dad!!! I can’t forget my ultimate support team – especially mum who does what she does best: keeping dad on track, my bro for helping me to transport it and my husband Paul for being a great sounding board! Anna Maria’s husband Joseph was also an invaluable source of help with his pastry chef background and feeding us whenever we got hungry – you’re a legend Joseph!

Last but not least to my awesome mentor and partner in crime on this project, Anna Maria – industry pro, legend and super generous all round cake deity. I hope I become half as fast and almost as good as you one day many moons from now! We had so much fun working together, listening to bad radio and eating random green tea treats. Thank you for putting up with my mess and the mayhem we created!

Thanks for reading and if you liked this project, please help me out by voting for it here in The Raspberry Butterfly’s 2014 best cake photo competition!

Amy x

Anna Maria Cake Design’s Pastillage Recipe to make smashable tiers! (Adapted from Ewald Notter)

8g powdered gelatine

50g water

430g icing sugar

75g cornflour

1. Sprinkle gelatine into cold water in a microwave safe bowl. Leave aside for 5min.

2. In another bowl sift icing sugar and cornflour

3. Melt the soaked gelatine in the microwave

4. Add the melted gelatine to the icing sugar and cornflour, mix the dough until well incorporated

5. Scrape contents onto a clean work surface and compress/knead with clean handsuntil a smooth consistency is achieved (Note from Amy: warm hands and muscle power work well here!) If the mixture is too dry, add a few drops of water. If too wet, use extra icing sugar (a little at a time)

6. Once a smooth ball consistency is achieved, the pastillage can be used immediately – alternatively smooth a thin coat of crisco or shortening all over it and double wrap with plastic wrap and store in a ziplock bag to avoid drying out. The dough can be stored for a few months but it’s best to use fresh.

My Tips for Using Pastillage

  • Pastillage does dry quickly but there is no need to panic – have templates of what you are making cut out beforehand so you don’t have to invent on the fly.
  • Allow 48hrs for the pastillage to dry completely – depending on the humidity of the drying area, 24hrs may be sufficient. It should become whiter as it dries and look like porcelain.
  • Use silica gel packets to help absorb moisture and speed up the drying process – in extreme cases, a dehumidifier or the airconditioner also works
  • Wooden boards are ideal for drying flat panels (not metal sheet pans) if you are making a box or other shapes that require a smooth finish.
  • Try to use pizza cutters or very sharp palette or craft knives for cutting – blunt knives will cause the dough to move out of shape when cutting which can make it hard to seal. A thin coat of crisco on the cutting instrument will also help with cutting smoother edges.

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