NOMA Edible Book Day, Part 1:  Cake for Company

There is an old saying that I recite to myself once in a while.

“When you fail, do not despair. Move forward and try a larger and more complicated version of that same thing, with minimal planning and less time to finish. Revealing the new thing in a public forum also helps.”

I think it was Aristotle originally.

Anyway, a while ago I tried to bake a cake unique to me. I was excited for it and really believed it would be amazing, so I took pictures along the way. I thought that I knew what to do, because I had a base recipe and I had watched at least 2 seasons of Great British Bake Off. I was set.

Um . . . yeah. Calling it a fail is an understatement. If I had to rank it, I’d put it behind “fashion choices of 13 year old me” but before “I must have my phone charger, no need to check.”

But why bother looking back? There isn’t any cake to eat that way!

Recently, I was talked into signing up for a cake decorating competition. Do I usually decorate cakes? No. Is it something I enjoy doing? Less than flossing. Then how was I talked into this? What sort of smooth citizen convinced me that this was a good idea? Well, it went sort of like this:

Sister: Hey, there is a cake decorating competition next weekend that I think you should do, but you have to sign up by Monday.

Me: Is it free?

Sister: Yes.

Me: *shrugs* okay.

The competition was at the New Orleans Art Museum (NOMA), for their Edible Book Day. It preceded a cake decorating demonstration from Brett Gauthier (of the Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group) and the cake display tables were tantalizingly close to the NOMA Café, which knows its way around a cup of coffee.

But before I could get to Brett Gauthier and the coffee, I had to do the actual thing. You know, make the cake. Being part of the “Edible Book Day,” each cake was supposed to be based on a book. Two things I will devour at any time – cake and books!

When I signed up for the competition (from my sister’s phone about 3 minutes after agreeing to it), it required that I (a) know what book I was going to base the cake on and (b) have a size estimate, neither of which I had yet considered.

We bounced some ideas back and forth, and after a few minutes decided on John Green’s latest, Turtles all the Way Down.

Ha! One question done! I’m on a roll!

Number two, what size?

Kids, take a sprinkling of free advice. When selecting a cake size that you are going to make, look at a cake pan first. That way, when your sister shrugs and suggests “two feet?” And you quite reasonably reply, “That seems really big. How about -”

STOP! Go on the internet! Or go into your own kitchen! Look at a cake pan!

So you won’t say “- eighteen inches seems good.”

That is not reasonable. That is not the size of a cake pan that exists - a fact I would not learn until Friday night, when I finally started to bake.

I was not completely inactive during the week leading up to the competition. I looked up how to make fondant at home (having seen it done on GBBO), and bought the ingredients and fondant molding supplies.

And I looked at pictures of turtles. A lot of them.

Looking at turtles was by far my favorite part of decorating the cake. Sure, I have seen pictures of sea turtles before, but not really looked at them. How their feet taper and the different shading the shell to fins. I hadn’t looked at one, really looked, and noticed how their head is mostly a rectangle from above.

And if I snuck in a view of a baby turtle once in a while, then that was research too!

Am I the only one who things that its shell looks like a heart?

I even drew a few turtles of my own. This was vaguely how I wanted the cake to look at the end.

Somewhere on Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday I decided that the actual turtles would be shaped from rice crispy treats rather than carved from a stack of even more cakes, so I’d need all the marshmallows this side of the Mississippi. Yes, I am to blame for the great marshmallow shortage of 2018.

On Friday evening I arrived home from work, had a light dinner of cheesy eggs, and decided to get started. After all, the cake was probably going to take longer than I expected, so if I started now I should be done by the time Jesse arrived home in a few hours. I started at about 6:00, thinking I would be done around 11:00. Late, but not too bad.

Step number one was to make a galactic amount of buttercream frosting. Any project that requires 100 pounds of frosting is one that I will happily join.

And then I dived in with the turtles. The first part, I admit, was fun, and I was beginning to understand why people spend a lot of time doing this. I was shaping the largest rice crispy turtle and it was turning out okay. I casually noticed that is was about 8:45, but figured that this was the largest turtle I was going to make, so of course it would take the most time. The other four would become progressively smaller, and therefore, easier. Nothing to worry about, I reasoned.

At about 9:30 I began to suspect that maybe I wasn’t going to be done by 11:00. I had most of the turtles shaped, so all I needed to do was:

  1. Bake four cakes

  2. Make more buttercream

  3. Create five different shades of green fondant

  4. Create five different shades of blue fondant

  5. Create a galaxy-looking fondant

  6. Add the buttercream to the turtles and lay the fondant over it

  7. Restack the turtles

  8. Buttercream and fondant the cake

  9. Stack it all together

It was at this point that I acquiesced to reality, and picked the store bought fondant that my sister had purchased “just in case,” rather than making my own.

I still hadn’t quite grasped how long this was going to take. Sure, my 11:00 p.m. endpoint was a pipedream, but surely it wouldn’t take more than two and a half hours? I was definitely going to be done by midnight.

At 11:00, I thought maybe 1:00 a.m. The cakes were cooling, but I still had to color all of the fondant.

At midnight, I was quashing any worry by reminding myself that all I really needed to do was lay the fondant on the turtles and then frost and fondant the cake and then stack it all together. It was going to be fine. Right?

At 12:30, I finally asked myself why was I doing this? What was the benefit?

At 12:40, I woke my sister up to ask my sister if I could quit, and then immediately knew that I wasn’t going to.

At 2:00 a.m. I had accepted that I would live in the kitchen now, making the turtle cake forever, my hands permanently stained a sea-glass blue. It would be me and the turtles, creating a massive cake, until the ants grew so powerful from the ambient, air-born powdered sugar that they took over the house. I hoped that they would be kind to me.

At 4:00 a.m. I put the smallest turtle on top of the cake, trimmed away the last of the fondant and stood back. I knew on a technical level, I had achieved what I needed to. It was a cake, almost eighteen inches high, with a tower of five turtles. It was massive, and colorful, and heavy.

It was also incomplete. There was so much more that I wanted it to be, and little details that I had wanted to include, but I just didn’t have time and, at 4:00 in the morning, I didn’t have the energy either. My alarm was going to go off in three and a half hours. I crawled into bed, unsure of how much powdered sugar was still on me, and fell into a vague sleep.