The Panda Cake Procedure

A Long Explanation of a Short Idea That I Eventually Bring Back to Art Education

I can't believe that its been a year, but we've just celebrated Amaya's first birthday. Sometime over the course of the last year, I caught a few minutes of some cooking show in which they were making these ridiculously elaborate sculpted cakes. Ever since then, I'd been anxious to put together a special cake for a special girl on a special day.

The process itself was - let's say, a good learning experience. Cake isn't the easiest medium to work with, and being neither a sculptor nor a baker, this whole project was one narrowly averted disaster after another- and it was a heck of a lot of fun.

To begin, I found inspiration in the form of this Yoda Head Cake Instructable. I didn't seek out a Star Wars cake as inspiration, although you'd be forgiven for making that assumption. To be honest, the idea of cutting into Yoda's head is a bit disturbing- especially so since the artist used red velvet cake for the interior. This instructable doesn't provide a step-by-step process, but it does explain the basics of how to carve the basic shape and cover it with Fondant (which, if you're not a baker either, is a marshmellow 'skin' that goes over the cake). I found a great recipe for the fondant here. The fondant was messy, but in the end has a consistency similar to sculpy.

I decided to make her a panda bear cake, since we live in China and her nickname is "The Bear". I baked two round cakes and cut them in half, took the four halves and piled them on top of each other. I then froze the cake overnight and then carved out the basic shape of the bear. Then I rolled out the fondant and draped it over the cake- it shaped pretty easily to the basic shape. The fondant skin was pliable and I found I could heal it pretty well by rubbing it with some water where it tore a little bit. After I had the basic shape, I put on some black food coloring and had myself a little cake-panda! So far so good.

Then disaster struck.

Instead of leaving the cake out, I put it back in the freezer. I wouldn't know of my mistake until the day of the party.

With the Panda done, I had a bunch of Fondant left over. Since it seemed to work a bit like sculpy, I made these two little characters for the front of the cake by painting them with a little food coloring. The tiger and the rabbit are Kim and my Chinese zodiac symbols.

The night before the party I set out to finish the cake, and this is where things began to fall apart. For the base of the cake, I grabbed what I thought was a box of chocolate cake mix, and only after struggling to figure out why the cake was so 'bouncy' realized that I had two boxes of muffin mix instead. So I had a giant chocolate muffin. Under most circumstances that would be a good thing. Not this one. Luckily, I had a few boxes of brownie mix. I made two batches of brownies (three if you include the one that I mixed improperly thanks to trying to follow the directions on the leftover muffin box for the brownies) - and after the base was assembled... I realized that the Panda was too big! It wouldn't fit on the layer of cake I'd made as a base. Luckily, I'd saved the giant chocolate muffin (and really, what is a muffin other than 'breakfast cake'?), which I cut up and used to extend the second layer a bit.

Then the real disaster struck. I took the Panda from the freezer and placed it on its pedestal of chocolately goodness. As I was making the green icing, Kim asked me if the color on the cake was supposed to be 'running like that'. I looked over and my black and white Panda was quickly becoming a grey Koala. The black food coloring was running down all over. That's when I went back to the instructions and found out that you are not supposed to freeze fondanted-cakes. The condensation destroys them. So did the unthinkable- I ripped off all the Panda's skin and re-fondanted it about an hour before the party.

Finally the cake was finished. The birthday girl, as it turns out, didn't have much of a sweet tooth, but she smiled at the cake a lot. The dad was happy.

Here's what I learned and where I bring this back to the theme of this blog.

1. Always read the directions carefully, and when your students don't, remind them that not reading directions isn't exactly a shortcut. At the same time, remember that when they don't follow directions, its a forgivable offense.

2. The process is more important than the product. This is something that I talk about in my class a great deal- but this reminded me of something that often gets lost whenever IB and AP classes start their juggernaut roll towards exam time. I'm happy the cake turned out well (although I wouldn't give it a high score on my IB rubric) but I loved making it. That brings me to the next point -

3. Find your muse. I had a personally meaningful goal in mind, and I thoroughly enjoyed learning something new. If only every art class could capture that idea.

4. Find your own answers - and questions. This one I feel like I do quite often in class, but its worth reiterating. Its a great idea to have students find and bookmark a bunch of go-to websites that they prefer (like Instructables for how-to, or Drawn! for inspiration). Students have a lot of questions. I don't have all the answers, but I do have the google.

5. Marshmellow Sculpy. Hmmm.... I think I have a good idea for a final art project this year...


  1. Tassie Rachel said...
    I enjoyed this so much, so interesting to hear cake decorating described in Art terms. Such a different perspective on cake decorating to my Mum's and sister's. I wish I had been there to celebrate Amaya's first birthday.
    dsgran said...
    Hey Rachel! Would love to have had you here for Amaya's birthday. Would love to have gone into this with some sage advice from you and your family as well! I'm sure your guidance would have saved me from approaching the brink of disaster!

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