October 31, 2003

The Art Of Novelty Cakes

Anyone who has known me for any length of time will more than likely have sampled one of my cakes, and if they're lucky, they'll have been the recipient of one such confection. So, in the spirit of the great masters, and with a passing nod to londonmark, I present the Art of Novelty Cakes. Although this series will be a little less academic than Mark's, more vocational. My polytechnic to his "proper" university.

Cake is a wonderful medium in which to express oneself. It brings a whole new dimension of enjoyment to the consumer of the piece, for they literally get to do just that. In addition to the aesthetics of the cake, a good novelty cake will taste divine, and smell wonderful, and the true artist will bring this interplay of looks, tastes and textures together into the final work.

However, this brings us to the most important rule, and possibly the only immutable law in the art of novelty cakes: the cake must be eaten.

There will come a time when one recipient of a cake will proclaim "it is too nice to eat", and will want to keep it. For me, this happened with Julie's Pingu cake. It was kept in its box for the ten weeks of that summer term at university, untouched, and then transplanted, along with its marzipan penguins, to tin foil, so that she could return the cake box to me, and take the cake home. Maybe it still lies, mouldy, on a shelf at her parents'. Cake does not age well, like a fine wine, or a good Cohiba; any attempts to preserve it are destined to fail, and just deny the gustatory half of the experience.

The hardest part of any novelty cake project is the initial idea. This needs to be something which is relevant to the recipient of the finished cake, whilst also being achievable using the basic building blocks: cake, buttercream, and icing. For some cakes this will be obvious; the pool table for the avid player, the VW Golf GTI for the obsessed VW-fan (beware of combining roll-out icing with overly warm weather though...). Other cakes require more creative thinking; the bacon & egg buttie for the person who'll often rustle one up when you call round to see them, or the computer for the engagement of a work colleague. It helps if you have some knowledge of the interests and hobbies of the person for whom the cake is being made, but often restraint must be exercised, otherwise one could be tempted into designs which are too complicated or intricate to implement. Once the idea has been settled upon, then there is the minor task of bringing it into being.

There are four levels of competence on the path to the artist of novelty cakes.

  1. Assistant. Ideally for the first stage of the novelty cake craft, the student will train under the guidance of an accomplished master. Growing up, my sisters and I always had novelty cakes for our birthdays, and as I got older, I became well versed in the basics of the art by helping my Mum to prepare cakes for relatives' birthdays. Of course, initially, helping meant giving her more practice at applying chocolate buttons to the cake, by removing and eating those she'd already applied so she had to do it again, and licking the bowl (still one of the most important parts of any cake preparation). This progressed to more useful roles: applying the silver balls, then applying icing, and finally to helping design templates to aid cutting of the cake (during assembly, obviously no-one needs a template to tell them how to cut it when divvying up for eating :-)
  2. Imitation. The second stage marks the beginning of the student's branching out on their own. They make initial moves to see how their work may be received, either with simple forms imaginatively iced (such as my first solo piece, the alloy wheel) or copies of more elaborate items first prepared under the tutalege of the master (for example, the classic hedgehog).
  3. Realism. In this next stage, the artist's confidence is growing. Their ideas are becoming more ambitious but their quest for realism is often hampered by the limitations of sponge and icing.
  4. Acceptance. Finally, comes acceptance. Accepting of the materials available. Realisation that their role is not to recreate, but to capture the essence of the subject. To convey the impression of the subject. Realisation that in the best novelty cakes, the materials add to the piece, rather than getting in the way. The burger and the bacon & egg buttie are the best examples of this from the Adrian McEwen Portfolio.

What follows is not a foolproof method to recreate the cakes that I have made, merely some notes on how I made some cakes, at some point in time. To quote Nigel Slater in his excellent book "Appetite":
"I am convinced that a recipe should not be a set of rules to be followed to the letter for a mind-numbingly uniform result... Is that all there is to it? A recipe must work? Surely there is more to it than that[?]"

Posted by Adrian at October 31, 2003 02:22 AM | TrackBack

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You've almost made me want to have a go.

Posted by: Leila at October 31, 2003 01:35 PM

I'll try to dig out a photo of the guitar cake you made me once upon a time. Another example of leaving it too long to eat. What a tragedy.

Posted by: Therearenostupidquestions at November 1, 2003 09:02 AM

just followed your comment on Londonmark, and think this is a worthy addition to his 'art by others' series.

i may even see if i can dig out some of my attempts at novelty cakes.

Posted by: emma at November 8, 2003 12:23 PM

Your Dismembered Body Cake has just had me in stitches!
I love making novelty cakes when I have time (I'm guilty, it's been a while), but this is just taking novelty cake making to a new dimension. I've made coffins, sculls, spiders and the rest for Halloween, but I'm seriously impressed with this one! Spotted the Zombie too!
I'll save your site to see what else comes up!

Posted by: Sneshka at April 2, 2006 05:33 PM

Unfortunately the zombie cake wasn't my creation, just one I found somewhere on the 'net. I haven't managed anything quite so amazing yet.

I do have a bit of a backlog of cakes to write up though, but I haven't a clue when I'll get chance to get them uploaded...

Posted by: Adrian at April 4, 2006 08:30 PM

I am in love with the burger cake, and I would love to try to make it sometime. :)

Posted by: Sydney at March 11, 2008 04:17 PM

Well Sydney, if you want instructions on how I did it, there's a step-by-step guide with pictures.

Happy baking :-)

Posted by: Adrian at March 11, 2008 04:46 PM

i've been asked to make a bacon buttie cake and found this site on google but your link isn't working! can you update as am desperate to please these guys! its for a charity event!

thanks ever so!

Posted by: fantasweets at October 1, 2008 03:32 PM

Hi I have been asked to make a numbered novelty cake and need some help, what is the best way to cover a 3 and 0 with sugarpaste?

Posted by: jsandy at January 13, 2009 06:03 PM

My son would like a General Grevious ( from Star Wars) cake. I have pictures but not sure how big to do this or how to do the frame as he wants a 3D shape. I did see one on another site but has very vague directions. Please help if you can.

Posted by: Julie Gilbert at January 26, 2009 02:54 PM
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