Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Adelie Penguin Cake

My brother recently celebrated a multiple-of-ten birthday, and my sister-in-law organized a surprise party for him. I don't know what made me look at airfares, but when I found they were ridiculously cheap, I decided to fly home to be part of the surprise.

Of course I felt honor-bound to create a cake. (As usual, skip to the end for specs and recipes.) But what design? Sister-in-law suggested: his whippet; a bicycle; his whippet riding a bicycle; a penguin. Given that bicycle and whippet riding a bicycle were way beyond my skills, I tried sketching the whippet (curled up, for ease of sculpture). I came up with a cute sketch, and was looking forward to decorating in all those shades of brown, but realized the whole concept was just gross - eating the family pet and all. So I tossed that, which left penguin.

I know how to do a penguin, but figured Charlie deserved an original. So I combed the web for pictures of other kinds of penguins. Adelie penguins were the obvious choice for sheer cute-power (although you have to admire the rockhoppers' attitude). Found an excellent photo (which I have now misplaced) of a penguin jumping, thought, "Wait, I've seen that before!" and found a penguin in exactly the same attitude in Mr. Popper's Penguins. Robert Lawson's illustrations are impressively true-to-life.*

I knew I was on my own for this design, since Matt was not accompanying me to St Louis. Intimidating, but also exhilarating to be able do everything exactly as I pleased. Plus, I had my mom for a sous chef and dad for a portraitist, so I wasn't completely without resources.

My brother didn't identify the cake as a penguin at first -- thought it might be the Doubtful Guest. An understandable mistake, but the lack of tennis shoes should have been a dead giveaway.

Design Process

I will include a wordy and picture-laden discourse on designing a cut-up cake in a future post. It would make this post excessively long.

Specs and Recipes

I used my usual chocolate sheet cake recipe from Cooks Illustrated (Issue 48, Jan 2001), and the same frosting recipes as for the emperor penguin. The white sour cream frosting recipe didn't make quite enough -- you would want to increase it, say one and a half times.

I poured unsweetened chocolate glaze over the assembled cake before frosting.

The feet are dried papaya spears, as is the beak. The feet are curved spears cut to appropriate thickness. The beak, of which I am particularly proud, I carved a little. Technically speaking, the feet ought to have had long black claws, but I decided that would be too distracting. A wee nubbin of licorice whip defines the chin.

The eye is a sugar eye I bought at Cookies for the cookie-making party. Orient the pupil carefully - it makes a real difference to the facial expression. Before you call me on it, yes, the pupil probably is made with food coloring. A white jordan almond with a dab of chocolate ganache would be truer to the manifesto (unless of course the candy coating is whitened with titanium dioxide, but at a certain point, I just stop asking).

The cake board is foam core covered with tinfoil and then waxed paper. I used a spatula to gently scrape off icing drips, and polished with a damp paper towel. Use the latter sparingly -- I managed to tear a hole in the dampened waxed paper by overly vigorous rubbing.

*I've ready MPP multiple times, but only this time made the connection that it has the same illustrator as The Story of Ferdinand. Once I realized that, I saw that Mr. Popper's grief-stricken posture near the end is exactly that of the frustrated toreador in Ferdinand. Um, yes, I am a children's literature geek.

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