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“Mushroom Men Can’t Fly and Other Lessons in Cake Design” is the working title of my cake memoir (which I will write as soon as I get around to remembering to write it). It pretty much sums up everything I know as a cake artist.
Back in the day, before I had a storefront and was working out of my house, an unknowing couple commissioned me to make their Super Mario Brothers-themed wedding cake. Working at home had its challenges: small fridge, lack of commercial equipment, and no temperature control meant lots of inefficiency. Although I found that I could make three batches of Swiss meringue buttercream in my 5-quart tabletop mixer, it never seemed to be enough, and the constant washing and re-using (rather than doing it all in a single giant batch) meant long hours in the kitchen in less-than ideal conditions. (Lesson #1: Lack of proper equipment is a recipe for disaster–or, at the very least, some very late nights.)
The Super Mario Brothers groom had carefully taken screen shots of all the Super Mario Brothers elements he and his bride wanted included on the cake, and even sent over closeups of some of the game’s design features, such as the clouds, mushroom men, and question marks. Without any context from the photos, and having never played Super Mario myself, they were just random images to me.
I carefully colored and cut the mushroom men, and set about affixing them in the most aesthetically pleasing way I could–sort of all of the cake–when my husband entered the kitchen. He never took much interest in my cake designs, but he was particularly excited about this one, being somewhat of a gamer (and a man), and had come to check my progress.
“What are you doing?” he sort of shrieked when he saw the cake, with just a hint of girlie panic in his voice. “Mushroom men can’t fly!”
“Well how the hell was I supposed to know?” I more yelled than asked. “They’re men who are mushrooms!” Men who were mushrooms and men who were flying mushrooms were equally implausible to me, but to someone who plays the game, this was apparently a major flaw in my design concept.
Had I known that this would not be the only thing to go wrong with this cake, I too probably would have panicked, but the night was young and I had no idea what disasters were in store for me. I carefully peeled off the flying mushroom men, placed them on solid (cake) ground and continued.
When I teach my Fondant Intensive, we talk about lots of ways to remedy fondant, and I always mention that “if you’re having a fondant emergency…” and then I laugh. Because what could possibly be so urgent about fondant as to qualify it as an “emergency”? Well, I tell you what. I had a fondant emergency that night.
It’s generally not too humid in Southern California, but that night it was. We didn’t have air conditioning, so my fondant was being uncharacherstically difficult. Oh, that, and I decided to try out a new technique using Crisco to roll out my fondant instead of my usual corn starch. (Lesson #2: Don’t test new techniques on someone’s wedding cake.) The fondant was drippy and droopy from the humidity, but adding the Crisco made it particularly uncooperative. I must have rolled out the fondant for the first tier at least six times. Somehow, I skipped right over the silky-smooth fondant stage and went straight to the crumbly-cracky-like-chewing-gum-that’s-been-chewed-too-long stage. It was beyond savable. I had entered the realm of Fondant Emergency. I had an old box of Wilton fondant in the cabinet I had no choice but to use.
Evening turned into night. My daughter was long asleep and my husband, who always went to bed later than me, went to bed around 2am, leaving me working in the kitchen. Finally, sweaty, tired, and beat, but nowhere near finished, I crawled into bed at 5am and fell right to sleep. Not 45 minutes later, my eyes popped open and I was back to work, unable to sleep thinking about all I still had to do on the cake. More mushrooms, some clouds, a question mark, and eventually the cake was finished. The delivery was a two hour drive. With only 45 minutes of sleep, I was afraid that I might fall asleep at the wheel and told my husband I needed him to drive me. We had no one to watch our daughter, who was only three or four at the time, and had to bring her along for the ride.
We were using my small Volkswagen at the time, and put the cake in the back seat, right next to my three-year old. She was generally pretty good about not touching my cakes, but I guess being trapped in the car in such close proximity to three tiers of fondant was too much to ask, because at a certain point in the trip I turned around to find her sprinkling water from her water bottle onto the cake. Stop the car, some yelling, general chaos, a few “holy shit”s, and we were back on the road, only for me to turn around a little while later to see my daughter bashing her baby doll’s head repeatedly into the cake. Stop the car, more yelling, more chaos, more “holy shit”s, and we’re back in the car again and almost at our destination. (Lesson # 3: Always box your cakes for delivery.)
I did my best to repair the cake at the venue, only to go away heartbroken knowing that surely my clients would complain. When I got an email Monday morning from the bride. I opened it and sort of read it with one eye (assuming that I would quickly need to shut both eyes, I gave my other eye a head start). They loved the cake (huh?)! She and her husband could not have been more thrilled (what?) and, being that her husband was big in the gaming world and had a huge online presence, photos of my cake would soon be everywhere (great!). (Lesson #4: Brides who allow their wedding cake to be Super Mario Brothers-themed are generally very laid back and also quite awesome.)
I’ve never shared this cake (although it was widely available on the web), but here it is. I won’t get into the tier heights (or lack thereof), the puckered fondant, or the poorly covered board. Feel free to judge.
Recently, we were asked to create a Super Mario Brother’s birthday cake for a client. This time, I carefully researched the placement of the mushroom men. Callan had several conversations with her brothers and took copious notes about some of the more subtle nuances of the game. I took heed of all the lessons learned before. Here is the cake.
Although it was certainly an improvement, I didn’t completely redeem myself with this cake. Callan’s brother said that the flowers only pop out of the boxes with question marks, not the boxes with brick. Next time, Super Mario, next time.
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