So my son has turned eight. He had his actual birthday, and then, over the weekend, he had his birthday party, which included a bunch of his friends, ribs (smoked for 6 hours – oh, they were so good), other food, decent enough weather that they could play outside in the pool, and, of course, a cake.
Last year's theme was Star Wars – specifically, a battle between Yoda and the Emperor in the Senate Rotunda, from Revenge of the Sith. You can see it (and Julia's cake from last year) here.
This year we continued with the Star Wars theme, but skipped forward a generation to my favorite of the movies, The Empire Strikes Back.
Why is it my favorite? Who knows. I think it's a blend of things – my age when it came out, the friends and family I associate with that movie and that time, and, let's face it, Han Solo. Luke who? Han Solo was THE star of the movie for me, and also for some of my friends and my cousin, Donna. My sister and my oldest friend preferred Luke, and I remember great debates as to who was "better" – Luke or Han. We'd mock Luke's still slightly whiney boyish behavior ("nooooooooooooooo…it's imPOSSible!") vs. Han Solo was a man, not a boy. He didn't whine, not even when he was about to be encased in carbonite. ("I love you!" "I know.")
Where was I?
Oh, yeah, the cake.
Well, initially the cake was to depict the dramatic moment from the beginning of Empire when Han and Luke are riding around the ice planet Hoth on their Tauntauns, checking for signs of life. ("Echo three to echo seven, Han ol' buddy, do you read me?" "Loud and clear, kid!" Oh, how it annoys Alex when I recite the movie while he's trying to watch it. Heh heh heh. This is why I became a parent.) Han is going to head back to the base, and Luke tells him he's just going to check out what he thinks is a meteorite that landed nearby. They sign off and Luke's Tauntaun makes some agitated snuffly noises and he says "What's the matter, girl, smell something?" and then the Snow Wampa attacks. The cake was going to have the Wampa ABOUT to strike. Ooooh, drama!
But then, shortly before I started making the cake, I thought it would be even more cool (especially for a bunch of second graders, mostly boys) to cut to the next scene in that story line – where Luke is hanging upside down in the Wampa's cave, while the Wampa chows down on what it probably some portion of the unfortunate Tauntaun's anatomy.
I suggested it to Alex, and he agreed it would be cool.
So, with even more enthusiasm than before, I set to work on the cake.
Alex requested chocolate cake with strawberry jam in between the layers. I used the cake recipe for Dorie Greenspan's Devil's Food White Out Cake, which can be found on pages 247-249 of her book, Baking From My Home to Yours, or here. To make the cake for Alex's party, I tripled the recipe and used one 14" round pan, one 12" round pan, and one 6" round pan.
The cake itself is really yummy – very chocolatey, with cocoa powder, melted bittersweet chocolate, AND some semisweet chocolate chips in the batter. I'm not really a big fan of chips in cake, but with this one, it worked – the cake was kind of dense, but not dry, and the chips didn't stand out all that much.
But really, that's not why you're here, is it? Didn't think so.
I used the largest cake circle (split in half and filled with strawberry jam, then covered with jam and, finally, covered with white fondant kneaded with just a bit of blue) for the floor of the ice cave, and used the 12" circle (or intended to) as the top of the cave. I used the 6" circle as a spot for the Wampa to sit while he ate.
And while the fondant firmed up on the cakes, I made the characters.
That's a Tauntaun. It's dead. And one of the hind legs is torn off – you can see it on the upper right part of the baking sheet. The plastic bag stuffed into the gut is to hold that cavity open. Why? Oh, don't worry, you'll find out soon enough.
Here's how things were looking on the morning of the party. I'd built the base of the cake, and the various creatures. I had also (which I didn't photograph) built supports for the upper part of the cake. I used drinking straws with bamboo skewers in them, four in each "corner" of the cake, and then covered the evidence with royal icing. These dried nicely overnight.
Sunday morning, the day of the party, I painted (with food coloring) a bit of dirty color on the Wampa, painted in some eyes and a mouth and those horn things on the sides of his head, and the little claws and pads on his hands and feet (copying Alex's toy as best I could). I painted some color on the dead Tauntaun as well, and her leg. Then I arranged them artistically on the cake.
The leg, as you can see, has been shredded by sharp Wampa claws.
Oh, and that little ice stump in the lower left of the picture above? Right next to the column of ice? That's where Luke-on-a-Stick's bamboo skewer will go later.
Meanwhile, Luke relaxes on his stick.
Now, because I like to keep things as realistic and true-to-life as possible, I needed gore. Guts and gore. As you can see in the pictures above, the Tauntaun has a big hole in her gut, from which I decided her intestines should spill.
No, that wasn't exactly what happened in the movie. I took a bit of artistic license here. I remember being rather impressed when (after he finds Luke wandering in the blizzard talking to Obi Wan ("Ben! Ben! Dagobah system! Ben!") Han's Tauntaun keels over and in order to keep Luke warm, he slices the Tauntaun open, and the guts spill out. I admit it. I was impressed with the guts. I don't know why, exactly, just that the image has stayed in my mind all these many years.
So I thought perhaps there should be some guts in evidence. Particularly since this was a cake for a bunch of second graders, mostly boys.
Now, how to make the guts?
Well, that, actually, was pretty easy.
We have all sorts of noodles and assorted other ingredients used in various Asian cuisines in one cupboard in the kitchen. For the Tauntaun guts I used mung bean, or cellophane, noodles. Made from mung bean starch, they're also called glass noodles, probably because when rehydrated, they are transparent. Perfect for my purposes.
I rehydrated some of the vermicelli-like noodles in hot water, and once they were clear and flexible, I rinsed them in cold water (to stop the cooking) and put them in a bowl. Then I mixed them with a blend of the remaining strawberry jam (for flavor) and a bunch of red food coloring (for…you know, color.)
And here they are.
Now, sometimes when I'm working on cakes, I start to really get a kick out of whatever I'm creating. I really had a blast making the Beluga whale cake for Julia a few weeks ago, and I had perhaps an even better time with this one.
I have to share one more bit of info, too. While I was coloring noodles and putting the finishing touches of gore on the cake, my parents were at the house. They'd come up in the morning – well before the party – to bring Alex his gifts and to have some coffee and pie and a look at the cake at a leisurely pace, rather than surrounded by sugar-deprived, gore-thirsty elementary school children.
So I showed my parents the cake-in-progress, and after they'd had coffee and pie, I brought it to the kitchen (I'd locked it in the music room during various drying phases – away from children and cats) and started adding the gore. And my parents, who are relentlessly supportive of my many and varied artistic efforts, stood by and complimented the cake with words like "amazing" and "wow!" and - my personal favorite – "beautiful."
I mean, just look.
They looked pretty cool, but not…realistic enough. So I got my paintbrush and more red food coloring, and added some artistic embellishment. I mean, I was figuring that if the stomach was ripped open, there would, in addition to the intestinal spillage, be blood, right? And not just there, but smeared on the hapless creature's body from where she was dragged, maybe. Something like that. It could not have been a clean kill, right?
So as I'm dabbing and swirling with the brush, and giggling, my mother is standing off to the side, honestly admiring my work.
That's unconditional love, folks.
I also made the assumption that some blood would have trickled out of the Tauntaun's mouth during all this. Perhaps it is unrealistic, in that the Tauntaun was killed somewhere out in the snow and brought back to the cave, and once the heart stopped, the blood would stop pumping, so maybe there wouldn't have been any trickle of blood once the animal was back in the cave, but…I waved my artistic license flag in the air and painted some blood anyway.
As would the Tauntaun's leg.
Oh! And speaking of the Tauntaun's leg…remember those wider noodles? I used a bit of them to represent strips of flesh from the leg. You can sort of see them in the two images below. They were pretty slippery at first, so I let them dry a bit on paper towels before positioning them on the fondant leg.
That was all I did at that point. Then it was time to get plates and cups and forks and drinks and chips and so forth ready. We'd smoked 5 racks of ribs for 6 hours, and in addition to that we served (at Alex's request) burgers and pizza. So people arrived, and we put out all the food, and the weather cooperated enough so that the kids (mainly boys, plus Julia and one of the two girls Alex had invited from his class. The other one had a soccer game and couldn't come, sadly.) (I know you were wondering.)
About halfway through the two-hour party, once everyone (including the parents who had stayed for the fun) had eaten their fill, my sister and I went into the house to get the ice cream out of the freezer and to get the cake.
I still had to position Luke-on-a-stick, remember.
I placed the end of the skewer in the little bit of straw on the bottom of the cake, and Luke was pretty well finished.
I'll cut to the chase.
It didn't work.
The cake was too heavy, the supports were not sturdy enough and were probably positioned a bit too far out on the lower cake level.
But I did get one picture of how it was supposed to look. My sister held the top level in place while I quickly shot one picture. Unfortunately this was all done so hurriedly that I didn't pay attention to the surroundings, so you also get the disorganized items of my little magnetic memo board in the picture. Sorry. Her hand is there, too, but that was totally necessary.
Yes, it's all blurry, too. I'm sorry about that. But you've seen all the best stuff already, and I didn't even bother to try to show the kids the cake with the cave roof on it. I just stood back while they gazed, mesmerized, at the gore.
Then I made them form a line for cake. I sliced, and my sister scooped ice cream. I also had the bowl of guts nearby.
It went something like this.
"Ice cream? We have chocolate, strawberry, and chocolate mint."
Some kids were excited by the guts, others, not so much.
The best thing – the really, really best thing – was offering guts to the parents who had stayed. And the majority said yes.
You know, in the same way I'd ask "milk and sugar?" or "would you like fries with that?"
"Would you like guts with that? Would you like to supersize those guts?"
Oh, I could go on and on.
Anyway, that is the story of this cake.
I think it was a success.
Oh – and Alex! He loved it. He loved it all the way through the whole "making of" process.
And he took pictures with his own camera, too.