Monday, April 30, 2012

Guitar cake - and cake making for business

One of my hobbies is to make decorated cakes. Once upon a time I thought about making a go of a mini business of cake decorating, but I quickly found that unless you are extremely good and very artistic and have nerves of steel, there's no career in cake as really the only money maker of cake are wedding cakes.

But, I do love doing it for fun and for friends. It makes me feel good to be able to do something special for someone and to make a special celebration just a little more special by my cake creation.

This past weekend a friend asked me to make a cake for her singing partner. They were giving a John Denver concert on his birthday. Here's the concert:

And then I was surprised to see this in the interior. The last "Special Thanks to: Melissa Sinclair (a surprise!):

My friend thought it would be extra special to have a special birthday cake. We settled on a price (cake for exchange of two tickets to the concert) and then I gave her a few options for cake ideas and from there we came up with the cake design.

When I was looking for cake design ideas, I googled, just for fun, if there was a John Denver cake. As isn't there a cake for everything? Well, yep. There is a John Denver cake. Click on the link if you can stomach an odd looking cake! John Denver cake. Sorry, I just cannot get into people cakes!

I tried looking up so many things for ideas. Rocky Mountain cake. Country Roads cake. Then, when googling images for music guitar cake, I found this cake that brought on the idea: guitar cake.

So, in the end what she wanted was a miniature guitar on the cake with the words Happy Birthday Sean on top and then, as many of a long list of titles of songs along the sides of the cake as would fit nicely. I was to just choose titles and 'surprise' her.

This is where it gets tough for me. I am good at deconstructing and building ideas. I know how to go about creating things as long as no real artistic talent needs to come into play. I simply cannot draw or mold or sculpt. A guitar I figured I could handle. That could be deconstructed. I got some gum paste and made the guitar in several pieces. I printed three copies of this picture: acoustic guitar.  One copy I cut out  the body of the guitar, put it on top of the gum paste cutting around it to make the back and the front, cutting out the circle for the front. On the second copy of the picture, I cut out the neck of the guitar and the part that holds the strings. I then rolled some little balls and flattened them for the tuning knobs.  Lastly, the most difficult part, I rolled out a piece of gum paste and cut a thin strip of it (same width the entire way). I then tipped it in it's side and outlined the back of the guitar, thus making the sides/girth of the guitar. I put this all in the oven to dry - with just the light on in the oven for a little bit of dry heat.

The third copy of the picture I used to know how to color and assemble the guitar later. I decided painting the guitar would look better than tinting the gum paste and I think it was a good decision. Looked more like wood tones than if I would have tinted the whole thing a solid color.

Meanwhile, I made the cake. The friend ordering didn't know if her singing partner preferred yellow or chocolate cake, so she ordered a layered cake of both kinds. It had five layers - chocolate, yellow, chocolate, yellow, chocolate. I then used Italian meringue buttercream for the filling and icing. (my new buttercream of choice when lots of piping isn't needed).

The chocolate cake is a labor of love. You need to melt and cool unsweetened chocolate (thought not cooling until it is stiff). As always I needed room temperature butter and then I needed to make a fudge of coffee and cocoa, boiling the coffee first, adding the cocoa and then letting that cool. The cake cooks at a low 275 for over an hour too. This is not a quick mix cake!

Then, when that was done, I made the yellow cake. This one uses sour cream.

While the second cake was baking, I made the buttercream. Once again, a labor of love. This particular recipe takes about 45 minutes to make - first boiling sugar, whipping egg whites, then adding the boiled sugar to the egg whites, beating that forever and then adding the butter and lastly the flavorings.

Cakes have to cool, of course, and then sliced for layering, buttercream needs to be added to each layer, stacked carefully, then icing all around. Since this is a really light icing, I then needed to refrigerate it to stiffen up the icing a bit before adding the fondant.

Fondant is not my favorite medium, but in this case, with all that writing, it needed to be fondant. It takes forever to roll too. But, I rolled it out for the cake, put it on and then waited some more. I needed to let the fondant dry some before we could write on it.

Finally, time to write. Now, I 'could have' written on the cake, but my handwriting is like my artistic ability - not great. My husband is artistic and has great handwriting. Since this would be writing with food markers, I figured he would be able to do it for me (as he has no idea how to use piping bags filled with buttercream). I had rolled out a bit of spare fondant for him to practice on first and yep, he had better writing than me. But even he was nervous as there was no 'do overs' with fondant. You can't erase any mistakes. Writing on the cake took about an hour.

Of course, while all this is happening, I worked on the guitar little by little. First I mixed up some colors to paint the guitar and then let that dry. After that, I mixed up gum paste glue and assembled the guitar and let it dry some more. Lastly, I needed to add the strings of the guitar. I had some fishline for making necklaces and after about 30 minutes or so, I managed to get 6 strings on the guitar. The guitar I didn't add to the cake until about an hour before going. We used a paper template for placement purposes when writing on the cake.

Voila - finally done. Now, add up those hours, OK?  I started making the cake at 9 am. I stopped for lunch and for making dinner and briefly to write my two blogs while things were baking/cooling. We finished at 9:30 pm. I was on my feet for hours and hours. Now, the costs. I used top quality ingredients and then of course, there was the cost of fondant, gum paste, the box, the cake plate and so on. The cost of this cake for my friends was $50. It was not cheap for the buyer, but for supplies and ingredients, it cost about $20 or so to make. That's $30 for labor. Let's say I put in 10 hours of labor, which is about right. That's $3 an hour.

There is a reason Charm City Cakes (of Ace of Cakes) base price for cakes is $500. Artistic cakes take time and talent. I'm not of their caliber, but still, it's not cheap. I can make a simple 8" iced cake with a simple border and "Happy Birthday" in about 2 hours, but a really yummy, artsy cake? It takes many, many hours.

So, I don't do this for money. I do it for the joy it gives the recipient and the giver of the cake. As long as I can cover my costs, then it's worth doing it for me, but as a business? Nope. Only cakes that really make money are wedding cakes. Everything else really needs to be just the love of doing it.

At the end of the concert, my friend again said, "I want to Thank Melissa again for making Sean's cake. It was just perfect. It was exactly what I wanted." And, I saw that Sean was having his girlfriend save the guitar for him to keep. That, right there, is why I make cake. Making someone's life feel special. Anyone can buy a cake from the grocery store. Custom ordering a cake shows love and being able to make such a cake, makes my heart sing.

But, all these words. You want to see the cake, right?  Well, here it is:

Here is the birthday boy, Sean, cutting the cake:

And here they are performing:

And really, if you ever want to see a great show, see them sing. They are Side by Side. They are wonderful. I see them at least once a year. Here are a couple YouTube clips from a similar show they did years ago. Beautiful harmonies: Goodbye Again, Side by Side and  Fly Away, Side by Side.


  1. nice opinion.. thanks for posting.

  2. Just like you, I make my cakes for family and friends and I am going to use this cake as inspiration for my Father-in-law.