Jan Norris: Food and Florida

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The Stork Cake Saga: Right Brain Strikes Again

July 21st, 2009 · 11 Comments


If I’m not getting myself into trouble, my friends are doing it for me. A friend passed my name along to another friend throwing a baby shower, and suggested I was the one to do her cake.

I am getting a reputation for quirky and fun cakes – definitely not the gorgeous, perfect ones.

So because this is a friend, and I love a challenge, I talked the person into 75 or so cupcakes – my specialty – with a centerpiece cake shaped like a giant cupcake.

Plan? Me?

In a typical wild moment, I decided to make a stork to stand atop the centerpiece. It would be my first big “stand-up” 3-D figure.

With no plans whatsoever, and no idea how to do it, only creative design and unbridled enthusiasm, I plowed ahead as usual:  “Ready? Fire! AIM!”

Size and width really do matter



I looked up storks online to make sure I had the coloring right, even though I’ve seen hundreds lately in the Glades (storks are returning in flocks here).

The stork began on paper as a 7- or 8-inch bird that would perch on his little legs in the center of the cake. A little blanket tied to his beak would be a swing for a little fondant baby covered with a cute blanket. I drew out the stork and colored him in. Awww….

Somewhere along the line, however, the stork grew to 14 inches tall — 6 inches too high, and way too skinny – even if the one in the picture was pretty slender. I had wanted him proportional, and the cake I was baking to support him must have been much larger in my mind’s eye. Thing is: I put no thought into that other part – the supporting cake or structure. It was all about the bird.

I recorded everything as I went, scribbling away in my “Don’t do this again, you fool!” book.

Pro bakers – patient as saints

Because I don’t know what I can’t do (a curse from the Harrelson side of the family), and I can dream up some really bizarre ideas, I get myself in all kinds of trouble – baking, and otherwise. Every project eventually becomes a Lucy-and-Ethel comedy.

But I was smart enough this time to at least ask for suggestions, and enlisted two of my favorite friends who bake professionally — Merrie Lee Reese of Cakes, Etc. in West Palm Beach, and now-retired baker, Lisa Montenegro, formerly of Cakeability in Tequesta. Both were beyond generous with their know-how. (Thank you, thank you, ladies!)

A light-weight idea

ricekrispiesMerrie Lee, who teaches baking and decorating at her Cakes, Etc. shop, listened to my nutty idea, raising her eyebrows only a few times. She gave me the first of lots of helpful hints, suggesting I use a recipe for Rice Krispies treats as the sculpting medium for the stork – not pure fondant or gum paste as I had originally planned. Brilliant!

I will be forever grateful to her for this one idea that eventually saved the cake and my sanity. Later, online, I learned that I probably should  have left out the butter from the recipe for the RK Treats to make them even firmer, but — next time (she scribbles). Doing it from these meant a lighter bird that had a better chances of remaining upright.

I was a little fretful over the stormy weather called for, because humidity can wreck every sugar project known to man. But I figured I’d just adjust as needed as I went along.

Details, details

But next time, I should really bake a trial cake – not just draw it out – to get proportions right and visualize engineering (structural supports). Not to mention, plan on packing and moving it. Cake, as a medium, holds up icing – not 2-pound storks with skewer-thin legs swinging a baby from their beaks, traveling over speed lumps. Scribble, scribble, scribble.

I called Lisa three or four times during this whole ordeal to get advice on making glue-on fondant pieces separately and assembling them and decorating. (Use melting candy or a Q-tip with water as glue. Thin the colors with a drop or two of vodka; buttercream is OK on fondant.)

She was a lifeline – I am awed by her generosity of her knowledge of working with fondant, gum paste and all the sugar stuff. Her talent is amazing – she’s done cakes for magazines, bazillionaires, and has had her own one-woman gallery show of her cakes as art!  She and her bakery partner Regina Messina got burned out, however, and sold the bakery this spring. Lisa now sews and does alterations. And I completely understand.

No rules for this party

I began by baking the bottom layer of the centerpiece cake (the cupcake “paper” layer) to get a feel for how the top would look, and maybe how deep it would need to be to support the stork. It looked good but seemed shallow. Hmm. Worry later.

Things went swimmingly with the stork.

I wanted to be sure a 1/4-inch dowel would be enough support for the bird’s weight — so I formed the cereal treat mixture around the main dowel and stuck smaller ones and skewers through his beak and head to offer additional support. The main dowel ran through his body, up through the skinny neck, and into the top of the head. Legs would come later and would be lightweight – just for show.

The supporting end of the dowel would eventually be planted in a solid foam block I covered with fondant and decorated to look like a baby’s block. (A friend points out this was against the rules in cake competitions. Too bad — I don’t need no stinkin’ rules — and definitely no contests. I’m challenged plenty!)

His tail was a small flipped up piece of fondant and Krispies carved to look like feathers. Wings were separately attached pieces of fondant.

I set him aside to dry once I sculpted him, then covered him in sheets of fondant. That part, at least, went well. The texture of the RK Treats under the fondant made him look realistic. You really could tell it was a stork – or some kind of wading bird with an orange beak. Whew!

Keep your chocolate

Next day, I baked and assembled the rest of the three parts to the giant chocolate cupcake — one fluted cake, and two round layers, stacked. I carved it into its cupcake shape and double-iced all the layers. I made the cupcake “paper” covering out of a sheet of fondant, scupting it into the ridges.

Note well: I HATE working with chocolate cake and white fondant. (More scribbling: Talk clients out of chocolate.)

Even though I brushed it, and coated the cake with a simple syrup and even used a light chocolate glaze to keep crumbs in check, it still had crumbs coming out of it that found their way into every speck of white fondant possible. (And of course, I had simple syrup, glaze and sticky sugar from kneecap to earholes – and was sticking to everything I came near. I, too, was eventually coated with chocolate crumbs and white fondant pieces.)

baby-cupcakesAt this point, I took a break from this frustration, and made balls of flesh-colored fondant for babies’ heads, and rolled out pink and blue fondant squares trimmed with ruffles for the blankies. These would be little babies to top the individual cupcakes. I never finished painting all their faces or putting orange beaks on the rubber ducks I made for the others. They turned out really cute  anyway.

Enter Lucy, Ethel — and Sammy the dog

I had kept the dog outside during all this behind the sliding glass doors – on purpose. My black lab Samantha loves cupcakes – and wiped out 13 of them in one gobble for a previous party. (Stupid me – I left them on the table, unguarded, to go get the icing.)  She was watching attentively from behind the doors this time.

Sammy Norris

Sammy Norris

Before I started the six dozen-plus cupcakes, I decided to set the stork on the centerpiece so I could measure the legs and make sure he’d hold up. The dowel went as planned down through the main cupcake centerpiece, down through a hole in its supporting cake board, and finally through the center of the 4-inch foam block that sat on a heavy cake plate supporting it all. I poked his legs, made of steak skewers and colored fondant, into his body and attached his orange webbed feet. Things were looking great.

Just as I was about to step back and check it all, a crack of thunder that made my dishes rattle and chandelier shake  hit. Sammy freaked out, slammed open the glass doors by jumping against the latch, pushing herself through them, and skidding past me into the bedroom to hide her head under the bed.

cd-towerAs she raced through on the terrazzo, she slid around a corner into a CD tower on the wall next to me. It teetered.

In a crystal clear slow-motion moment of clarity, I knew what was coming.

I let go of one hand on the stork to lean over and catch the CD tower and all the 150 CDs crashing all around me. The other hand rocked on the stork and pushed my hand into the cake. One of the legs fell off the bird and his tail cracked off and crashed to the table. This left a stump of orange fondant at his knee joint, and a raw patch of Rice Krispie treats showing out his butt.

When I could breathe again and things quit moving, I managed a somewhat calm recovery (after a shot of some nearby vodka set up for painting fondant). I carefully stabilized everything  on the cake before removing my hands from the stork. Once I picked up the now-sticky CDs and cleaned up the frosting mess, I was able to re-ice the cupcake and re-ruffle it. Later, all that extra icing I added would be the delight of the recipient. (More scribbling: Keep extra icing and vodka on hand at all times.)

Design flies – sort of

I reworked the stork’s leg, reattached the now-cracked orange foot, patched his butt with more fondant, and set him back on the cake. Ta-da! He did great and looked really cute.  Not wanting to push my luck, I took him off the cake, and laid him down to dry again.

Before that, however, I hung the fondant blanket from his beak to check it out – but it cracked at its seam when the baby was set into it. Plan B: a snippet of cotton fabric held on with melted chocolate. It held up the baby just fine.  Again: Not regulation – who cares?

I got to work on the rest of the little cupcake designs – rubber ducks, pacifiers and feet prints with little toes; baked the 75 cupcakes and cleaned up the house again. More vodka seemed like a champion idea.  I have come to love gimlets.

I also took time to make little chocolate bears from candy molds. Now I know why so many bakers choose this route for decorating – they are pretty foolproof, and are both cute and edible. Chocolate melting candy has come a long way from its waxy icky start. (I added a little Scharffenberger chocolate to it, just in case.)

Deadline worker to the last

It’s the newspaperwoman in me – but I am a deadline worker and rally just when I need to. I got up the next morning and washed down newly grouted tile in a bathroom I’m redoing. I went with a friend to the vet to put her beloved chihuahua down. Bummer – she took it well, but I was a wreck. I took a couple of help-line calls from frantic weekend cooks and researched a recipe for one.  And I went to the hardware store to pick up a spare dowel — just in case.

Psychologically I think I was avoiding putting that cake together.

Finally, two hours before delivery was skedded, I decided to set the bird back on the cake in the center of the dining room while I made all the icings for the cupcakes – it would give me peace of mind knowing he would be stable for the length of the party.

kitchenaidmixerI launched into the icings – four separate flavors. Thank heavens for multiple mixers that have never failed me once. (KitchenAid, can you please start making cars?)

Then from the dining room, I heard an odd noise — what now? Sammy was locked outside this time.

It was the stork, his Rice Krispies treats body softened slightly from the humidity, letting go of the dowel and sliding straight down as though on a pole. By some stroke of luck, he landed sitting straight up on the cake, orange legs splayed, impaled by the dowel.

Plans B through Z

There was a ski-slope-like path his webbed feet had dug as they slid neatly down and out from under him on the chocolate icing. He was buried up to his newly frosted butt in it. Otherwise, he was remarkably OK and now very stable – except the support dowel was now sticking out of his head by 3 inches.

I wasn’t surrendering now!

I couldn’t pull the dowel up enough to clip it completely flush with his head, so I left a teeny knob on it, and quickly colored some fondant to sculpt a rather rakish cap for him. It actually looked planned. It kind of went with his funky monacle.

I repaired his left foot – again — and smoothed him out and re-piped the chocolate icing for the umpteenth time.

(Scribble, scribble: Have extra colored fondant ready for rolling, and plenty of extra icing in bags. Buy more vodka.)

I flew through the icings and decorations for the 75 cupcakes, and iced and stacked them in record time on cake plates, platters and trays. They were all over my dining room and kitchen.

Could our streets be any lumpier?

I threw on a clean shirt, and threw a sheet in the back of the SUV. I carried out all the cupcakes first then ran to find a wine box to hold a cake stand full. (Scribble: Do NOT transport cupcakes on pedestal cake stands – set them up on site, you idiot!)

At last, time to load the stork. I set this three-tier, 38-inch tower, swaddled in plastic wrap, gingerly in the back of the truck. It weighed a ton – mostly from the glass cake plate.

I glanced over at my neighbor mowing his yard – for a split-second, I thought about asking him to drive me, while I held up the stork cake on the ride. He would gladly have left that mower.

Alas, common sense loses again – I waved and climbed behind the wheel.

speed-hump-signI drove 15 miles an hour down U.S. 1 from Lake Park. There are at least 48 raised manhole covers from Silver Beach Road to 30th St., and numerous speed humps I had to maneuver, in case you care.  Somewhere along about 26th Street, the cake fell over. It was completely intact — just on its side. (Physics note: I needed a wider-radius sturdy board — not a little cake plate – to support the height.)

I pulled over and righted the cake, using the now-firm stork to set it upright. I pushed other boxes around it, and then continued in a straight line to my location at 10 mph.

Once at the party, the guests were already arriving. I carefully unloaded it through the back door into the kitchen, andwent to work on repairs.  A wet knife here, removing smeared icing there – re-poking in the skewers — it was minor stuff, fairly easy to fix. I buried the cracked foot in the icing and it stayed for good.  The crack in the leg looked realistic – as fake storks go.


“This is awesome!”

Finally on display and thankfully, out of my hands, the cake won over all the guests – as well as the gal throwing the party. They were delighted beyond measure at this quirky cake. There was much picture-taking and ooh and ahhing and “Did you see this cake? It’s amazing!” – making it all worthwhile.

The stork held up for three days afterward – the blanket fell off the beak, and the foot fell off again, but otherwise, he remained intact. The party guests liked the big cupcake-cake best, I was told — the thick icing layer was “superb.”


Repeat after me: I am not Wonderwoman

As with everything that causes this much grief, I’ve learned a great deal. No. 1 among the lessons: Line up some help.

All those cake shows on TV feature at least two fools tackling these things — and sometimes, a whole shop full of workers doing just one part of a cake. They do a lot in advance  – and a lot of them do real architectural drawings and calculations to plan them out.

Me? I jumped in with nothing – and did it solo.

They also don’t live in South Florida. There’s a reason they wear long-sleeved chef’s coats — their bakeries are very cool and dry. Even the restaurant kitchens I work out of are humid — so I’m doubly impressed with cake bakers down here who try these things with sugar.

I have great plans for bigger, better and wilder cakes. Just give me time — and a few more hands and hours.

And a sunny, dry weather report.

Tags: Ask Jan

11 responses so far ↓

  • 1 ksteinhoff // Jul 21, 2009 at 9:39 pm

    When you first told me about your stork sliding slowly, slowly down the dowel rods, I could only think about Vlad the Impaler and one of his favorite pastimes.

    Since people may be eating, I’ll let them Google it for themselves.

    Thought Two: I wondered about the strange pattern on the frosting of the last batch of cupcakes you gave me. I thought it might have been caused by a spatula that had some wear on the edge.

    Now, I’m wondering if those grooves match up to a certain dog’s tongue…

    You know what, I’m going back to thinking
    about Vlad. I ATE those cupcakes.

  • 2 Jan Norris // Jul 21, 2009 at 9:45 pm

    The dog didn’t do it!
    The only paws near those cupcakes were John’s and Wyatt’s in the car before they even made it out of my neighborhood.
    The smooth groove was probably from Wyatt scooping his finger along them to figure out which flavor was which.

  • 3 Jan Norris // Jul 21, 2009 at 9:46 pm

    And besides – Sammy wouldn’t stop at the frosting. She eats the whole thing — paper and all.

  • 4 ksteinhoff // Jul 21, 2009 at 9:52 pm


    I believe that just like Vlad’s enemies believed him when he said, “Sit down and make yourself comfortable.”

  • 5 Matthew Steinhoff // Jul 22, 2009 at 10:35 am

    I am so submitting your creation to Cake Wrecks.


  • 6 Carol Keefer // Jul 22, 2009 at 7:12 pm

    Such visual images, the dog, the CDs, the stork slowly sliding down the dowl. Now if only I could had a taste of one of your cupcakes! No wonder my brother has a link to your site. Maybe with searching I will find something to help me finally win the faculty cook-off…

  • 7 Jan Norris // Jul 22, 2009 at 7:35 pm

    Keefer is a great cupcake eater and a long time follower and student of my food writing. We’ve traded and improved on several recipes for things like his slow-cooker, and a cool Foreman grill and more.
    And he makes a very mean omelet – finessed over a teeny stove stuck in a car trunk in a windy field, no less. Pitchers of great bloody Marys helped somewhat…
    He’s the guy I should have tapped to help me engineer the stork’s support stuff. I had vodka!

  • 8 Scott Simmons // Jul 22, 2009 at 11:34 pm

    I saw the stork in person two days after the shower and can tell everyone it looked even better in person.

    I’m sure you’ll do it with a quarter of the effort next time.

    Great work!

  • 9 Joan Hatler // Jul 23, 2009 at 10:53 am

    Cousin Joan in Pensacola, Enjoyed your story,call me next time to be a second hand. Together we can work miircles. the cake was really sweet.

  • 10 ksteinhoff // Jul 24, 2009 at 10:11 am

    In case anyone was trying to get to CakeWrecks and Matt’s URL didn’t work, it’s because it picked up the close-paren at the end.

    This will get you there. I agree the Stork Cake definitely deserves a spot there.


  • 11 Merrie Lee Reese // Sep 6, 2009 at 4:34 pm

    Oh, my, Jan! You didn’t tell me it was on a cupcake cake!!! You know, there is a cake pan that makes those full size cupcakes, and it is a lot more stable than stacked cakes! They are worth every penny of the $27.
    Let me know next time and I’ll give you the 411 on anchoring cakes to plates.
    I was laughing so hard, that husband came in to see what was going on in here!
    Yes, you made my day! No, make that my week!
    You know of course I have to share with the cake club about this, too.
    Thanks for sharing–
    Merrie Lee

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