Saturday, June 21, 2008

A Very Brady Birthday Cake

There was no question in my mind what a Brady Bunch Birthday cake should look like – the classic blue-background nine-square grid, with the “Happy Birthday” message where you typically see the show’s title. Because an all-blue cake (albeit with faces) seemed a bit dull, I decided the grid should appear as a screen on a 70’s-era TV set. I found this photo – actually a radio designed to look like a TV – online to use as a model.

I like this one because it’s not just a brown wooden box with a screen in it, attractive as those are; the TV set itself has some nice variety – wood sides, sleek white plastic face, cool little speaker and control knobs. I was itching to get going already. I decided to bake the cake in an 11x15 pan, and put together a quick AutoCAD drawing/template based on my radio-TV model.

Obviously the major challenge for a cake like this is the Brady faces – what to make them with and what to use as a guide. Because the center square of the grid would be covered up with Happy Birthday “Marcia”!, I was spared having to make an edible Alice, but I still needed something on which to base my Mike, Carol, Greg, Marcia, Peter, Jan, Bobby, and Cindy. Naturally I turned to ebay, searching out things with drawn, and therefore easier to trace, images of the Brady's, such as paper dolls, comic books, and coloring books, dating from the Brady era (and staying away from all the Brady Bunch Movie paraphernalia – I found the movie somewhat enjoyable, but this had to be a classic Brady cake, no satires would do). Several likely items were available, but the auction ending soonest was for a Brady coloring book –I won this for a mere $10 thanks to my pinch-bidding older brother. (The bidding night conflicted with 5th-row seats at the Robert Plant/Alison Krauss concert at the Pavilion, which by the way was amazing and much better than the album, although I do like the album, and don’t always enjoy concerts. But it’s always incredible seeing musicians who are really good at what they do and have so much versatility. At shows like that I find myself watching the “back-up” musicians as much as if not more than the featured ones. end of aside)

Since the images I would be copying were somewhat cartoonish, I had decided to try my hand at color-flow for the Brady faces. This is a decorating technique where you first outline your desired design (usually trace it on a sheet of waxed paper) in color flow icing, allow that to dry thoroughly, then fill in areas of color with thinned-out tints of the same icing. My mother, who is really gifted at cake decorating (and baking!) did several cakes with color flow when I was growing up – the most memorable of these to me was my fifth birthday Strawberry Shortcake Cake, which featured a perfect color flow Strawberry Shortcake.
Anyway, the great thing about color flow is that it can be done several days in advance – actually even months in advance – giving me plenty of time to perfect my Brady’s, and meaning that the actual cake-decorating day should be relatively stress-free, the trickiest part already behind me. However, the problem, potentially, with color flow is that it must be done at least two days in advance of going on the cake to allow plenty of time to set up. The day of the party drew nearer, and I began to get nervous because my coloring book still hadn’t arrived. I searched the internet for decent Brady images I could use instead, but in vain. The closest things were images from the dreadful, short-lived cartoon show The Brady Kids. These, however, were very low resolution and besides that, featured only the kids – no Mike and Carol.

But,,,,,, the coloring book didn’t come and didn’t come – around this time I noticed that my Brady dvd’s, in addition to containing all five seasons of the show, include A Very Brady Christmas, The Brady 500, and one episode of The Brady Kids. It wasn’t what I had wanted, but in desperation I put on The Brady Kids and began pausing the disc and snapping photos. Did I get weird screening effects? Yes. Was this still better than the low-res internet pics? Absolutely. Did I get a usable picture for Mike or Carol? No, but this was better than nothing. Maybe I could start with the kids and the coloring book would arrive in time to use for the parents. I brought my AutoCAD template into Adobe InDesign, and placed my Brady Kids pictures into it, scaling them to fit the grid. Of course my Happy Birthday image had to be written in the classic Brady typeface, but the font is readily, and freely, available online. (Twenty years ago, if you had told me that one day I could “download” the Brady typeface from the “internet” to use however I wanted, I wouldn’t have believed, or understood it.) I added the Happy Birthday “Marcia”! – which I also planned to do with color flow, to the center of the grid, and was ready to go.

The next available night I whipped up a batch of color flow icing to try my hand at making Brady’s. Mistake number one was probably deciding to tint an entire batch of the icing black; for my first attempt, wouldn’t setting part of it aside and only tinting half have worked? Oh well. After mixing in almost all of my brand-new black paste food coloring, I had a nice dark grey. Mistake number two was deciding that parchment paper was the same as/better than waxed paper. Wilton’s website doesn’t stress the importance of waxed paper, but it sure doesn’t tell you to use parchment, and now I think I know the reason why. Anyway, I laid a sheet of parchment paper over my printout and painstakingly piped Happy Birthday “Marcia”! in nearly-black color flow. It looked … not great, but passable for a first attempt. I would wait and do the kids later.

But not too much later – at this point it was three days before cake-day, so next day I decided to buckle down and start making faces. Unfortunately my color flowing skills had not improved overnight. After subsequent conversations with my Mom it seems clear that my icing was too thick. Whatever the case, the Bobby, Greg, and Peter that I piped were not inspiring – wiggly, too-fat lines – and my hand was killing me. Worse, thanks to using the wrong kind of paper, the icing was not adhering to the paper at all but coming off and sort of breaking up (the same was true for the previous night’s Happy Birthday).

Now, as it happens, the day I had gone shopping for color flow mix – partly because it was so exciting to be at Michael’s with such a wide array of Wilton products before me, and partly because I was scared of undertaking my first-ever color flow project with no back-up plan – I had also bought a couple of packages of pre-tinted ready-to-use rolled fondant. (Another product I’ve never used – not to offend any fondant-lovers out there but I sort of disapprove of it: it doesn’t taste very good and is becoming so ubiquitous these days. Aren’t cakes for eating, as well as looking pretty?) After two discouraging hours of non-successful color flow, it was clearly time for Plan B. In fact, I probably could’ve stuck with Plan A had it occurred to me to call Mom and ask for color flow advice, but as it happened that didn’t occur to me.

As it was I developed a fairly good method for doing faces in rolled fondant: making a separate tracing (on parchment) from the photo for each color of fondant, rolling my selected color (often a blend from two or more of the pre-mixed colors) to about 1/16” thickness, overlaying my tracing, and scoring through with a #11 Ex-acto blade (clean, of course). Especially nice is what good results you get from scoring in the facial features – not only do they give you a guide later for adding color, but they add a nice dimension to the fondant.

Here’s Greg, original Brady Kid on the left, pre-detail painting fondant Greg in the center, and final on the right. I especially like his groovy fondant eyebrows (didn’t bother doing those for the girls).
I found it took me about an hour to do one face. I wasn’t entirely fond of The Brady Kids’ take on Marcia and Jan – too plump-lipped and glamorous-looking – so I modified them slightly when I made my tracings.After each face had hardened, I went back with a paintbrush and did a little shading with food coloring – dipping the brush directly into the jar. In some places this came out a little strong, most notably I think on Bobby and Jan. I tried a similar technique for the facial features, but it was too strong (fortunately, I had a mess-up Marcia that made a good test palette). Rather than use full-strength paste food color, I blended a small amount of the paste into a brown gel food color. This is a much more forgiving medium, and also somewhat easier to apply. With the same #11 blade, I painted it right into the score marks on the faces. For larger areas like the eyes I used a bamboo skewer.
So, Greg, Peter, Bobby, Marcia, Jan, and Cindy were ready to go, but what good is a blended fondant family without the parents? With no coloring book, and cake-day only one day away, I realized it was time for me to – urgh – actually draw something. I found the most representative photos I could of Mike and Carol – had to be from the later years (meaning, open-necked shirt and afro for Mike, flipped out hair for Carol) to match the Brady Kids. It was tricky making a drawing that was cartoonish enough to match the kids that still looked like the actors. Somehow I managed to make Carol look more like Shirley Partridge, and I think that Mike’s face came out too thin, but they were basically fine.

So, finally cake day! I had made up the cakes – two 11x15 layers of lemon cake mix (yes, I use cake mixes; read Carrie’s posts if you want from-scratch cakes) – several days in advance so they were frozen and easier-to-ice. Although I know that all-shortening frosting is supposedly easier to work with, I just couldn’t bring myself to subject even unrefined juvenile taste buds to such yucky stuff, so I made up Wilton’s buttercream recipe – half shortening, half butter. In all I would make three batches of icing, one less than I had anticipated. One problem of this being a lemon-flavored cake is that chocolate (ie., cocoa-powder-based) frosting really isn’t appropriate. The brown frosting for the edges of the cake thus required large quantities of food coloring – the brown color would only take it so far, so I ended up adding both red and black as well. Later I added more black to this to turn it into the black detail frosting.

The cake icing process itself was pretty boring – smoothing and resmoothing. Although my “crumb coat” came out pretty well, every subsequent layer was a bit of a mess – it was hard to keep the brown edge frosting from getting mixed into the white top frosting, but oh well. I mixed a little silver pearl dust with powdered sugar, and lightly brushed that over the upper right corner of the TV (where the control knobs would go). The knobs themselves are mini Reeses cups painted with black food coloring. The notches around the dial are chocolate sprinkles, selected to be approximately the same length and applied with (clean) tweezers. I used a #134 (?) tip to make a crosshatch for the speaker, and a #47 tip for doing the black trim around the edges.

But the fun part was slathering on my bright-Brady-blue screen and carefully putting each Brady in his or her place. Afterwards I piped on the black grid and applied the Happy Birthday “Marcia”! (cut with the Ex-acto out of white rolled fondant, and outlined with a black food decorating pen). As you can see, my cake decorating skills are not perfect – such sloppy edges! – but I think the overall effect was just right. “Marcia” and her friends loved it (guess who’s face she wanted on her piece), and of course that is the most important thing.

Two days after the party my coloring book came. It features a little story about the Brady family going on a camping trip. Although it may have been worth the $10 just to read the phrase “Hey! They Look Keen!”, as of now I have no idea what use to make of it. But maybe yet another Brady project will present itself …

Lessons learned:

# 1 Always have a Plan B. Or two.
#2 Never again try to make brown or black icing without using cocoa powder.
#3 Call Mom when you're having trouble.
#4 Assume two weeks' delivery for all ebay purchases.

1 comment:


I'm glad to see a blog that's brave enough to address the "ubiquitous fondant" problem. Maybe now the presidential contenders will take notice.