The Hunger Games
May the odds be ever in your favour
We’re self-confessed Great British Bake Off addicts here at tombola, so you can imagine our excitement when one of our Chat Moderators, Lara – AKA. fizzyfish – revealed her talent for baking truly stupendous cakes. We’re talking 3D masterpieces of everything from dogs, to a life-sized likeness of Captain Jack Sparrow!
Now, Lara has gone one step further, creating a Hunger Games cake for the Cake International Competition in Birmingham! One thing is for sure – there’d be stiff competition for Star Baker if Lara entered the GBBO tent!
Image by: Olli / Flickr.com
Bringing The Hunger Games to life
Creating an edible character from one of the country’s best-loved book and film series’ to life is no mean feat – where do you even start with such a complicated piece of confectionary?
Well, Lara told us all, from the design right down to the decoration.
Preparation is everything when it comes to baking, whether you are making a classic Victoria sponge or a life-sized version of Katniss from The Hunger Games! Naturally, the latter cake required just that little bit more preparation, but Lara had it all under control when she began her Cake International Competition mission.
You see, Lara has a unique talent – she creates her incredible likenesses simply by working from a picture. Before she started work on her Katniss cake, she didn’t spend hours drawing up complicated plans and blueprints. Lara just went to her computer, found a picture of her heroine in the exact pose, and with the exact facial expression that she wanted to create, printed it out to the size that her cake would be, and stuck it to the wall! It’s a great way to avoid having to move back and forth from a computer screen, zooming in and out to see every detail close up.
Next, Lara got to work on figuring out how her Hunger Games cake would be supported. After all, Katniss herself stands at almost six feet tall, and that amount of cake won’t defy gravity on its own! Something as heavy yet fragile as a huge lump of cake and icing is going to need a little help to stop it from toppling over, especially with overhanging areas like arms and accessories.
The solution? A complicated frame made from a mixture of metal, wood, PVC pipes and PVC couplers. Lara bought these from her local DIY shop, and before putting them together, marked out where the main areas of support should sit on her reference picture.
While these areas differ completely from cake to cake, the materials that the structure is made from almost always stay the same. You know what they say… if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, and Lara has most certainly gotten her cakes’ structural stability down to an art.
Once Lara had picked up her DIY essentials, she moved swiftly onto the next part of the design process. She didn’t, as we had guessed, make her supporting frame first, but instead set about whipping up two cake mixtures and popping them in the oven. The first was a normal vanilla sponge, while the other was chocolate mud cake, a concoction with a brownie-like consistency that was perfect for giving more stability to the central part of Katniss.
When you think about it, it’s a really streamlined way of doing things – while her cake’s in the oven Lara doesn’t have to wait around in anticipation, twiddling her thumbs and pacing around the kitchen. Instead, she can keep herself occupied by building Katniss’s frame.
Time flies when you’re creating a cakey masterpiece, and no sooner had Lara finished her frame was it time to take her sumptuously baked cake out of the oven.
So far, so conventional, right? But what Lara does next is as quirky as her cakes. Rather than leaving it to cool using the traditional method of placing the cake on a wire rack, she placed it in the freezer for a couple of hours to help firm it up. Much like carving into freshly baked bread, trying to carve a freshly baked cake into something even slightly resembling a human form would only end in disappointment (and lots of crumbs!). Lara’s freezer method makes the cake much easier to shape.
Next came the tricky part… stacking the cake sturdily up around the frame, and carving it into the shape of Katniss.
Once all of the cake was slotted in around Lara’s complicated frame, she filled it in with buttercream to give it some additional stability, before setting about carving it with a steadier hand than even the most renowned seamstress. If she had made as much as one false move and sliced off too much, she’d have had to start the entire thing again from scratch, baking and all. With how delicate cake is, trying to stick it back on and continue carving that piece just wouldn’t work.
This carving process is made even more delicate by the fact that every little detail has to be carved into the cake. From facial features to buttons and hair, absolutely everything has to be whittled from the cake before fondant icing is placed over the top. Fondant might be sturdy, but you can’t work miracles with it, and it needs a solid base in order to retain its shape.
When the carving was complete, Lara covered the cake in mouth-watering chocolate ganache to fuse it all together. Ganache might be a silky smooth treat once mixed, but when it dries, it becomes firm enough to use as a kind of glue.
Ganache wasn’t the only additional topping Lara added to her cake, either. She also whipped up some liquid icing for securing her fondant, and applied it all over her cake before draping over the fondant icing, which she gently pressed into place.
Amy Stephenson / Flickr.com
If you’re anything like us, your mouth will already have started watering whilst hearing about Lara’s cake-mission impossible. You may even want to try your hand at her recipe yourself!
If you do want to get some practice in, you’ll be pleased to know that Lara’s cake is made from a simple, everyday sponge recipe, just like this one from BBC Food.
Ingredients (small cake)
· 125g butter or margarine, softened
· 125g caster sugar
· 2 medium eggs
· 125g self-raising flour
Preheat the oven to gas mark 4 (180C)
Line two 18cm/7in cake tins with baking parchment
Cream the butter and the sugar together until pale. Use an electric hand mixer if you have one.
Beat in the eggs.
Sift the mixture over the flour and fold it in using a large metal spoon. The mixture should be of a dropping consistency; if not, add a little milk.
Divide the mixture between two cake tins and gently spread out with a spatula.
Bake for 20 – 25 minutes until an inserted skewer comes out clean.
It isn’t just Lara’s sponge recipe that’s accessible either, her ganache and icing are just as straightforward to make! Why not try your hand at these two recipes?
Ingredients (adjust as required for desired cake size)
· 200g good quality dark chocolate
· 284ml double cream
· Chop the chocolate into small, even pieces that will melt easily, and place them in a large bowl.
· Pour the double cream into a pan and heat until just before boiling point.
· Take the cream off the heat and pour it over the chocolate.
· Stir the mixture until all of the chocolate has melted, and the mixture has turned nice and smooth.
Ingredients (adjust as required for desired cake size)
· 200g icing sugar
· 5 tsp cold water
· Sift the icing sugar into a wide bowl.
· Gradually stir in the cold water, until a thick paste has formed.
See, we told you it was straightforward!
The finishing touches
When the tombola lot bake cakes for the office, we like to add finishing touches such as hundreds and thousands, a bit of fruit or a sprinkling of icing sugar (or maybe all three, if we’re feeling adventurous!). For Lara, however, the phrase ‘finishing touches’ means something a good deal more complicated…
You see, rather than buying pre-coloured fondant icing, Lara chooses generic white icing before adding the colours herself. With so many shades used in her complicated cakes, a DIY approach is the only way that Lara can achieve the realistic look her work is renowned for. Pre-coloured icing would only have succeeded in making her Hunger Games cake look flat and artificial.
To create her bespoke colours, Lara mixed powdered food colouring with clear alcohol to make a concentrated paste, which she then applied to the cake using the kind of good quality paint brushes you can pick up from any high street shop. Handpainting is an especially good technique for painting on incredibly fine details – like strands of hair or facial features, like eyes and lips – but for the bulkier areas of the cake, Lara turned to another piece of kit.
This very talented lady is also a connoisseur of the airbrush, which she filled with her food colouring mixture before spraying it directly onto the cake. Not only did this cover more icing more quickly, but gave Lara much more control over the amount of colour she applied. It was a great way to create different textures and areas of shading, lending Katniss as life-like a look as possible.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that, so far, Lara’s cake-making process sounds fairly straightforward. Indeed, our cake-baker-extraordinaire has ironed out many challenges with good old fashioned practice and experience, but that doesn’t mean that she baked her Hunger Games cake completely without fear!
Firstly, there was the constant lingering danger of slicing off too much cake during the carving process. As we mentioned before, you can’t just go sticking it back on before carrying on your merry way! The only way to reattach the sponge would be with icing or ganache, neither of which are as sturdy as an unblemished lump of cake.
The only real way to overcome this challenge, as Lara has proven, is with simple trial and error. While she has only been making cakes for around two years, Lara has never made the same cake twice, which has allowed her to fine-tune her carving technique and figure out what to avoid doing at all costs!
Lara’s other big challenge still plagues her to this day, and involves draping fondant icing over her cakes without creating any lumps or bumps. It’s a lot harder than you might think, especially when there is plenty of sticky icing ‘glue’ to negotiate before finally patting the fondant into place.
Again, Lara refined this technique over time, testing out different methods and plans of attack, while paying close attention to things like YouTube videos, television programmes like Cake Boss, and other cake makers. Soon enough, her cakes looked as smooth as the finest silk!
There is no denying that a generous helping of natural talent helps Lara to create truly stupendous cakes, but there is one challenge that can’t be overcome with seasoned baking expertise… transporting the Hunger Games cake to the Cake International Competition.
Cyril Caton / Flickr.com
Imagine trying to fit a six foot cake into the back of a car; it just wouldn’t be possible, which is why Lara dreaded this part of her Katniss cake more than any other. Thankfully though, being the queen of forward planning and preparation, Lara had a nifty solution for getting her creation from A to B.
She didn’t take Katniss apart, ready to reassemble her on arrival, because that would have created lots of unsightly seams. Instead, she hired Katniss her very own piece of private transportation – a van with extra space and headroom.
Katniss stood proudly in the back in all her glory, while Laura clung onto her for dear life, trying to keep her as stable as possible! Lara’s other half, in the meantime, drove the van as slowly as he was legally allowed to, to avoid any unexpected bumps or braking that could snatch Katniss from Lara’s iron grip!
It was all worth it though, as you will see in a moment…
The finished product
Dear readers, we are very proud to present… Katniss Everdeen!
We think you’ll agree that all of Lara’s hard work, dedication and sleepless nights were well worth it; her finished cake is a gravity defying masterpiece, and could very well be mistaken for Jennifer Lawrence herself!
It wasn’t just the team here at tombola who couldn’t take their eyes off Lara’s handiwork, either, the visitors and judges at the Cake International Competition were transfixed too. So transfixed, in fact, that they awarded Katniss gold!
Lara's dedication and attention to detail were given the ultimate reward once again, not just in her prize, but in the attention from the press! Katniss has featured on Buzzfeed, BBC News and in the Mail on Sunday, even on Good Morning Britain, a fitting legacy to leave behind...
Unfortunately, the journey home from Cake International wasn't quite as smooth as the journey there, and Katniss was damaged in transit. All isn't lost though, as she will be used to feed the wildlife in Lara's local woods, an end we think the real Katniss Everdeen would be pleased with.
We can’t help but admire Lara’s resourcefulness, determination and dedication. We don’t think we’d even manage to get to the carving stage, never mind the nerve-wracking van ride to the competition!
With such intense preparation and improvisation going into Lara’s work, we were dying to know just what goes on behind the scenes, and how she makes her cake-related decisions.
tombola: Hi Lara. Can we just say before we start – amazing cakes! Why did you decide to create a cake inspired by The Hunger Games?
Lara Clarke: I'm a really big fan. I was excited for the third movie coming out, and I’d just finished reading the third book as well. It coincides nicely actually, because the cake show is on the 7th of November and then The Hunger Games actually comes out on the 11th.
It kind of all tied in really well, because the cast and crew are going to be in England at the time. They're more likely to be awake when I'm putting tweets out and things, because they're in this time zone.
tombola: That’s a great idea. How did you decide which character to make?
Lara Clarke: Katniss is the main character. She's a strong woman. Plus, you don't know whether the other characters are coming or going. You're better to stick with the one that you know will be in the last movie.
tombola: Were there any disasters or hairy moments while you were making this cake, or did it all run fairly smoothly?
Lara Clarke: Touch wood, touch wood, not yet. Then again, I’ve not delivered her yet. Everything you worked for could go completely wrong in a half an hour van journey. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that it all goes to plan. I'm going to take a photograph before we leave the house so I'll have something to remember her by even if she doesn't make it!
tombola: It took you a whopping 90 hours to make your Jack Sparrow cake! How long did it take to make this one?
Lara Clarke: I'm up to 120 hours at the minute. It's not quite there yet – it just needs the last few finishing touches.
tombola: We’d love to find out more about the technical side of your cakes – do you find it harder to work with unconventional base materials, like Jack Sparrow’s Rice Krispies, or normal cake? I imagine Rice Krispies are difficult to sculpt and mould!
Lara Clarke: It's got its pros and cons. With cake, you put it down and it holds its shape, whereas Rice Krispies can fall apart really easily. You need to stand there with it and wait for it to dry before you can sculpt it. Once it is dry though, it's rock solid, so it's easier than cake for that because it'll hold its shape after it's dry.
I think the reason I used Rice Krispies treats is because cake is so much more expensive; I couldn't have afforded to make such a big cake out of cake. This year I've just gone for it and made the whole thing out of cake!
tombola: Do you have to whip up a special kind of cake mixture, then? Or is just a normal kind of cake?
Lara Clarke: I’ve made it head to toe out of vanilla cake. The central part of it is made out of chocolate cake though, because it's a little bit sturdier.
Think of it like how you'd build a house. Some things will work if they’re made out of brick, and some things will work if they’re made out of other materials. It just so happens that the materials I use are edible.
tombola: That’s a great way to look at it. Why did you stop using the Rice Krispies mix?
Lara Clarke: I think because people don't use them themselves, they don't realise that it is actually really difficult, and they see it as being an easy way out. It's not. You still have to make the frame the same, and you still have to make everything else the same, because it would fall apart otherwise.
This year, I decided to make it out of cake so that people know I wasn't just using Rice Krispies as an easy option. It wasn't a cop out. It was just because it was a lot cheaper.
tombola: How do you create the different coloured icing for your cakes? Can you buy it pre-coloured, or do you have to add something like food colouring to make it the right shade?
Lara Clarke: I buy normal white icing and colour it with cake colours. If you tried to use the normal water based colours, it would make your icing too sticky. You have to use concentrated paste to get the right shades. I do airbrushing as well. You just get a normal airbrush machine and put in food colouring, then you can just spray away.
tombola: Does that help you create different textures for things like clothing?
Lara Clarke: Yeah, different textures, different shading. You can create them a lot more easily with the airbrush.
tombola: And what about when it comes to creating things like hair or a crease in material? How do you go about making those?
Lara Clarke: If you want creases in the fabric, you've got to make the crease of the fabric out of something underneath [the icing]. You've got to carve the crease into the cake, then put the icing over the top. If you didn't put anything underneath the icing it would just slide off. It's the same with hair. You kind of have to make the shape of the hair first, then you put the coloured icing over the top.
tombola: Speaking of precision – is there a secret to covering the cake without ending up with any creases, lumps or bumps?
Lara Clarke: It takes an awful lot of trial and error and practice, practice, practice. The very first cake I made was absolutely shocking: the bumps, the creases. It looked like elephants did it! It was a mess.
Over the years you pick up your own techniques. It becomes second nature, like driving a car.
tombola: The finer details of your cakes are perhaps most impressive – have you studied art or nurtured a lifelong love of drawing? Your cakes are so detailed!
Lara Clarke: I took a little bit of art in school, but my school days were more about socialising than actually doing any work!
There have always been creative people in my family though. My grandmother’s really creative, my mum’s really creative; it’s passed down a little bit. No-one does anything like this though, I don’t really know how I started doing it.
tombola: Do the internal structures you use – like struts and steel bars – vary from cake to cake?
Lara Clarke: Yeah, it all varies. I could never use the same structure twice. It has to always be remade. It has to always be redesigned. Every time I make a new cake you've got to start from scratch.
tombola: Do you ever use different materials for different cakes, like a wooden frame for one and metal bars for another?
Lara Clarke: Usually all of my cakes are the same. It's usually threaded metal, wood, PVC pipes and PVC couplers. It’s the way they’re going to be arranged that depends on the shape and the size of the cake.
tombola: It all sounds very complicated! Is there a science to stopping the cake collapsing under its own weight?
Lara Clarke: The structure is the most important bit. Obviously though, none of the wood and stuff can be touching the cake, because it's not food-safe. You've got to build up the structure out of wood and metal, and cover the entire thing in cling film. Then you've got to tape it in with nontoxic tape. You can't have people getting bits of wood in their cake or anything, so you need to completely cover it up. You can wash down the cling film just to make sure there's no wood residue on there, and then you can put the cake on.
tombola: What did you use to create the finer painted details on the Hunger Games cake?
Lara Clarke: The painting is powdered food colouring. You can either mix it with clear alcohol, or you can mix it with lemon juice. It becomes like a paste. You use it with normal brushes and just paint it on.
tombola: Do you prefer alcohol or lemon juice?
Lara Clarke: It depends. I use clear alcohol because you get a better finish, but if it's a cake for a child I’ll use lemon juice. It doesn't get heated up or anything, so I wouldn't want to inadvertently give any kids alcohol!
tombola: Have you decided what to do with your Hunger Games cake now the competition’s over?
Lara Clarke: I don't know yet. I'm probably going to keep it for display purposes, but I need to wait and get the competition over with before I decide what's going to happen afterwards!
tombola: Can you keep them for years then, potentially?
Lara Clarke: Yeah, they'll keep for quite a long time if you keep them from sunlight and keep them cool.
tombola: That would be a great talking point to have around the house!
Lara Clarke: I actually have a little room in the house that's dedicated to cake. As long as I've got room I'll keep them in there. Whenever people come over for consultations, then they can see what I've done before.
tombola: That's a really good idea. Is that how you work with your normal clients? Do they come around to discuss what they want and take a look at what you've done in the past?
Lara Clarke: It all depends. I get orders from near, but I also get a lot of orders from far. A lot of stuff is done over email and text and phone calls. It is a lot easier when people come to see you, but I've not had a problem with doing it over the phone before. If I can get some pictures then I can still do it and I don't have to meet the people in advance.
tombola: Do you have any other big cakes planned for this month, or will you be recuperating from the Cake International Competition?
Lara Clarke: I’ve actually got another cake on at the minute that's completely hush hush! I'm not even allowed to tell anyone about it because it's so top secret. I signed a confidentiality agreement! It's completely crazy.
tombola: Oh wow, when do we get to see it?
Lara Clarke: It’s being delivered on Thursday the 30th of October, so it'll be revealed either on the Thursday or first thing on Friday.
tombola: How exciting! We can’t wait!
What you might not know, is that Katniss won't be alone…
While many didn’t know whether Lara could top last year’s prize winning Jack Sparrow cake, she went on to crush all doubt by entering not one, but two life-sized cake-characters into this year’s Cake International Competition.
Lara’s second cake is a four foot three, edible depiction of Tyrion Lannister, from Game of Thrones, and can be seen here, along with Lara’s story of how she managed to create such a masterpiece.
If all of this talk about cakes has gotten you salivating, then don’t fret! You can always order your own tasty cake from Lara. Simply click any of the links below to send her a message, or to check out some more of her impressive work.