Saturday, January 21, 2017

Periodic Table of Cupcakes - Easy

Years ago I saw a version of the Periodic Table of the Elements made with cupcakes, and I knew that someday I would have to do that too!  Last fall, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) published the names of the four no-longer-unknown elements, and with my youngest son in AP Chem at school... the time was right!  Here's how I did it.

First - this project is very easy to do, but it takes a lot of time.  Much of the work can be done in advance.  If you aren't familiar with the periodic table, start by spending a bit of time with one.  Color is generally used to represent the different element groups: nonmetal, alkali metal, alkaline earth, transition metal, basic metal, lanthanide, actinide, semi-metal, halogen and noble gas. Get a feel for the elements in each section.

When looking at the table, notice that there are 118 elements, but generally 120 boxes.  2 of the spots on the table are "placeholders" for the 2 series of elements that are usually presented below.  These are the lanthanide and actinide elements.  My table reflects this approach, and you will need 120 cupcakes total.

Prep work: to decorate the cupcakes, you will need little signs with the element information.  I made labels with the element name, symbol, atomic number, date of discovery and genesis of the name for the front of each cupcake.  These are color-coded to reflect the element grouping above.  I made corresponding labels for the back of each cupcake with a "fun fact" about the element. You can access the label data here: (This file also has a 1-page "tasting notes" with references and other information.  Print this and save for serving.)

To make the labels, print the pages on card stock.   Cut out the labels, associating the front and back of each one, using the numbers.   Lay the front of the labels down, apply a small bit of double-sided tape, place a toothpick or small plastic cocktail pick, on the tape, then stick the back label on.  Once these are done, take "self-seal" laminating sheets and cut strips that are a bit bigger than the labels.  (I got 4 strips per sheet, with an inch or so leftover.)  Place the strip down, remove the backing film, and place 8 labels across the strip.  Leave a bit of space between them.  Remove the film from another strip and lay across the labels, pressing down.  You can now cut the individual laminated labels out.

You will end up with 120 labels - 118 for the elements and the placeholder Lanthanide and Actinde series labels.

I knew that I would need to stick these in the cupcakes at school during set up, so I sorted them and stored in ziploc-style snack bags.  I sorted them by having in order all the elements DOWN columns 1 and 2 (so H, Li, Na, K, Rb, Cs, Fr, all in one bag, Be, Mg, Ca, Sr, Ba, Ra in bag 2), then having the elements across the rows for columns 3-12 in bags (so bag 3 contained Sc, Ti, V, Cr, Mn, Fe, Co, Ni, Cu, Zn... bag 4 started with Y...) then bags for columns 13-18 down, and one bag for the Lanthanides (elements 57-71) and Actinides (89-103) at the bottom.  I'm sure there are other ways to organize these, but I will say that my approach make set-up very easy!

Next thing to do in advance is order some plastic cupcake trays.  I found these on Amazon  that were perfect: Clear Plastic Dome Cupcake Boxes  I ordered 1 of the 4-count 24 cupcake holders (and used 3) plus 1 of the 12-count 6 cupcake size (and used 8 of these, 7 for the table and 1 just to carry the extra 6 cupcakes).  The holders make transporting this project very easy and also help keep all the elements in order for decorating. I laid these out as follows:

Note - I did not use any single cupcake holders.  There are 6 cupcakes that don't fit in the holders.  I transported these in one of the 6-cupcake holders, but then just placed the cupcakes on the table where they belonged during set-up.  The single holders here represent where they will go. Also, the lids on the 6 pack holders are attached.  I used a knife to cut the plastic, so that I could take the lids completely off for serving. 

Once you have the labels done and the holders ready, you can bake the elements!

Shopping list for the baking part:
5 box cake mixes, plus eggs and oil as needed to bake
120 paper cupcake liners
4 lbs powdered sugar
2 cups butter (4 sticks)
2 cups Crisco shortening not butter flavor - plain (2 sticks)
4 tsp pure vanilla extract
8 or tablespoons of milk

2 cans Wilton Color Spray - silver
1 can Color Spray - gold
decorating sugar in various colors (see pictures)
if you can find it, a pinch of Wilton color dust in copper color
small tub (8 oz) of white or grey fondant
black, burgundy or red, and brown paste food colors. 

Note: I bought a bunch of different colors of Wilton color dust, but these were awful to use.  They don't "shake" on evenly and didn't add nearly enough value to justify the cost.  I used them for some nuance here - making chlorine a "yellow-green" but I would not buy these again and I cannot recommend them.  Stick to the spray color or regular dusting sugars.  (If I did this again, I would get additional colors of spray mist, yellow, maybe blue and green.)

Baking:  This will take exactly 10 dozen cupcakes, from 5 box cake mixes or an equivalent amount of your own cake batter.  I used 3 boxes of chocolate cake and 2 yellow cake.

Note - be careful not to overfill the cupcakes, as you need to get at least 2 dozen from each mix.   (I was very careful, as I wanted to get an extra 2 yellow cake cupcakes.)  When cool, I arranged them in the trays to make decorating easier.  You can see that I've done the transition metals in the middle and the lanthanide and actinide series at the bottom in chocolate. Pay close attention to order as you decorate, consulting my color guide (below) or another copy of the actual table to make sure all the elements are in order! 

I wanted to keep decorating as simple as possible while still conveying some of the beauty of the elements.  In real life, most of the elements are either colorless, silver or grey.   A few, however, have color (such as gold) or are strongly associated with a color (such as neon, which glows red in vacuum tubes, cesium, whose name means sky blue or magnesium, which is the key element that makes chlorophyll green) - so I took a little liberty to add color using decorating sugar where appropriate.  Here is the color guide that I used:

To decorate, you will need 2 batches of standard buttercream (see the recipe on the side link) using 4lbs of powdered sugar.  I made one 2lb double batch to get started, then made a 2nd when the first was used.

Using my color guide, first decorate all of the colorless elements using plain white icing.  I put the icing is a large disposable pastry bag with a Wilton 2D decorating tip.  Using a bag makes icing the cupcakes go very fast!  Cover the top of the cake with icing stars.  I kept the cupcakes in the trays, so that I could easily pull out the ones for each color as I went.

When the white ones were done, I decorated all of the silver elements using white icing, but then giving each one a good spray with Wilton Color Mist (silver) and decorating with silver sugar.

When the silver elements were done, I decorated gold, copper and iron, using gold color mist spray.  I put gold sugar on gold, copper dust on copper (a bit of lime green sugar on the copper cupcake would have worked as well) and some red sugar on iron.  For the other colored elements, use white icing (no spray) and dust with sugar as appropriate.

I did take a bit of time with mercury and bromine, the 2 elements are liquid at room temperature.  For these 2 cupcakes, I used a knife to put a layer of icing on the cupcake.  I then rolled a thin, round sheet of fondant (colored grey for mercury, dark brownish-red for bromine), and placed these on top of the cupcakes.  I sprayed mercury heavily with the silver color mist and finished with round silver sugar pearls.  I sprayed bromine lightly with gold color mist and patted with a damp paper towel to get the liquid look I wanted.  (These were a big hit, well worth the added effort.)

When all the colorless (white), silver and colored elements were done, I added a bit of black food coloring to the remaining icing so that I had a nice dark grey.  I used this to decorate the rest of the cupcakes.  I finished by adding some black sugar to the carbon element cupcake, to give it a darker sparkle.  (Diamond sugar would work well too.)

To serve, arrange the holders so that the elements are all in the right place, using the color guide.  Place the six elements that don't fit in a tray in place: H at the top of column 1 on the left; He at the top of column 18 on the right; and B, C, Al and Si next to the tray where they go. Lastly, insert each label into the element, watching the numbers to make sure everything is still in order.  I placed the 1-page "tasting notes" sheet (printed with the element labels) next to the table for reference.


Sunday, July 19, 2015

Chess Jawa - Medium

 My younger son combines his love for Star Wars with his true passion, chess, by cosplaying as the Chess Jawa.  (Look for him in front of the Marriott Starbucks during DragonCon!)  For his birthday, I made a Chess Jawa cake!

This cake is pretty easy if you have worked with rolled fondant.  Here are the instructions.

The day before the party, I baked a cake in the Wilton Stand-up Bear cake pan.  I followed the directions, using a regular pudding-in-the mix yellow cake mix and a pound cake mix, together.  The resulting cake was very nice both taste and texture.  One caveat - the directions say bake in the center oven rack, but the cake was too tall.  Use the lowest rack.  Also, the directions say 2/3 cup batter in the core, but only use 1/2 cup.  Mine baked up to the broiler element! 

If you want to include a chess board, make the chess pieces the night before too.  Because our party was close to July 4, I used red and blue fondant to make the pieces.  (Just shape the chess pieces by hand, as it if were play-doh!)

The next morning, I mixed a batch of buttercream icing (see recipe in the side menu), frosted and inserted the cake core, then trimmed the bottom of the cake so that it sat flat on the cake board.   I cut off the bear's ears and feet, then covered the entire cake in a layer of the icing.  Set it aside for an hour or so to really set the icing.  I used this time to make a pan of rice krispy treats for the chess board.

I rolled black and white fondant into sheets and cut out 32 squares of each color, sized to fit my chess pieces.  I turned the rice krispy treat upside down, so that The flat bottom was on top.  Starting with one corner of the rice krispy treat, I layered the chess pieces to make a traditional 64 square board.  I used a large knife to trim the rice krispies from the edges, then cut those into squares for folks to eat. 

Greg prepared 2 small orange LEDs for me, attaching them to button batteries and covering the batterse and wire with tape. The LEDs really make this cake pop!  I rolled a small bit of black fondant into an oval for the face.  Greg pushed the LEDs through the fondant.  The batteries stuck into the fondant on the back side. 

I covered the Jawa with a layer of Satin Ice dark chocolate fondant.  For this cake, use a high quality chocolate fondant - you can order online if you don't have a local source.  I used a little more than 1/2 of a 2 lb. tub.   Knead the fondant quite a bit - you want it smooth, pliant and glossy. 

I rolled about 1 lbs of well-kneaded fondant into a roughly triangular shape.  Using your rolling pin, position the fondant over the cake, so that the top of the triangle is above the head.  The "arms" of the triangle wrap around the cake, to form the robes.  

Greg helped hold the hood part of the fondant open while I got the bottom together.  I smoothed the seam where the edges overlapped and used my fingers to emphasis the arm of the cake bear underneath.   (I made the fondant reflect the shape of the bear.) 

Then, while Greg was holding the hood open, I slid the face (with the LEDs) in place, and arranged the hood piece around.  I tucked a little bit of trimmed rice krispy candy on top of the head to help hold the hood up, then trimmed the fondant on the sides of the hood to remove excess.

The face was a little short, so I rolled a bit of the trimmed chocolate and added this aound the chin.  I also used some of the trimmed bits to create sleeves and the bandolier.  For the arms, I made 2 small balls of rice krispy candy, covered them with black fondant, then inserted them into "sleeves" (really just a ring of chocolate fondant).  I pulled the ends of the rings and used 1/2 a thin bamboo skewer to attach them to the cake. 

I also rolled a long thin strip of chocolate fondant for the bandolier and finished that with little black fondant pockets. 

I finished Jawa by adding some "fraying" texture on the edges of the robes.  If you have a fondant toolset, use the shell tool.  If not, use the tines of a fork.  

Since it was a birthday cake, the Jawa is holding 3 sparkler candles! 

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Separatist's War Council Meeting - Medium

For my oldest son's birthday, we decided to recreate the scene in Ep. 2 where the Separatist Council meets in the war room on Geonosis.  The scene was not all that hard to create, BUT it's big.  Really big.  This is one for a crowd!

First, I rounded up Hasbro figures of all the war council members.  A few extra Geonosians are good.  (I found most of the figures used on eBay and only paid a couple of dollars for them. The figures were a birthday gift for my son too - added to his collection.) 

To get the needed height, we started with Styrofoam rings from the craft store.  We stacked 2 rings then covered with red duct tape.  The Styrofoam also serves as a base upon which we built the walls.   We added dowels to give the walls extra support.  These also held up a wire ring (also from the craft store) that is used for finishing.  Note that we did cut a "door" in the ring.  There is a door way in the scene, and we used that little bit of Styrofoam to hold up the Geonosian in the air.

The walls are my favorite large-scale building material: Rice Krispy Treats.  I made 4 large (10x14") pans of treats - each containing a double batch of mix.  (Use the recipe on the back of the Rice Krispy cereal box.)  Let these set overnight to get completely firm, then run bamboo skewers through them and mount them upright on the Styrofoam base as shown.  Curve them carefully to create the room.   To be safe, I added a backing of heavy paper, and we looped some string around the dowels. 

The war room is covered in a rich reddish tapestry.  I used Froot-by-the-Foot, the red/blue tie dye flavor.  I believe 1 had 12 boxes.  (This comes in boxes with other colors - I used a few of the yellow/orange ones for the wall hangings, but honestly we had a lot left over that we didn't use.  I gave them to kids at the party.)  To make these, cut lengths of the ribbon that fit the height of your walls. Lay them slightly overlapping on a cutting board, then dipping a finger in a bit of water, moisten the edges. Use a rolling pin to press and seal them into a sheet.  Affix the sheet to the walls with toothpicks.  This is hard at first, but you pretty quickly get the hang of it! 

We added some LED lights around the base for fun.  

The holographic war table was the "cake" part of this scene.  My son likes snickerdoodles best of all, so I made 3 giant cookie-cakes using the Wilton 9" cookie cake pan.  (You can use my recipe or else 2 tubes of refrigerated cookie dough.  Sugar cookie and chocolate chip doughs work well.)  The table top was one of the cookies.  I trimmed the other 2 cookies into 6" rounds and used those for the base of the table.  (Use a 6" cake round as a template for trimming.  We just ate the leftover bits.)


The whole cookie cake served as the table top.  I turned it upside down, so the flat surface was on the top and placed an 8" cake round under the it so it could sit on top of the stacked 6" cookie bases.  You can see it here, after I pulled it off the base to serve.  

With the 9" cookie upside down on the base, I rolled white fondant and cut a circle using the cookie plan as a template.  I let this harden for a couple of minutes, then placed it on top of the cookie.  I then rolled red fondant and cut a 6" circle to go on top, as pictured.  I added the holographic details by gently warming and trimming gummy bears.  The large elements are 3 Swedish Fish, warmed and smushed together, with a toothpick to hold them up.  I had some pearl luster dust that I rubbed around the white edge to give it some shimmer. 

I finished the scene by positioning the Hasbro figures.  I hot glued one of the Geonosians to a clear plastic floral pick so he could fly over the scene.  The pick is inserted into a pit of leftover Styrofoam that we taped to the bottom of the scene to support him. 

Lastly, I covered the back of the scene with a bit of red fabric that I had left over.  It gave the war room a finished look from behind! 

Holly Jolly Sarlac - Easy

Several people shared Yummy Crumble's AMAZING Star Wars Sarlac Bundt Cake with me last fall. 

Such a great idea!  I decided to do a holiday version for some of our friends - hence the Holly Jolly Sarlac!

I just made a standard bundt cake using a box mix.  I also made a batch of snickerdoodles (see my recipes) and shaped the sarlac bits our of dough.  (I made the "tentacles" kind of big, so that they would be good to eat as cookies.)  

Ymmy Crumble has teeth in the sarlac's mouth, but that's not canon.  To be more accurate, I used almond slivers around the cake's center hole.  I covered the whole cake in crushed Biscoff cookies, then added a little fondant santa hat, red nose and candy cane!  Happy Holiday!  

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Plants v. Zombies - Perfect First Cake

My friend had never decorated a cake, so I think she was a bit skeptical when I told her that I was going to help her kids make her a special birthday cake.  She has a 6-year old daughter and a 10-year old son, so we needed to do a cake that would be fun for everyone.  PvZ!!

I gave them the Wilton Daisy Flower pan, plus a few Wilton decorating tips, a box of disposable decorator bags, a 4-color box of food colors, a tube of the Wilton chocolate decorator icing, and a coupler ring.  I also had some leftover fondant that we used.

We used a regular box cake mix in the flower pan. The 6 year old was able to mix the batter easily - we did have her crack the eggs into a separate bowl to make sure we didn't have shells, but she did that perfectly!   The cake took around 28 minutes to bake.

While the cake was cooling, the kids made zombies from the fondant.  They had a wonderful time with this!  We looked at the zombie pictures online, but then used our own creativity, working with the fondant colors that I'd had.  I made the requisite pea shooter.

When the cake was cool, we placed it on a large cutting board, and I helped the kids make a batch of standard buttercream icing.  (See the recipe in the menu on the right.)  We made the icing a little softer than usual by adding an extra 2 Tablespoons of milk, to make the decorating a little easier and faster.  

I used Wilton tip 5 (round) with the coupler ring on the tube of chocolate icing to define the center circle and petals of the sunflower.  We colored 1/4 of the buttercream "mauve" and the kids used tip 224 (drop flower) to decorate the center of the flower.  We colored 1/2  of the buttercream "goldenrod" yellow, and the kids used tip 18 (open star) to fill in the petals.  (Everyone took turns filling in the petals - me, mom, dad, even the nanny!)  We colored the remaining 1/4 buttercream "moss" and used a knife to lightly ice the edges of the cake.  (Ideally you would do this first, but the kids were anxious to do the top, so that's what we did.)

We positioned the zombies around the sunflower - move them carefully using a flat spatula (the kind you use to turn pancakes).   I used tip 3 (round) to write "happy birthday mom" for the kids on the cutting board, and the chocolate (with tip 5 still attached) to put the eyes and smile on the flower.  The kids used tip 233 (multi-opening) to make the flower stem and the grass under the zombies.  

Start to finish the project took a couple of hours and the kids did the vast majority of the work, with a little coaching.  When it was done, we sang happy birthday to mom, and dug in!   

Note - work from the center out, and be sure to turn the cutting board as the kids decorate, so that they not piping icing across the cake.  This avoids "smudges" if they brush the cake with their hands or the bag as they are working.   

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Sound Systems for Jawas and Tuskens

 From Greg... 

This document describes the construction of sound/voice systems for our Jawa and Tusken Raider costumes.  The basic components of each are a Robertson MP3 Trigger (available from SparkFun) and a 16W Aker amplifier (popular with TK’s and available on Amazon.  There are cheaper options than the Robertson Trigger, but it has some capabilities that are hard to match.  In particular, it has 18 external trigger pins, each of which can cause a different action, including playing a specific MP3 track or selecting a random track from a set.  It has a slot for a microSD card that contains the MP3s, and a small initialization file that specifies the response to each of the 18 trigger inputs.   

For the Jawa, I have one input that causes it to play the Jawa blaster noise, one that plays ‘Utinni!’, and one that plays one of a set of random Jawa sounds.  (The Tusken is simpler, with only one input that plays the Tusken warcry.)  The MP3s themselves I found on the Internet somewhere, but I have zip files of the contents of the microSD card for each of the Jawa and Tusken.

My first version of the Jawa sound system was an unmodified Aker amp with the output of the MP3 trigger being fed into the line-in jack.  The MP3 trigger was powered with a 9V battery.  I had soldered a male header (one of these) onto the MP3 trigger to make it a bit easier to attach and detach trigger switches.   

 Robertson MP3 Trigger with header soldered onto left-side trigger contacts.

Then I taped the MP3 trigger board and the battery to the side of the Aker amp and the Jawa wore the whole thing under his robes, hanging from the neck strap.  For controls, I soldered three normally-open pushbutton switches together and encased them in a palm-sided bit of Sugru as shown here.

Jawa controller.  Three pushbotton switches embedded in random-color Sugru.  

 The wires from these switches were fed up the Jawa’s sleeve and attached to the appropriate leads on the MP3 trigger board.  WRT circuit details, the outside contacts for each of the 18 triggers are common, so a single wire will do for those.  So for 3 switches, I needed four wires.  I wanted to be able to disconnect/reconnect the controller easily, so I used RJ-45 (phone jack) connectors.  This picture shows the Trigger board with the board-end connector installed and wires attached to trigger pins 1, 2 and 3. 

Robertson Trigger with controller jack added.

This first version worked fine, when it worked.   It was awkward because turning it on required plugging the 9-volt into the MP3 trigger board and separately turning on the Aker amp and setting the volume.  It was a bulky thing sitting on the Jawa’s chest and you could see the red glowing LED on the Aker amp through the robes.  Adjusting the volume required reaching in through the robes, and wires seemed to come undone with some regularity.  When that happened it was never quite clear if the problem was with the audio connection, power to the MP3 board, loose trigger wires or something else, and it usually required undressing the Jawa to find out.  Not the end of the world, but not ideal either.

For version 2 of the sound system (version 1 on the tusken) I was determined to do better and to shoehorn the sound system into the bandoleers that each wore.  I started by disassembling the Aker amp into its basic components: the rechargeable battery, the speaker, and the board that contains the circuitry.  Some bandoliers are pretty small, but I found these: Ammo Pouch, 2 Pocket, Leather, Yugoslavian Issue that looked big enough to do something with.  The speaker from the Aker amp is pretty large, so I found a 2” diameter replacement speaker, keeping with the 4 Ohm impedance here.  The idea was to distribute all these different components into different pouches in the ammo belt/sash.  So, sort out what will fit where.  Disconnect the Aker speaker and cut the custom connector from the end of its wires.  Install that connector onto new wires attached to the new 2” speaker (make leads long enough to reach the Aker board. 

‘2” speaker with leads and original Aker connector

Cut the leads between the Aker board and the rechargeable battery if necessary so that they fit in different pouches. 

 Aker Battery with leads extended

The final bit is the MP3 trigger board.  I wanted to get rid of the separate 9V battery that I had powering this board.  I achieved this by poking around on the Aker board until I found a point that was just on the other side of the main switch.  I.E. it was unfiltered battery power, but only connected when the Aker board had been turned on.  Tapping into this voltage to power the MP3 trigger would mean that I could eliminate the separate 9V, the MP3 trigger would automatically get turned on when the Aker was turned on, and we’d be leveraging the (relatively large and rechargeable) Aker battery.  This was a win on all counts and has worked beautifully.   The power tapping is shown on the figure below.  The right-most end of the read wire taps appropriate positive voltage from the Aker board.  The bottom-most end of the yellow wire attaches to the ground side of power.  Both are fed into a 5.5mm/2.1mm center positive barrel jack with leads long enough to power the Robertson MP3 trigger. 

 The next pictures show the electronics components laid out before insertion into the ammo pouches, after insertion, but the with pouches open so you can see how it fits and lastly of the final assembly.  I did trim the leather a bit in non-visible places so that the wires would tuck nicely. 

The Jawa sound system is very reliable, runs for hours without recharge (really don’t know how long, I’ve never run it out of juice) and fits nicely in a 4-pouch bandoleer.  It can be turned on, volume adjusted or recharged simply by opening the top of the pouch that contains the Aker main board.  The other pouches stay closed.  For the Tusken, I squeezed a bit harder and got all of the components into a single two-pouch unit.  Generally I’ve worn this as an across-the-chest bandoleer, but it’s heavy and doesn’t necessarily hang well.  I’m considering switching it to a waist bandoleer in the future.

Greg Eisenhauer

Friday, September 5, 2014

Starcraft Cake Trio - Easy

Youngest son wanted Starcraft emblem cakes for his birthday.  These cakes were pretty easy - each cake was made in a shaped cake pan using 1 box cake mix.  The Protoss cake was made using the Wilton reindeer pan, the Zerg cake was made using a standard 12" round pan, and the Terran cake was made in the Wilton Darth Vader pan.   Each cake was frosted with tinted buttercream icing.

To make the emblems, I found the images online and printed them out.  I cut the emblems out and laid them on tinted thinly rolled fondant sheets, then cut the fondant using a sharp knife and fondant wheel (like a tiny pizza cutter for fondant - comes in the Wilton fondant toolset).  Once cut, I airbrushed the Zerg and Terran emblems to match the online images.

I finished by adding the blue and purple icing flourishes.  I mixed a bit of powered sugar with just a tiny drop of water and paste food coloring to get purple and blue slurry, which I added to the cakes using a skewer as shown.

Not Star Wars, and not very exciting to make, but the boys loved them.