The Challenge

Things are going to get really nerdy really fast. Tables and charts and Rhino models will be making an appearance. It’s not too late to escape this blog if that’s not what you’re expecting.

(Pause to allow exit)

For the past few years I have been toiling for the building boom in NYC and elsewhere: towers made of concrete, steel, or combination of the two. Lately there is even talk of making them out of wood. The projects are always complex, with large teams of consultants and multi-disciplinary coordination. Then one day it occurred to me that, hey, it would be easier to build towers with cake – It won’t require a 50 year life span, we won’t need to accommodate any request for mechanical duct penetrations, and the end result would be sweet!

I thought I’d give it a try. But when I consulted with my deity, Yoda, at the altar of my portal to the world (a.k.a. computer), he said: “Do, or do not, there is no try.” Guess I’m committed.

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So as engineers are wont to do, I proceeded to breakdown the challenge into different parts, to be tackled separately:

Internal structure: Cake, as a rule, has low compressive and tensile strength, which is why it’s soft, and you can bit into it easily. Unless it’s last Christmas’s fruitcake, in which case it’s probably hard as masonry units. To build tower out of cake, an internal structure is needed to control lean/bulge/sag. Traditional tiered cakes make use of dowels, but modifications are required to reach new heights.

Geometry: Modern towers are rarely the rectangular extrusions of yore: irregular floor plates, rounded/chamfered corners, tapering and twisting forms are all fair game in the service of architectural expression. Precise measurements would be required to accurately represent the geometry. 3D computer models can help to determine how to divide the cake into pieces for baking and assembling. Care is also required to achieve levelness, plumbness, and sharp edges.

Façade a.k.a. Frosting:  In tiered cakes, borders and flowers can be used to hide minor imperfections between layers. But modern buildings often feature clean lines. Fondant or icing may have to cover the cake continuously from top to bottom, an unusual approach. In addition, replicating the visual aesthetics of glazing or metal panel using edible material would require some research on cutting edge cake decorating technology.

Weight/transport: For the sake of the muscular men/women who will help me move the cake upon completion, I’d like to be able to estimate the weight of the finished product. Alas, even after exhausting my google-fu, I have not been able to find recorded values of common cake densities. How has no one else wondered about this before? I shall have to take matter into my own hands and start a table.

Journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. The best way to work out the issues above is to pick a tower and try to build it. But which one? So many skyscrapers in New York City, and indeed in the world.

That’s a decision for another day.

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Not Just Another Cake Blog

Hello World.

This blog is about cake. But this post will probably be the only one about cake in the normal sense (or cupcake or cake pop or mug cake). My name is Lulu, I’m a structural engineer, and I like to bake. My project will need to tap into both skill sets, but more on that later.

First, a little history.

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I would have liked to say that my passion for baking came from a childhood spent lounging in the kitchen, basking in the glorious scent of sugar and butter as my mother crafted heavenly cakes and pastries. Alas, while my Chinese mother is a master of stir fry, she would not be able to tell a brioche from a croissant. In fact I did not even know ovens existed until the age of 12, when my family moved to California. In high school I occasionally attempted cookies, but did not understand that dessert recipes require exact measurements. Only 1/2 a stick of butter left in the fridge instead of 1 stick, that’s OK right? A dash more baking powder will probably improve things? You can imagine how things turned out.

The start of my real dessert-making experience has to be credited to my friend Claire. Upon seeing me eating Cool Whip out of a tub in first year of college, she declared, “Lulu, you’re eating plastic! I will make you real whipped cream.” And on my birthday appeared a heavenly trifle (to this day one of my favourite desserts). I have never looked back on Cool Whip. Then it was Claire mom’s recipes that got me started: trifle, peach crisp, mud cake. But I was just seeing the tiny corner of a whole new world!

During the idleness of first year grad school, I took it upon myself to make birthday cakes for my office mates. Things got off to a “rocky” start, though. The first cake, some variety of chiffon or sponge, called for beating egg whites until stiff. Whatever that means! I took the bowl just used for mixing butter (collective gasp of horror!), dutifully separated whites from yolks, beat it for a few minutes until some bubbles formed, and decided that’s probably good enough. The resulting cake was… denser than intended. Ah, who am I kidding, it was not hard as rocks but pretty close. But Mike good-naturedly ingested the cake, and thanked me for my efforts, so I slogged on, from office to office, ensuring caloric surpluses one birthday at a time.

My skills and knowledge have improved somewhat since then. I would like to thank all my colleagues who taste-tested my experiments over the past few years. I would also like to thank the internet and its countless recipe contributors and reviewers, for democratizing the baking experience so it’s no longer the privilege of the elite few with their trust fund of family recipes. Below are some of my past laurels. But I shall not rest upon them. Instead, I will build upon them!

And that, my friends, is enough tongue-in-cheekness for today. Good night.