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She whips up creations in stiff cake competition

The Baltimore Sun

On Friday morning, Tracey M. Buchanan had four blocks of Styrofoam, a shoebox-sized hunk of taffy-like fondant icing and, for inspiration, the purse her mother carried on her wedding day.

Yesterday, after about 14 hours of work, less than an hour of sleep and hundreds of carefully placed icing drops, she arrived at the Carroll County Agriculture Center in Westminster with her interpretation of "something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue" in cake form.

She left the cake to the scrutiny of the judges at the second Mid-Atlantic Cake Show and Wedding Cake Competition, where a total of 200 cakes are being displayed and evaluated through the weekend. The winners will be announced today about 1:30 p.m.

Buchanan said her wedding cake entry "is really for my parents," because its design draws on items from Richard and Jane Buchanan's 1980 wedding. "It's a way I can give back to them."

In other categories, she entered a St. Patrick's Day cake with a sunset scene hand-painted on top, a cookie decorated as a three-dimensional jewelry cameo, a three-tiered pale green and ivory cake to welcome a baby girl, and a gingerbread cabin with vines, chimney and outhouse.

Her contributions joined a range of entries including elaborate confections with sugar flowers, bows and ruffles, several three-dimensional castles, a dragon, a cat, a replica of Noah's Ark, a lifelike carved chocolate squirrel and an edible diorama of dogs playing poker.

Many of the entries - particularly the more elaborate multi-tiered ones - were made of icing on top of Styrofoam rather than cake, a common technique that makes demonstration cakes easier to decorate, move and display. Most categories were judged strictly on decorating techniques, but the wedding category required that each entry have a taster cake to sample.

The 23-year-old Hampden resident is a relative newcomer to cake decorating, having tried audio engineering, historic restoration and other attempts to find her calling. But she received first- and third-place rankings last year at her first national contest, the American Retail Bakery Exposition in Atlantic City.

She started working with baked goods in 2005, when she took a job as a pastry chef at a summer camp in Maine. After that, she sought out a position baking bread at Wegmans and was hired to decorate cakes instead.

"The first time I decorated a cake, I cried," she said. "I have never been so frustrated."

She got better with training, and a friend led her to the senior cake decorator job at Fisher's Bakery in Ellicott City. She said she is finally happy with her job because "I get to be creative every day."

Christopher J. Sikora, who took over Fisher's in December 2005, said Buchanan's work and her contest successes are helping the longtime business attract customers - many of whom get ideas from cooking and lifestyle shows on television - who want more creative, upscale creations.

"What stands out [with Buchanan] is her artistic background," he said. "She uses the pastry as another medium."

Buchanan said for contests, she never starts with a full-fledged plan: "I just play as I go along."

That usually includes several phases: hating the project, redoing the decorations and finding clever ways to cover up errors before a cake is satisfactory.

On Friday, she started her wedding cake by climbing up on a milk crate for leverage and kneading and folding the fondant icing by hand on a metal table.

She rolled the fondant into circles the size of large pizzas, which she draped over the hexagonal foam tiers and prodded it into shape. By 6 p.m. she had re-created the beaded pattern on her mother's purse in white icing, but was still facing three blank layers.

After several more hours of work and a little sleep, a final push beginning at 3 a.m. enabled her to finish the cake, which included the pattern in her mother's lacy handkerchief and a silver icing cross like the one her father gave her mother at their wedding.

She also decorated her taster cake in the shape of a nosegay with blue icing ribbons and more real flowers.

At the contest, she set the cake up next to a display of her mother's items and a photo of her parents, appropriately enough, feeding each other cake.

In keeping with the theme, many of the wedding cakes at the show featured handkerchief patterns, pearls and lace designs and were accompanied by family photographs. Some were more unusual, including a Kentucky Derby-themed cake, a Breakfast at Tiffany's homage and one cake with a woman made of sugar falling into the top of it.

Interpretation of the theme is worth 20 out of 120 total points said B. Keith Ryder, president of the International Cake Exploration Societe. The group's Virginia and Maryland chapters sponsored the show.

Ryder said the judges are also looking for overall presentation, creativity and original design. Color choices can help a cake stand out, he said, and the judges will look for skillful techniques.

While Buchanan nearly pulled an all-nighter (something she said she will rethink in the future), other entrants can work for months on their demonstration projects because they use foam instead of real cake and because fondant and royal icing keep for a long time when they dry out.

Ryder said he believed one entrant spent 200 hours since January constructing a three-tiered cake and 11 sugar brides, each dressed for a specific decade.

Toni Oliver of Ellicott City did not spend that much time, but she said hand-painting a blue pattern from a parasol onto her cake took her about 10 hours.

"I enjoy every moment of it," said Oliver, whose business, Mrs. Oliver's Cakes, is based in Laurel. "Once I've worked on it for a while, I become attached," she said. "It's a work of art."

She said after working alone so much, a show is a nice chance to be around other people who understand the job. Plus, she said, " I always learn so much more. I can't wait to get into that room and see the other cakes."

Buchanan said cake shows are her chance to try new and unusual things.

"Competitions are my time for creativity," she said. "It inspires me to raise my skill set."

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