Birthday Girl…or 40 is the new 30.

It took weeks of stealth planning…endless Facebook messaging…multiple revisions…crafty, deliberate misdirections…all in an effort to throw Rina the surprise 40th birthday party she richly deserved.  She did not make it easy.  We all knew she wanted something special to mark this milestone, but being the suspicious woman that she is, Rina kept her husband, Ken, and Laura on their toes–tossing one monkey wrench after another in their planning.  At one point, she was so worried they hadn’t come up with anything she started organizing her own birthday party!

I had it pretty easy…once Ken decided to forgo booking an event space and opted to go with a restaurant, which meant I wouldn’t be catering the party.   I knew from the beginning that I’d make her birthday cake–and that it’d have to be something that would knock her socks off.    Now, I’m not one for carving cakes into Mount Rushmore-like heads of people.  In fact, I’m generally against fashioning any body parts out of cake.  Sorry, but that’s just weird!  It’s suppose to be dessert, not an episode of Dexter.  Nevertheless, Rina and I had a running joke on Facebook about her wanting me to bake her a cake in the form of Lionel Ritchie’s head (circa 1980’s), so I deployed a bit of subterfuge by hinting to her sister Rachelle that I was thinking of doing just that…in case Rina decided to pick her sister’s brain about what we were doing for her birthday.

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Chocolate Ritchie anyone?

What I really wanted to do was create a cake that showcased both Rina’s talent as an artist and her love of classic Hollywood movies.  The perfect place to start was to pull from her extensive and prolific drawings on the subject.  Ken helped by secretly emailing me some of her movie-themed “post-it” drawings.  I gathered more from her website, Facebook, and even her postings on this blog, which I then assembled and printed out on edible ink.

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I did run into one minor glitch–the yellow ink wouldn’t flow out of the cartridge so all the images came out in shades of pink, blue and black!  Not exactly true to her original artwork, but since I was unable to unclog the cartridge, I decided to just go with it.  At least the color scheme was consistent, which created a kind of flow from her more vibrant drawings to the monochromatic ones.   Originally, I envisioned something along the lines of frames from movie strip circling the cake, but then I realized that I had far too many images (after all I was only making a relatively small two-tiered cake), so I went with the art gallery design.  Each image would be “glued” to a fondant plaque and displayed at artful intervals around the  10″ and 6″ cakes.

Thanks to Laura’s investigative skills, I found out that our birthday girl had a fondness for tiramisu.  Normally tiramisu is too delicate to be turned into a decorated cake.  However, I’ve created a version that is not only delicious but firm enough to be used in a tiered cake.  For Rina’s birthday cake, I settled on a light and fluffy vanilla chiffon cake, soaked with a rum-spiked espresso syrup and layered with a rum and marsala flavored tiramisu filling dotted with bittersweet chocolate curls, frosted in coffee Italian buttercream.

My vision for Rina’s cake didn’t end with the art gallery of her drawings.  Oh no.  I needed an extra element to send it over the top.  And that extra something came in the form of Mr. Darcy…or rather Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy (who Rina would argue was the ultimate incarnation of our beloved Jane Austen hero)…gloriously wet, rising out of a pool of chocolate on the top tier!  It seemed simple enough.  All I had to do was screen shot a stock photo Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy standing in the lake.   How hard could that be?  Well…really hard as it turns out…because the scene never actually took place.  To be exact, that particular sequence in the mini series begins with Colin diving into the lake and cuts to him drenched, walking his horse across the greens towards Pemberly!  The only image I could find of Firth’s Darcy in that scenario was of that bizarre “fan art” sculpture made in his likeness which stands in the middle of a lake in Lyme Park, England.

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Needless to say, it’s just a little too creepy.  So, I had to be creative and photoshop (with the help of my friend, Clara) the head of Colin Firth onto the body of the sculpture…then print him up on an edible frosting sheet.

Mr. Darcy and Back-up
Mr. Darcy and Back-up

I then made a hard sugar paste called pastillage, rolled it out like fondant and cut it in the outline shape of his body.  The pastillage was allowed to dry out for three days, then I attached the cut-out image of Colin onto it.  For the cake top, I piped a nice thick border of buttercream dots along the edge to hold in the “lake” of melted chocolate ganache.

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…and voilà!

After an interminably long drive through ridiculously bad downtown San Francisco traffic to Berkeley, with the cake strapped to the backseat of Laura’s Toyota, we thankfully arrived at Spenger’s with everything still intact.  Rina was indeed very surprised.

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And this is what was left…before everyone went in for seconds…and thirds.

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Mission accomplished!

Tiramisu Filling

Yield:  enough to fill one 10″ and one 6″ cake

  • 10 yolks
  • 1/4 tsp. sea or Kosher salt
  • 1 1/3 cups sugar
  • 1/4 cup light rum
  • 1/4 cup dry marsala
  • 12 oz. mascarpone cheese
  • 5 cups heavy cream
  • 2 1/2 tsp. gelatin powder dissolved in 1/4 cup cold water

In a heat proof bowl, whisk together the yolks, salt, 1 cup sugar, and liquor until smooth.  Set the bowl over simmering bowl, whisking continuously until the mixture is very pale and thick and registers 160°F.  Remove from the heat and whisk in the softened gelatin.  Place the bowl over a larger bowl of ice and water to chill, whisking occasionally to distribute the cold.  Meanwhile, in a mixer fitted with a whip attachment whip on medium speed the mascarpone, remaining 1/3 cup sugar and 2 cups of cream until the lumps of mascarpone have been smoothed out, then lower the speed and gradually add the remaining cream.  Increase the speed to medium and whip until the mixture forms medium soft peaks.  Carefully fold chilled egg mixture into the cream.

Happy 40th Birthday Rina!

On the Set: The Grass is Greener

On the Set by Rina Ayuyang

Many moons ago, I self-published a comic series called Namby Pamby. This is from the last issue from 2008, and marks the first of a series of comics that will adapt excerpts from movie star memoirs. What I like most about movie star memoirs is learning the behind-the-scenes moments during the making of my favorite movies, especially the interaction between the stars, crew and director. This one is from Dancing on the Ceiling: Stanley Donen and His Movies by Stephen M. Silverman. Stanley Donen is one of my favorite directors, whose versatility in directing musicals, comedies, suspense genres is something I truly admire. Plus he got to direct some of the most iconic stars in Classic Hollywood. Stay tuned where I try to find some back story to The Women from Joan Fontaine’s memoir. Click here for a bigger glimpse of the comic>

Comic: Downton Crabby

Aw, just in time for the next episode, so we can share our rage together! I know it’s hard to tell in this comic, but I actually like this show. I think I like it too hard that it hurts. So pull up a chair, make Mimi’s Crawley Pimm’s Cup cocktail, and enjoy! (Also, CAUTION, there are a lot of SPOILERS if you haven’t watched the show till tonight which is at Episode 6, Season 6!)Downton Crabby by Rina Ayuyang





Comic: You DO That Little Thing!

Meet Me in St. Louis is unexpectedly one of my favorite movie musicals ever. I recommend you watch it, not just because you’ll understand the following comic better as it references a lot of scenes and quotes from the movie, but it’s just so GODDAMN good and it’s the holidays!! Make Mimi’s Irish Coffee, tuck yourself under a warm blanket and start watching! It will seriously change your life. I guess I am exaggerating. Anyway, enjoy!

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