Cake wrecks

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If you haven’t heard of the site Cake Wrecks before, be prepared to lose the rest of your afternoon touring the ruins of good intentions that wound up as terrible cakes. Seriously, this site is nearly as addicting as Cake Boss (and I said I wouldn’t speak of Cake Boss again! I just can’t restrain myself!)

There are the run-of-the-mill miscommunications:

Haven't you heard about NOT messing with Texas?

The alarming misspellings:

Back to shool, back to shool to show my dad I'm not a fool

And then there are those cakes that are downright ugly:

Ha, gotcha! That wasn’t the ugly one. That’s what the bride requested…instead she got this:

Yep, now that is an ugly cake.

Also, if you’ve made it down this far, I want to put in a quick plug for my boyfriend (who would be mortified if he knew…good thing he doesn’t read this!) Back when he first started at City Pages he chose 10 of his favorite cake wrecks and wrote up his own descriptions of them. They’re pretty hilarious.

When the Cake Boss met the Cookie Monster

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I promise, this is the last time I’ll talk about Cake Boss. I just wanted to give anyone who hasn’t seen the show a little better understanding of why I’m obsessed with it. There are way too many amazing cakes and great scenes to choose from when picking my Cake Boss favorites, but Buddy meeting his hero, Cookie Monster, um, takes the cake:

And here are some other incredible creations:

This is a replica of an Indricotherium for the American Museum of Natural History

Buddy with his life-size race car cake

An aquarium with brightly colored fish and coral in front and real fish swimming behind

Cake for Chinese dragon boat racing team

Carlo's Bakery crew crowds around New York City

How to be a cake decorator

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What you’ll need: buttercream frosting, fondant

Songlist: Cake’s rendition of I Will Survive

Further reading: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

Yummmmmmm

I already posted once before about cakes, but they’re such an important topic (right?) that I thought cakes warranted their own week.

This is a particularly good week to talk about cakes, because today I’m heading to my cousin’s wedding in Wyoming. My mom, along with three other women, has been enlisted to create a cake for the reception. Much to my pleasure, she went through a cake-making frenzy last week to find the perfect recipe, which meant that I had to be enlisted as a taste-tester. Not a problem.

I’ve always had a special place in my heart for cake. Whenever I accompanied my mom on grocery shopping trips I looked forward most to the bakery aisle where, if I was lucky, someone would be decorating a cake. I loved then–and still love–the delicate sugar roses and perfectly twisted piping that decorators create out of globby tubes of icing.

One of my childhood friends still remembers my birthday parties for their unique cakes. Everyone else always got Disney princess cakes (cakes are the medium most perfect for replicating Disney stories in their bright, sugary un-wholesomeness) complete with figurines you could take off and play with. My cakes, though, were never just sheet-cakes-from-the-grocery-store. I had a cake in the shape of a butterfly one year, and my brother once got a castle complete with turrets made of ice cream cones. And, well, yes, I got a Little Mermaid cake another year, but my dad hand-drew Ariel and her friends and cut them out of cardboard.

Buddy concentrates on a wedding cake in the likeness of the Leaning Tower of Piza

My family has gotten more health-conscious over the years, and cake has been all but banished from our kitchen. However, we still get our cake thrills through the amazing show Cake Boss (yep, already wrote about this too) which takes cake decorating to a whole other level. Sure, Buddy, the eponymous Boss, can do flowers and piping. But he can also create the entire city of New York out of cake complete with fireworks or flashing lights, or replicas of prehistoric mammals, or a cake from which a person pops out or birds fly free.

We joked about what kind of cake Buddy would bring to my cousin’s wedding: probably a replica of the Tetons complete with a minuscule working chairlift and skiers coming down the mountains. Buddy surely would not make the kind of cake my mom’s bringing: vegan, gluten-free, free of processed sugar. But as much fun as cake-mountains capped with real snow would be, I can assure all the wedding-goers that my mom’s cake will be just as excellent. I should know: I taste-tested it. And then I taste-tested it again.

History of aviation

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When I think of early aviation, my mind only goes back to 1903, when the Wright brothers got their powered and controlled aircraft into flight. They were the first to combine power and control in their aircraft, but, indeed, humans had been creating flying objects for centuries before the Wright brothers came around.

Leonardo da Vinci's drawings for a flying machine

Some of the earliest flying objects were gliders, which were created as far back as the 9th century (the first inventor being a Muslim jack-of-all-trades named Abbas Ibn Firnas from the modern day city of Ronda, Spain). Eiler of Malmesbury, an English monk, created a glider in 1010 AD and flew it out of Malmesbury Abbey. Unfortunately, he broke both of his legs in the flight and his Abbot didn’t allow him to continue in his aviation experiments. In 1783, two French brothers created a lighter-than-air balloon that could carry humans…but it could only go downwind.

Fast forward to the twentieth century. Just a decade after the Wright brothers made their first heavier-than-air flight, airplanes were being used to great effect in WWI. But airplanes were rivaled by a new upstart: airships manufactured by the Zeppelin company. In early days, Zeppelins could fly longer distances than airplanes, such as the Graf Zeppelin which made an around-the-world flight in 1929. However, airplane design quickly outpaced the Zeppelins. The age of airships ended with the Hindenburg disaster in 1937 and, though there have been attempts to restore their glory, they remain a fringe interest.

Just a century after the Wright brothers, the aircraft SpaceShipOne made a successful flight into space. Plans are in development for this aircraft’s successors to soon bring commercial passengers into space. Meanwhile, other aircraft designs are encompassing alternative sources of energy such as ethanol, electricity, and solar power. The aviation industry continues to grow in outstanding bounds…just don’t fly those solar planes at night!

Magnificent men in their flying machines

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Thinking about aviation this week brought to mind an old tune that I couldn’t place at first: Those magnificent men in their flying machines, they go up uppity up up…  Google to the rescue. This is the theme song from an old British movie I watched at my grandparents as a kid that I surely never would have remembered otherwise.

The movie’s full title is Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines, Or How I Flew from London to Paris in 25 Hours and 11 Minutes and features an international flying contest, replete with cliched characters from Italy, France, Britain, the US, Prussia, and Japan who play out in microcosm the tensions of pre-WWI Europe. Now that we have such a standard model for what a plane should look like, it’s fun to see the varied concepts that were featured in this movie:

Airports big and small

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When a person (say…me) googles “world’s coolest airports,” she encounters several lists of huge, modern airports in some of the world’s most technologically advanced cities in the world. Think Singapore, Tokyo, Berlin, Hong Kong, Dubai. But, while some of these structures are indeed incredible, I tired quickly of their strikingly similar aesthetics. They’re all modern monoliths, designed to usher millions of travelers through their permeable walls in the most efficient manner possible. Yes, some of them include art installations or flora, but too much art occludes the primary functionality of the buildings.

Barajas airport in Madrid: more pain than it's worth

Take, for instance, Madrid’s new Barajas airport. This airport appeared on some of my google lists of “cool airports,” but I must say that the experience of trying to use this airport drove me crazy. Terminals are painfully far away from each other and, due to the open plan of the gates, there are no announcements over any loudspeakers (speakers are only used to pipe in bird noises). Passengers crowd around the departure screens instead and must wait–sometimes until just before their flight is boarding–to find out at which gate their plane awaits them (and then must go charging to a faraway terminal). Who cares about an innovative design if it makes me miss my flight?

Thus, I switched the operative superlative in my searches from “coolest” to “smallest” and “most dangerous.” Success! I found about about Courchevel airport in the French Alps, with such a short runway that pilots must land on an incline to decrease speed and take off on a decline.

Barra Airport: the red sign warns visitors to stay off the beach "when the airport is active"

And I was reminded how the runway of Gibraltar’s airport intersects a four-lane highway because Spain won’t let the British colony use its airspace (can we detect a grudge?) Thus, the highway must close every time a plane is taking off or landing.

And I learned of the world’s only beach runway in Barra, Outer Hebrides, Scotland. You know why no one else has put their runway on a beach? Oh right, because the tide washes it out. Yes, Barra Airport only operates during low tide and, if there are emergency landings at night, helpful citizens have to come illuminate the runway with their cars, as Barra has no artificial lights. Now that’s cool.

Let’s take a look at a Courchevel Airport departure, shall we? The views, if you can get your heart to beat at a normal rate, are certainly lovely…

How to be a pilot

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What you’ll need: a cool hat, steady hands

Songlist: Fly by Sugar Ray, Leaving on a Jet Plane by John Denver

Further reading: Alive by Piers Paul Read

On Friday, I mentioned that I’d be getting on a plane to New York shortly after posting. I got to the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport, read some trashy magazines for a while (will Brad and Angelina wed or won’t they?), and hung out at my gate eating overpriced airport food. And then, ten minutes after we were supposed to board the plane, they announced that my flight to JFK had been canceled. Bad weather in New York. Delta offered me a cocktail of out-of-the-way flights (Minneapolis-St. Louis-Atlanta-New York) that still wouldn’t guarantee my safe arrival Friday night. I opted to fly out Saturday early morning instead.

I was pretty disappointed but, as I was standing in line to get my rebooking, I saw a pilot dash in behind the desk looking quite anxious. Distraught passengers tried to ask him for assistance and he waved them off, saying that he, too, was just trying to figure out how to get to work–he didn’t have any special information to share with us. I began to think how difficult it would be to have a job that is so often affected by rain or snow or volcanic eruptions.

The runway at Virgin Gorda: not big enough for a six-seater plane

But being a pilot is also pretty darn cool. Once, when my family was visiting my grandparents in the Caribbean, we took a day trip over to Virgin Gorda, one of the British Virgin Islands. We had to take a four-seater airplane over, as the airport at Virgin Gorda is nothing more than a dirt strip on the side of a cliff that drops down into the ocean. Somehow I got the lucky seat of sitting next to our pilot. He took off into the clear, blue day and once we reached our cruising altitude, he asked if I’d like to take the controls. I knew that keeping a plane flying straight in perfect weather is not necessarily difficult, but at the same time I knew that if I pushed or pulled that yoke too quickly I could send us into a tailspin. So I gripped the steering yoke white-knuckled, not daring to breathe too much, as the pilot leaned back to fill out some paperwork.

After several minutes the pilot took control once again, and I was able to exhale. Though flying has become commonplace, the physics that keep a tiny aircraft aloft still boggle my mind. It’s terrifying to realize how vulnerable you are many thousands of feet above land, but also exhilarating. I almost asked to steer again, but it was just about time for the descent and landing, and there was no way I wanted anything to do with that. Our pilot expertly guided the tiny plane down to that sandy runway, and we passed through the one-room airport with our passports (immigration control seems a little foolish when your airport is a wooden shack).

The day at Virgin Gorda was beautiful, but I remember being excited for the flight back just to feel, once again, that fine balance between security and vulnerability.

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