Cake wrecks


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


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


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


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.

New York, New York (and other doubles)

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So nice, I've been there twice (or more)

I’m getting on a plane to New York in just a few hours. This is the first flight I will take in over a year, which feels strange as I used to fly once every few months. With all that traveling, you’d think I would have hit a bunch of varied locations. I realized, though, that I’m a traveler who doesn’t so much seek out new places, but instead prefers to return to old favorites.

I first traveled abroad to Spain when I was 16, during which I visited Madrid and cities and towns in northern Spain. As soon as I got back to Minnesota, I vowed to return. Which I did at the age of 22…and again at 24. I taught English for a year in a small town in southern Spain at 22 and, the following summer, went back to both to northern and southern Spain. Just, you know, to make sure it was all as wonderful as I remembered.

I’ve also been to Dublin, Paris, and London twice each. I lived in the central part of Mexico during a sophomore year study abroad, and then spent a winter vacation in the Yucatan five years later. But somehow, in all this traveling, I’ve missed Italy and Germany, Switzerland and Scandinavia, South America and Asia. Either it’s time to start shaking things up, or time to admit that I’m not as adventurous of a traveler as I’d like to think. This will, after all, be my sixth trip to New York City.

What kind of a traveler are you? The I’ve-Been-Everywhere type, or the Revisited type?

Great books for traveling


#3 on the least I've heard of it!

I cannot take credit for the following list of books; it was culled together by WorldHum, who in turn searched the internet for “best-of” lists. The idea of a good travel book is an interesting one–must it be nonfiction, or can fiction sometimes better portray the ambience of a place? Can poetry work in this way as well? And what about those books that are good to take with you to a certain place because they share the mood, if not the location?

Looking over this list, I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve only read Eat, Pray, Love (note: I’m not embarrassed at having read this book, but instead that there are so many dozens listed that I’ve never even heard of). Which books have you read from this list, and which books would you add to it?

1) A Dragon Apparent, by Norman Lewis
2) A House in Bali, by Colin McPhee
3) A Moveable Feast, by Ernest Hemingway
4) A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, by Eric Newby
5) A Time of Gifts, by Patrick Leigh Fermor
6) A Turn in the South, by V.S. Naipaul
7) A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson
8) A Winter in Arabia, by Freya Stark
9) Among the Russians, by Colin Thubron
10) An Area of Darkness, by V.S. Naipaul
11) Arabian Sands, by Wilfred Thesiger
12) Arctic Dreams, by Barry Lopez
13) The Art of Travel, by Alain de Botton
14) As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, by Laurie Lee
15) Baghdad Without a Map, by Tony Horwitz
16) Balkan Ghosts, by Robert D. Kaplan
17) Beyond Euphrates, by Freya Stark
18) The Bird Man and the Lap Dancer, by Eric Hansen
19) Bitter Lemons of Cyprus, by Lawrence Durrell
20) Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, by Rebecca West
21) Black Like Me, by John Howard Griffin
22) Blue Highways, by William Least Heat-Moon
23) Brazilian Adventure, by Peter Fleming
24) Chasing the Sea, by Tom Bissell
25) City of Djinns, by William Dalrymple
26) Coasting, by Jonathan Raban
27) Coming Into the Country, by John McPhee
28) Dark Star Safari, by Paul Theroux
29) Desert Solitaire, by Edward Abbey
30) Down the Nile, by Rosemary Mahoney
31) Eat, Pray, Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert
32) The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, by Tom Wolfe
33) Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, by Alfred Lansing
34) Facing the Congo, by Jeffrey Tayler
35) Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, by Hunter S. Thompson
36) Four Corners, by Kira Salak
37) Full Circle, by Michael Palin
38) Full Tilt: Ireland to India With a Bicycle, by Dervla Murphy
39) Golden Earth, by Norman Lewis
40) Great Plains, by Ian Frazier
41) The Great Railway Bazaar, by Paul Theroux
42) Holidays in Hell, by P.J. O’Rourke
43) Homage to Catalonia, by George Orwell
44) Hunting Mister Heartbreak, by Jonathan Raban
45) In a Sunburned Country, by Bill Bryson
46) In Patagonia, by Bruce Chatwin
47) In Siberia, by Colin Thubron
48) In Trouble Again, by Redmond O’Hanlon
49) The Innocents Abroad, by Mark Twain
50) Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer
51) Into Thin Air, by Jon Krakauer
52) Iron and Silk, by Mark Salzman
53) Kon-Tiki, by Thor Heyerdahl
54) The Lady and the Monk, by Pico Iyer
55) Life on the Mississippi, by Mark Twain
56) The Log From the Sea of Cortez, by John Steinbeck
57) The Long Walk, by Slavomir Rawicz
58) The Lost Continent, by Bill Bryson
59) Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, by Suketu Mehta
60) The Motorcycle Diaries, by Ernesto “Che” Guevara
61) The Muses Are Heard, by Truman Capote
62) No Mercy, by Redmond O’Hanlon
63) Notes From a Small Island, by Bill Bryson
64) Nothing to Declare, by Mary Morris
65) Old Glory, by Jonathan Raban
66) The Old Patagonian Express, by Paul Theroux
67) Out of Africa, by Isak Dinesen
68) Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard
69) The Pillars of Hercules, by Paul Theroux
70) The Places in Between, by Rory Stewart
71) Riding to the Tigris, by Freya Stark
72) The Rings of Saturn, by W.G. Sebald
73) The River at the Center of the World, by Simon Winchester
74) River Town, by Peter Hessler
75) Road Fever, by Tim Cahill
76) The Road to Oxiana, by Robert Byron
77) Roughing It, by Mark Twain
78) Sea and Sardinia, by D.H. Lawrence
79) Seven Years in Tibet, by Heinrich Harrer
80) The Sex Lives of Cannibals, by J. Maarten Troost
81) The Size of the World, by Jeff Greenwald
82) Slowly Down the Ganges, by Eric Newby
83) The Snow Leopard, by Peter Matthiessen
84) The Soccer War, by Ryszard Kapuscinski
85) The Songlines, by Bruce Chatwin
86) Terra Incognita, by Sara Wheeler
87) Their Heads are Green and Their Hands are Blue, by Paul Bowles
88) Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson
89) Travels With Charley, by John Steinbeck
90) Travels With Myself and Another, by Martha Gellhorn
91) Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, by Jan Morris
92) Two Towns in Provence, by M.F.K. Fisher
93) Under the Tuscan Sun, by Frances Mayes
94) Video Night in Kathmandu, by Pico Iyer
95) West With the Night, by Beryl Markham
96) When the Going was Good, by Evelyn Waugh
97) The World of Venice, by Jan Morris
98) The Worst Journey in the World, by Apsley Cherry-Garrard
99) Wrong About Japan, by Peter Carey
100) Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert M. Pirsig

Travelers’ Century Club, or, I’ve been everywhere

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People love listing the countries they’ve visited. We do it on Facebook, we do it by putting pins in maps (Mitch Hedberg: “I want to hang a map of the world in my house, then I am going to put pins into all the locations I have traveled to, but first I will have to travel to the top two corners of the map, so it won’t fall down”). But I always feel a little sad when I realize how paltry my list of approximately 9 countries visited looks against the full list of nearly 200 countries.

The North Pole...seems a little extreme, doesn't it?

Enter the Travelers’ Century Club, a group of people who have travelled to no fewer than 100 countries. Now, there are plenty of countries I’d still like to visit, but 100+ countries seems excessive. Do club members really enjoy their time in each country, or do they just step foot in them just to be able to cross them off a master list? What does one do on holiday in, say, Uzbekistan? And who has the time to hit each island in the South Pacific?

At this time, apparently, there are 14 people who claim to have visited EVERY country on the TCC list. This list actually includes 321 lands, some of which are not countries in their own right but are geographically separate from the parent country, such as Alaska or Easter Islands. John Clause from Evansville, IL was the first (by his account) to reach every country in the world, and was recognized in the 1995 Guinness Book of World Records as the most-travelled man. At that point it starts to seem like a compulsion. I wonder if these ultra-travellers get excited about the thought of new countries, or if they dread civil wars and the resulting border reconfigurations. Let me guess, last month there were immediately 14 tickets booked to South Sudan. I hear the weather there is excellent in August.

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