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Cakes of Disguise: You Can Do It

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If you happen to be riding the subway in New York, and see a woman tenderly carrying a big box and looking worried every time the car lurches, it may very well be Colette Peters delivering another cake.

“I never thought I’d make a living baking cakes,” says Peters, as she eases a cake out of a pan and begins whipping up some frosting. “I thought I’d make a living as a commercial artist.”

In fact Peters, a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design and Pratt Institute, was designing china, stationery and jewelry for Tiffany’s when her career got derailed. “I was doing cakes at home--just for fun, and I’d bring them to company parties. Everybody always liked the way they looked, and then Don Loring asked me to do a cake for a magazine article he was writing.”

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That cake went into a book called “Tiffany Taste.” Then Peters did a cake for “Tiffany Weddings.” “The next thing I knew, people were calling and asking me for cakes. Before I knew what had happened, it was out of control.”

It’s no wonder--it’s almost impossible to look at a Peters cake without wanting it. Lots of people bake cakes in pretty designs, and a few people actually bake cakes that attempt to look like objects, but Peters’ cakes are dead ringers for the real thing. It’s sometimes impossible to believe that her cakes are edible. Put her cactus cake next to the real thing, and you’ll have a hard time figuring out which one you want to eat.

But while her cakes may seem complicated, Peters is quick to demystify the process. She says it’s all pretty easy, and watching her work, you actually come to believe it. What the cakes take, above all, are time and patience. If you think you aren’t capable of creating a cake that looks exactly like a cactus, let Colette Peters take you through the process, step by step, and see how easy it really is.

Peters’ new book, “Colette’s Cakes,” (Little, Brown & Co.: $24.95, 163 pages) is filled with extraordinary cakes that you really can make. Her bridal bouquet looks more like flowers than cake, and her little sofa cake is so adorable that you just want to curl up on it and go to sleep.

“My goal in life,” says Peters, who has never charged more than $3,000 for a cake (“that sounds like a lot, but some people in New York charge $10,000”), “is to make less cakes and more money. And, of course, to write another book. I have so many ideas.”

Every part of this cake is edible, including the needles and the cookie crumb “dirt” (but don’t try to eat the flowerpot). The one problem you’ll have, though, is that after spending so much time making the cake, you’ll hate to see people actually sitting down to eat it.

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It does call for the following special equipment and ingredients, available in cake-decorating stores: ball cake pan (can substitute two six-inch oven-proof bowls), pastry bag, No. 32 star tip, No. 68 leaf tip, No. 2 tip, large lily nail, small yellow stamens, meringue powder (can substitute egg whites).

DESERT CACTUS CAKE

Cactus Flower

Cactus Needles

1 (6-inch) Chocolate Ball Cake

1 (3-inch high by 7 1/2-inch wide) clean clay flowerpot

20 chocolate wafer cookies

Cactus Green Butter Cream Icing

No. 32 star tip

Make Cactus Flower and Cactus Needles 2 days before cake assembly. Make Chocolate Ball Cake several hours before.

Line clay pot with foil. Place chocolate wafer cookies in plastic bag and crush with rolling pin. Place 1/2 crushed cookies in clay pot. Place 1/2 Chocolate Ball Cake, flat side up, on top of cookie crumbs. Spread some Cactus Green Butter Cream Icing to cover surface of cake. Cover with other 1/2 Chocolate Ball Cake.

Cover cake with thin layer of Cactus Green Butter Cream Icing. Add remaining cookie crumbs around base of cake to keep in place.

Fit pastry bag with No. 32 star tip and fill with Cactus Green Butter Cream Icing. Pipe stars in line, working from bottom to top of ball. Use less pressure on bag as you approach top, so stars are smaller as you work up. Insert 5 Cactus Needles into center of each star while icing is still wet.

Continue around entire ball until completely covered with stars and needles. Leave part of top without needles so there is room for Cactus Flower. Set Cactus Flower into wet butter cream. Makes 10 servings.

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Cactus Flower

1/2 cup Royal Icing

Pink food color

No. 68 leaf tip

1 large lily nail

Small yellow stamens

Tint 1/2 cup stiff Royal Icing bright pink. Fit pastry bag with No. 68 leaf tip and fill with Royal Icing. Line large lily nail with foil and pipe petals all around edge of nail. Make second row of petals inside first row of petals. While icing is still wet, insert about 50 yellow stamens into center of flower. Set flower aside to dry 2 days.

Cactus Needles

No. 2 tip

1/4 cup Royal Icing

Fit pastry bag with No. 2 tip and fill with 1/4 cup Royal Icing. Pipe about 300 (1/2-inch-long) lines on sheet of wax paper. Let dry several hours or longer.

Chocolate Ball Cake

Vegetable shortening

Flour

2 cups sugar

2 eggs, at room temperature

1 cup milk, room temperature

1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

1 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon almond extract

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 1/4 cups strong hot coffee

Grease sides and bottom of both halves of 6-inch ball pan or 2 (6- or 7-inch wide) oven-proof bowls with shortening. Dust with flour.

Combine 1 cup shortening, 3 cups flour, sugar, eggs, milk, cocoa powder, salt, baking powder, baking soda, almond extract and vanilla in large mixing bowl. Mix at low speed until all ingredients are blended, scraping sides occasionally with rubber spatula. Slowly add coffee while mixing on low speed. Mix until smooth.

Turn into prepared bowls. Bake at 325 degrees about 45 minutes to 1 hour or until wood pick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool in pans about 20 minutes, then invert onto racks, removing pans. Cool completely before icing.

This is a very easy icing to make and is good both for covering a cake and for piping decorations and borders. It will stay fresh for two days without refrigeration. (This recipe is enough to cover and fill one 13x9-inch sheet cake or two nine-inch layers. If you make this icing for another cake than Desert Cactus Cake, omit or vary the cactus coloring and use vegetable shortening in place of butter or margarine when pure white color is needed.)

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Cactus Green Butter Cream Icing

1 cup unsalted butter or margarine, at room temperature

1/2 cup milk, at room temperature

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons vanilla or other desired flavoring

2 pounds powdered sugar

Green food color

Pink food color

Combine butter, milk, salt, vanilla and powdered sugar in large mixing bowl. Mix at low speed until smooth. If stiffer icing is needed, or if weather is very warm, add little extra sugar. Mix in green food color with some pink to get dusty-green shade of cactus. Makes 6 cups.

This is a pure white decorative icing that dries very hard. It is perfect for making flowers and bows and can be kept in an airtight container at room temperature for two weeks. Stir icing with a spatula to restore its consistency. Do not re-beat. Royal Icing does not stand up to high humidity.

Royal Icing

5 tablespoons meringue powder

1/2 cup minus 2 tablespoons water, about

1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar

Few drops vanilla

1 pound powdered sugar, about

Combine meringue powder, water, cream of tartar, vanilla and powdered sugar in bowl of electric mixer. Beat slowly until blended. Then beat at high speed until icing forms stiff peaks, about 5 minutes. Add more sugar if icing is not stiff enough, or few drops of water if too stiff. Use immediately, or cover bowl with damp cloth to prevent drying when not in use. Allow Royal Icing decorations to dry at room temperature at least 24 hours. Makes 3 cups.

Note: In place of meringue powder and water, use 2 room-temperature egg whites.

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