The grave honor of writing our first food-based non-introductory post lies on my broad, ample, linebacker shoulders. These same shoulders recently bore a tremendous burden — that of making a cake to celebrate the four year anniversary of the launch of the Fermi Gamma Ray Space Telescope.
Luckily, this burden was not mine to bear alone, else the cake would have been less “SPAAAAAACE” and more “… space?” Two coworkers (coscientists? labmates? THE UNIVERSE IS MY LAB) and I spent a total of ~50 manhours creating the cake. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
It all started, as these things are wont to do, at a drunken happy hour. The 4-year anniversary party was mentioned; a cake was suggested; my eyes met that of J — a NASA scientist with a long and illustrious string of publications to her name — as we squealed in unison, “LET’S PAINT THE ALL SKY MAP!”
This, folks, is the Fermi sky map:
This is what the universe looks like in gamma rays, as seen by the Fermi Large Area Telescope (LAT) using three (I think) years of data. The areas with the brightest, lightest colors are places that emit a lot of gamma rays. That bright band going through the middle is our galaxy. The other brightest sources are pulsars and AGN. (Unfortunately, the things that I study — gamma-ray bursts — don’t show up on this map, because they are very short-lived phenomena.) (We also decided to paint in the Fermi bubbles. LOOK THAT SHIT UP, it is pretty awesome.)
We decided to bake a giantass cake, cover it in fondant, and paint the damn thing to look like the Fermi/LAT sky map. The problem was that neither of us had ever worked with fondant (although I’d seen people work with fondant on TVwhich is just as good as having actual experience), and neither of us had painted anything since fourth grade. But, since no one else at happy hour knew anything about cakes or paints, there was no one to smack us upside the head and exclaim GOOD LORD WOMAN THIS IS NOT AN ENDEAVOR TO BE TAKEN LIGHTLY. So we put our heads together and brainstormed up a cake, giggling like a couple of 5 year olds the entire time.
We did a couple of test runs of making and painting the sky map on fondant, which we judged to be the most difficult part of the task. (These scientists don’t know how to Art — isn’t it great when people fulfill stereotypes??) This is what we produced during trial #1 …
… a couple of diseased clams. J’s is on the left, mine is on the right. Mine is missing some corners because I kept nibbling away at the fondant. Mine is also squiggly because I am too much of a free spirit to paint straight lines. J’s kind of looks like two sombreros glued together.
Luckily, our second test run went a lot better, as we began to remember what we learned in fourth grade art (like how you need both black AND white, and how you should mix a little bit of a darker color into a lot of the lighter color, and how we are both kind of terrible at Arting). We also reeled in my officemate M. She and I hunkered down to paint the fondant, while J worked on the newest addition to the cake — the satellite itself.
The LAT is the gray box; the other instrument, the Gamma-ray Burst Monitor (GBM) is a set of 14 detectors that stick out from the main body. There are two sets of solar panels on either side, and a dangly antenna at the bottom. The actual satellite is made of metal and plastics and lots of expensive things; ours is made of colored fondant.
Meanwhile, M and I worked on our second iteration of the sky map.
On the one hand, the colors weren’t as dark and the blending was more subtle. On the other hand, the Milky Way looked like a wavy strip of bacon. We made a mental note to stop being such free spirits and use a ruler in the future.
J and I spent most of a Saturday afternoon baking eight 9×13 cakes. (I would like to state for the record that I was extremely hungover and that I will never drink a Long Island ever again. Ever.) We made a half yellow / half chocolate cake, using the recipes here. Both were delicious and fairly easy to work with. The yellow cake came out especially well, nice and spongy (probably because it contained 23304961 eggs per serving); the chocolate cake had a bit of a brownie-like texture (it had more liquid ingredients) and was more difficult to work with. In the future, however, I would probably cut down on the sugar in both cakes, and I’m not sold on the touted “single bowl” method of making the batter (we still needed a second bowl to whip the eggs, and I much prefer working the butter and sugar separately first). BUT. With all that Negative Nancying aside — these are very tasty cakes which baked up quite nicely. Here they are, mingling in my freezer:
This is what a grad student’s freezer might look like. The Klondike bars were a post-baking treat — I SWEAR THEY’VE SHRUNK –, the rum is three years old because I never have friends over ever, and the Jager is being used to separate the upper layers from the lower layers to avoid undue squishage of the latter. The cakes are in the freezer because we weren’t going to use them until the next day, plus freezing cakes makes them much easier to work with.
The next day, J and M came over bright and early to make the Swiss buttercream, which was also delicious. In the meantime, I wrestled with a 5 lb fondant monster, muscling it into submission using hardcore yoga muscles and sheer force of will plus a judicious stream of colorful profanity. I used a generic marshmallow fondant recipe — melt mini marshmallows, then knead in enough powdered sugar until you get the desired texture, sort of like stiff Play-Doh — but substituted half of the powdered sugar for cornstarch to cut down on the sweetness. The cornstarch gave the fondant a slightly chewier texture that had a tendency to linger, but after a few days of drying out it felt just fine.
Finally, the cake was ready to be assembled and painted. This is the end result, which we served at a party for >70 people last Monday:
The spacecraft is made entirely of colored fondant, and was sculpted by hand by J. The lettering was cut out from fondant using letter stencils and then painted, again by J. M mixed up our colors and painted a good portion of the sky, including the bubbles and the shading at high latitudes. I painted the galaxy itself and all of the point sources; there might be a few extra sources where my brush slipped.
The pen is there for scale. It looks so tiny next to that massive cake. In fact, we overestimated how much cake we needed to make; by the end of the party, we still had half the cake left:
A few people claimed pieces with particular gamma ray sources. The Vela pulsar was one of the first ones to be called. We tried to keep the spacecraft intact for as long as possible.
Alas, all good things must come to an end, nothing gold can stay, and cake gets real dry real fast. We left the remainder of the cake out in one of the kitchens the next day, and by the end of the day there was nary a crumb left. (Some people initially assumed that the cake had been made for the NuSTAR launch, which boggled my mind since, I mean, doesn’t everyone automatically recognize this as the Fermi skymap?? Obvs. Those people must have been optical astronomers or something.)
We’ll have to outdo ourselves for the five-year cake.
P.S. Our cake made the official rarely-updated Fermi blog: http://blogs.nasa.gov/cm/blog/GLAST/posts/post_1339467476639.html
P.P.S. Are you in the DC area and needing a cake for your mission? We can do it! We will even read papers to create as scientifically rigorous a cake as possible.
P.P.P.S. I am sort of half-kidding about making more bigass astronomy cakes. But only half.