When it’s finished, Beth Townsend’s South Florida Fair cake display will have used 450 pounds of satin fondant – an icing used for sculpting pastries – 100 pounds of chocolate and 25 gallons of vanilla buttercream. She estimates the sculpture could provide more than 3,000 servings.
There’s something strange going on with animals at the South Florida Fair. Two turtles riding on a surfboard. A raccoon with a fishing pole slung over its shoulder. A crab balancing a football between pincers. An alligator in sports referee garb, a whistle hanging from its neck. A skunk in a kayak, balanced atop another turtle.
You won’t find these critters in stalls in the animal barn of the fair, but rather in the main exposition building, beneath a 20-foot-tall poster of their creator, Beth Townsend. They and others are part of her massive cake sculpture in keeping with the fair’s theme of “Play Ball, Play Fair!”
The sculpture is 20 feet wide and, in some places, about 12 feet high.
“Our children do a lot of sports,” said Townsend, a Royal Palm Beach native and resident. “It’s fun to bring the sports world to the cake world.”
Her four kids, however, don’t binge on her specialty cakes. “I think they were sick of cakes from the get-go,” she says with a laugh.
On the Fair’s opening day Friday, Townsend drew admirers like ants to a picnic. Many posed for photos with her. Some wanted an autograph. All of them marveled at the sculpture.
“I was surprised they’re cakes. It’s beautiful,” said Lucille Montenegro of Lake Worth Beach.
“I consider it an art form. The ability to mentally visualize it and create it,” said Bruce Nagler of Buford, Georgia, who was visiting his daughter in Palm Beach Gardens. “It’s definitely a talent. This is spectacular work.”
Townsend rented a truck to transport the sweet sculpture to the fair. The motorized turntable was loaned by a Tennessee company, which transported it to South Florida at no charge.
The cake sculpture is Townsend’s largest baking undertaking. And it’s still growing. She is adding more creatures during the fair – a manatee, a shark and flamingos, among them. When it’s finished, she will have used 450 pounds of satin fondant – an icing used for sculpting pastries – 100 pounds of chocolate and 25 gallons of vanilla buttercream, she said. She estimates the sculpture could provide more than 3,000 servings.
That won’t be happening, however. The cakes are treated with a chemical to deter sugar-loving pests from devouring the delectable artwork, Townsend said.
She’s doing the sculpture, she said, to raise awareness about a national charity called Icing Smiles. The organization has more than 11,000 volunteers nationwide, including Townsend, who make custom cakes for children with life-threatening illnesses. There is no charge to their families.
“Not a lot of families know about it,” Townsend said.
Her sculpted cakes contain interior skeletons of wooden dowels and PVC pipes for support, which Townsend’s inventor father, Bob Townsend has helped her design. “Cake is squishy, you can’t have arms or legs protruding” or they’d collapse, Townsend said. “It takes a lot of engineering, the structure of them.”
One might assume Townsend trained as a pastry chef, but not so. “I am totally self-taught,” she said. “I learned from trial and error.” But Townsend has an artistic bent, having worked as a faux painter and wood finisher for 17 years, creating textures that simulate the look and feel of other surfaces such as marble.
She’s good enough in the cake world that she’s appeared on shows on the Food Network, the Cooking Channel and HGTV. And she has a business making specialty cakes for weddings, parties and the like.
Fairgoers can also watch Townsend compete against another talented cake sculptor at 1 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 26 when they duel in Building 5 on the fairgrounds. She sounded confident but added that even after creating roughly 200 cakes a year for the 10 past years, “you have a cake that out-tricks you.”