Preparing a birthday ice cake for a giant panda is always a fun challenge for the San Diego Zoo’s Forage Warehouse staff. We wanted to do something different from past years’ cakes. Some of the main factors we have to contend with are time, materials, and the overall weight of the cake. I was very excited when my lead, Debbie Lowe, presented me with the opportunity to help with this year’s panda ice cake. Coming from the Nutritional Services Department at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, our ability to make big, beautiful ice cakes at the Park is unfortunately limited by our freezer space, so this was going to be a real treat for me and the panda!
Coming up with a way to make each cake different from the rest is definitely a challenge, but Yun Zi’s 2nd birthday cake had some unique qualities. We made it a three-tier cake, because we know how much the pandas love to climb all over them. This cake actually ended up being much larger than we had planned, and Yun Zi seemed to enjoy it! Something that is different about this cake is that we made it as a challenging enrichment item for the panda. The bottom layer of the cake was made into a bowl shape to hold various food items. Instead of the traditional three bamboo sticks holding up the middle layer, we enclosed the whole bottom of the cake, making a “cage” effect. Our hope was that Yun Zi would have to work for those treats and have a lot of fun doing it!
It was difficult trying to find a way to create the bowl shape in the bottom layer. We had to figure out how to freeze an object in the ice to make the bowl but still be able to retrieve the object after enclosing the cake with bamboo, so we came up with the idea of using a beach ball. It worked perfectly! We inflated it and placed it in the bottom layer to freeze, and then once the bamboo sticks were frozen in place, we simply deflated it to slide it out.
The middle layer of the cake was much larger than previous cakes. This allowed us to put Yun Zi’s name on the cake in large letters, which we cut out of slices of yams. And last but not least, the top layer held the traditional number representing the panda’s age. The entire cake was finished off with decorative, colorful star and circle shapes made from water and food coloring, bamboo “bows” made from individual leaves folded over in a circle shape, and bamboo leaves frozen around the perimeter of the cake to leave an outline of a bamboo leaf.
Overall the cake was a success, and I hope Yun Zi had as much fun eating it as I did making it! Thank you to the Zoo Forage Warehouse for allowing me to be part of this process. I hope to take some of the things I learned back to the Safari Park. And most importantly…HAPPY BIRTHDAY, YUN ZI!!!
Meghan Kramer is a nutritional service assistant at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, currently working in a loan position at the San Diego Zoo’s Forage Warehouse.