Toast to Bai Yun: Making a Panda Cake

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An ice cake from 2000.

Bai Yun absconds with Hua Mei’s 1st birthday cake in 2000.

On Saturday, September 7, was our third ice cake presentation to the San Diego Zoo’s pandas for this year—we celebrated our adult giant panda Bai Yun’s 22nd birthday. With help from the staff from the Zoo’s Nutritional Services, she received a gigantic 215-pound cake. It was a 2-tiered sculpture adorned with confetti ice cubes and topped off with two 2-foot toasting glasses holding the number 22, made of ice, bamboo, yams, and apples. We also made a special ice plaque piped with the names of all of Bai Yun’s babies and the year they were born.

An ice cake from 2002.

Hua Mei gets a  cake to herself when she turns 3 in 2002.

Ice cake making takes quite a bit of time and thought. There are a few factors to be considered when carrying out the process.

Every cake is different. Whether it’s the use of varying shades of food coloring or the shapes used to form each layer, no two cakes are alike. This year we experimented with pureed steamed yams mixed with food coloring to pipe names, designs, and flowers. It worked very nicely and will be a technique used on future cakes.


Mei Sheng celebrated his 2nd birthday in 2005.

Mei Sheng celebrated his 2nd birthday in 2005.

We also take into consideration how the panda will interact with the cake. Fresh treats are strategically placed on the cake. We placed some in easy-to-find places and hid some in the cups so we could see the panda scale her cake.

Honey is one of the panda’s favorites and a common ingredient in each cake. If you ever see them endlessly licking the ice, it’s most likely the sweet, sticky treat!



Zhen Zhen inspects her 3rd birthday cake.

Zhen Zhen inspects her 3rd birthday cake.

Having ice is especially welcome during the hot days of summer, but it can be challenging, since it melts faster. We make all pieces thicker so there will be cake upon delivery and at least through the first hour of presentation. Our pandas love to climb their cakes, so we have to make sure all the layers are extra sturdy by using bamboo culms for support and an extra-heavy bottom layer to prevent the cake from toppling over.



Yun Zi's fabulous 4th birthday cake.

Yun Zi’s fabulous 4th birthday cake.

Cake designers
For the last four weeks, everyone in the Nutritional Services Department assisted in the making of Bai Yun’s cake. We all helped in the actual process of putting all the cake layers together, but each person added a special touch. Jazmin Valdez has a steady hand and great penmanship for piping the names on the plaque. Deborah Lowe, Nutritional Services supervisor, designed the Celebration Toast ice cake. Debbie Andrada Tanciatco proposed the idea for using pureed yam as “frosting.” Meghan Kramer provided the color scheme as well as fresh yam and apple stars. Dave Szabo, Nutritional Services manager, and Jimmie Cunningham lent their strength to help carry the behemoth ice block.

For us cake makers, it can be a really daunting process, from making sure the design can be created to the stressful duty of delivering and setting up the cake. We love watching the pandas and our guests enjoying the birthday party. This has become a great team-building project that we take pride in.

Check out the Making of a Panda Cake video to see the whole process!