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panda birthday cake

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Toast to Bai Yun: Making a Panda Cake

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.

Originality
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.

Enrichment
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.

Durability
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!

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Panda Birthday Cake

Meghan, left, and Debbie pose with their tasty and beautiful creation.

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!

Let's hear it for the Forage Warehouse team!

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!

The cake is carefully delivered to the Giant Panda Research Station.

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.


Update: Photos from Yun Zi’s birthday are now posted in our Panda Photo Gallery!
Watch video of Yun Zi and his cake!

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Let Her Eat Cake—Whenever!

Bai Yun gets all the toys and treats for herself!

Yesterday was Bai Yun’s 19th birthday, and she was presented with a cake befitting her age and station—not too big, not too flashy—early in the morning. She is, after all, no “spring chicken” but a female of mature station, so a modest cake to mark the day without a big fuss, just a gathering of a few close friends to help celebrate.

And so it was that morning, with a lovely little (by panda cake standards) cake, crowned with apple slices and bamboo and three juicy apple halves frozen inside. But this is Bai Yun, after all, she who will grab food out her cubs’ mouths, all-food-is-Bai-Yun’s-food Bai Yun, with years of experience now in the care and eating of birthday cakes, both hers and her cubs’. Did she rush with joy to devour it? Did she make a beeline to this wonderful offering? Of course…NOT! There were piles of biscuits and fruit to be scoured first, and the bamboo pile, now being shared increasingly with Yunni, to be perused, as the small group of visitors grew larger and larger. When she finally did approach this lovely treat, a nearby log captured her attention.

Could it be that she was teasing her adoring public? Who knows? But what is obvious is that when she finally turned her attention to the “cake,” it was with a practiced eye and paw, pulling out the carrots, gobbling off the apple, and a quick swipe to see what else she could pry loose. That’s all? No problem. Bai just rolled it to the front of the exhibit to thaw out! Experience has taught her that eventually, all the goodies will pour forth when the ice softens enough, so she simply keeps rechecking from time to time to see what’s been melted out.

What a bear! It’s no wonder that she’s so special to us all! Happy Birthday, Missy B! You are the world’s most perfect panda—just ask us!

Ellie Rosenbaum is a panda narrator at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Yun Zi and the Door.