Creative, scientific process helps EMS graduate student bake edible book winner

by David Kubarek, College of Earth and Mineral Sciences for Penn State News

Preeya Kuray, a third-year doctoral student majoring in materials science and engineering at Penn State, was thrilled to win the People’s Choice Award at the inaugural Edible Book Festival, so also winning “Best Depiction of a Classic” was, so to speak, the icing on the cake.

Kuray was awarded for crafting a cake tribute to the cover of “A Wrinkle in Time,” illustrated by Peter Sis, one her favorite artists. The event was hosted this spring by Penn State University Libraries.

In two days, Kuray meticulously constructed the edible creation. First, she baked a chocolate cake and cut it into a prism. She then covered the cake in buttercream frosting, followed by white fondant so that it resembled a book. With the blank canvas in place, she spent the second day painting the cover using edible watercolors that she made using food coloring and vodka.

“Cake decorating is one of my favorite hobbies, so I like to make cakes that will teach me new skills that push me past my limits,” Kuray said.

Winning two of the five categories surprised Kuray, who said there were parts of the cake she wished that she could have done better.

“Painting with vodka is a very unforgiving technique,” Kuray said. “Once you make a stroke, you can’t undo it and are forced to improvise on ways to cover up mistakes. But I think the occasional feeling of dissatisfaction with your work is universal among artists and serves as a driving force to improve. There’s nothing better than looking back on past work and seeing how far you’ve come.”

two women standing behind beautiful baked goods

Lourdes Bobbio with her Quidditch World Cupcakes, winner of the “Most Appetizing” category, and Kuray with her award-winning creation.

The science-minded Kuray has used her expertise to improve her baking skills, too. She’s always tasting her creations and plotting experiments to improve her edibles. She discovered overmixed batter, which excessively activated the gluten, was the culprit for an undesirable chewy, dense texture. To promote even baking throughout, she places metal flower nails in the cake center that are easily removed after the cake cools.

“When I make cakes, I try to think about what is happening at a fundamental level in order to troubleshoot when things go wrong. Cake making is a science,” Kuray said. “It’s incredibly satisfying when you understand the reason why things are going wrong and figure out a solution to move forward. It is similar to doing research, in that sense.”

For more on the contest and to view the other winners, click here.