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A Passion to Build Manifests in Carpentry… and Cakes

Published on August 13, 2021 in Cornerstone Blog · Last updated 5 months 3 weeks ago
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Castle birthday cake

Castle birthday cake

From desks to treehouses, Brian Fisher, DO, MPH, MSCE, likes to build things. He's fashioned a desk from hockey sticks and pucks, and another from baseball bats, and built an ice-skating rink — yes, an ice-skating rink — in his back yard, yet he's probably most famous among friends for his cakes.

"I started out making a butterfly cake for my daughter's birthday, and it just sort of went from there," said Dr. Fisher, who is a physician-scientist in the Division of Infectious Diseases at CHOP. "It was then a castle cake and a Cinderella cake, and it evolved into sports cakes or a TV show cake. I then had two boys, and they also had cakes they wanted to make. I think the boys tried to think of things they assumed I wouldn't be able to make. It became a challenge."

Athletic shoes cake

Athletic shoes cake

One of his favorite cakes is a pair of athletic shoes, positioned on top of a shoe box, as they'd appear in a store display. Many people thought that shoes actually were inside the decorations. But in fact, it was all cake covered in fondant. Dr. Fisher enjoys decorating cakes and doing woodwork because it engages the creative side of his brain and allows him to push the limits.

"As a physician-researcher, you do engage that part of the brain a little bit, because you want to be creative and innovative with studies and grants, but to a certain degree, you still have to work within the confines of what's doable," Dr. Fisher said. "With a cake, you can push beyond that, and give it a try, and often find that you can do it."

The Creative Process

'Amazing Race' themed cake

"Amazing Race" themed cake

The process starts with making and freezing cakes that will eventually become the building blocks of the design. Although he admits to using boxed cake mixes, Dr. Fisher makes fondant from scratch, using a unique recipe that combines marshmallows, water, and "as much confectioner's sugar as you can possibly put in it," he said.

"The kids love it because it's pure sugar," he said. "It doesn't take much effort to make, but it tastes really good."

His cake design ideas and what products to use to decorate them often come to him while driving home from work or out on a walk with the dog. Although he tries to sketch them first, Dr. Fisher confessed that he's not a very good artist, and he often just sticks to measuring dimensions to get a sense of what he can fit onto the cake.

"A lot of times, the actual finished product is in my head, but it'll change as I'm building it," he said. "As you're building a cake from beginning to end, what you thought you were going to do, may not be the finished product. That's part of the fun, too."

He has one rule when it comes to decorating his cakes: Everything must be edible. The laces on the sneaker cake were licorice. The wheels on a car cake were made of small chocolate snack cakes with a cream filling, and the hubcaps were candy wafers.

"It's fun to try to think about what you might use for a particular part of the cake," he said. "Sometimes, I'll go to a candy store and scour the aisles for things that fit. I'm just inspired by looking at a row of candy products at the grocery store."

One of the biggest challenges with making an elaborate cake is transporting it to the destination. For that reason, he likes to have home parties, but his wife prefers parties away because the cleanup is easier, he said with a laugh.

Some people may have difficulty cutting into such a masterpiece. But it doesn't bother Dr. Fisher.

"Once people see it, and we sing ‘Happy Birthday,' I'm fine with cutting it," he said.

Back to Woodworking

Desk built with hockey sticks

Desk built with hockey sticks

As his children got older, they became less interested in the fancy cakes, so Dr. Fisher returned to his original "building things" hobby: woodworking. Dr. Fisher's passion for woodworking started when he worked in a family-owned restaurant and figured out how to fix things from one of the managers.

"He made me understand that you didn't necessarily need to know what to do, but you had to be willing to try," Dr. Fisher said. "That was really the key lesson for me."

With that experience, he learned how to use several tools, which came in handy when he volunteered for Habitat for Humanity during high school and improved his construction skills.

The desks he built for his children became busy hubs when the COVID-19 pandemic started, and they began remote learning. His youngest son did not yet have a desk, and he insisted that his dad build him one, rather than buy him one. Dr. Fisher and his son teamed up to create a baseball-themed desk with legs made of baseball bats. His hope is that his children pass the desks on to their children someday.

Ice skating rink

Ice skating rink

Another pandemic project was constructing a treehouse. Dr. Fisher also built an ice hockey rink in his back yard that is fully functional when it's cold enough. Next on the list? He's not 100 percent sure, but he's thinking about building a farm table for the dining room.

Whether it's decorating cakes or creating something out of wood, it's important to realize that the actual finished product may change significantly from what you originally envision, he said. Also, the process is usually far from perfect.

"You can make little mistakes and cover them up here and there, and sometimes you hit roadblocks," Dr. Fisher said. "Sometimes, you have to pivot and figure out how to adapt."