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Edible art

Pennock man is eating up the competition in bread dough sculpting events

Can you imagine sculpting the Eiffel Tower out of bread dough?

That’s just what Travis Hanson, of Pennock, did for the UMBA (Upper Midwest Bakery Association) competition in Red Wing. He won first place with that Eiffel Tower, took a second place in bread dough sculpting with his swordfish, and took a third with the butterfly he made out of bread dough.

Hanson said the Upper Midwest Baking Association has an annual conference at the end of February each year. In 2011 he brought sugar sculptures to that competition, an art form he learned at the French pastry school he attended in Chicago.

While at the pastry school he spoke with one of the executive pastry chefs at Walt Disney World in Florida. “He gave me this recipe and said if I wanted to try a unique medium of sculpting that not a lot of people do, I should try bread sculpting.” Travis took his advice and in 2013, created a 3-1/2 to 4 foot sculpted Phoenix that he took to the competition. “I won first place, and this year it was ‘the sky’s the limit.’” He decided to do the Eiffel Tower, putting in about 80 hours worth of work. He started it at the end of December/beginning of January and just finished the last piece on a Friday, five minutes before they had to leave for the competition. “We cut it close to the wire on that one.”

He was pretty proud of taking first place with the Eiffel Tower, second place with the marlin sculpture, and third place with the butterfly. “I took a gold medal for the Battlefield Cross, which is what they call the boots, rifle and the helmet. It can all be made out of cake but for shows you do them out of Styrofoam. It’s lighter weight, easier transport. Everything that would be cake, is made out of Styrofoam.” Travis said he sculpted the Styrofoam like he would with a cake and covered it in fondant. “It’s covered in fondant, but just the base is the foam. The rifle and the helmet is made out of gum paste. Everything on there is edible except what would be the cake itself.” Previously, he said, they’ve done the boots for a few returning vets, and they’ve done one for the Yellow Ribbon Society, out of real cake, of course. “We got a gold medal for that one.” He also won a gold and people’s choice for one of his wedding cakes.

Travis and his wife, Christine, own Timeless Traditions, a French bakery located in Willmar. She said they have a lot of friends that are in the military and four grandpas that have served, and the making of the boots cake came around when they were commissioned to do the boots for one of the people returning from Iraq last year. “They had this big unveiling for him and that’s how the boots went viral,” said Christine. Next they made the boots for a ribbon-cutting ceremony and another time when the generals came. “He (Travis) wanted them to look like a real soldier wore them. They’re not clean and shiny like the other ones were; these are true boots to him. And it means so much us. When you do a true tribute cake you want it to be the best you can do because there are so many people that are affected.” She said when they went to the show they had at least six to eight veterans salute the cake, a full salute of the cake.

Travis has no military experience because of a bad shoulder. They’ve talked to many soldiers and to a Marine of five years who had lost five buddies. “For him the cake was really emotional. To take a form of art and express it in a way that you are cherishing what the American hero does for us, it’s an amazing tribute. People do it all the time. They write these wonderful songs, but for Travis, he creates art you can look at and forever hold, and to him that means a lot.”

For Travis, the biggest thing with that was to thank the heroes for what they do. “We have many friends that are in the military. We’ve watched many of their wives have to live through those moments, those tours, those phone calls. We’ve never had to hear that, we’ve been lucky in that aspect, and there are so many people out there, and if it wasn’t for them we wouldn’t have the great country we have.”

Before creating the Eiffel Tower, Travis found a rough picture of it on the Internet. “Before I got into baking, I was a crane operator and a welder so I kind of took that aspect into it. But I kind of scaled it down and drew out a rough sketch and sculpted it off that sketch so that all the pieces for the Eifel Tower were baked separately.” He would bake one side, then the other three sides, then glue them together and then  remeasure everything so he could get the inside pieces to fit. “It almost has an architectural aspect to it, but it’s all made out of bread. There are no internal supports to it, so the bread is all holding itself up.”

Other than that, he said, it was basically just the grace of God that he’s able to do this. “I went to the French pastry school’s six-month class. It was very intense, but they teach everything to do with pastry. The only thing I’ve really been trained in is how to make actual bread. They didn’t teach bread sculpting. As far as the wedding cakes, they had a wedding cake course, not a whole lot of stringwork, no sculpting ones.”

Christine said her husband just takes a picture and makes the cake from looking at that picture. “I look at it and shake my head and say ‘you’re not going to be able to do this one’ and then it’s done.” Everybody’s idea is so different, she said, and it’s even more fun when people bring in pictures because you can take four different pictures and make one really unique cake.

“He’s been able to pull off every cake we’ve done.”

Travis said the main reason he sculpted the Eiffel Tower is because a lot of their stuff is French influenced. They even have an Eiffel Tower on their business logo. “I just wanted something that would set us apart – when someone around the area sees the Eiffel Tower they’ll think of our bread Eiffel Tower and think of our little shop.”

Bread is the new medium, Travis said. He does chocolate and sugar sculpting quite a bit, but after talking with the Walt Disney World pastry chef, he started looking into it and found there isn’t anybody that does bread sculpting.

Travis said his mom and dad did a lot of drawing, but he doesn’t remember them doing much sculpting. “I grew up drawing in sketch books and that kind of stuff, but never really did any sculpting other than at school making the little clay pots.”

Christine said her husband always liked to build things, and ever since they met, every new fad there was, he was trying to build it. “And he usually did a really good job. Coming into this I wasn’t sure how the sculpting would go. I’m glad he likes sculpting. It’s way cheaper. The bread does last longer. Sugar and chocolate it’s all about temperature – this can handle a little bit more.”

There aren’t a lot of people that do bread sculpting, she said, and if you’re going to go into a medium, pastry is a huge phenomenal success right now. Everybody is talking about  gourmet food and all these things you see on TV. “If you’re going to want to break out and do something, you want to provide a service people can’t find elsewhere, and if you can find it here, why not.”

She said her husband has always been artistic. “He may not think about it. He was always drawing me pictures when we were dating. He’s not exactly fabulous with words, but the way he expresses himself is artistically beautiful.” She added, “Some of us are blessed with being able to tell poems, sonnets and songs, and some of us are blessed with visually appealing abilities.”

Pastry is supposed to be an art form, she said. You start from scratch and can modify how everything looks at the end. “If you don’t, people won’t want to eat it….you taste with your eyes first, then you smell it and then taste it.”

The first impression when you walk into a place is huge, she said, and they’ve been lucky enough that people like what they offer. “There’s not many scratch-made bakeries. I sometimes don’t have everything in stock, but it’s just me and Travis. We try really hard, and I have him working on other projects. And you can’t get some of the stuff we make, and it’s fun.” When you open a new shop you want to offer something they can’t just go someplace else for, she said. “You want to have enough difference and have people come back and say you have the best of this. You love to hear that. And being the best at the sculpting and all the cakes makes it worth the struggles and the hard times you have to go through.”

Travis said he was actually a crane operator but suffered a back injury and wasn’t able to find any work because he can only lift 25 to 50 pounds. He decided to take a helicopter course at a college, but a week before school was supposed to start he was told he would need $50,000 in flight time up front before he could start the program. He couldn’t afford that so he looked at other programs, stopped at the library and visited with a woman about the culinary program. “I told her about my back injury, and she told me there was no way I’d be able to finish the culinary program because of my back injury. All I needed was for someone to tell me I couldn’t do something. I decided to go into the culinary. My wife about died when I came home and told her I was going into the culinary, but she supported me.”

About a month into the program he started working with a second-year instructor in baking bread and doing more of the baking aspect than the savory side. “He taught me everything he knew about baking, and he told me if I wanted to pursue a career in baking I should go to the French pastry school in Chicago for their six-month program, that there really wasn’t a better program out there than that program.”

Travis was accepted into the school, and when he was finished with the program, he came back to Willmar, but couldn’t get a job. He went to work in the kitchen at West Central Industries doing the Meals on Wheels and working with the clients there.

“Everything started falling in my lap.” He opened his own French bakery, and one of the best things they’ve had are their customers, he said.

Just what his next project will be he’s not sure, maybe a World War I tribute. He puts his whole heart into whatever he’s working on. “When I get going on something time basically stands still for me. My back injury has been one of the greatest blessings in my life. Not only did it let me get my marriage back and know my kids, but I’m 100 times happier doing this than working construction.”

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