College of Engineering News • Iowa State University

Cake Engineering

Mary Burroughs
Mary Burroughs

Civil engineering senior Mary Burroughs combines strategic planning, problem solving, and her own artistic flair in her hobby-turned-business called Cake Engineering.

It started during her senior year of high school when Burroughs decided to make herself a cake. But, she didn’t want it to be just any cake.

Inspired by Food Network reality TV shows like Ace of Cakes and Cake Boss, which are centered around the art of making elaborate, fantastical cakes depicting anything from a Harry Potter train homage to the deck of the original starship Enterprise complete with full bridge crew from Star Trek, Burroughs first attended a fondant decorating class at a local Michaels Store. Fondant, a dough-like gelatin and glycerin combination that can be formed into smooth mats like a pizza crust, is used to cover a cake and give it a smooth finish. It’s one of the most common cake decoration tactics used on the shows that have long been Burroughs’s guide.

Armed with a mastery of fondant, Burroughs baked a castle-themed cake for her graduation party. Her cake business took off from there, as friends and relatives caught wind of her accomplishment and wanted, literally, a piece of the action.

Burroughs now runs Cake Engineering from her apartment kitchen, spending free time on the weekends—and occasionally weeknights when she’s avoiding homework—creating edible masterpieces. She caters to Ames and her hometown of Sioux City, where there are few specialty cake shops.

While personalized cakes are labor-intensive and unique, and are typically purchased for the most important occasions, Burroughs does her best to keep them affordable. She typically charges little more than the cost of supplies to cover labor and the occasional cake-building tool, such as the airbrush she bought recently to add food-quality paint to her cakes.

Though Burroughs hasn’t taken a cake-oriented class since her fondant foray, her skills have grown exponentially. She still watches her heroes on the Food Network and incorporates their techniques in the cakes she makes for her own clients.

She also enters cake-making competitions, and has won a laundry list of awards from competitions such as KJJY radio station’s Cool Cakes and the Iowa State Fair cake contests, where she placed first in this year’s butter cow category for her replica of the famous butter sculpture in cake form. She also regularly enters into the Threadcakes competition, which entails designing cakes based on humorous t-shirts sold on

“I see something cool and I think, ‘Oh, that would look great in a cake,’” Burroughs says. She also draws inspiration from her civil engineering studies and her recent internship with the Woodbury County Secondary Roads department. The idea for one of her works—a wedding cake with blue tiers that list diagonally back and forth under a pair of bride and groom frogs—came to her while she was checking floodwater elevations. She and her father also combined forces to build an air conditioner cake with a working electronic fan inside.

Nothing is safe from Burroughs’s escapades, including popular fiction icons like the stargate from the science fiction TV show Stargate SG-1 and the car from the classic movie Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

“I’m kind of addicted to it,” Burroughs says. “It shows my creative side and includes engineering aspects in the structural part. To make a cake, you have to create a concept and apply it, just like with engineering.”

Besides Cake Engineering, Burroughs bends her crafting abilities and engineering skills on the concrete canoe project, for which she is a co-captain with Josh Leyh, sophomore in civil engineering. At about the same time that she began working on the concrete canoe, she switched from her original major of materials engineering to civil engineering, which she says she enjoys for its emphasis on designing materials. Burroughs also serves as secretary of the Frederiksen Court Community Council, for which she designs community-building events and competitions.

Burroughs says she would love to make her hobby into a career and plans to keep making her extraordinary cakes as a side business through graduation and beyond.

“All I know is that no matter what happens, I like to decorate cakes and always will,” she says.