Making of a Birthday Cake

In late September, I was asked to make a cake for Alli’s ninth birthday, which we would celebrate on the second of November. The request was for “a chocolate cake with chocolate frosting and some fun decoration on it. “

It all came out fairly nicely as the picture shows, but this is the story of getting there.

final bday cake 002

I knew immediately that the cake and frosting were the Kentucky Chocolate cake; it is very moist and chocolaty since it contains a whole can of Hershey’s Chocolate syrup. The trick was to decide on, and make the fun decorations. At that time, I felt I had two tools that I knew and could use- Royal Icing and Sugar Fondant. I use Royal Icing on the cutout cookies for decorations, and I use the Sugar Fondant on the napoleons I bake. Little did I know how much I needed to learn.

I felt a little girl would like flowers, birds and butterflies on her cake; probably roses as the base of a center display. And of course, there would need to be lettering for “Happy Birthday Allison”. Normally in store-bought cakes, the lettering is piped on using a pastry bag of frosting; I didn’t think I would do a good job of piping the letters, and decided to try to use preformed letters. Of course, most stores have candy letters in a set with candles, and maybe I should have gone that way; but I didn’t. I decided that I would make my own larger letters.

I spent the next couple weeks experimenting and learning how naïve I was when it came to icings, frosting and decorating a cake. I learned fairly quickly that what I make as Royal Icing wouldn’t set into candy-like letters; I quit trying to use my Royal Icing within a couple days when it wouldn’t dry like I wanted it to into brittle candy forms. And I quickly learned that my Sugar Fondant was also too brittle; I was able to mold a few figures, but my success ratio was way too small.

In Marlys’s cook book were several recipes for frosting- how to pick the right one? So I started with the one that was called Basic Frosting. When I had it mixed up, I felt something was wrong. It was very dry and would never be able to be spread. I added a very small amount of milk – 1 Tablespoon- and it at least came together into a solid. To my surprise, the result was malleable; I was able to knead it, to roll it out, and generally shape it. This became the basis for a good number of the decorations that were mostly two dimensional- things that could be cut out with miniature cookie cutters like leaves, butterflies and some flowers. I was also able to use this stiff butter cream frosting in molds for flowers and birds. And, I found directions for making a rose that worked with this stiff dough. The directions were designed for using gum paste, but I was staying away from that since I wanted good tasting decorations.

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I still didn’t have letters, so I decided to get help. I went to Blake’s Decorette Shop in Tigard, and found the most helpful company of women. I especially need to recognize Michelle who gave me a quick education in fondant. And I went home with a couple pounds of Rolled Fondant and some suggestions for using the letter molds I had bought. I started having some success with the letters although I still need to learn more about the techniques for molding in plastic molds.

First molded letters

I had found on the internet, instructions for making a “Ribbon Rose” with rolled fondant, and tried that; it makes a nice looking flower, but not the delicate roses that I wanted. And as I mentioned, I found directions for constructing a rose from gum paste; I used my stiff butter cream frosting and I liked the results. I call this a play-doh rose because the construction is like using play-doh. I also knew that you were suppose to be able to pipe the roses. I found the directions on the Wilton web site, and started practicing. When I finally got what could loosely be called a flower, I was dismayed at how small it was. I went back to the Decorette Shop, and found a piping tip that was larger, and should make larger roses. And, it was obvious that this tip would not fit on the piping bag couplers that Marlys had; I had to buy a new honking big coupler.

It took a few more practice sessions, and reading some of the many hints on the website to finally get some roses that I felt I could put on the cake. One of those hints was to freeze the core of the rose so that it is firm enough to hold up when making the petals attach to it. Oh yes, the dough I was using for piping was the stiff butter cream frosting thinned out with more milk and the liquid in the food color dye.

PicMonkey Collage
In this photo, the yellow flowers are rolled fondant ribbon roses, the white flowers are what I call play-doh roses- hand crafted, and the pink flowers are the piped “Wilton” roses.

turtle pullapart 001

Somewhere along here, I got thinking about cupcakes, and pull-apart cakes. I had already committed myself mentally to making a traditional(?) cake- or at least a quarter sheet cake in a pan. But I got thinking about a Betty Crocker design I found for a pull-apart turtle cake. The recipe made two turtles from a single cake recipe, but I had already experimented with making a small Kentucky Chocolate cake by dividing the recipe ingredients by half. So I made a half recipe of the cake and formed it into 12 cupcakes. The only trick is to reduce the cooking time from 35 minutes to about 20 minutes, and to not overfill the cupcake papers; the half recipe is just right for 12 cupcakes.

pullapart placement 002
This picture shows how the 12 cupcakes are arranged to form the turtle. The head is the cupcake on the right, and the hind feet are the two cupcakes that stick out on the left.

I thought the frosting for the pull-apart cake should be firmer than a basic butter cream (what was I thinking- remember I had it so stiff I could mold it.) I chose to use Marlys’s recipe for Basic Cream Cheese Frosting which I felt would be stiff. I turned out to be a perfect spreading frosting- not overly stiff and easy to spread. I took half of the frosting and tinted it with green food coloring, and in the mixer I added Hershey’s cocoa to the other half to get the brown color I wanted. After adding the green food coloring, that half of the frosting was too loose to pipe well, and I had to add more powder sugar to stiffen it back up. For the details, I had leftover some of the original uncolored stiff butter cream frosting and I formed the two balls for the eyes, and deepened the leftover pink I had for the roses to be more red and piped it for the mouth. Perhaps the only thing I would do different in the frosting would be to make more separation between the head and the two front feet; my execution makes them run together.

I will publish Marlys’s frosting recipes in a few days, but I didn’t want to mix the recipes with the experience of making the birthday cakes. If I can learn to make these decorations, then I am certain you can too. So, make someone a birthday cake and decorate it; they will never even see the mistakes and goofs you make, and they will be excited that you remembered them and went to the effort. And the nice thing about practicing with the butter cream frosting is that when you practice on wax paper, you can scrape the mistakes off into your frosting bowl and use the frosting again until you like the results.

One thought on “Making of a Birthday Cake

  1. Kristine Wannberg

    These cakes were a huge hit! We loved the cake with all the beautiful decorations, and the boys really gravitated toward the turtle! Thank you so much, Errol for all the time you spent on these! They were wonderful, and Allison loved her cakes!


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