Sunday, January 2, 2011

Safari Shower Cake

A friend of mine who is expecting her first baby recently travelled to Africa to work for 5 weeks. Upon her return, her mom planned a baby shower in which all the guests would create one square to be quilted together into a blanket for the baby. The quilt's border fabric was adorable safari-themed prints, and most of the guests chose safari-themes and African animals to decorate our squares. When I was invited to make a cake for the shower, naturally I wanted to continue the safari theme.

I started by looking and photos both of animals and animal-shaped cakes to get ideas. I decided on a lion's head, because just doing the face (as opposed to the outline of the body in profile) for any animal fits with the shape of cake better and reduces waste. We were expecting over 20 people at the party, so I wanted a design that be fun and themeatic as well as ready to serve a crowd. Once I had my decorating ideas established, I had to choose a recipe for the actual cake. In searching for the designs, I had also come across the Zebra cake on a couple of different blogs. What more perfect and completely literal way to represent a lion cake than to have a zebra inside!?!

I found the recipe on multiple blogs and it all appeared in exactly the same ratios. While I am usually fairly comfortable making adjustments, given the special viscosity of the batter and how it rises, I was careful in how I altered the ingredients. The technique would probably work with some other batters, but they would still need to be liquid enough to spread evenly while having enough structure to rise. The King Arthur flour's blog does a great job of documenting the making of this cake and spelling out the recipe.

The make enough cake for 20 people, I wanted to do a two-layer cake, plus have enough to bake in a smaller pan to form the "nose" of the lion. So I made a double recipe, keeping the first batch as plain vanilla, and then making the second full batch just as chocolate. In both batches, I cut back the oil to 3/4 cup (from 1 cup) and found the cake to have ample moistness. With the chocolate, in an attempt to dress it up slightly, I replaced the milk in the second batch with buttermilk (a common ingredient in chocolate cakes), used 6 T dutch cocoa (as called for for a double-recipe), and since I had already cut back on the oil, I also added a couple tablespoons of chocolate syrup. While I enjoyed the cake layers quite a bit, the individual flavors and textures of the specific vanilla or chocolate stripes were not especially pronounced, and ultimately, I don't think my changes to the chocolate mix added anything to the finished product.

The batter is poured into quantities of about 3 tablespoons into the center of the pan to form concentric rings; the laws of cake physics are such that it spreads and rises to form excellent zebra stripes in each slice of baked cake!

The baked layer, top.
The baked layer, bottom (side touching the pan) - I found it interesting, though not
especially surprising, I guess, that the chocolate batter sunk to the bottom.
To assemble the cake, I trimmed the rounded top off one layer, and placed it face down on the platter. I filled it with both chocolate and vanilla buttercream, in smooth layers (visible in the second photo at top of this page). Then I placed the second layer with the rounded side up. Putting the bottom layer with the cut side to the platter made for a fun (though unplanned!) mirrored "book-matched" pattern in the slices. Atop the second layer, after crumb-coating the whole cake, I placed my lion's nose (baked in a 4-inch round pan.) The nice rounded rise of the baked cake made for perfect formation of the lion's facial features, I couldn't have built a better structure on my own.

The decorating in process, I added the nose as a guide, but then started with the mane.
For frosting, I have struggled with recipes for years, and every experienced baker I meet is asked for their personal favorite recipe. My tastes prefer sweet and sugar to buttery, but I don't want it to taste corn starchy or to be a straight sugar taste with no flavor to complement the cake. Many of the better tasting frostings I've found do not have enough structure to pipe into attractive decorations, or smooth to a silky flat finish. So there is both a taste and a texture component that is very hard to deliver. Chocolate frosting is generally easier, because much of the flavor and consistency can come from the chocolate itself, rather than a combination of butter and sweetner. But for this recipe, I was thrilled to find a buttercream that I actually liked the taste of and which was easy to work with. It held it's shape fabulously (the "mane" was draped over the edge of the cake and still hung just as it was piped for 4 days!) and it tasted like actual frosting instead of just like whipped, sweetened butter. The recipe is from The Cake Bible (from which I have extracted many frosting recipe dogs) and appears below (notes in brackets are mine):

Neoclassic Buttercreamby Rose Levy Beranbaum
6 large egg yolks (3.5 fluid ounces)
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 liquid cup corn syrup
2 cups unsalted butter, softened
2-4 tablespoons liqueur or eau-de-vie of choice

Have ready a greased 1-cup heatproof glass measure near the stove.
In a bowl, beat eggs yolks with electric mixer until ight in color. Meanwhile, combine sugar and corn syrup in a small saucepan and heat, stirring constantly, until sugar dissolves and syrup comes to a rolling boil. [The properties of corn syrup allow for this combination to boil at exactly the soft-ball stage necessary for the right consistency of frosting. There is no need to use a thermometer.] Immediatly transfer syrup to the glass measure to stop the cooking.

Beat the syrup into the yolks in a steady stream. Don't allow the syrup to fall on the beaters or they will spin it onto the sides of the bowl. If using a stand mixer [which I recommend] pour a small amount of syrup over the yolks with mixer off, then beat at high for 5 seconds and repeat, increasing amount of syrup.
Continue beating until completely cool. Gradually beat in the butter, and if desired any optional flavoring. [For the lion cake, I used 2 tablespoons vanilla liqueur, and in the second batch of frosting, 7 ounces of melted bittersweet chocolate.]

The decorating - once both batches/colors of frosting were made (I could probably have made one batch, divided, and only added 3 ounces of chocolate to half the recipe, but I didn't know how much I would need to create the mane, and it's always nice to have extra in the freezer for later) the decorating went much more quickly than I was expecting. I used rolled-out Toosie rolls for the nose, ears, and whiskers (I couldn't find the licorice rope which would have been much easier for whiskers) and rolled out Dots (or any kind of gumdrops) for the eyes and tongue. I used both the Ateco #21 and #199 tips to pipe the mane, and the #4 for the piping around the eyes and nose. Once I'd made two layers of hair fringe, I mixed both colors of frosting in the piping bag to add a few blended tufts and that friendly-looking cat positively came to life!


  1. Mmmmmmmmm...Now I'm even sorrier I missed it!

  2. I did a google search looking for a safari themed for my animal obsessed boys upcoming 2nd birthday. This is SUCH a cute idea and I think this is the one I am going with! Thanks!

    1. I'm so glad! Please come back and let us know how it goes!