Saturday, June 9, 2012

Little Boy Birthday Cakes

I'm trying not to set the bar too high for myself. Baking is my hobby and is supposed to be fun and relaxing. But the more I do, the more I want to try, and the more I try, the less I want to repeat because there are so many new things out there to explore. Baking is also one of my few creative outlets, so I want to let myself play around with new ideas and not feel locked into to somethng just because I know it will work. So when a friend asked me to make a cake, I was happy to say yes. But when she first inquired was the day I was scheduled to frost THE wedding cake and I really didn't have much in the way of bandwidth for creative ideas. I was a bit glazed over when she gave me the overview... something to the effect of of her husband's cousin's husband deploying to Afghanistan in a few weeks and their two sons birthdays within a few weeks of each other and the last time the family would all be together so make two cakes please? Two cakes? Can I get through this wedding cake without frosting in my veins and butter on my brain first if you don't mind?? But sure, I can make some birthday cakes.

Kid cakes are both easier and harder. On the one hand, they're easier because kids are less likely to care what the cake actually tastes like. All my birthday cakes growing up, which recall such fond memories of decorating with my grandmother and themes to match my parties, were baked from boxed mix. On the other hand, an artful spray of fresh flowers across a sophisticated swirl of buttercream is not going to bring much "WOW!" factor to a four year old. So this birthday cake assignment actually put the pressure on me to come up with cute and creative ideas that would be fun for little boys without stressing me out.

The themes my friend seeded me with were pretty standard: sports, dinosaurs, cars, Disney. She said the cakes could be the same, although one of the sons doesn't like chocolate. Since my mixer can barely handle a double batch recipe, it's just as easy to mix in two batches, so may as well do two different recipes... I'm sure brothers who are only 11 months apart in age get lumped together frequently enough that they deserve to have unique cakes for their birthdays.

Crumb coat on the car cake.

I started trolling cake websites for design ideas, and I must say, there are a lot of ugly cake pictures out there! Like I said, I didn't want things to get too complicated, but when it comes down to it, drawing a picture of a car on top of a round cake just doesn't do it for me. Birthday cakes and kid parties to me mean shaped cakes. I stuck to my guns in keeping simple designs, but I absolutely had to have some architecture invovled for these guys.

That's how I landed on the two following designs for a "dinosaur" (completely anatomically incorrect) and a car. Each recipe was baked in two 9" rounds, and required only a few cuts, making assembly a breeze. A crumb coat of frosting, and some simple decorating with candy made them super-cute. The hardest part was finding a way to keep them covered until the party... one didn't fit in my fridge at all, so I packed it in ice packes in a box in the basement. And both needed specially-cut platters made from oversized cardboard boxes covered in foil.

The car cake was banana cake from The Cake Bible. No offense, kiddos, but I didn't think you'd appreciate my extra effort to make a special filling; in fact, I didn't even use frosting between the layers, because I was worried it would impact the structural integrity; best to allow the friction of cake-on-cake to help hold the whole thing together.

Banana Cake
3 large ripe bananas (1 1/2 cups)
1/4 cup sour cream
3 large eggs
3 teaspoons grated lemon zest
2 1/4 teaspoons vanilla
3 cups flour
1 1/4 cup + 1 tablespoon sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 1/8 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
15 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

Line two 9" pans with parchment and butter and flour. Preheat oven to 350. Mash together in food processor or with potato masher (I prefer using a masher) bananas and sour cream. Mix in eggs, zest, and vanilla.
Combine dry ingredients. Add butter, and half of banana mixture, mixing on low until moistened. Increase speed and beat until well mixted, about 2 minutes. Stir in remaining banana mixture in two additions.
Divide batter between prepared pans and bake 30-40 minutes until tester comes out clean. Cool in pans for 15 minutes, then cool on rack completely before assembling.

Stack the two 9" rounds on top of each other. Cut parallel lines leaving a 4" section in the middle to make the chassis. Stack three of the four round edges flat-side down, and trim a diagonal to make the rear window. The curved front makes the windshild. Stack on top of the middle section to make the hood of the car. Frost all over with a crumb coat filling in any gaps with frosting. I used white frosting for this step. Refrigerate until firm.

Cut pieces of parchment paper, wax paper, or foil to make the windshild, rear window, and side windows. Apply over white crumb coat. Frost remaining cake with tinted icing. Using an offset spatula dipped in hot water and dried will help get the smoothest finish. Pipe icing to make rain gutters and doors. I used licorice wheels to for tires, licorice ropes for fenders, rolled gumdrops for license plates (and wrote the birthday boys name on the plates), gumdrops for headlamps and tail lights, and smashed gumdrops cut into shapes for the door handles and side-view mirrors. Ateco tip #133 makes awesome grass, which I scattered with brown rock sugar stones.

Amazingly Simple Buttercream
from Laura Temple
1 1/2 cups of sugar
6 large egg whites 4 cubes of unsalted butter (1 pound) softened to room temperature
3/4 teaspoon real vanilla


Put egg whites and sugar in top of double boiler over simmering water. Whisk until temperature reaches 160 degrees. Remove from heat and move to a stand mixer bowl. Whip on medium high until they are room temperature. (Wrap ice packs or bags of frozen vegetables around the base of the bowl to speed cooling).

Once the whites/sugar mixture is at room temperature, keep mixing, and add the butter a couple of tablespoons at a time until all is incorporated. It might looked curdled part-way through, but just keep going and it will come together. Add the vanilla and mix just enough to incorporate it fully. Stir in any optional food coloring. This makes a great stark-white buttercream on its own.

Use immediately, or keep at room temperature and re-beat for a minute before using. If you want to freeze the leftovers, make sure to bring it completely to room temperature before you re-beat or it will curdle.

I think he liked it!
When Will was no doubt the same age as this birthday boy, he had a similar fascination with dinosaurs. He had a stuffed toy named "Dino" which his mom gave to a baker to copy for a cake one year. Naturally, Dino became a sort of inspiration for this dinosaur cake. Fortunately, the simple structure provided by this video:, made it really easy to make the basic outline. But I used my own creativity (as well as copy of the original Dino that Will's mom had made for him after the original deteriorating after years of love and washings) for the decorating, inspired by the bulk candy at my market.
The original Dino.
The cake recipe was a basic yellow cake from The Cake Bible that I've been wanting to try for a long time; this was the perfect opportunity because the egg whites in the frosting balance the egg yolks in the cake with no leftovers! I thought the flavor of this cake was totally excellent. I didn't line my pans with parchment, because I use removable bottom rounds, and I didn't think it was necessary. However, the cakes completely crumbled apart when I tried to get them out of the pans, so next time I will definitely line the pans with parchment first, and let them cool just a little longer before trying to invert them.
All-Occasion Downy Yellow Butter Cake
from The Cake Bible
6 large egg yolks
1 cup milk
2 1/4 teaspoons vanilla
3 cups flour (300 grams)
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 tablespoon + 1 teasppon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
12 tablespoons softened butter

Preheat oven to 350. Line 2 9" rounds with parchment, then grease and flour.
Combine yolks, 1/4 cup milk, and vanilla.
In large mixing bowl, combine dry ingredients to blend. Add butter and remaining 3/4 cup milk. Mix on low until moistened, then beat on medium speed for 2 minutes. Add in egg mixture in three additions. Divide between pans and bake 25-35 minutes until tester comes out clean. Let cool in pans 15 minutes then invert to cool completely before frosting.
Dino had to be orange (not green) but some of the same cute grass as on the car made a great little field for him to trapse around on, especially accented with some chocolate "rocks." His spines and plates were made from dried mangos, and orange sugar sprinkles gave his skin a leathery speckledness. A gumdrop eye and some sliced gumdrop teeth rounded out his face.

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