Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Praying Mantis Novelty Cake Design

I thought about going chronologically, but the desire to show some more unique novelty cake designs won out; so I'm writing today about a praying mantis cake that I made for my kid's birthday cake a couple of years ago.  My son had adopted a baby praying mantis (did you know that they are called "nymphs"?) and raised it from fingernail size to finger size.

He was fascinated about its feeding habits, and learned how to catch aphids, fruit flies, flies and moths, how to put it in the jar with the praying mantis, and then both boys would enjoy the feeding show!  (I’ll leave it at that, since this is about cakes, not the carnivorous eating style of mantids).

Anyway, here’s the cake picture for the praying mantis cake.

When looking for cake design options I really couldn’t find much on the internet.  The only praying mantis cake I saw was actually a group of cupcakes arranged, more or less, in the body of the mantis, then covered with a sheet of fondant.  The praying mantis was then airbrushed on.  Two cupcakes became the eyes.  It was very clever, but since I didn’t have an airbrush and, at the time, was not working with fondant, I opted for an easier cake design.

The basic cake design is very simple.  In this case, I baked a regular 13x9 inch cake and frosted it with blue buttercream frosting.  On a piece of paper I drew a picture of a praying mantis (you can also print one from the internet or copy it from a book).  There are two ways of getting the picture on the cake:

1.  Cut out the drawing, lay it on the cake, then trace around the outline using a small sharp object (a knife, toothpick, etc.).  Remove the paper drawing and use icing piping to cover the lines.  Use a frosting tip to frost inside the lines.

2.  With a pin, prick holes along the lines of the design.  Lay the design on top of the cake and rub cocoa powder over it.  Carefully lift the paper design and you will see the stencil outlined on the cake in cocoa.  Then go over the design with piping gel, or icing through a frosting tip (cake decorating tube).

As you can see, I designed my mantis cake sitting on a log.  I used regular buttercream frosting, leaving half the amount plain white and coloring half with cocoa.  Since I could not get piping gel in Kenya, I used a star tip nozzle on my cake decorator cake to fill in the body of the mantis, then a round tip to outline the praying mantis.  The brown icing was piped onto the log and the ridges smoothed a bit with a  knife.  For added texture, I used chocolate vermicelli to give a bark effect to the log, and used individual vermicelli pieces for the lines of the body and the eyes.
If you are like and can’t find piping gel, you can order it from here
It would also be great to have a good set of decorating tips.  Wilton has a good set for sale.  I've learned how to make do with what I have on hand, but it sure is nice to have professional decorating tools!


Here are some other ideas for making a novelty cake design of praying mantids:

1.  Use chocolate bark as the bark of the log.

2.  Any kind of small candy will do for eyes - gold decorating balls, raisins, any small, dark sweets or candies you have available in the stores.

3.  Cut a praying mantis design out of fondant or marzipan and paint (with food coloring and lemon juice or alcohol).

4.  Kids always love toys on their birthday cakes.  Buy plastic praying mantis figures and place on top of a regular cake.  Decorate the top of the cake with chocolate logs (like Cadbury Flake) or green coconut grass, or chocolate/marzipan leaves. 

However you do it, have fun!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Another Castle Cake Design!

I'm having too much fun reliving my attempts at interesting birthday cake designs!  And since I started with my original dream of a princess cake (and my final accomplishment of said princess castle cake design), I thought I would continue with another castle cake I have made--this time of the boy variety (although not quite with ninjas scaling the walls)!

I saw lots of cake pictures of different castles and decided on a more 3D cake design than my previous cake.  This castle cake weighed in at about 10 pounds I'm sure!  Here's the cake picture, made for my youngest and enjoyed by his entire school:

This was a lot of cake!  And it was also my first attempt to make a fondant cake (fear, trembling!)  But the actual cake design is simple.  The time factor is largely in the decorating. To build the cake:
Step 1:  Make or buy lots of cake!  I started with 3 9x9 inch square cakes.  Any flavor will do (my favorite is chocolate).   For the towers, I bought 4 loaf cakes (madeira cake is sturdy enough for this). 

Step 2:  Stack 2 of the 9-inch square cakes on top of each other, with a layer of jam or frosting in between.   Tint buttercream frosting grey and lightly frost all over.  Put a heavier layer of frosting on the top.

Step 3:  Cut the third square cake into 4 equal pieces.  Stack on top of each other, with jam or frosting in between, and place in the center of the larger cake.  Crumb frost all over, with a heavier layer on top.

Step 4:  Carve the 4 loaf cakes into round towers.  It sometimes helps to freeze the cakes for a bit to make them easier to carve.  To round them, simply slice the long edges of the cake off.  You will end up with a hexagonal cake.  From there you can smooth the edges by shaving them down until the cake is completely round.  Crumb frost the cakes.

Step 5:  I used wooden skewers, cut into 2, to stick the towers onto the sides of the cake.  This is important to the cake design as without them, the towers will become "leaning towers of Pisa" and eventually fall over.  You are now ready to do the final cake decorating!

There are such beautiful pictures of fondant covered cakes everywhere on the web and in cookbooks, and I have always been envious of how professional they look.  But I was always afraid to try it, particularly since it is not easy to get pre-made fondant here.  But with this cake I finally gave it a try.  I began with a recipe I found for rolled buttercream fondant.  I tinted it grey (had to have the Wilton's black food coloring to do this), then rolled it out.  It would be a good idea to make a double batch, as I ended up a bit short and had to roll the fondant very thin (which ripped quite easily - helped give it a "ruined castle" type of look!).  

To Put the Fondant on the Cake
There are a couple of options.  If you have enough fondant you could drape both squares completely with it.  Since I didn't have enough, I rolled the fondant out and cut it into rectangles.  First I covered the towers with fondant (laying it over the top and down the sides, then smoothing it into place around the tower).  Next, I cut rectangles to fit the sides of the cake and smoothed them onto each side, one at a time.  Where the walls joined the towers, I smoothed them together as best as I could.  I did the same for the top square turret.  On the top edges (the battlements), I lay a thin roll of fondant and pressed it together to hide the edge of the fondant and make a smooth transition to the buttercream courtyard.

Final step in the fondant decorating - the bricks!  I tried a variety of caps and toys before settling on a Lego piece to imprint a brick shape on the walls of the castle.


This is just what I chose to do, but the possibilities are endless!  I needed something for the battlements, so I found a bag of multi-colored gum drops.  For the towers I needed something smaller, so I took leftover fondant, colored it a deeper grey and made little squares.

The door and drawbridge are also from fondant, colored brown with cocoa powder.  I have also found marzipan to work well in cake decorating, and could have made the doors and battlements from that if needed.  The flags were made from toothpicks and paper.

When the cake was presented to my son, it was surmounted by 2 plastic knight action figures, bought at a local toy store.  (This was a part of his birthday present!)  When we took the cake to school, we removed the knights and replaced them with candles.  Leftover gumdrops and fondant were placed around the castle as rocks and miscellaneous decoration (bushes maybe?).

If you want some easier options, or ones that look really cool, check out these fabulous cake pans and cake decorating kits!  I wish I had them all, they look so amazing!

Stay tuned for more cake ideas!

Castle Cake Design

I find the internet very helpful for getting ideas of cake designs to make my kids' cakes.  However, the pictures don't always give instructions as to how they were put together.  Like I said, I'm not a professional decorator by any means, but by putting down my steps here I hope to help you in your own novelty cake creations.  Here are directions for the castle cake I wrote about last time (shown here again).  It's very simple!

Step 1:  Bake a 13x9 inch cake (whether you use cake mix or make it from scratch!).  When the cake is cool, remove it from the pan and cut in half crosswise, into 2 rectangles.  Cut one of the halves into 3 equal pieces lengthwise.  Cut one of those pieces in half again to make 2 small squares.  Round off the end of each of those small squares.   (See the diagram.)

Step 2:  Put rectangle A on your base (I used a tray covered with foil).  Frost the top.  Then place pieces B and C on top of piece A, at the edges (see the diagram below).  

TIP:  (I learned this the hard way) Use a thin layer of frosting over the whole cake, especially the cut sides of the cake, before putting on the final layer of frosting.  This will help seal in the crumbs so they won't show on the final layer.  

Step 3:  Place the D pieces at the front corners of the cake so that they extend a bit beyond piece A.  These are the towers.  Frost them with a thin layer.   Tint remaining frosting whatever color you want and lavishly frost the entire cake.  A buttercream frosting works well.

Step 4:   Frost 2 pointed icecream cones and roll them in decorator sugar or sprinkles.  If you can't find icecream cones, use manilla paper or posterboard to make the cones (go ahead and cover them in frosting too!).   Place one each on top of the D pieces.

Step 5:  Use pieces of chocolate bar to make windows and the castle door.   For battlements around the cake use pillow mints, or gumdrops, or any other kind of square or mounded candy/sweet you can find.

Step 6:   Enjoy!  Your cake is designed, decorated and ready to eat!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The cake that started it all

When I was eight, my aunt sent me a Betty Crocker children's cookbook for my birthday.  It was a wonderful book - full of kids' recipes, tested by kids, with comments and pictures.  My favorite section was the cakes one.  Such luscious looking cakes!  Birthday cakes, halloween cakes, Christmas cakes, all kinds of novelty cakes...  But the one that truly captured my imagination was a beautiful castle cake.  The picture showed a white cake with pink sugar-encrusted turrets, placed on a shimmering blue foil moat, with pink pillow mint battlements.  I longed to make that cake!  But... the recipe called for a box of cake mix and a tin of pre-made icing.  Big problem for my 8-year old mind!  I lived in Africa in the 60's, where cake mixes did not exist.  It never occurred to me that I could have made it all from scratch -- I didn't know how much cake a cake mix made in order to make the substitution!  Sadly I let my dream go.

Fast forward many years.  My first child was born and I realized that I could give in to my hidden artistic urge - I could make him a 3D birthday cake!  However, being a boy, he wouldn't want a pink-and-white castle cake.  Maybe a stone one with ninjas scaling the walls or something.  Still, I thrilled to the idea of being creative in the kitchen and trying my hand at novelty cakes.  After all, my audience was small boys - how hard are they to please?!  

And so began my journey.  Ever year, at birthday time, I tried my hand at making a novelty cake for my boys (another son being added now).   Planes, trains, cars...things that please the boyhood mind.  I've even branched out from birthday cakes (and 3D novelty cakes) to attempt elegant birthday cakes and special occasion cakes, such as Christmas cakes, engagement cakes, etc.  It's been great fun, and having spent time in America (where cake mixes abound), and matured in my baking knowledge, I know that cake and frosting made from scratch works just fine!  

I'd like to share my journey with you in hopes that it will inspire and help you as you work on your own novelty cakes.  I'm not a professional baker, and certainly not a professional cake decorator, but I have fun, and the boys (and their friends and classmates) love the results!  

Oh, and I finally got to make the cake that started it all!  A colleague's daughter, who is the same age as my eldest, desperately wanted a castle cake for her birthday so...

It's not the perfection of that first cake (and I wasn't sure how to make pure-white frosting at the time), but it still represents the fulfillment of a childhood dream.  Stay tuned for more cake designs and photos, as well as directions on how to bring those cake designs to fruition.  Viva la novelty cake!