Friday, February 29, 2008
I am not a cake decorating expert. I grew up watching my mom make cakes for our birthdays and other special occasions. I don't remember the first cake I decorated. It's quite possible I "assisted" my mom sometimes, but I have no clear memory of doing so.
Since the birth of our first son, H-Bomb, I have been decorating birthday cakes every year for him and now for his brother, Sawed-Off. I thought it might be fun to take you through the process. (I realize the party is less than 24 hours away, and there is oh-so-much preparation yet to be done. Perhaps this is also a demonstration of how easy on-the-fly blogging is?)
Here we go. I baked a cake from scratch for H-Bomb's very first birthday, a sugar-free carrot cake. It was good, but if I recall something happened and I had to start over. Now I just use cake mixes. This time, it's Betty Crocker Super Moist Hershey's Butter Recipe Chocolate. Could the name be any longer? Oh yes, I forgot "Cake Mix."
I used a Wilton tractor shaped pan. No matter what it says on your cake mix box, you need to grease (Crisco solid shortening) and flour your pan. No exceptions. Then mix up your cake and bake as directed. You will need to bake your cake two days in advance of your event. I also make the buttercream frosting while the cake is baking, and store in the refrigerator until needed.
My reasoning for the two-day recommendation: your cake has to be completely cooled before you start frosting it, and you don't want to be stressed while you're decorating. If you bake it two days in advance, then you have the whole next day to frost it (completing other party prep while waiting for frosting to soften or harden, etc.) and your results will be much better. This isn't something I recommend doing at the last minute.
You will need a cake board, which is basically just a thin piece of wood. Mine is about 16-inches square, and it fits about every shaped pan I have so far. You can buy a cake board at a cake store, or you can cut one you have lying around. I remember my dad cutting boards for my mom's various size cakes. (amazon sells cake boards made of corrugated cardboard, which I have never tried. The thought of it makes me nervous) Clean your board, and cover the top completely with foil. You will probably need to overlap a couple pieces of foil to cover the top, and you will neatly fold your edges under the board. I tear my foil, lay it on top of the board, then begin folding it under. Flip the board over, then neatly fold (think gift wrapping) the ends of the foil. I secure the foil edges on the bottom, all of them, with masking tape.
When your cake comes out of the oven, let it cool in the pan for about 10 minutes, then lay your cake board, face down, on top of your cake in the pan, making sure to center your cake on the board. With oven mitts, grab the board and the cake pan as if it were one piece, then gently flip the whole thing over. Gently lift off your pan. If you've done a good job greasing and flouring, the cake should come out perfectly. Let the cake cool completely. Since it was so late when I got around to baking the cake last night, I let mine cool overnight (covered with a clean towel) and part of today.
If your frosting has been in the refrigerator, you will need to bring it to room temperature. Once it has arrived at room temperature, it will be spreadable. You are ready for the "crumb coat." This is basically a thin layer of frosting to trap those pesky crumbs in.
Get out your angled icing spatula, a small bowl, and you're ready. Gently and very lightly cover the entire cake with frosting. You will need to get frosting into all the crevices, detailing, etc. You want a thin layer of frosting, so you will still be able to see the details for decorating, but while you're decorating crumbs won't come off and spoil your final layer of frosting. After each bit of frosting, you'll need to make sure you don't have crumbs on your spatula. You will get some, so just scrape that bit of crumbs and frosting into your small bowl, and get more fresh frosting and continue. Don't worry, you'll get to eat the frosting scrapings after you're finished.
If it's summer or your house is hot, you'll need to refrigerate your cake in between steps, so be sure to plan on that. In other words, clean out space in your refrigerator for the cake board and cake. Luckily, it's not hot here right now.
When the entire cake has been lightly coated, let the frosting set up and harden a bit. Either leave your cake out on your counter, or if it's too warm in your house, carefully put it in the refrigerator.
When you are ready to come back to your cake, and the crumb coat has set up, divide your frosting into portions. Think about which color is dominate in your design, and put a portion of your frosting in a bowl. In this case, red will be the dominate color, followed by black, then gray, brown, white, and the tiniest bit of yellow. So, I put a dab of frosting in a bowl for the yellow, a bit more in a separate bowl for the white, and so on. It is kind of guess work here, just try to estimate to the best of your ability. I mostly use gel food coloring, available at cake decorating stores. I keep forgetting to buy brown gel when I get up to the city, so I do use cocoa powder to produce brown. It work fine, but it does change the flavor of the frosting.
Below, I actually forgot to take a picture of all the colors until I had used some of the black. It really doesn't take much frosting to do some things.
*I am assuming a basic knowledge of cake decorating, including the tools and techniques, but if you would like to know anything more in detail, please ask. I'd be happy to try to explain it as best I can.*
I decided to do the smooth white parts first, then I used a decorating bag and tips to make "tubes" for the grill and engine of the tractor. I also used a large "tube" tip to fill in the tires, then smoothed the front tires with a butter knife. The rear tires need to have more definition in their tread, so I only did tubes across parts of it, following the outline from the pan. I will fill in the rest later.
It is important that your frosting be the right consistency, so you might have to fill a decorating bag and then refrigerate it for 15 minutes or so so the frosting doesn't get too runny. My black frosting was okay for the smooth-looking pipes and tires, but too warm and runny for the rest of the tires, so it's in the refrigerator right now.
I filled in the rest of the rear tractor tire with "stars." I'm sure there is a more sophisticated technique, but I said before I'm not an expert. Then I piped in the steering wheel, and filled in the seat with black. I also outlined some parts of the tractor. It's best to do everything you need to do in one color before moving on to the next. I smoothed the seat with a toothpick.
Moving on to the red, I filled in all the red parts with the star method.
I also filled in the gray tire centers and did the exhaust pipe with gray, then used a little spoon to make the yellow headlights.
I smoothed brown frosting around the entire edge of the cake, since the premise of the Red Tractor book is everything getting stuck in the mud.
And there you have it, a red tractor cake.
In this case, I had a lot of extra red frosting, but I could have used more brown. I had extra of some other colors too. That's okay, we'll just get some graham crackers and make lots of frosting sandwiches.