Oh my goodness, we just moved! Our kitchen is now in Westchester, although still in many many boxes. I've gotten pretty behind on my posts and until Io find my Kitchenaide again things will be a bit sporadic. But before I got everything boxed up, I managed to eek out a cake for my daughter's birthday (since birthdays care nothing for whether you are moving or not). She was very specific in her request, she wanted a unicorn with a rainbow – no make that an alicorn, but definitely a rainbow. (My daughter is a huge fan of MLP). I've made her a rainbow cake before – that didn't go over well. She loved the way the layers looked but hated the cake. So I suggested the rainbow be in the frosting this time and well, I only know of five alicorns (now that Cadence had her baby… um, yeah – I know a bit too much about the pony universe) so what about Twilight Sparkle? Twilight was acceptable. Phew. Now how to get it done?
I'm not a big fan of fondant. Don't get me wrong, it often looks stunning and you can get such a perfect picture of a kid's favorite character or just about anything you like. I just have this thing about serving someone something that they are expected to just push to the side. I know fondant is edible and you can make somewhat tasty versions, but for the most part - it's pretty gross. I also know I should probably get over it, there is still cake and frosting underneath after all. So far, no luck. Add to pile that I'm not the greatest piper and I insist on using European style buttercream instead of a more sturdy and consistent American style. Let's just say that cake decorating is a challenge.
At the end of the day, it's more important to me that a cake tastes good - no great - then it looks perfect. I know, I know - you eat with your eyes first. Sigh. So I'm working on getting better at piping. But until that magical day happens, I've picked up a couple of tricks that have helped me turn out some pretty impressive cakes (if I do say so myself).
My favorite technique so far is a buttercream transfer. I usually transfer the entire top of the cake so that its seamless you don't get a floating image. I also think you can control the spacing better if you do it that way. But, let me back up a bit - a buttercream transfer is where you trace a backwards image of what you want in buttercream and then freeze it, flip it over and place it on the cake. Sounds crazy but it's actually pretty easy to do and as long as your image isn't too intricate, the end result can look pretty great.
The first step is to choose a design of the cake. I'm a bit old school so I like to print out my pieces and then lay them out on a piece of tracing paper. I draw out the edge of the cake - it's easy to use the pan and trace the edge and then back off a half inch or so from that. Once I have the design laid out the way I want, I glue it down on the paper and I print out a reverse image of each component. Then I flip the page over and line up and glue the reverse images. Now I have a reverse design. It's important that everything be in reverse, even the words if those are part of your design. You don't want the recipient to need a mirror to read it.
Now that I have a reverse design, I make a bunch of buttercream. I usually prepare more buttercream than I think I will need. I made two batches of Swiss Meringue for this Twilight transfer and then more for the cake. Next mix all the colors you will need. Twilight had a lot of colors going on (maybe too many) so I worked on that one in stages. After doing it that way, I think it is better to mix it all up front - but do what works best for you. Simplify where you can, complex designs do tend to get a little lost. At least, they do for me. I put all of my colors into piping bags - you don't have to have tips for this, you can just snip off the end. But, I find that the smaller tips give you better control and so a better final image - so I end up juggling my tips around so I'm tracing most of the image with a bag with a tip, if not the whole thing.
Mixing the colors can be a bit tricky. The buttercream starts with a slight yellow base so that will affect the final colors. I use gel food color so I can add less and there are ton of available colors. For the really tricky ones (flesh tones, purple, hot pink) I purchased food coloring from a specialty cake store. I was never able to get a truly great purple until I did that and it makes life so much easier.
For ease, I tape my design to a appropriately sized cake board. Then tape a larger piece of wax paper on top of it. I want to make sure it is very secure so it won't slide around while I'm working. I start tracing the image onto the wax paper with my buttercream - in the order of what I will want to see on top. Outlines, small details, those are all good places to start. If the image is a bit complex or has a heavy outline - I'll trace the outline and then pop it in the freezer to set the outline (about ten minutes or so). It makes it easier to fill in the image. It defrosts pretty quick though so I work as quick as I can and pop it back in if it gets too soft. This may be an extra step, but I found it helped.
Depending on the complexity of the image, this can be a long process. I worked on the Twilight cake over the course of a couple days, leaving the image in the freezer between sessions. Buttercream is ok to sit at room temperature for a few days so I left all my colors out that hadn't made it to the page yet. It's tempting to stash those in the fridge, but then you need to bring them back to room temperature and the frosting may need to be rewhipped - it turns into a big hassle.
Once the image is completely filled in, I put it back into the freezer for a longer set - at least 30 minutes. Once it is frozen, I spread a thin layer of buttercream in my background color. It makes it more seamless this way when I put the cake together and I find it easier to place the image when it is more substantial. Back into the freezer again for at least an hour. I let it set while I prep my cake - layers if I have them and crumb coat.
Next is my favorite and the most nerve racking part: flipping the buttercream image over. It's a bit of a mystery exactly what it will look like, I'm always a little nervous that I smudged something or made a mistake. So far I've been worried for nothing, everything has been fixable. With crumb coat on the cake (after letting that chill for 30 minutes), I carefully take out my image from the fridge. It's pretty rigid when frozen so it's not too delicate. First, I make sure that I lift all the tape so that the image will come away from the board. As carefully as I can I flip it over onto the cake and line it up with the edges.Then I peel off the wax paper and survey the results. Usually there is a little bit to touch up and fix (a small paint brush works wonders), but that can wait until the sides of the cake have been frosted and the buttercream is no longer frozen.
Here is the final Twilight cake. I think it came out pretty well.The small letters were a bit tough - next time I might make them bigger or add them after the flip. But the rainbow was very clear and Twilight and Spike came out fantastic. Most importantly, my daughter loved it (and that is no small feat).