A plan gone wrong, but how to get over it, make do, and end up with something just fine.
When a kid's birthday approaches, I can't help brainstorming cake ideas. And something about kids just demands that it be a shaped or themed cake. To me, at least. I can't help it! I wonder if an old family photo of my older brother grinning behind a sprawling cake train has anything to do with it. Very likely.
This urge of mine has given birth to multiple elaborate cakes. An aircraft carrier complete with matchbox planes on top, an airplane pulling a birthday banner amidst cotton candy clouds, a blue ombre interior layered cake with a boy reeling in a giant catch on top, a figure eight racetrack, a brown and rosy cow, a circle track for Thomas the train, etc....
So this year when my niece's 5th birthday approached, it was cake time again. Her request: a pink princess and castle out of chocolate cake. Game on!
Quite quickly, I decided to bake a sheet cake from which I would carve out "bricks" of cake to stack on top of each other to form a free-standing castle. In my head, this looked darling. "Ooo! I'll do it naked cake style, so that the chocolate cake just barely peeps through the scraping of white frosting. Oh! It'll look like painted brick!! It's going to be so cute!!!"
Then I thought through the princess. Her skirt would be baked in a bowl to get the semi-circle shape, and I'd smash cake a la cake-pop style for her torso and head. Simple enough. As for decorating, I decided against pink frosting early on. The preference here is to use minimal dye in frosting (mostly because of the taste that comes through). I could've used fruit jam to get a pink hue, but I personally don't like the combo of fruit and chocolate. Then I thought: "OH! I'll make my own delicately tinted pink sprinkles! Frost the princess' skirt and torso with white frosting, then coat with sprinkles. Simple! And cute! And what kid doesn't like sprinkles?"
It was all marvelous in my head. It was still all pretty marvelous until I actually started making it. First, there were the sprinkles. Sprinkles really aren't that hard to make. Amazingly! I will definitely be making them again. But, please, don't ignore any powdered sugar clumps should you try making them. Even if the clumps look small. Really small. Because, I did ignore them. What happened during piping was that my bag split from the sharp edges of the powdered sugar clumps. As the mixture oozed out, messing up the pretty piped lines, I decided to cut the tip to where the slit was. "Oh well," I shrugged as the little, rounded lines became flat, thick lines, "they'll just be chunkier." The next day when they were fully dry, and I broke them into pieces, they were indeed chunkier than typical sprinkles. "But against a white frosting," I thought, "they are still going to look sweet."
Then, I made the frosting. I decided to try out french buttercream which uses yolks for its base. (Because Sarah, Maria, and I are going to be collaborating on a wedding cake soon!!! And we'll need a lot of egg whites for the swiss meringue buttercream.) The french buttercream also has a splash of vanilla and coffee. Now, if you haven't figured it out yet, let me tell you. What I ended up with was not a lovely, adorable, white fluffy frosting, but rather a yellow-brown, vaguely green sort of frosting. Unfortunately, I didn't register the issue of the color (probably because it tasted yummy) and plowed ahead unwittingly.
I stacked the cake for the castle, and attempted to scrape the frosting naked style. "Bother. This probably takes a little bit of practice." It certainly didn't look as I had imagined. I moved on to the princess. "Perfect," as I assembled her, "going just as planned!" But then, I frosted and coated her in sprinkles. Yet again, it wasn't turning out as I imagined. In fact, I was beginning to get quite dismayed.
Done for the night, I texted Sarah & Maria a photo (below) with the caption: "Thank goodness Sarah is in charge of decorating the wedding cake!"
They both lost it. It was quite a sorry mess! I mean, look at the princess' face -- it's horrifying! And what the heck is going on with her skirt? Those sprinkles look dreadful! And talk about bad hues -- that yellow-green frosting against brown chocolate is pretty dismal for a 5 year-old birthday cake. I mean, it's a cake that could give you nightmares! After a good few minutes of belly laughter (all three of us), we began troubleshooting and brainstorming how to recover. Filled with hope and ideas, I went off to bed at peace and eager to tackle the cake in the morning.
Now you may be wondering: Why not scrap the whole thing? Begin again? Or at very least, whip up a some actually white frosting and start over with that?
I was tempted.
But, I reminded myself of a few facts. First, I knew all the components tasted good. Second, I was almost 100% confident my niece was going to love it pretty much regardless. Third, I wasn't bringing this cake to a large gathering or being paid for it or anything; it was for a simple, family birthday gathering. Bottom line, I wasn't going to throw out a perfectly fine cake to save my own pride.
At the same time, I knew the cake could use some love. Most of all, I wanted it to be more girly and pretty for my niece. That, at least! So, making do with what was on hand, I began tweaking it. The princess' face, we were all in agreement, was the most disconcerting aspect. So I scraped off the frosting and made use of some fondant I had stashed in the freezer. I used some more fondant to add a bit more detailing to the princess' dress. I mixed up some powdered sugar with water and a drop of red dye to create a more definite pink. I then "painted" the princess' dress, trying to make it more cute. I sketched and colored some vines and vibrant pink flowers which I cut out and pressed onto the castle. Again, trying to make it look less forbidding.
At the end of the day, I really didn't make too many changes. But the little ones I did with a fresh mind and optimistic outlook did change the cake dramatically. It went from daunting, dark, and dull to sweet and thoughtful, if still a bit homey.
Did my niece like it? I think it's safe to say yes. She had two full servings, both of which she ate alongside heaps of ice cream. And, while serving the cake, I was reminded of another reason why shaped and themed cakes are so fitting for kids -- they love to claim specific parts! "I want the head!" "I want an arm and part of the castle!" "Can I have a rock?"
The cake turned out to be exactly what it should be.