In November we made a Lightening McQueen cake for Bob the Builder's birthday, and at the time Top Gun repeated over and over how he wanted a Mater cake for his birthday. Well, two months ago he changed his tune after becoming obsessed with airplanes. "Mommy, Daddy, I want a crashed airplane cake. Mommy, you make the cake, and Daddy, you decorate it." A crashed airplane? Huh? We pictured an airplane upside down in a pile of dirt and smashed parts or tail end up in a body of water, and that's just a little too dark for a four-year-old's birthday cake.
So even though Michael had been planning that Mater cake for three months (sometimes planning ahead can backfire), we switched gears and started thinking airplanes, not that Michael really minded since he's an aerospace engineer and has an obsession with aircraft going back to his own childhood and seeing the Apollo 11 moon landing on television in 1969. Yes, the love of all things that fly is deeply rooted. Top Gun chose one of his airplanes to be the model, a Tonka Lil' Chuck airplane, which is based on a GeeBee Model Z. Michael took that model and designed the shape of the cake but made the vertical tail, or the rudder, larger so it would have room for the birthday boy's age.
We chose red and blue frosting instead of the GeeBee's traditional black and yellow colors because the black frosting can get really nasty, especially when there's a lot of it. It turns your lips, tongue, and teeth black, which can be fun for Halloween but any other time is just a big mess. Michael thought the red and blue would look very patriotic and the blue is similar in color to an F4U Corsair, which is Top Gun's favorite airplane.
We decided on chocolate cake, and I made three batches of batter and baked two batches in an 11x15 pan and one batch in a 9x13 pan, though you can do all the batches in 9x13 pans. We let those cool overnight before carving the next day. I also made three batches of frosting, though it turns out we could have gotten away with 2-½ batches as we had plenty left over. Michael drew patterns for this cake and laid the pattern pieces on the cake while cutting. There were extra pieces of cake left over, but they didn't last long because Top Gun was sneaking into the kitchen and nabbing chunks, leaving a trail of crumbs around the house.
The cake has two layers for the body of the plane (fuselage) and the cowling (propeller area) plus a small third layer for the cockpit and the top of the cowling. The wings and the elevators (rear wings) are made from one layer of cake, and the rudder is a piece of cardboard. Michael tried to make it from a graham cracker, but it didn't work well with the curve and kept breaking even when using an X-Acto knife. We belatedly thought of leaving the graham crackers out to get stale, which might make them easier to cut. We made a pattern for propellers, which would have also been cardboard due to the curves, but in a time crunch we decided to go representational rather than mechanical, so we just joked the propellers were moving too fast for the naked eye. If you want to try the propellers, you can mount them with a toothpick in a marshmallow covered in frosting.
Carving with a serrated knife gives the airplane its curves, so having a cake of the right consistency is important. A cake with a very soft crumb will not carve well, and I recommend avoiding box cakes for that reason. The yellow butter cake and chocolate cake we have used in the past work well for carving. They are quite moist and flavorful, but have a firmer crumb that doesn't collapse when trying to carve.
Makes a big cake, about 30 servings.
A Word on Baking Pans
I use Wilton Decorator Preferred and Performance Pans for our cakes because they are widely available at craft stores, and that's particularly helpful since we don't have any restaurant supply stores nearby. Sometimes the pan instructions do not match the recipe instructions for such things as oven temperature and baking times, so I usually follow the pan instructions which seems to produce a more level and evenly baked cake. The pans require greasing and parchment paper to ensure a good release when removing the cakes.
Dark nonstick pans require lowering the oven temperature 25º F and will sometimes bake the edges long before the middle is done, resulting in dry cracked edges. I like them for smaller round or square cakes that bake evenly, such as 8 inches and 9 inches, but over the years I've stopped using them for larger round or rectangular cakes.
Airplane Birthday Cake
- stand mixer with paddle attachment (2 bowls helpful)
- 9x13 cake pan (3 pans helpful)
- 11x15 cake pan (optional)
- parchment paper, cut to fit bottom of pans
- wire racks for cooling cakes
- Printable cake patterns (see Recipe Notes)
- 5x7 piece of cardboard or a couple graham crackers
- half an Easter egg or a marshmallow
- quart size storage bag or piping bag
- #3 decorating tip and couplers
Frosting (Make 2-½ batches of the buttercream of your choice.)
Colors (Please read the notes about coloring red frosting.)
- Wilton No-Taste Red
- Wilton Royal Blue
- or whatever colors you choose
Preparation - Day 1
- CAKES: Preheat the oven according to the cake (or pan) directions. Prepare the pans by greasing with butter, laying parchment in the bottom, and greasing the parchment. Flour the insides of the pan and tap out the extra. (Note: Always prepare a cake pan, even if it's nonstick.)
- Mix 3 batches of chocolate cake or yellow butter cake. You can bake two 9x13 cakes together and then the third by itself. If you use the 11x15 pan, bake it separately because it requires a longer baking time. Allow to cool completely, overnight is best. (Note: If you use the 11x15 pan, you will pour 2 batches of the batter in it. I recommend mixing the wet ingredients for both first in separate bowls, then adding the dry ingredients per the recipes, then immediately pouring both batches into the pan and bake. If you mix each batch fully and allow one to sit while making the other, you will lose some rise and have a dense cake.)
- BUTTERCREAM: Mix 3 batches of either pure buttercream or the buttercream with shortening (helpful if the weather is really hot and humid). Color as desired and store in the refrigerator. You will need about 1 cup of white frosting for the cockpit window, 2 to 3 cups of red, and 3 to 4 cups of blue.
Assembly - Day 2
- Arrange pattern shapes on the cakes and cut them out using a sharp serrated knife. Set aside the extra cake and enjoy later with whipped cream and berries, like a trifle. (Sorry, no photo for that, the extras didn't last long enough.)
- Arrange bottom cowling, wings, bottom of fuselage, and rear elevators on a large pan according to the photo below.
- Add a layer of blue frosting where the fuselage will go.
- Place the fuselage on top of the cake with the rear point sticking off slightly.
- Add a layer of blue or red frosting on top of the bottom cowling and add the next bottom cowling. Add another layer of blue frosting to the cowling and place the third layer on top. Add a frosting on top of the fuselage just in the area where the cockpit pieces will go. Put the cockpit pieces in place.
- Use a serrated knife to shape the cowling and cockpit, making them slightly rounded per the photo above.
- Cut a vertical slit in the fuselage above the elevators, but don't go all the way through to the pan, then place the vertical tail in the slit.
- Cover the wings, fuselage, elevators, vertical tail, and part of the cockpit with a crumb layer of the blue frosting.
- Cover the window part of the cockpit with a crumb layer of white frosting.
- Cover the cowling with a crumb layer of red frosting.
- Allow the frosting to sit for a few minutes, then add the outer frosting layer, reserving 1 to 1-½ cups of the red frosting for piping. (Note: We put the cake in the refrigerator for 10 minutes before adding the outer frosting layer because it was very warm and humid. Chilling the crumb layer helped seal in the pesky chocolate crumbs.)
- Pipe decorations on the wings, elevators, vertical tail, and anywhere else you like. We put the name on the left wing, the age on the vertical tail, and HB-4 on the right wing, which looks like the airplane number and stands for "Happy Birthday-4.