My husband’s family has a fun tradition for birthdays. His brothers make birthday cakes for their children, but they aren’t the average sheet cake with plastic decorations on top. The cakes are three dimensional creations and have included a flying Superman cake (yes, he really flew) and an R2D2 cake complete with a top that swiveled. So of course Michael wanted to join in the fun making cakes for our children.
When our first child turned one year old, Michael decided to start simple using an Elmo cake pan by Wilton. He learned how to make stars and how to use the different tools. For the second birthday, he made a Blue’s Clues cake using another Wilton pan. Elmo and Blue are now traditions for the first and second birthday for all of our boys.
By the third birthday, he was ready to design freestyle cakes, so last year he made an Island of Sodor cake complete with a train track made from fig newtons and pretzels, a mountain made from an ice cream cone, and a waterfall. Everything on the cake was completely edible, except for Thomas himself. The boys loved it!
Six months ago, Michael began planning for the fourth birthday cake. He knew that he wanted to do something from The Little Einsteins, and since he’s an aerospace engineer he thought making Rocket would be pretty fun. So last Friday the boys and I made the cakes and Michael spent that night building and decorating Rocket, and I think it turned out really cute.
For the cakes, we used two Wilton oval baking pans. As an alternate plan, you could use one 8-inch round pan and one 9×13 pan and then trim the cakes into an oval shape. Frankly, the oval pans performed well and saved us some work, and we’ll be able to use them again in our cake adventures, so we’re glad that we bought them. To build the engines (nacelles), Michael used cake ice cream cones and graham crackers. The finished engines were edible, but a bit soggy. He used Wilton gel colors and basic liquid food coloring for the buttercream frosting, both of which are widely available.
You can make the cakes, engines, and frosting a day ahead. Keep the frosting in the refrigerator until you are ready to use it, and then allow it to come to room temperature before attempting to decorate the cake. The frosting recipe is adapted from the Wilton website, and makes three cups. You’ll need to make two batches of it.
Notes About Red Frosting
The red frosting is difficult because it’s hard to make a really deep red, and you can go through an entire jar of Wilton Red for just one cup of frosting. Because you are making a large amount of frosting and need the red to be as deep as possible, you’ll want to use the No Taste Red which doesn’t have FD&C red #3, otherwise the frosting may take on a bitter flavor. Here are some tips on ways to deepen the color of your red frosting:
- Trying making pink frosting first, then start adding the red gel. You won’t need as much red as you would if you started from white frosting.
- Make and color the frosting a day ahead and let it sit. The colors deepen with time.
- If you have a cake and candy supply store near you, check and see if they have Ameri-color or Chefmaster Liquid Gel colors. These are more concentrated and take less gel to make a deep red.
- I’ve also seen tips for using maraschino cherry juice in the red frosting, but I have not tried this myself. It would add both color and flavor.
CAKES & FROSTING
stand mixer with paddle attachment
oval baking pan, 7-3/4 x 5-5/8 inch, greased and floured
oval baking pan, 10-3/4 x 7-5/8 inch, greased and floured
serrated bread knife
X-Acto craft knife (for building the engines)
cake plate or stand
3 small bowls
3 (1 quart) freezer bags
decorating tips (two #3 and one #12) and couplers
3 popsicle sticks
2 spatulas or knives, for spreading frosting
a picture of Rocket to reference while working
8 cups cake batter, any flavor
6 cake ice cream cones
1 round red lollipop, top 2 inches of the stick colored red
FROSTING (You’ll need 2 batches of this.)
1/2 cup solid butter-flavored vegetable shortening
1/2 cup butter
1 teaspoon vanilla
4 cups sifted confectioners’ sugar (approximately 1 pound)
2 tablespoons milk
Wilton No Taste Red gel color
liquid red food coloring or Wilton Pink gel color
liquid blue food coloring or Wilton Sky Blue gel color
liquid yellow food coloring or Wilton Lemon Yellow gel color
***All of these steps can be done one day before assembling and frosting the cake.***
1. Preheat oven to 350° F.
2. Pour 2-1/2 cups of cake batter into the small prepared cake pan and 5-1/2 cups of cake batter in the large prepared cake pan. The pans should be about 2/3 full. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes. Test for doneness and remove pans from oven. Allow cakes to sit in pans for 10 minutes, then remove each and allow to cool completely on a wire rack. Don’t try to frost or trim the cake while it’s hot, or it will disintegrate.
3. FROSTING (make 2 batches): Cream butter and shortening in the work bowl of the mixer. Add vanilla and mix for about 30 seconds. Gradually add sugar, one cup at a time, beating well on medium speed and scraping the sides and bottom of the bowl. Add the milk and beat at medium speed until light and fluffy. Keep the frosting covered with a damp cloth so that it doesn’t dry out.
4. Prep the freezer bags for piping. Put the base of a coupler in the bottom corner of a bag and cut away the corner. Add a #3 or #12 tip and screw the coupler ring over the bag and tip. Fill with frosting, squeeze any extra air out of the bag, and twist the top.
5. Yellow Frosting: Put 2 tablespoons of frosting into a small bowl. Squeeze a few drops of yellow coloring into the frosting and stir with a popsicle stick. Start with a small amount of color and add more as needed until you have a bright yellow. Put all of the yellow into the freezer bag with the #12 tip.
6. Blue Frosting: Put 2 cups of frosting into a small bowl. Squeeze a few drops of blue coloring into the frosting and stir with a popsicle stick. Start with a small amount of color and add more as needed until you have sky blue. Put about 1/2 cup of the blue into a freezer bag with the #3 tip.
7. Red Frosting: Put the remaining frosting in another small bowl. Squirt 20 to 30 drops of the liquid red food coloring into the frosting and stir. This gives the color a good strong pink base to work from. Start adding the No Taste gel coloring a little at a time, stirring as you go until you have a deep bright red. Put about 1/2 cup of the red into a freezer bag with the #3 tip.
1. The cakes: Level the tops of the cake as necessary using a serrated bread knife or a cake leveler. Place the large cake layer on the plate. Lay the small cake layer on top of the large layer with the ends of the ovals aligned. Position the end of the top layer approximately 1/2 inch away from the end of the bottom layer. This will be the back end of Rocket. Use the serrated bread knife to trim the back end of the top layer so that it slopes down toward the bottom layer. Trim the top edges of both layers to round them a little. Take the spare trimmings and lay it on top of the top layer. Shape with your hands and knife to make a rounded top.
2. The engines: Set aside 2 of the ice cream cones. Using the X-Acto knife, cut away the bottoms of the other 4 ice cream cones, saving the tops and 2 of the bottoms. If the cones have a flared top edge, cut that away on the two rings but not on the uncut cone. Set aside two of the cone bottoms. Take the four “rings” and cut a groove in each about the width of a graham cracker. Take 2 graham cracker squares and trim each so that it’s shaped like a fin. To assemble the engines, insert a bottom cone piece into an uncut cone leaving the bottom hanging out. Position two rings around the bottom of that cone with the cut grooves aligned, and then insert the graham cracker fin into the grooves.
3. Use a spatula to cover the top and sides of the bottom layer with the red frosting.
4. Cover the sides of the middle layer with the blue frosting.
5. Cover the rounded top layer with red frosting.
6. To make the headlights, pipe some yellow frosting into two small circles on the front of the bottom layer.
7. Pipe the red frames on the blue windows and detail lines around all edges on each layer. Pipe 5 vertical lines on the bottom layer, one in the front center, and two more on each side, evenly spaced around the cake. Pipe one line on the top layer from front to back. Pipe a circle of frosting on the very top of the cake and then insert the lollipop, leaving about 1 inch of stick visible.
8. Frost the engines using red on the top fin, the outsides of the engines , and on the front part of the engine that sticks out. Pipe some blue frosting in the cavity between the outside edges and the inside cone. Pipe some blue frosting on the back of the engine (the exhaust). Pipe red detail lines on the sides and around the base of the fins.
9. Adding the engines: To finish the cake, lay the frosted engines on the plate next to the back of the cake and connect them using a chopstick that runs through the cake. Find the approximate horizontal center of the engine and use the X-Acto knife to drill a hole through it about the diameter of the chopstick. Insert the chopstick through the back of the cake, running one side to the other. Gently push each engine onto the chopstick through the holes you drilled. Pipe some red frosting onto the chopstick to fill in the area between the cake and the engine.
360° Views of the Finished Cake