July 9, 2006

Little Monster Cake

Barbara Jo made this cake for her nephew's four-month birthday party.

We often refer to my nephew as "Little Monster" so naturally when I set about designing a cake for his four-month birthday party (OK, I admit it, I designed the cake first and then made up an occasion to make it for.) what I came up with was essentially a 3-dimensional bust of my nephew as a slimy octopus monster. When I described this concept to my sister, Barbara May, she pointed out that she had been envisioning him as a cute, fuzzy, Sesame Street-type monster, not as an oozing, ugly, Cthulhu-type monster. I pointed out that, unlike Cthulhu, my design had no wings and so was merely an octopus or squid monster, not a Cthulhu monster.

Initially I was hoping to cover the entire cake with a very thin layer of Jell-o Jiggler for a truly slimy, gooey texture. Unfortunately, while preliminary tests were encouraging in terms of the feasibility of creating a very thin, firm Jiggler and draping it effectively over the cake, these same tests also revealed that Jell-o is fundamentally incompatible with all forms of icing. A couple years back I tried to incorporate a Jell-o swamp into my New Orleans Gingerbread house. This proved to be impossible because the liquid Jell-o would have dissolved the house's royal icing wrought iron railings so I used piping gel instead. I was hoping that this time the Jell-o would work because my plan was to use Jell-o which had already set up. But my hope proved to be in vain. Even solidified Jiggler dissolved sample royal icing bits away into nothing within a few hours. I think it's time that I face the fact that the marriage of Jell-o and my cake / gingerbread projects is not meant to be.

I planned the flavor combinations while still envisioning the Jell-o coating. Coordinating an entire set of cake and icing flavors to go with cherry Jell-o is quite a challenge and I suspect that, had the Jell-o actually happened, it would ultimately have been rather gross with any flavors of cake and icing. I settled on a white butter cake with raspberry buttercream icing filling. In and of itself, this might have been OK with cherry Jell-o, but I also planned hazelnut flavored tentacles, a chocolate ganache crumb coat, followed by a layer of marzipan and a royal icing finish. Like I said, it probably would have been gross with cherry Jell-o.

The first step was to make the base for the cake to sit on. My plan was to make a cute fondant baby blanket to contrast with the yucky monster. First I covered an elliptical piece of 3/8" foam core with marbled green fondant, suggesting grass. Then I rolled out another sheet of white fondant for the blanket and stamped little sea creatures on it with food coloring. I tried to drape the blanket onto the base in such a way that it would look like the monster's tentacles were squinching it up, but it didn't work that well and I probably would have been better off with a flat blanket. I also put a little blue border around the edge to make it look more like a blanket. In the end, the blanket wasn't that good and didn't really make sense with the rest of the cake, which I think proves that I'm not meant to make those sickeningly adorable baby shower cakes shaped like diaper bags. But I think we all knew that already, didn't we?

Next, the cake itself. As I already mentioned, I used a butter cake recipe. I had never before tried this recipe, mostly because I'm a much bigger fan of chocolate cake than white cake, but it turned out to be a great recipe - really buttery and one of the best cakes for carving that I've ever tried. So once it was torted and filled with the raspberry buttercream icing (made by mixing some seedless raspberry jam into vanilla buttercream icing) carving it into the shape of a baby / octopus head went very smoothly.

For the tentacles I made some praline feullitine candy that learned how to make at a candy class that Mom and I took recently. Essentially, it's hazelnut butter (made by grinding up toasted hazelnuts and confectioners sugar in a food processor) mixed with milk chocolate and feullitine, which is a lot like ground up flakes of cake ice cream cones. In this case, in fact, it was exactly like ground up flakes of cake ice cream cone because it's not like one can buy real feullitine at the local grocery store. In fact, it's hard to find even on the internet, but that may be because I'm not really sure how to spell it. The praline feullitine worked remarkably well as a sculpting material, and I soon had some lovely tentacles.

Next, I coated the cake with a smooth layer of chocolate ganache and started rolling out the marzipan. It's a good thing that I was planning to coat the entire cake with royal icing, because the marzipan did not go on neatly at all. I rolled it too thin because I didn't have enough and then it dried out, both because I put too much confectioners sugar down to roll it in and because I covered the cake too slowly. So the marzipan covering ended up extremely messy with seams all over the place and smudges of chocolate ganache everywhere.

Fortunately, none of that mattered, because the next step was to cover the entire cake with royal icing. The first layer of royal icing obscured all the imperfections. The second layer filled in all the facial details. I even put in the little dent in the top of his little baby skull. At this point I decided that it looked too much like an octopus and not enough like a monster, so I added some little ridges running up the sides of the tentacles and extending onto the face. As Barbara May pointed out later, it made him look sort of Cardasian.

No octopus monster is complete without suckers on its tentacles. I made these out of gum paste, cutting them out with a circle cutter, then cupping them with a ball tool. I stuck them to the tentacles with royal icing.

At this point I transferred the octopus monster onto the previously prepared base and discovered that the 3/16" foamcore under the octopus monster wasn't sturdy enough to support the tentacles without bending and the royal icing coating cracked in several places and had to be repaired.

Next step - color! An airbrush probably would have been a very effective tool, but mine was 2,000 miles away, so I did it the old fashioned way - paste food colors and a soft paint brush. In the interests of maximum ickyness, I went with a base coat of flesh tone interspersed with icy blues. I painted the Cardasian ridges purple and added deeper blue shadows. Red suckers and white highlights finished off the paint job.

Now the cake looked pretty good, but it just wasn't wet enough. An octopus monster presumably lives in water and my nephew drools a lot so I had a couple of reasons for wanting the cake to look moist. I put a big pile of piping gel drool in front of the monster's mouth (which was chewing on a tentacle in homage to my nephew's habit of constantly chewing on his hand - and his toys, and his clothes, and our fingers, and basically anything else that comes within arm's reach of him). Then I sprayed the entire cake with some watery corn syrup for that all over, just-emerged-from-the-briny-deeps shine. This had the added advantage of making the colors run and blend a little bit which gave the cake more of a natural look.

Most everybody at the party thought the cake was sort of gross (looking, not tasting) and didn't really look anything like my nephew, who is the world's cutest baby. Barbara May, on the other hand, thought that it did look like him and she therefore declared the monster cake absolutely adorable.

Labels: ,