Happy Birthday Skink Cake
It was my roommate’s birthday last week, and so I decided to attempt carving a shaped cake for only the third time in my life. I’m by no means an expert on this, but I was mostly pleased with the results:
The animal I decided to model this cake after is the blue-tongued skink (specifically, the western blue-tongued skink). Besides the fact that Kenneth really likes skinks, I figured that this would be a relatively easy lizard to carve, since the legs are so tiny in comparison to the large, chubby bodies that these adorable reptiles have. Figuring out the longer legs of a bearded dragon or leopard gecko would have been much more of a challenge, and my cake carving skills simply may not have been up to it. Even as things were, I chose to carve the legs separately from the rest of the cake, and then stuck them on with icing.
I went with a plain chocolate cake recipe for this one: a slightly modified version of the one found in the Hershey’s Chocolate cookbook (they call for vegetable oil; I used butter instead). You could probably get away with using most any chocolate cake recipe, or even a boxed cake mix if you’re feeling really lazy. I chose this particular recipe because it’s quite a dense cake (easier to carve in a uniform way), and very chocolatey.
- 3/4 cup cocoa powder
- 1 cup boiling water
- 2 cups sugar
- 1/2 cup butter
- 1-3/4 cups all-purpose flour
- 1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1-1/2 teaspoons baking soda
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 eggs
- 1 cup milk
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and prepare two 9-inch round baking pans. You’ll want the pans to be quite well-greased, or use baking parchment to line them, because you’ll want to start your carving with some nicely formed cakes.
Dissolve the cocoa powder in the boiling water, then put it into the fridge to cool down so that it won’t melt your butter later.
Beat together the butter and sugar until the mix is nice and homogeneous. Add the eggs one at a time, mixing well after each addition.
In another bowl, combine together the flour, salt, baking powder and baking soda. Remove your cocoa powder/water mix from the fridge and add to it the milk and vanilla. Alternate between adding a bit of the flour mix, then a bit of the cocoa mix, stirring well between each addition, until everything is combined.
Pour the batter into the baking pans. Bake for about 40 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center of the pans comes out clean. Cool the cakes in the pans for 10 minutes, then remove them from the pans onto wire racks to finish cooling.
If you’re going to be using these for just a plain old normal-shaped cake, you can frost them as soon as they are cool. If you’re going to carve your cake, though, you’ll want to stick the cakes together with a layer of buttercream, and then wrap them in plastic wrap and pop them into the freezer overnight. Frozen cakes are WAY easier to carve, because they don’t squish and deform while you’re working on them.
As mentioned above, it’s much easier to carve a frozen cake, so you’ll want to bake your cakes in advance and leave them in the freezer at least overnight before carving. When it comes time to carve, use a serrated knife — a larger one for working out the basic shape (I used a bread knife for this part), and a small one for details (I chose a boning knife for flexibility with the fine details, but a paring knife would probably work quite well too).
I can’t stress enough the importance of planning. Draw out your design in advance, full-sized if possible, so that you’ll know exactly what you’re working with when it comes time to carve. More experienced cake carvers can just “wing it”, at least on more simply shaped cakes, but when you’re just starting out, having a plan drawing is really helpful.
Carve the details of your cake in a bit of an exaggerated way. Subtle curves and shapes will get lost once they’re covered by icing. Remember also that some of the most fiddly bits can just be shaped with icing, and they don’t need to have cake in the middle. Also, don’t freak out if you make a little mistake — a slightly thicker layer of icing will cover up all but the biggest mistakes.
Once your cake is carved, all that’s left to do is ice it. Most professional cake decorators will use fondant icing, but I’ve never been a fan (I find it’s often tasteless, even if it does look really smooth and pretty). So I use buttercream instead, and suffer with a few uneven places for the sake of better flavour. You can use whatever sort of icing you prefer (even storebought, if you’re not a fan of making it yourself).
A basic buttercream is made as follows:
- 1/4 cup butter (very soft butter is important here!)
- 1/3 cup milk or cream
- 1 tbsp vanilla extract
- 2-1/2 cups icing sugar
Combine the butter and icing sugar, then add the vanilla and milk a little bit at a time. For thicker icing add more icing sugar; for thinner use more milk. For the skink cake I used very thick icing so that I’d be able to use a toothpick to add details like scales, eyes, toes, etc. If you want to add details like this, just wait until the buttercream has “set up” a bit on the cake, and then you’ll be able to press the details into the surface of the buttercream without wrecking the smooth finish.
Some of the icing used on the skink cake was chocolate — I just added a couple tablespoons of cocoa powder in with the icing sugar for this. And of course the tongue was done in bright blue — for this I simply added a few drops of blue food colouring to a small amount of the vanilla buttercream.
Buttercream is supremely versatile, and you can add lots of different things to it. Instead of vanilla extract, you can use almost any other extract you like (almond extract is a favourite of mine). Add food colouring to make it any colour you choose, or some nuts or dried fruit or sprinkles to give it texture. You can spread the buttercream on with a spatula for a smooth finish, or pipe it on using any icing tip you like to create textures and depth. It’s only limited by your creativity.