In a moment of weakness, I offered to bake a special cake for my nephew's first birthday party. I knew he wouldn't remember the cake, but I, being the youngest in the family remember very little about first birthday parties except that there are lots of pictures of the cake and the baby with the cake smeared on my face. So, I decided a neat cake was important.
Initially, I wanted to make a gear cake. The idea was to take some gear templates and cut circular cakes into gear shapes, frost them brightly, and position them with touching teeth as though they were turning together. I think it would look awesome, however, when I brought up this idea to my sounding board they said likely nobody would know what it was and I should do something more recognizable.
With dashed dreams, I decided to move on and make a Train Cake. I wasn't interested in any cake molds, I wanted a 3-D train cake. Later, as I scoured the internet for information about how to make a train cake, I decided that the perfect train, would be a circus train.
The first piece of this project was to find some circus animals. Finding plastic animals that were not too heavy and more circus-like than jungle-like proved to be very difficult, and a little more expensive than I had initially planned. Not having kids myself, I wasn't really in tune with kids culture. I learned that there is a Nick Jr show called the Backyardigans who have a circus and have circus toys. I purchased some of these at Target but was sad they were so expensive, once I got home, I realized they were also a little too heavy, so the search continued. Finally, in one last vain attempt to find circus animals, I went to Toys R Us and found that the TV show Go Diego Go has a safari set of animals. While I was going for the circus, the jungle sets had a lioness, an elephant, a giraffe and a zebra, all animals I wouldn't be surprised to see at a circus, and the price was right. Thanks Diego!
Once I had my animals, the real planning began. I already knew that I had to make the same kind of cake that we always make for birthday parties--Betty Crocker Pudding in the Mix chocolate cake (made with super secret special ingredient for extra moistness) with homemade butter cream frosting and coconut shavings. Knowing the cake was half the battle, getting the cake to not fall apart and be the right shape was the next.
Two weeks before the real baking, I did some test baking. I baked a couple of cakes in a variety of pans trying to find the perfect shape. I made a cake in an 8x8 pan, but it cracked in the middle and was too thin. I made a cake in a large loaf pan, and I made three LEGO brick cakes from a silicon LEGO pan. The LEGO looked like they would be a little too hard to frost. I decided the loaf pan was my best option. I had already read on other sites that the loaf pan was what to use--but I think all the other sites used miniature loaf pans, probably one train car for each child. Since this party was for adults instead of children, I decided to use the big loaf pans--I thought this would also help me to make less cake. Boy, was I wrong about that.
I think I ended up making eight loaf pans of cake. I just wanted to make sure I had enough and didn't come up short. I made all the cakes early in the morning so they would have time to cool before frosting.
For the frosting, I purchased at a craft store some gel style food coloring. I read that this would give me the best bright colors. I didn't read that if you use too much of this stuff it leaves a tiny bit of a bitter taste. Apparently though if you aren't taste testing spoonfulls after spoonfulls of frosting and you are just eating the cake, the bitterness is not noticeable. The internet was right though, the colors were pretty bright. I made red, yellow, green and blue frostings.
I know for sure I had a lot of leftover frosting. I just kept baking and making because I was worried about it.
I read on the back of the shredded sweetened coconut bag that you could make colored coconut by mixing coconut, a little water, and food coloring (the regular bottled kind) in a zip-top bag. Originally, I planned on making several colors of coconut, but in the end I decided on yellow only to pose as hay for the animals. I also planned on making cages for the animals but the little stirring straws didn't look right so I decided against it at the last minute.
The assembly proved to be the hardest part of the entire project. I already had the vision, all I had to do was build it. I wouldn't have been able to do it myself, so I elected my wonderful fiance to help out. For the caboose and engine we cut an extra cake in half and put it on top. We used toothpicks to hold the cake together. We thought it would be a good idea to cut off the corners and the top to make the cakes flat, but actually, cutting them made it a little crumbly and actually harder to frost. It was very difficult to keep the crumbs from darkening the frosting. My fiance was an excellent froster as it turned out.
We put each finished frosted cake into carrying pans because we had to cake the 80 miles for the party and we were worried about it staying together in the car and not melting or anything in the November heat.
Upon arrival, we set out a large piece of thick posterboard that I had purchased at the craft store. We positioned the cakes along the board in a half moon shape. On either end of the train I placed Lego train tracks that I had on hand--you could use any kind of tracks you have available but these worked out great. We took a tube of pre-made frosting and glued white M&Ms onto the Oreos to make hubcaps for the wheels. Then we used the same tube frosting to glue the cookies to the sides of the cakes. We put other M&Ms as decoration on other parts of the train including lights. Then we spread the coconut on all the other cars and placed the animals. The end result was a cake to remember. I bet I'll be making cakes for future birthdays after this marvelous performance!
Candle that looks like smoke stack
Plastic Circus Animals
Disposable Loaf Pans
2 train tracks
Thick posterboard or piece of cardboard covered in foil
Food Coloring - gel or liquid
Cake of your choice - I made chocolate, since they are individual, you could use different kinds for each car
Frosting of your choice - I made a traditional butter cream from scratch but you could use pre-made frosting
1 tube pre-made frosting any color