My now four-year-old son is seriously into pirates. Besides various Berenstein Bear books, pirate-themed books are the only ones I'm allowed to read to him... so needless to say, we have many in our house. Naturally, he requested a pirate-themed birthday party and, naturally, I was insane enough to offer to make him a pirate ship birthday cake.
Nevermind that I've only made one other cake before -- Rocket (from Disney's Little Einsteins) -- and I had guidance on making that one from a helpful website (that I've since lost the link for)... nevermind that I've never taken a cake decorating class in my life... Nevermind all that. My son wants a pirate-themed birthday party and gosh darn it, I was going to be the one to make him his cake.
Of course, it being me... I couldn't take the easy way out by simply buying a mold and frosting it... oh no, I had to be elaborate. I searched high and low for instructions on putting together a cool cake but detailed instructions were few and far between... in fact, I was kind of dissatisfied with a lot of the instructions online. So, I looked up recipes, watched a ton of Ace of Cakes (lol) and winged it... praying to high heaven that it resembled a pirate ship more so than a massive blob. I must say, it didn't come out half bad. Anyway, on to the instructions!! Warning: These instructions are llooooonnnggggg.... if you just want to see pictures of the completed cake, skip down to the end :)
First things first, what will I need?
Well, it really depends on how elaborate you want your cake to be. I used:
*The largest Wilton Oval pan (16.5" x 12 3/8")
*An 11 x 15" sheet pan
**NOTE: This yielded a massive amount of cake, so only use these sizes if you're expecting a large turnout... I'd wager you could go with the 13" x 9 7/8" oval pan and a 9 x 13" sheet pan, honestly.
*A large cookie sheet that you can use as a base for the ship (make sure it's big enough to fit the cake and an island!!)
*Melting chocolate and molds -- gems, gold bars, pirate coins, a treasure chest mold, etc -- plus food dust to color your finished chocolate products
*Piping tips and bags (a lot, unless you like to clean often!) -- you'll need at least a flat tip for the planks and a small round tip for the detailing/royal icing work
*All the ingredients for your various recipes, especially food coloring!
*Decorations for the ship: Whoppers, Tootsie Rolls, Pirates, Sails, Pretzels, etc
Make the chocolate!
Chocolate lends itself well to cool applications and since there are a variety of inexpensive molds out there, it's much easier than dealing with fondant or gum paste (not edible!).... plus it's better tasting ;). Just go out and buy some melting chocolate and some molds... melt the chocolate (either in the microwave or a double boiler) and pour into the molds. Stick in the freezer to harden, then pop out when done. If you're making a treasure chest, using royal icing to make the box fit together.
Dust the chocolate pieces with some sort of non-toxic sparkle dust or glaze (gold, silver, emerald, sapphire and ruby).
I'd definitely do this a few days before I make the cake!
Make the cake!
Honestly, the world's BEST CAKE RECIPE is one I found on Cooking For Engineers . The directions are clear and concise, it's super simple to make and ABSOLUTELY delicious. I do make *one tiny* alteration to it, and that's to substitute COFFEE for most of the water. You can substitute coffee for water in any baking recipe in a 1:1 ratio... the coffee will deepen the chocolate flavor and make it very intense. *Delicious*
Anyway, this yields about 5.5 c of batter -- follow the instructions on your baking pans to determine how many batches of batter you'll need. I needed four to make the super-sized oval and rectangle.
While the cake is baking, start the poured sugar base!
Sugar work can be an exceptionally long and tedious process that can be messed up easily if you try to rush it. Again, it was my first time making poured sugar, so I wasn't sure how much I'd really need. I ended up making a lot (of course) and using an entire 5 lb bag of sugar -- it yielded a HUGE base that was about 1/3" thick. Too big! I definitely think you could cut it down by a half and still make enough (especially if you're using a smaller base pan than I was). Anyway, here is what I did:
Sugar -- 2 x H2O
Glucose (OR Light Corn Syrup... which is what I used because I couldn't find Glucose) -- 1/2 x H2O or a little less
A small amount of Cream of Tartar (though this isn't, strictly, necessary as I COMPLETELY forgot it and the sugar turned out awesome)
Anyway, it's a pretty easy process... If you use 8 oz of Water, use 16 oz Sugar and 4 oz Glucose.
1. Combine Water and sugar in a medium/large pot depending on how large your recipe is
2. Heat over LOW, stirring often, until sugar is completely dissolved
3. Wash down the sides with a pastry brush dipped in water, several times now and often during the cooking process
4. As the syrup comes to a simmer, skim off any top scum that you see. Do not rush this process. It could take an hour or even more to reach a simmer stage. Be patient.
5. Put in a good candy thermometer (make sure it has a "HARD CRACK" indicator)
6. Increase heat to HIGH and add glucose/corn syrup and tartar (ha!)... skim again and wash down sides
7. Cook until the thermometer reaches 280 degrees, then add your coloring
8. Cook until you reach the hard crack stage (around 310 degrees F), lowering the heat as you get close
While the cakes are still resting, make the royal icing!
Royal icing is baker's edible glue. Note: This recipes includes UNCOOKED, RAW egg whites!!! If you are UNCOMFORTABLE with using raw egg whites, buy pre-pasteurized eggs or heat them gently yourself.... or, just don't let anyone eat the royal icing.
3 egg whites (separate them from the yolks using your hands or the two egg shell halves as strainers... save the yolks for another purpose!)
1 t vanilla
4 c sifted powdered sugar (confectioners)
1 t lemon extract (you can OMIT this if you'd like... I like the vanilla/lemon combination... you can also OMIT the vanilla if you'd like a stronger lemon flavor)
1. Mix the egg whites and vanilla in a large mixing bowl. Beat the egg whites in an electric mixer (stand mixers are your saving grace) on HIGH until they are frothy.
2. Add the 4 c sugar and 1 t lemon extract slowly, mixing together on low/medium low
3. Beat on HIGH until stiff peaks form (around 5-ish minutes? I never pay attention)
4. Separate the royal icing depending on the number of colors you're using (I had three -- brown, green and white) and blend in the food coloring either by hand or in the mixer.
REMEMBER!! Royal icing *is* like glue and it will dry like a ROCK quickly. If you are not going to use it right away, stash it in sealed plastic bags until ready to use.
What to do with your royal icing? Make stuff!!!
Get wax paper and lay it out in a sheet. Take decorator's bags fitted with a round tip and make various shapes -- the anchor, wheel, webbing, posts for the railing, white rope that goes around the posts (make little, wide u shapes). Making an island? Don't forget little stalks of green that you can sink into the island for grass. ALSO, make extras! If you're like me, you WILL break some of the pieces as they can be quite fragile consider they are fairly thin. I broke three anchors! Hint! Save some white royal icing for attaching the ropes to the rail posts after you sink the rail posts into the cake.
Set the icing pieces aside on a safe table while you work on the rest of the cake.
ALSO NOTE: This can be accomplished a few days before it's needed, so don't feel compelled to make it the day before (when you're also making the sugar base and the cake!)
Make the Buttercream Frosing!!
My son is a PEANUT BUTTER FANATIC, so we knew what we'd be making for the frosting... a Peanut Butter Buttercream! I followed this recipe on RecipeZaar and I could hardly stop eating it. It was heavenly! Remember to color it with food coloring! I needed brown, black and yellow!
Do you want filling? Make it!
Remember what I said about elaborate? Yeah, my cake was filled with a rich chocolate ganache. I used this recipe from AllRecipes and it came out flawless.
Carve it and Decorate!!!
Here are some suggestions for the carving and decorating...
**Use a pirate ship toy as a guide for your carving. You don't need any specialty tools, just a few serrated knives in varying sizes (from large to small). I used the Imaginext Pirate Ship toy and a Pirates of the Caribbean toy as my carving/decorating guides. Here's what I did:
**Refrigerate your cake a little bit to let the buttercream harden up.... while you're doing that, make an island out of some of the leftover carving scraps on the cooled sugar base. Frost it with buttercream and cover it with crushed graham crackers (to simulate sand). Vacuum up the random crumbs before they can stick to the sugar! Top with the chocolate treasure chest and a variety of the colored chocolate 'gems' and the green royal icing grass.
**After your cake has refrigerated for a while, bust out your flat piping tip and pipe "wooden planks" all over your ship with the brown buttercream. Decorate it some more by adding windows along the back (outlined in black, filled in with yellow), black portholes for the cannons, or other decorations along the ship.
**Take the tootsie rolls and mold them into a cannon shape, stick three in along each side... use the black frosting to accentuate the cannon's center.
**Let the cake's frosting harden overnight in the fridge.
**In the morning, move the cake to its base .... should be easy with the cardboard (I didn't use cardboard and it definitely made my life harder)... and finish decorating it. Add the rails and rope (piping little dots of white to attach the ropes to the rails).. use pretzels as both the prow and the masts. Set whoppers on the deck as cannonballs... adhere the anchor and the wheel into their places with royal icing. Set the sails on the masts (I just found some free pirate pictures and fonts and made the sails out of paper) and add the webbing, pirates, etc.
**Fix any issues you had with moving it (notice I used some really quickly whipped up whipped cream icing to fix the cracks in the base!).... and move the cake to its final location!!
It's a *lot* of work (I'm not going to lie), but it yields some pretty cool results... not the least of which is the ego-boo you receive when people realize that yes, Virginia, you really did make this all by yourself!
So, what do you guys think?