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How to Bake a Cake and Prepare it for Decorating

Henri’s 10th* birthday party was last weekend, and while I’m not a professional by any means, I have made enough cakes by now (not to mention the 40 or so ones I’ve yet to post) that I often get asked for tips or help.  So I decided to put together a step-by-step guide on how I prepare a cake for decorating.** 

I’ll get more into the “how to bake a cake” part in a future post, as there are a lot of little tweaks and tips for the baking part itself…but this post will cover specifically how to prepare a basic cake for decorating.

Note #1- I typically bake my cakes 1-2 days prior to when I plan to decorate, which – depending on the desired outcome – is 1-2 days prior to the cake’s due date. (IE: if the cake is for Sunday, I’ll bake it Thurs or Fri night, then decorate Saturday night. If it’s a very involved, sculptural cake, I might bump those dates back a day each to leave more time for decorating.)

Before you can bake the cake, you need to prepare your pan. This step ensures you’ll be able to remove the cake from the pan once it’s baked. Some people line their pans with parchment, but I use this method:

  • Grease the pan’s bottom and sides with either Pam, margarine, or butter
  • Drop a tablespoon of flour onto the greased pan
  • Over the sink (I learned the hard way) slowly rotate and tilt the pan until the flour fully coats the bottom and sides, tapping if necessary to move things along
  • Make sure it’s fully covered, touching up bare spots if necessary
  • To remove excess flour, hold pan upside-down over the sink and smack the bottom of the pan a few times. The loose flour will fall into the sink.

Note #2- They make a ‘baker’s’ version of Pam that has flour mixed in already.

Note #3- I’ve heard of, but never tried, using Pan Grease in lieu of the above. I’m planning to try it out sometime when I don’t have a deadline looming 🙂

  
Pan Grease

1 cup shortening
1 cup flour
3/4 cup vegetable oil

Mix well with electric mixer and store in airtight container. Does
not need refrigeration.

Note #4- It doesn’t matter what kind of flour you use. One time I’d bought the wrong kind of flour for a recipe and had no use for it, so I used that one for preparing pans until it had been all used up. Ever since I use all-purpose, but you can use whatever you’d like, including nut-based and gluten-free flours. I’ve also seen people use cocoa powder when preparing pans for chocolate-based recipes.

Note #5- Don’t try to tap out the excess flour over a garbage can unless your pan is small enough to hold lower than the rim of the can. I learned this the hard way…

Once the pan is ready, you can prepare your batter, then pour it in. Some cakes need to be left alone, but for my regular birthday-type cakes, I drop the pan on the counter a few times so the air bubbles in the batter can raise to the surface and pop.

Once the cake is ready to come out of the oven, a very important step is to let the cake set in the pan for about 10 minutes. Try to remove it too soon and it will fall apart, but wait too long and it will get very difficult to remove. My standard is to set my oven timer for 10 minutes and use that time to get out the items I’ll need for the wrapping step coming up.

Once 10 minutes are up, your cake is ready to remove from the pan. Loosen around the edges with a knife. I also like to sort of “tuck” the knife under the cake and give it little test lifts to help ease it from the bottom of the pan.

The photos above show how I used to remove the cakes from the pan- I’d flip the pan over onto a flexible cutting board, then use a 2nd board to flip it back to right-side up, before sliding it onto a tray to allow it to cool overnight.

However- I don’t do this method any more. Instead I remove the cake from the pan and place it immediately onto a long length of Saran Wrap, which I then fold over to seal. Then I turn the cake 90 degrees, place it onto a 2nd long length of Saran, and wrap it again, so the 2nd layer covers any gaps in the 1st. I do this immediately after the 10 min rest in the pan.

Once the cakes are wrapped in Saran, you can leave them to cool. I’ve done this up to 5 days in advance of serving, and the cakes still came out perfect. In fact, I’d recommend this even more for cakes made in advance- unlike my previous method of leaving them uncovered, the Saran traps the heat and steam into the cake, leaving them dense and moist and delicious instead of dry and crumbly.

Leave the Saran-covered cakes somewhere dry and cool where they won’t be disturbed. (Don’t leave them stacked as the top one might sag, I only did this when I took the photo as I was trying to estimate how tall the finished cake would be).

Allow the cakes to cool at minimum overnight. A cake might feel cool on the outside but still have residual heat trapped inside, and icing and decorations will slide right off.

Once cooled, you’re ready to level and tort. (Tort is just a fancy word for “cut the cake in half, horizontally). For best results, use a knife long enough to fit across the narrowest edge of the cake.

Slowly and evenly cut off the rounded cake dome, starting at one corner then easing your way across until you can go straight down along the cake. Keep your hand steady and try to hold the knife as flat and parallel to the table as you can. Once you’ve cut all the way across you can remove the scraps for eating or other uses. I always like to have a storage container handy as well to hold the cake scraps which I use later with any leftover icing to make cake pops for my kids.

In the demo cake shown here, I didn’t tort, but if I would have it would have been at this step. Using the same knife as above, cut the cake horizontally into two layers.

Note #6- I recently picked up these cake level guides and OMG they’re perfect! I clipped one to my knife and held it flush against the table as I cut and I’ve never had a cake turn out as perfectly level before. I <3.

Before you can begin decorating, you must consider your base. Is the cake to be moved? Is it going to be heavy, and need a cake board? For the cake shown, I iced, decorated and transported it on the white tray, and I would use the same method with any other tray or cake stand. If this was a tier in a larger cake, however, I’d be using a cake board.

Put a dollop of icing into the center of where your cake will go. This will “glue” your cake to the tray/board and keep it from sliding around. Center the cake into place and give it a little push down to adhere.

Fill your cake. Do a border of icing around the edges of the cake and then fill it with more icing, jam, whatever you’d like. Then place your other layer on top and press down lightly. I often flip it so the flatter bottom of the cake layer becomes the top of the cake, but this 9×11 was a bit too large and thin for me to feel comfortable flipping without risking breaking. I’m a klutz after all…

Before I begin to ice the outside of the cake, I protect the tray/stand/surface with parchment paper or wax paper. Cut off a narrow piece and then cut that into pieces to fit around the edges of the cake. For a rectangle or square cake I’d cut 4 narrow strips, if it was a round cake I’d cut the full-size strips into thirds and slightly overlap them to surround the cake with a hexagon of paper.

See the crumbs on the parchment? That’s why it’s there- to protect the base from crumbs and icing. The crumb coat (shown) isn’t part of the decorative exterior, it’s used (and named) to capture any loose crumbs that would otherwise fall off as you work. Ice the cake on the top and all sides, but don’t worry about covering every inch of the cake. The main thing is to trap the crumbs and fill in any gaps in between the layers of the cake.

Note #7- Mine is sloppy. Both the crumb coat and the upcoming icing. This cake was for fun. If you are planning to cover the cake in fondant later OR planning to have smooth or knife-edge sides, then you should make sure your crumb coat is smooth as well, or it will be more difficult later.

After the crumb coat I like to put the cake in the fridge to set the icing. This isn’t completely mandatory, so don’t stress if you don’t have room in your fridge. Place the cake somewhere cool and undisturbed for about 30 minutes, or until the icing crusts over.

Once the crumb coat is done you’re almost ready to decorate. The cake just needs one more layer of icing. If I’ll be covering with fondant, I put a thinner layer. It’s more to smooth the top/sides and give the fondant something to ‘stick’ to vs a layer of icing to eat. If I’ll only be using icing, then I put a thicker layer, making sure to cover the cake completely.

For the cake in these examples, it was just for fun and I wasn’t going to be adding decorations, so I gave it a quick layer of thicker icing. I made it even but didn’t spend any time trying to make it smooth.

Whether or not I’ll be adding fondant, or additional decorations, this is the point at which I’ll remove the parchment/wax paper strips. Gently lift them away, making sure not to drop any icing blobs onto the cake or tray. If necessary, use a sharp knife to break the seal of any hardened icing that is connecting the papers to the cakes.

Note #8- Even if the icing on the strips looks clean, I don’t add it back in with any remaining icing to re-use. It’s more likely than not that there are cake crumbs within.

And here’s the baked, iced cake, ready for topping with fondant decorations, candies, candles, or anything else you have in mind.

Hopefully this basic instructional was helpful! If you have any questions that weren’t answered, leave them in the comments and I’ll update it with my answers.

*I know, Henri is 10 already!  Can you believe it? 

**This is only how I do things, after the last 10 years of trial and error.  I’m not saying it’s the only way, nor even that it’s necessarily the right way.  It’s just my way, and if it helps you, it can be your way too 🙂


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Halloween help

My phone has been pinging quite a bit lately, notifying me that people have been saving my pins.  While I think that’s awesome, and am flattered, I was also confused because I couldn’t think of what I’d posted that would be so popular at the moment.  And then I remembered – it’s almost Halloween!  Sure enough, it was my Minecraft-related pins getting all the love, the Creeper/Steve head tutorial especially.

So for anyone who found my blog via those pins, or anyone else who’s interested, here are some quick links to my (few) Halloween/costume-related tutorials.  I do have more coming up this month, so be sure to come back and see.

For those with some boxes and paint lying around: here’s how to make Minecraft Steve & Creeper heads.

For those who need an easy addition to their Gryffindor robes, here’s a quick free scarf pattern.

For those with a young’un eager to train a dragon, here’s how to make a viking vest.

And finally, for those with a lot of knitting time on their hands, here’s how to make a child’s first superhero costume, as well as a look at how I used that same pattern to turn Jakob into Superman for his first Halloween.

I hope you enjoy the links!  For my fellow Minecraft-loving folks, I’ve got a matching Enderman tutorial coming up, complete with his very own diamond block.  Stay tuned!

 


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Making a Pitfall: The Lost Expedition cake, day 03 part 2- assembly

For those following along, at this point in the Pitfall: The Lost Expedition cake process, I had fondant pieces, I had rectangular baked cakes, and I had some cardboard and a brick-wall-looking stand.  Now, on the night before the party, was the time to start putting it all together.pitfall the lost expedition cake day 03 part 02 assembly 01

Step 1 – cover the cardboard cutouts with tinfoil to use as makeshift cake boards.

pitfall the lost expedition cake day 03 part 02 assembly 06

Step 2 – Confirm plan.  At this point I got a piece of paper and made a note of the order in which I had to do each step, because if I’d gone out of order (like sticking the waterfall down on the top tier before icing the bottom, for example) I’d make things harder on myself than they’d need to be.pitfall the lost expedition cake day 03 part 02 assembly 02

Step 3 – carve the cakes.  I always use my largest unserrated knife for this, and have a large tupperware or two nearby for collecting the leftover cake (after being leveled or sculpted).

pitfall the lost expedition cake day 03 part 02 assembly 03

For the top cake, which would become the top of the waterfall, I didn’t level it.  My cake had baked up much thicker in the center, but in a large enough area that I could cut a thicker cake in the shape I needed.  If I’d leveled it first to the height of the outer edges I’d have had a much shorter cake for no reason.  If the cake had been wide enough to cut my oval twice and stack them, I’d have done it, but it wasn’t big enough.  I cut the cake from the thickest part and used some icing to ‘glue’ it down to the cake board, then set it aside.

For the lower cake I used the cardboard to carve out the right shape so I could butt the cake right up against the stand.  After making sure it fit, I set that one aside as well.

pitfall the lost expedition cake day 03 part 02 assembly 04

Step 4 – Solidify base.  I had my cake boards, 2 of them ‘glued’ together with icing.  I needed to attach my base somehow because otherwise the moment I’d try to transport the thing it would tip backwards, being so heavy, and separate from the cake which would be stuck to the board.  I stared at it a little while, wishing I had thought to Dremel 2 holes in the base BEFORE decorating, so I could quickly zip-tie it together, when I got an idea.  The base sat a few mm above my cake boards (less than 1/4″).  I couldn’t use glue or tape because I didn’t have any thick enough, but I did have fondant, and I knew that could dry pretty hard.  First I traced the shape of the stand onto the silvered board.  I took a few gobs (technical term) of white fondant and moistened them slightly so they’d be sticky all around, and pressed them down around inside the base’s outline.  I quickly put the base in position and pressed down on the lowest tier, using a knife handle to get into the back, and really squish the fondant and board and base together.  I waited a minute or two then tried to lift the base by the top tier… and the entire board lifted.  Success!

(Around this time I’d also cut open and re-taped a cardboard box, as seen above, for transport.  It was open at the front but had a closed back so I could carry the cake by supporting the back of the box instead of touching the stand itself when I moved it.pitfall the lost expedition cake day 03 part 02 assembly 05

Step 5 – After making sure the base was well-stuck to the cake boards I cut a strip of plastic from my baggie the width of the waterfall I wanted, and used packing tape to tape it down to the bottom of the lower tier.  I used a few smears of vanilla icing to glue my cake board down over it, sticking it well to the stand.  I didn’t want it able to move at all.pitfall the lost expedition cake day 03 part 02 assembly 07

Step 6 – I crumbled some of the leftover cake and mixed it into store-bought chocolate icing to make a rough, earthy-texture, and used that to coat the cake board for the cave floor.pitfall the lost expedition cake day 03 part 02 assembly 08

Then I set the healing spring into place.  I didn’t bother using anything to stick it down, the icing floor was still wet and the spring was heavy enough that I knew it wasn’t going to move.

pitfall the lost expedition cake day 03 part 02 assembly 09

Step 7 – Then I taped the waterfall up and into place with more packing tape, making sure it was secure.  I knew there’d be a cake sitting on top of it, but still…pitfall the lost expedition cake day 03 part 02 assembly 10

Step 8 – At this point I set the cakes into place.  I put the lower cake down first, using icing to glue it in place.  I protected the cake board with strips of parchment paper, then set the top cake down with some icing too.  Putting the parchment around the back and under the front (on either side of the waterfall) was a bit trickier, but I used the tip of a knife to ease the cake forward or up and wiggled the parchment strips into place.  Then I gave everything a dirty ice (crumb coat) with vanilla storebought icing.

pitfall the lost expedition cake day 03 part 02 assembly 11

I just realized the pics are out of order, and that I’d crumb coated the base before adding the top.  Ah well.

Oh- I included the waterfall in the crumb coat on purpose.  I knew it would later be mostly covered with blue icing, but I wanted there to be some depth to the water so it would look like it was moving.  I also gave it a deliberate thick, choppy layer at the base where it reached the cake (as seen in the last pic).  Waterfalls often have a churning, frothy spray at the base and this would help imply that.

Up next – the fun/scary part… decorating!


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Making a Pitfall: The Lost Expedition cake, day 03 part 1- Pitfall Harry, crocodiles and a healing spring

Saturday morning I woke up bright and early to- *coughs* actually no.  Saturdays I sleep in.  But I did wake up somewhere around the crack of 10 or so and debated how to plan my day for the cake.  I had 2 hours until I had to leave to take Henri to a birthday party, then had some shopping to do with Jakob, and then would have to go back out to pick Henri up, so didn’t think I’d get any more progress done until once I’d returned at the end of the day with both kids.  But that was getting close to supper time, which would require clearing the table, so I wouldn’t want anything in progress that would dry up or break if I tried to move it or put it away for a few hours.

Hmmm.

The first thing I did was run downstairs and take a peek at the brick wall/cake stand to make sure nothing crazy happened over night, like the entire back sagging off or something.  Luckily, it was fine.  I did realize the colors were much more desaturated and ‘natural’-looking, vs the bright greens of the sprinkles I’d bought to use for grass, and the fondant leaves I’d made.  Hmmm.  They wouldn’t quite go together.  So the next thing I did was to thin some of the leftover dark green from the moss (this is why you save your palettes) and brush it over all the leaves that had stems.  I later wished I’d done them all, but at the time I figured I’d do the ones I knew I’d use, and come up with some way to salvage the smaller ones later on if necessary.  I ignored the long grass strands, having already decided I wasn’t going to use them.

leaves wip

I calculated that I’d have enough time to paint a first coat on the fondant pieces before leaving for the party.  Mostly to just block in the colors and give it a chance to dry while I was out.

fondant figures wip 01

The healing spring got a base coat of gray made by mixing Wilton White-White with Americolor black gel, first a quick base and then lightly tapping on some darker areas.  For the center of the spring I used White-White with a bit of Americolor teal.  The crocs got brownish green base coats made mostly by mixing up some of the previous day’s colors together.  It’s hard to see from this pic, but before painting the full croc I used a scribing tool to mark a scale pattern into the hardening fondant.  For the open-mouth one I blocked in some areas of white and red for the inside of his mouth.  I didn’t touch the struggling Pitfall Harry in between his jaws, not thinking I had enough time to pay attention to it before having to stop, get dressed, wrap the gift and shuttle Henri out.

palette

This was the state of my palettes when I left.  The artist’s-style one has pure gel colors that I could dab from as needed.  (The smear at the top was to help me identify which color was which… the darker ones are difficult to tell apart when in one small glob).  The styrofoam piece is what I was really working from, and the plastic hors d’oeuvres palette was there mostly because it still had quite a bit of white left over from the prior day, and a decent amount of brown that was still usable.

Had a minor change in plans – the birthday boy invited Jakob to stay as well, which gave me a few hours of time in the afternoon that I hadn’t expected.  I took full advantage, slapping some more paint down so it could dry.  The main hazard of painting fondant pieces with this White-White/gel colors mixture is that if you apply it too thickly, the White-White forms a latex paint-like ‘skin’ on the work.  If you touch it while it’s tacky (which can last a few days) not only can you leave fingerprints in the work, but I’ve had entire sections of color lift off completely.  Not fun.fondant figures wip 02

Here you can see more of the texture in the croc’s back.  You can also see the other colors added to make it look more natural and create the illusion of shadowy, raised eyes.  I deepened the detail inside the open croc mouth and blocked in Harry’s colors, getting a base coat down so I could finish it with details later.pitfall lost expedition fountain

These are the healing springs from the game.  Of course it was only on day 3 that I realized I’d forgotten to make the little side braces that decorate/support the top and bottom.  Ahh well.  Creative license.  healing spring wip 02

Using the game stills as a guide I darkened the gray with more black and roughed in the decorative areas.  The base had its 4 quadrants, the middle bit got some stripes, and I copied the box pattern around the top slab.  I did my best to copy the dark areas on the face too, as well as I could with my fondant carving.  I left any smudges/smears and added some around the top to make it look aged, like it had been sitting in a jungle for years.healing spring flash

Once the pieces were dry enough to handle I added teal eyes and jammed the head toothpick down through the other pieces.  A tiny dab of water was enough to stick them together.  Looks horrible with flash but it was the only pic that showed the eyes.healing spring no flash

Here’s a shadowy shot that looks most like the game’s version, I think.healing spring fo collage

And some final beauty shots, because once it goes in the cake it won’t really be seen.  For the ‘water’ I mixed together a few large dollops of Wilton clear glitter gel icing, a drop or so of White-White, and a touch of teal.  Unfortunately the White-White hid most of the glitter, but there’s just enough of the teal to provide the glow.  I really wanted to make the water pour from the head’s mouth but chickened out on actually brushing it down the face.  Ah well.

Now on to Pitfall Harry and his perilous predicament.

pitfall lost expedition croc

These stills show both the moment I was recreating (Harry in the croc’s mouth) as well as a clear view of his outfit.fondant figures wip 03

And here’s the final Harry piece.  Henri had complained that I’d given him black hair, and ‘everybody knows Harry has brown hair, Mommy’… so I softened it up a bit.  I also broke a tiny bit of fondant off the front of his chest, because Yannick asked me why Harry’s curves were so… Madonna-esque.  I tried to justify that he was straining, back arched… showed the pic… bent over backwards to show him… but other than laughing at me he wasn’t convinced 😛  I touched up Harry’s details and gave the croc an eye and more depth in his mouth.  The very last thing I did was to add a few more coats of white for the teeth, because White-White has a habit of absorbing base colors.  To make it opaque I actually used a small dab of thinned Betty Crocker icing mixed with the White-White, and that seemed to do the trick.

Now I had my fondant toppers, two cakes, and an ornate stand.  All I had to do was figure out how to put it all together.


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Making a Pitfall: The Lost Expedition cake, day 02

Most of the cakes I make are a 2-4 day process.  The final 2 days are always baking 2 nights before the party (so Friday for a Sunday cake) and then decorating on the day before the party (Saturday for a Sunday cake).  I add a few more days prior if I need to make fondant decorations or anything that requires drying time.  This Pitfall cake, for as detailed as it looks, took 3 days.

Day 1: Thursday

When I got home from work I prepared the base stand to get it to look like a brick wall with a cave by covering it with fondant and scribing a brick pattern to match one from the game.

Day 2: Friday

In the morning before leaving for work I gave the stand a quick wash of color.  I needed to fill in the grout lines and give it time to dry before I got home.  In a small cup I mixed together 1 drop of black Americolor food gel, 1 drop of brown gel, and 6 ml of water.  I used a food-only paintbrush to apply the wash to the fondant, not aiming for any sort of pattern, and allowing the color to drip and run a bit before smoothing it around.  I let it set for a minute or two then dabbed at it with a paper towel to remove areas of excess, and then used the same brush with only water to remove even more color.  The goal was not to paint or finish the brickwork but to allow the dark color to seep into the etched lines and provide some aging.  pitfall lost expedition night 1 07

At this point it looks like a dark, muddy mess.

When I got home from work I rushed to bake the 2 cakes I’d need.  I knew I’d have plenty of time for them to cool before I planned to ice and decorate on Saturday, but I often use the oven for storing fondant bits overnight and didn’t want there to be any residual heat left inside it.

pitfall the lost expedition cake day02 01

When the cakes were cooled some I wrapped them in saran wrap to set aside for the night.pitfall the lost expedition cake day02 02

Then I prepared the table for getting down to some fondant painting.  These are the supplies I prepared: in the lid of my color box are a smaller box of Americolor icing colors and a bottle of Wilton White-White, then the contents of the case itself is my collection of Wilton icing gels and some regular, grocery-store-type food coloring.  I brought down some cotton balls thinking I might use them for blotting, but testing on a scrap of fondant revealed it stuck terribly to the wet sweet, and I quickly got rid of them.  I’ve got a measuring cup of water for rinsing my brushes, a small cup of water and syringe for adding clean water to my colors if I need to thin them any (the syringe gives you way more precision when working with tiny amounts of color than dropping by spoonful or pouring), and a small cup of the leftover dark wash from the morning that I’d kept moist in a tupperware for the day.  I’ve got a few sizes of food-safe paintbrushes and some paper towels for blotting, and finally at the bottom is my standard palette, left over from an old pack of hors d’oeuvres.

That’s the palette I use most often, and it works great with larger quantities of color, like when tinting icing sugar/water for the fondant toppers I make.  However when using tiny bits and blending a lot of shades I find it’s not as practical, and I eventually switched over to an artist’s style palette with small dabs of the gel colors on it, and a small styrofoam tray for blending.  The colors bead up on the tray so I don’t lose any to absorption.pitfall the lost expedition cake day02 03

I prepared the stand by putting it on my lazy susan, a wooden one from Ikea.  I’ve also got a glass one and a plastic Betty Crocker one, both from the dollar store, but this one is the one I always reach for.  I stuck a tub of icing in there to help weigh it down.  The stand is pretty heavy, especially with the fondant, but that was a precaution.pitfall the lost expedition cake day02 04

The first thing I did was to mix up a color that approximated the bricks I was trying to copy.  In the game they look like this:

pitfall lost expedition bricks

Now that I had the general shape scribed in and the darker grout lines, I needed to lighten the bricks to a faded, creamy, beige-ish color.  I began to mix up a color, testing on the paper towel until I had something that looked right.  You can see at the bottom of this next pic where I’d tried out a color that was too pale, and I had to darken it up a bit.  In the end I used some Wilton White-White as a base, then some brown and black Wilton gel colors, a touch of Wilton lemon yellow, and some of the morning’s dark wash water to thin it out.

pitfall the lost expedition cake day02 05

I painted small dabs of the resulting mix onto each brick individually, blending and smoothing until I got rid of the brush strokes and had something that looked like an old brick wall.

For the first time ever I took a short video of my process.  If you find it helpful and want more video tutorials, please let me know in the comments.  🙂

pitfall the lost expedition cake day02 07

After the back was done I moved on to the front.  The small amount of mixed color that you saw in the video was enough to paint the entire back and front.

pitfall the lost expedition cake day02 06

The next step was to add some greenery.  I knew I’d have a lot of grass and vines and leaves in the cake, but wanted to add more depth to the bricks so I used more of the dark wash and deepened it up with Wilton gels (leaf green I think).

pitfall the lost expedition cake day02 08

I used a messy brush to pounce the color in areas where moss would grow, mostly around the bottom of the back piece and around the top and sides of the front.  This is a great reason to keep those brushes that get all messed up, so you don’t ruin good ones!pitfall the lost expedition cake day02 09

As I added the moss I made sure to keep the brush from being too wet – the effect was supposed to be subtle – and I also periodically touched my brush in different areas of the mix where I hadn’t fully blended, sometimes picking up straight gel from the edge of the palette.  This gave me varying shades of green and a more natural look.pitfall the lost expedition cake day02 10

Finally I used some White-White and Americolor black and a touch of brown to get a nice varying gray shade for the rock cave.  Again I resisted the urge to overmix the color, so I could get depth to the wall.  Sometimes I touched in a bit more white, which lightened the grays, and then I’d go back in with a more liquid black, getting into the cracks.pitfall the lost expedition cake day02 11

Here’s the finished support, set aside for the night.  The front (above) and the back (below).pitfall the lost expedition cake day02 12

 

 


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Making a Pitfall: The Lost Expedition cake, day 01

For Henri’s 7th birthday party he wants a Pitfall cake.  As in Pitfall: The Lost Expedition.  As in the old PS2 game all 4 of us at home play, and love.

This gave me a bit of a challenge.  The most iconic visuals from Pitfall are, well, the pits.  And Pitfall Harry swinging on vines.  Pits would be easy enough to make, but vine-swinging?  Hmm.  This required a think.

My first thought was to make a framework that would go over the cake with vines and a little fondant Harry hanging down, but while I poked around at work, looking at unused frame displays, a new idea struck.

I found a 2-level display that got my creative juices flowing.  In order to plan properly (and avoid scale mishaps like in the Diego & Dora cake) I took iPhone pics from a few angles and then printed them out really pale, so I could sketch over them and have a rough idea of what I wanted to do.

It’s difficult to photograph something clear but you can get a rough idea of my process here:

pitfall lost expedition paper demo collageFirst I sketched my plan onto paper.  You can sort of see in the first image that I have a brick wall with a balcony-like upper tier.  The blue overhang is supposed to be a waterfall that flows down onto the cake below, and it’s not easy to see unless you click, but there’s a healing spring/fountain hidden behind the waterfall.  Once happy with the sketch I needed to see if it would work, conceivably, and so I used some scrap paper and made a quick mock-up of where the actual cakes would go.  There’s one layer of cake on the top tier, the ‘waterfall’ hanging down, and then a layer of cake the same height as the bottom tier, butted right up against it.

Okay… maybe there’s something here.

This was Thursday, and his party would be on the upcoming Sunday afternoon, so I knew I had to get started right away.  After work I stopped at a bulk candy store for supplies like green sprinkles and extra fondant.  I also picked up 2 cake boards.  I usually use trays for my cakes but I didn’t know how well the stand would fit and I didn’t want to be limited by side edges.  I bought 2 so I could ‘glue’ them together with icing, as I didn’t think 1 board would be strong enough to support the heavy cake.

pitfall lost expedition home paper demo collage

Here’s the same paper mock-up at home, on the actual cake boards so I could test for fit.  What I was hoping for, and am happy about, is that the board is long enough for me to extend the lower cake section beyond the paper template.  I plan to have crocodiles in the water but hope for room to put a pit as well, and I think this will give me enough.pitfall lost expedition night 1 01

Next I cleaned the display stand and wrapped it in saran wrap, and used duct tape to block off the two open edges.  I also cut 2 cardboard ovals to fit over the tiers, as they have large cut outs where the products are meant to sit.  The top one will be used as a cake board, and the lower one will merely be covered in icing.

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Next I tinted some white fondant to a beige-ish shade and rolled out enough to cover the back of the display…

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…and then trimmed it to size.  At this point I realized that even dampened, the fondant did not want to stick to the saran, and I removed all the coverings.  D’oh.  I make the mistakes, so you don’t have to.

Water-dampened fondant DID want to stick to the clean plastic stand just fine, luckily, and I covered the back with the large sheet, smoothing it down well against the back and around the edges, blending it out with my fingers.  I did the same for the larger areas of the front as well, and then carefully wrapped one thick-ish piece around the open edge of the upper tier, smoothing it into place above and below while being VERY careful to not tear through the open front.pitfall lost expedition night 1 04

Once the fondant was secure I used a scoring tool to scribe a brick pattern into the fondant.  I had to be careful to not pierce the open-fronted balcony edge, but for the rest it was all flush against the thick plastic, and I could press pretty hard if I needed.

For the back and the upper tier I did a rough approximation of a brick pattern found in the game, as seen in the background here:

pitfall bricks

I did the back first, then copied the dimensions over onto the front.  For the lower tier, I wanted it to look more like a cave than a brick wall, so I wet the fondant and pressed on little pieces with my fingers, smoothing and adding more until I had something that resembled a natural rocky wall.

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I also used the same beige fondant to cut out shapes to let harden.  On the left are a sleeping croc for in the water, round pieces and a tiki head for the healing spring, and a croc’s open mouth with poor Harry struggling to break free.  (Or, what I HOPE will look like that eventually).  I tinted my remaining beige into a few shades of green and used a leaf-press cutter to punch out 2 sizes of leaves, which I set over the edge of a Styrofoam food tray (saved from buying vegetables) to dry.  I also cut a few strands of tall grass but I’m not sure if I’ll end up using them.pitfall lost expedition night 1 06

At this point it was about 1am and I set everything aside to dry by the dehumidifier and went to bed, knowing the next few nights would probably be pretty late ones to get everything done in time.

 


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How to Make Minecraft Steve and Creeper Heads

It’s October!  That means it’s okay to start talking about Halloween, right?

It is according to Henri- when I woke him up for school this morning he gazed up at me sleepily and grinned “It’s October 1st.”  When I asked why that mattered he smiled even more adorably and said “Because now it’s almost Halloween.”

‘Almost’ is relative.  (He clearly gets his awareness of time from his father).  However his mention of it reminded me that I never showed last year’s costume.  So.  Now, with plenty of time to get ready for this year’s holiday… here’s how I made the boys Minecraft Steve and Creeper heads, and how you can too!

how to make minecraft steve and creeper headsThe boys decided for Halloween they wanted to dress up as their favorite Minecraft characters.  They do sell ready-made cardboard heads in stores but they are expensive, and there are a ton of tutorials online.  I looked at a few, then worked things out with what I had on hand, and what I was able to find at the dollar store.

What you’ll need:

minecraft heads wip 011. Yannick came home with 2 small boxes he’d found somewhere.  Grocery stores often have ones you can ask for, or as a last resort you can buy boxes.

2. I used two-sided tape to tape the outer flaps to the inner ones (not shown) so the inner flaps wouldn’t drop down onto the kids’ heads.  Then I used masking tape to fully tape over the top seam, both to securely close one end of the box, and to make the seams less visible once they were painted.

3. I cut the lower flaps off the boxes and then used the same masking tape to cover the exposed edges.  It would gave a cleaner look, vs the rough look of cut corrugated cardboard, plus was less likely to catch and tear, which could potentially pull off the paint.

4. I divided the 4 sides and top into even grids.  I looked at pictures of the characters online and mapped out roughly how many squares per color/face, and then used a ruler to divide the front (face side) into the grid.  Once the face was set, I carried the markings around the sides of the boxes, and finally the top.  Because the boxes are taller than wide, the top has fewer squares than the sides do.

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5. Once the boxes were plotted I used an cutting blade (also from the dollar store) to slice out the eyehole sections.  For Steve, only the dark pupil area was cut out.  For the Creeper it made more sense with where Henri’s face was to cut out the larger nose/mouth section.  After removing those areas I covered the exposed edges with masking tape.minecraft heads wip 03

6. Finally it was time to start painting.  The paints and brushes were from – you guessed it – the dollar store.  The advantage with the Minecraft characters is that if you have to custom mix your paints to get the right colors, it doesn’t matter as much as it would in most projects if you have enough to complete your painting or if you need to mix more and risk not matching quite right.  The goal is to have an assortment of shades, so blending colors works perfectly.minecraft heads wip 04

Here’s the four sides of the painted Creeper head.  I set the boxes to dry on a paper towel roll to hold them off my counter until the lower edge was dry.  (I held them up the same way while painting too).minecraft heads wip 05

Same goes for our buddy Steve here.  I’d only had three shades of brown to work with, so I blended them together with some black for the hair, and then lightened with some white and a touch of red for the face.  (I’d actually done the face/neck/ears first, so then I could re-use the same paints but darken them for the hair.  That avoided any waste and kept the same unifying overall color tone for the head.)minecraft heads wip 06

I had them both on the counter while I cleaned up the dining room table of all my painting gear.  Couldn’t resist this shot.  Look out!  He’s behind you!minecraft heads wip 07

7. The next step was to seal the heads with an aerosol can of clear sealant.  I didn’t know what the weather would be like on Halloween and didn’t relish the idea of my hard work being ruined by a few drops of rain or thick snow settling on the kids’ heads.  I moved the heads into the garage and set them on some newspaper to protect the floor as I sprayed, and did a few coats, allowing each one to dry for about 20 minutes in between.  If you have a dry, open area outside or good, even weather you could do this next step outside, but here there was nowhere I could leave them unattended, so I had my garage door open the entire time I sprayed, and then left it about a foot open during the drying time between coats.  Once they were properly sealed and dry to the touch I brought them inside and allowed them to dry for a full day before the final steps.  minecraft heads wip 08

The last bit in getting the masks ready to wear was to block out the open areas.  I bought a gauzy sheer black scarf (also at the dollar store!) and cut off squares large enough to fully cover the open areas.

8.  Using the same double-sided tape I secured the black fabric down around the cut areas.

9. Finally I covered all the exposed edges of the cloth with masking tape, making it doubly secure and hiding any rough, cut edges so they wouldn’t catch or fray.

With that, the masks were complete!  The black gauzy fabric looks opaque from the outside but from the inside it’s so sheer that it’s quite easy to see through it, making it perfect for this project.

From idea to finished product this project took about 4 days.  Halloween was on a Friday last year and Yannick brought me home the boxes on Monday night.  Tuesday I did everything up to/including painting.  On Wednesday night I sprayed the clear coat, and then on Thursday night I stuck the black fabric in.

They were pretty darn excited!

Halloween night they posed for a quick picture inside…


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…then it was time to go trick-or-treating.

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Can’t you almost hear the tick…tick…tick…BOOM? minecraft heads wip 12The heads held up beautifully and the boys felt like mini celebrities as they walked down the street and people from all over, even in passing cars, yelled out “Steve!” and “Creeper!” and gave them high-fives.  The heads have now become part of our dress-up box and are still in great condition, and they wore them for ‘Halloween Day’ at their camp this summer.

I hope this post shows you how easy and fast it can be to make your own Minecraft Steve and Creeper heads!

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More Minecraft-themed fun:

How to make a Minecraft Enderman head and diamond block trick-or-treat basket

How to make Minecraft Lootbags

How to make Minecraft Mob fondant cake/cupcake toppers

How to make a Minecraft cake

Throwing a Minecraft birthday party