At my daughter’s school, I’ve got a bit of a reputation for making cakes – quell surprise!
So when there was a school picnic coming up, and I was told my one of the teachers that “you can bring something for the picnic from home if you want to… maybe something that matches the ‘mini beast’ theme…”, I had little doubt what was being suggested.
Not that I mind, of course. I love making cakes, and God knows I don’t have the waistline to make them just for myself…
So after a quick crumb coat of my 4 layer cake, I loaded the top with some extra buttercream and used an icing comb to create the ringed wood effect. This is easily done with a turntable, and you can go over and over until you get it just right. I did wonder about the possibility of adding a little colour to the surface to make the rings stand out even more, but decided against it as time was a factor. I would probably give that a go another time, and you can easily scrape some buttercream off and try again!
My original plan was just to add some brown food colouring to the buttercream I was already using, and create the bark using that. However, I was running very low on buttercream at this point, and thought that if I needed to make another batch anyway, I could always use a different buttercream completely – perhaps one that was flavoured with chocolate to match the cake underneath.
I decided to make my favourite chocolate buttercream, and keep it as dry as possible, to help create the splintered look of the bark on the side of the cake. I found the recipe originally on the ‘My Cupcake Addiction’ youtube channel, and adapted it slightly, as I felt some of the steps were unnecessary.
650g icing sugar
30g cocoa powder
225g butter, softened
1 tsp Vanilla essence
100g milk chocolate, melted
a little whole milk
Beat the butter in a stand mixer for about 5 minutes until very pale.
Add the vanilla extract and beat to incorporate.
Sift the icing sugar and cocoa powder into a large bowl.
Begin adding the icing sugar mixture a little at a time.
Once you have incorporated about half the icing sugar, add the melted chocolate, and quickly mix again to prevent lumps.
Continue adding the rest of the icing sugar, adding milk as necessary, if the buttercream gets too firm
Keeping this buttercream really dry, I was able to pipe some pretty realistic bark up the sides of the cake. I nearly gave myself a hand injury squeezing so hard, so I would definitely consider filling the bag only a little at a time to make maintaining pressure slightly easier!
I coloured the leftover original buttercream a pale green colour and piped some grass around the outside with a Wilton 233 tip. So that’s the easy stuff done!
I love the taste of buttercream, and I love to create buttercream decorations for my cakes whenever possible, but I was really drawing a blank as to how to create my mini beasts to adorn the tree stump. Ultimately, I had to concede defeat and decided to use some fondant. It doesn’t taste anywhere near as good as buttercream, but it’s certainly a lot easier to work with!
I bought a good amount amount of white fondant, and a small amount of black fondant too. Trying to colour fondant black is a messy and difficult task, so it’s 100 times easier to buy it ready made. The other colours were easily achieved by adding some colouring paste (and the grey by mixing the white and black). I would always use a paste or gel colour – the liquid colours are going to ruin the texture of your fondant.
Before I even bought my fondant, I had a good long think about what mini beasts I could realistically make. Segmented animals like worms and caterpillars are pretty easy to make, just by rolling a sausage and scoring them with a knife at regular intervals. I made the antennae by snipping the fondant with a small, sharp pair of scissors. To add a little extra dimension, you can use some lustre dust or other edible coloured powder to create a more realistic finish. I attempted the caterpillar first, and was really pleased with how it turned out – it gave me faith for the rest of the cake!
The ladybirds were achieved by rolling sausages of black and red fondant, and then chopping into small sections, then shaping them and sticking together with edible glue. I incorporated some red glitter into my red fondant to give it a little shine. It took several failed attempts and referencing real pictures of ladybirds before I got the shape and proportions reasonably accurate. It would be a lot easier to make the mini beasts ‘cartoony’, but I have a penchant for realism whenever possible! I then left them to dry for a while before snipping the antennae, and then overnight before drawing on the dots with an edible marker.
My biggest challenge, that I was desperate to include, was a bee. It did end up looking a lot more like wasp though, so I changed direction halfway through the process 😉
I knew that I wanted to include some legs, and racked my brains to figure something out. I considered piping the legs onto the cake in buttercream, but I really wanted it to look three dimensional; then I had a brainwave! I cut some elongated diamonds, and squared off the ends, cutting 2 lines on each side to form the 6 legs. I carefully splayed these out sideways, and then draped them over small cylinders (the lustre dust containers) overnight, so that they set up firm. That way, I had a flat surface to attach the body to, and as long as the legs remained intact, I knew it could work!
The bodies of the wasps were made using the same techniques from the caterpillar and the lady bird. I shaped the two pieces first, and then stuck them together with edible glue. A little manipulation with the hands helped create a pretty realistic look, and again I let these until overnight before gluing together. Unfortunately, I completely forgot to take any pictures of this, but it worked perfectly! I also found some rice paper, from some sheets of cupcake toppers, and used some of the negative space pieces to fashion wing. They were attached with edible glue, and the stripes on the wasp’s bottom were drawn on with a black edible marker.
I did feel that my tree stump would look a little sparse with just the mini beasts on it, so I wanted to create some extra detail. I have often meant to make a yule log with meringue mushrooms on it, so this seemed like the perfect time to try out the technique.
Made in exactly the same way as meringue kisses, you need to shape half your batch to look like the mushroom caps and half to look like the mushroom stalks. One baked and cooled, all that’s needed is a skewer, some melted chocolate, and 10 minutes of assembly time to create your surprisingly realistic looking mushrooms! I also like to add a dusting of cocoa powder to make them look a little muddy 🙂
75g egg whites
150g caster sugar
50g milk chocolate, melted
Preheat oven to 100c/80c fan
Whisk the egg whites until foamy.
Add the sugar gradually, and continue whisking until the meringue no longer feels grainy.
Pipe caps and stalks onto a lined baking sheet.
Caps should be piped as a large blob, with any points flattened out with a wet finger.
Stalks should be piped with a generous base, and pulled as tall as possible without becoming floppy.
Bake for 75 minutes.
I like to leave the oven door open for 10 minutes after baking, then close it and leave the meringues to dry out overnight.
To assemble, scratch a hole in the bottom of the caps to accommodate the tips of the stalks.
Using melted chocolate as a glue, assemble the mushrooms, and leave them upside down to set up completely.
Dust with cocoa powder to create a more natural look.
So with all the decoration prepared, the only thing left to do was arrange everything on the cake. I did my best to make it interesting from all angles, and spread my mini beasts out as much as possible. I think that the giant worm crawling across the stump really pulled everything together nicely, and I was rather pleased with myself once it was all complete!
My cake was very gratefully received at the picnic, and I received a cringe-worthy round of applause for my efforts! 🙂