If you’ve been anywhere near Pinterest or Instagram lately, you will have no doubt noticed the trend for unicorn cakes. And whilst I often like to avoid making anything ‘trendy’, because I’m just too cool for school, I knew that my daughter would absolutely love one for her upcoming 5th birthday.
So after a good hour of scouring the internet for inspiration, I decided to do a dry run to test out some ideas.
I might not have bothered making a trial cake, had it not been for the fact that there was a charity bake off at my husband’s office; I love decorating cakes, and the competition was a good way to get it out of the house – we all know what happens when you’re left alone with huge quantities of cake and nobody around to see what happens…
As this cake was going to be pretty much all about the decoration, I decided to use my tried and tested, super moist and super delicious, vanilla cake. Unfortunately, my new oven has decided that it doesn’t want to bake this cake nicely. I don’t know what’s happened, or exactly why, but I can’t seem to get a decent bake on that cake any more. I actually burnt one – like, properly smoking and black, and then had another that had a pool of raw batter inside. So my time saving method of baking deep cakes has proven to be a total false economy.
Luckily, splitting my batter between two 8-inch pans for a slightly shorter time seems to have solved the problem reasonably well. Time to update the recipe:
315g plain flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 ts baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
225g unsalted butter, softened
450g caster sugar
3 large eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup sour cream (235ml)
Preheat oven to 180c
Grease and line two 8-inch cake tins, which are at least 2 inches high.
Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt.
In a mixer cream the butter and sugar until fluffy.
Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.
Stir in the vanilla.
Add half the dry ingredients, and stir until combined. Then add the sour cream and stir until fully incorporated. Lastly, add the remaining dry ingredients, and stop stirring as soon as they are incorporated.
Scrape batter evenly into the prepared cake pans, and level the surface.
Bake until the centre springs back lightly when pressed, about 40 minutes.
Let the cakes cool in the pan, then invert onto a rack.
I trimmed the tops and bottoms off my cakes, and stacked them using some shop bought strawberry jam. Whilst a little piece of me died inside to not use my own strawberry jam, I was saving all of mine for Christmas presents, so I couldn’t afford to ‘waste’ it on a cake – especially one that I wasn’t even going to eat myself!
I like to stick it in the fridge for a good 20 minutes, and then use a bread knife to trim off all the brown edges. This ensures that you’re left with cake that is 100% delicious, and soft and light in texture.
As I was just doing a trial cake, I pulled some leftover buttercream out of the freezer; I’ll make some nice buttercream for the real thing 😉
A quick crumb coat, and then back in the fridge while I work on some of the decoration!
Having prepared my modelling chocolate the previous day, it was time to start experimenting with making the horn and ears.
For the horn, I rolled a piece of modelling chocolate into a long cone shape, using a fondant smoother to keep it free from fingerprints and as smooth as possible. Then I simply coiled it around a wooden skewer that I had propped up in a narrow vase. A bit of spray colouring was all that was needed to turn it into a magical unicorn horn!
The ears were a little trickier to fashion, but after a couple of somewhat failed attempts I discovered that it’s best to start by rolling a ball. If you then start to roll it into a sausage shape, you can start to softly point the ends. Then I simply cut my sausage ball into two pieces, and flattened them carefully to coax out the shape of the long triangular ears.
To create the inner ear area, you could cut out a coloured piece of modelling chocolate, but I thought it would be much quicker, easier, and more effective to simply make some recesses and brush them with a pink lustre dust. And I’m loving how these turned out! The addition of a couple of cocktail sticks is all that’s needed, and then they can be left to harden a little before they are attached to the cake.
So with all the major construction complete, it’s time to start putting everything together!
I simply attached the horn and ears to the cake, and then covered up all the gaps with buttercream flowers (see flower basket cake) to make the mane. A few sprinkles here and there, and finally some simplified happy eyes, spray painted gold. Not bad for a first attempt!
My husband took the cake into work the following day to dispose of it in a charity baking competition. I was thrilled to find out that I won ‘best looking cake’, and they would have also awarded me ‘best tasting cake’ too, but they thought it would have been unfair to all the other people that brought cakes in; and I won a bottle of champagne for my troubles!
I say that I won, but actually my husband neglected to mention that he hadn’t made the cake himself. I overheard phone calls the next day where people were praising his cake making skills! Bloody liberty! 😡😂
So anyway, on to the real thing…
There’s actually quite a lot that I wanted to change. Firstly, I wanted to soften the top edge to make the shape a little more natural. The proportions of the ears and horns were also not great, with some of my friends making some very unflattering remarks about the horn, comparing it to a golden… never mind.
The eyes were also a big thing that I wanted to change, for two reasons; not only were they a bit unrefined and unrealistic, attaching them to a buttercream covered cake was really difficult, and I managed to get several scrapes and fingerprints on the buttercream in my attempts to secure them.
So I needed to rethink.
But first, let’s cake the cakes baked, stacked, chilled, and carved:
Now, everybody who’s ever tasted Italian meringue buttercream knows that it is the best buttercream around. It’s not too sweet, beautifully creamy, and a dream to work with too. It’s also really easy to make, despite what some people may think. As long as you have a good quality thermometer, it’s a piece of cake!
To match the flavour of my modelling chocolate, I decided to make a white chocolate buttercream. This is made exactly the same way as a regular buttercream, but just with some cooled melted white chocolate added at the end – easy peasy!
White Chocolate Italian Meringue Buttercream
100g white chocolate
200g caster sugar
1/4 cup water
5 egg whites
1/4 cup (50g) caster sugar
450g unsalted butter, room temperature
Melt the white chocolate, either in the microwave or over a bain-marie.Boil 200g of sugar and 1/4 cup water over medium-high heat, without stirring, bruising down the sides of the pan occasionally, until it reaches 118c.
As it cooks begin meringue so it’s ready when syrup is done. Whisk the egg whites in a mixer until they become foamy, then add the 1/4 cup of sugar, gradually.
Carefully pour the hot syrup into the meringue in a steady stream with the mixer still on high speed. Beat the meringue for 10 minutes until the outside of the bowl is room temperature.
Gradually add the butter in small pieces, and continue to beat until the buttercream is smooth. Add the cooled melted chocolate, and beat again to incorporate.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s a lot harder to get a smooth finish on a curved surface than a flat one, and I haven’t yet figured out a really good method. I have seen videos where people use a bent piece of plastic to create a consistent curve, so I tried giving that a go. The best thing I could find was a flexible dough scraper, but honestly it was not the right tool for the job. Another time I might try using a thick piece of acetate.
Luckily, this wasn’t going to be too much of a problem, as I had decided to cover my cake with modelling chocolate instead of just buttercream. I made this decision for a couple of reasons: firstly, so that I can easily attach the eyes and flowers without risking upsetting the surface, and also because it’s super delicious. It’s a double win!
As I noted during my previous experiments with modelling chocolate, it’s not very malleable though. Smoothing it over the cake in one sheet is really difficult and ultimately doesn’t seem to be a viable option, especially on a cake of this size. Instead, I decided to wrap a long sheet around the cake, and suffer the seam at the back. And I could easily hide the join with buttercream flowers afterwards, as well as on the top of the cake, so it didn’t present any problems for this design.
I actually decided to patch up the top of the cake with a small sheet of modelling chocolate, and through a combination of squashing and carving, was able to get a pretty regular finish all over the cake, with a nice neat surface everywhere that counted!
I also decided to do the eyes in a lot more detail, and traced a pair of eyes from a My Little Pony character to create templates. Resolute in my decision not to use fondant, I made some ‘modelling chocolate’ using candy buttons, sometimes known as candy melts, or compound chocolate. That way you can get a completely white colour that is suitable for the whites of the eyes, and also super easy to dye to other colours. I also made another batch with some black bandy buttons, as it’s very hard to achieve the colour yourself, and much easier to start off with something that is already dyed black.
I’m not going to lie, the amount of detail in the eyes meant that it probably took me over an hour just to make them. But the effect was glorious, so I’m not going to complain about that too much. I rolled some thin strips of black modelling chocolate to define the eyes and add some lashes. I think the eyes were just a fraction too close together again, annoyingly, but by no means disastrous. So all that remained was to complete the sculptural details, including the ears and horn. I rolled the horn a lot thinner this time, and the result was a lot more pleasing.
At this point in the process I pretty much forgot to take any pictures at all; it was getting very late in the evening before the party, so any thoughts about writing blog posts got pushed to the back of my mind. So I coloured up the rest of my buttercream, and put my nose to the grindstone to make the flower mane.
Perhaps the only thing worth mentioning about this, is that I finally got around to trying a technique where you put different coloured buttercream on each side of the piping bag. Depending on the orientation of your piping tip, you can then get some pretty two-tone effect flowers. Having the edge of the rose petals in a different shade is a classic technique, and I was really happy with how those turned out. Maybe if I hadn’t been quite so tired, I would have thought to have put the darker colour on the edges, and the lighter colour inside, but never mind! 😀
So at about 2am, I finally finished my masterpiece!
I wish I’d had a little more time to put some more detail into the flower mane, but overall I was very happy with how things turned out! Time to get some sleep, and worry about the cleaning up in the morning!
Luckily, when I woke up late the next morning, the dishwasher fairy had already been to visit. Hurrah!
I am pleased to report that Constance loved her unicorn birthday cake, and I received lots of flattering remarks from the other parents, many of whom assumed that I made cakes for a living. I’m not sure whether they were just blowing smoke up my arse, but I greatly enjoyed the compliments nonetheless 😀