Friday, August 13, 2010

Thomas the Train Cake Without a Cake Mold

My friends, that was my challenge. How do you create an adorable Thomas the Train without the standard train cake mold? Or without the fancy, shmancy Williams-Sonoma multiple train car mold? And I didn't want to just make a flat cake and stick his trains on it. That just seemed too simple and I wanted something a little fancy for the boy who LOVES trains and was turning two! I wasn't sure what I was going to do until I saw this. Perfect!

We decided to forgo a birthday part for Little Guy this year because a. I'm just now really feeling like I might be getting back to 100% and didn't need to set myself back by stressing out for his second birthday since he really won't remember it anyway, right? and b. Daddy would be gone for the evening of his birthday and pretty much every weekend day as well for most of the summer-can't have a party without Daddy! So it became a family day full of fun birthdayness from the time we woke up until nap time after lunch. And really, it was enough for Little Guy. He was worn out from his birthday when nap time came and I was glad for his sake that we kept the evening more normal. I think at 2 he could only take so much of the presents, cake, calling grandparents, and totally him, him, him focus. He was becoming a bit of a birthday monster, if you know what I mean! And yet, he loved every minute and still asks for his "choo-choo train birthday cake" and "Thomas train birthday cake" all the time. Makes me glad I figured out a way to give him one!

On with it already, huh? Please excuse the not great photos and backgrounds. New baby in the house, enough said.

First step was to bake two round layer cakes. I just used our favorite chocolate cake recipe. Then I whipped up a batch of butter cream frosting. I really should have made a batch and a half or so, but I got by with one. It was down to the end and took some creativity to stretch it, but I'm glad I did. It's not like we needed MORE sugar. There were only two adults and one 2 year old eating it! I used homemade strawberry jam for the filling because it tastes really, really good with this chocolate cake.

To assemble you cut one layer in half and stack them up in this order...full round, filling on just half of the cake, half round (over filling), filling, and then other half on top. So on one side you have a three layer cake and on the other side you have just one layer. It would have been smart to level the layers before I started, but I was doing this as quickly as I could between nursing, laundry, etc and just ran with it. Because of that my 3 layer part looked like it could slide off at any time and I didn't like the idea of that happening! To solve I stuck bamboo skewers through the three layers to anchor them. I cut the skewers off at cake level and you would never have known they were there. I probably used about 8 or so skewers just to be safe and they were no big deal when eating. I was worried they would be a pain when I was cutting and such, but they never were. Mike saw the cake around now and had no idea how this could become a train cake.

That is the beauty of this cake. Once you see it decorated, it makes total sense (at least it did to me, since I only had a picture to go on), but before it just looks odd! To decorate I first did a crumb layer of frosting. This chocolate cake is pretty crumbly and it needed to have a coat to seal. I left this coat white since many different colors would go over it. I also made sure to pop the cake in the fridge as soon as I was done with the crumb layer as the frosting was getting melty in the heat. I also kept the butter cream in the fridge as much as possible once I started dying it and such to keep it firm enough to decorate.

After the crumb layer I did the green grass layer. Once I had that done I tinted the remaining green a bit darker and used a pastry bag to do the leaves, some shrubs, and some other little grass areas as well as a spot for his big '2' candle. I used a toothpick to sketch out the basic outline of the tree trunk and the tunnel opening in order to have something to work around.

Next I tinted the brown and piped the tree trunk. I did the blue after that and because I didn't have much frosting left I made it bright so I could use the white crumb layer to mix in if needed. On the front I kept it thin, but solid and on the back I used less and kind of swirled it on. It actually looked more like an actual sky with color variation and such. At this point the cake needed a cool down so it went into the fridge while I fed the baby.

I took the rest of the brown and a bit more frosting I scraped out of the bowl (I was working with a very limited amount by this time) and made it the black for the tunnel and the train tracks. The tracks are easily made the right distance if you first lightly push the toy down into the frosting then do your best to keep the right width.

After I got that on, using a toothpick to make the edges meet up with the blue and green nicely, I added a few birds, his birth date and such. The top has "Happy 2nd Birthday" on it and is a bit awkward because of the crazy slope of the cake. Again, leveling would have been my friend! And the words on just on the crumb layer as I had no frosting left to make it pretty before adding the message.

Had I made more frosting I would have done the decorating order very differently. I would have done the crumb coat, then the sky (including over tunnel area), the grass and the top. After that I would have added the tunnel over the sky without worrying about edges, the tree, then the leaves and shrubs and birds and writing. I also would have done some edging on the top and around the base of the cake and probably added some bricks (like our train set) or stones around the edges of the tunnel. All in all the decorating took less than an hour of hands on time and it ended up looking pretty good. More time and skill would have made it a lot better, but I'm no professional and I just wanted to make my Little Guy's day with a cake he'd like.

Right before serving I added one of his Thomas train engines and the candle. Of course, you could also make the Thomas out of fondant or cake and really make it great, but I needed to keep it simple and the toy worked like a charm. Oh, and I'm not a professional cake decorator.

We set the cake in the middle of some of his train track with some of his other trains on the track. (It made for a cute centerpiece and would really look great if you had a whole buffet. I'm thinking a table of food with train track running all over it and round the food. Then a circle of tracks in the middle with the cake in the center. Think he'll be into trains next year?) We lit the candle, sang 'Happy Birthday' and Little Guy blew it out on the first try. He was so, so excited about the cake and that is what makes me the happiest!

Hope you have happy birthdays in your house too!

p.s. Little Guy figured out how to turn the knob AND push to get doors open yesterday. Previously he would only do one of the two actions at a time. We liked the fact that we could shut the door to the bathroom and Daddy's office and he couldn't get in. Now he can. Yikes.


  1. You did a great job on that cake! I love it.

  2. That turned out awesome! Lucky man and wonderful Mommy!

  3. Love it! Mine is 3 on Saturday and will have a Thomas themed birthday!