The vote was cast and it was decided that for her love of animals my going on two year old granddaughter was going to have a birthday cake that would include the elephant, the giraffe, the lion and perhaps a monkey or two. It seemed easiest to incorporate all the animals in a birthday train especially since she was recently given Thomas, the blue and red “engine that could” as a gift and it was staring right at me on her parents’ living room floor.
So I checked out “Thomas” cakes and found quite a few, complete with photo tutorials and videos. One site owner even offered to sell the templates for her incredible version of the engine for just five US dollars. Her cake had at least five layers and was carved. All the detailed work was done in vibrant red and blue fondant. Really a great cake that could quite successfully be scaled down to feed a mere twenty instead of the forty that it was originally planned for.
But… copying her cake or any of the others that I saw just didn’t do it for me. I wanted the excitement, the satisfaction and even the anxiety and the tears involved in creating my own cake, not someone else’s. And I didn’t want it to be blue and red. I wanted a train engine, but not a Thomas, train engine. And I thought that pink and purple would be a better choice of colors for my little birthday girl.
Not having ever eaten, made or even played with a train as a child, I Google searched for photos. There, I found historic likenesses of real steam engines as well as cute wooden toy models and colorful plastic ones. The more that I explored, the more that I realized, that the steam engine was made up of some really very basic shapes. The lower body is flat and rectangular. The cabin is a cube and the main part of the body is a cylinder. It’s fairly easy to either bake these shapes to start with or to bake one or two half sheets of cake and then to use cutters and to layer the pieces of cake into the shapes desired. I chose the second option since I had a great new chocolate pound cake recipe that baked up best in a sheet pan. But honestly the cake shapes would bake up great using a square or cube pan and even the cylinder from canned veggies would work well for the rounded body.
I baked four, eight inch square cakes, each about an inch high. Then I cut two of them in half to produce four, 8 by 4 inch slabs that were filled and layered one on top of the other. Since I wanted a slightly longer engine, I cut and added pieces from half of the third square. Obviously if I had a pan that was four by nine I wouldn’t have had to cut the cake to size. The second half of the third square was used to add on a three by six inch length on top of the now four by nine inch base. My original plan was to have the train engine base sit on top of a slice of Styrofoam that was one inch in depth, to provide more height and to allow for the illusion of wheels against a blacked out background, but as I proceeded I saw that that wasn’t necessary.
I used a square two and 3/4 inch “ring” to cut out four square shaped slices from the remainder of the cake, filled and stacked those and placed them on top of the “platform”. This would eventually be the cabin.
For the cylinder I used a three inch cookie cutter to cut out circles from the remaining pieces of cake. These were cut in half, filled and stacked together to fill up the tank area on top of the now elevated cake “platform”. One complete round was set aside to use for the face of the engine, similar to that on “Thomas”. This same round cookie cutter was also used to forge out a place for this last part of the cylinder. For the engine face I utilized an amazingly simple you-tube tutorial by Ann Reardon.
In my mind’s eye, I was aiming for a girly type of train engine that would be followed by several cars, each consisting of four layers of cake and each measuring four inches wide by eight inches long. The plan was to have a variety of safari animals sitting in the wagons.
Since I was asked to make some sugarless cupcakes as well, I decided to add those to the last wagon along with a few modeling chocolate balloons.
Quite a fun cake to make, the best part, of course, being the expression on my granddaughter’s face as she walked around the train naming her favorite animals and I think, not even realizing that this was cake.