So, a vanilla confetti cake, carved into the shape of a young chicken – not a chick, not a hen – may sound pretty specific to you, and you would be accurate in that assessment. I have three little kids depending on me to produce just such a cake for their birthday, so that’s what we’re working with. It dawned on me, though, that we haven’t talked about sculpted cakes yet so it’s a great opportunity to make that happen!
It’s been pretty amazing watching the art of sculpted cakes move into mainstream media thanks in large part to cooking channel competition shows. There are some incredibly talented cake artists out there, Mike McCrary and Natalie Sideserf to name two obvious badasses in the industry. If you’re really interested in getting into cake sculpting, or just appreciate amazing craft and creative talent, check these two out immediately.
Before I go any further, I should mention for those that don’t know, that sculpted cake is the pastry art of creating three dimensional, edible cakes out of cake, frosting, edible “clays” (things like gum paste, fondant, chocolate, and rice krispie treats), and occasionally non-edible supports. It is its own discipline and I could have a whole blog just dedicated to it, so for today instead of going too deep down the rabbit hole, I’m going to show you my own basic method for creating them that doesn’t require many, if any, specialty tools.
the overall process
So this is how I’ve figured out how to make sculpted cakes. It may be similar to other chef’s styles, it may not, but it’s all I’ve got! I try to make the cakes as much cake as possible (you’d be surprised how many sculpted cakes are mostly support and solid chocolate or rice krispie treat).
Build a starting block of cake. This may be generically shaped toward your end product (a sheet of cake instead of a round for a car for example).
Carve the cake away to give a rough outline of the final shape. Keep in mind there will be lots of layers of product placed over the cake, so broad stroke shapes should be exaggerated and fine detail avoided at this stage. Add additional pieces of cake, attached with frosting and/or support like toothpicks and dowels.
Use fondant or rice krispie treats to creates shapes that would not be stable with frosting or cake.
Use consecutive layers of frosting to cover the cake and refine the shape.
Coat the cake in fondant, then refine the shape of the fondant to accentuate any details.
For this particular cake I used:
3 x 8×2”/20x5cm cakes at 750g per cake + cupcakes with the extra batter
2.5lb/1134g of frosting
10 x (.7oz/22g) rice krispie treats
In general, the denser the cake, the better it is to sculpt (which makes sense) and most people use pound cake for their projects. The three little kids I’m making my cake for would prefer vanilla cake with sprinkles so that’s what I’m using, and it will still work just fine (as a little trick, I’m going to very slightly under bake the cake so it has a somewhat denser structure similar to pound cake). The recipe for that is below. The only types of cake I’d avoid are cakes with additional, hard ingredients in them like carrot cake with nuts, and chiffons and similar meringue based stuff, like angel food cake.
I’ve always found that an Italian meringue buttercream is the best frosting to use for a sculpted cake, it’s smooth and easy to work but strong. Again, because of the kids involved, I’m straying from the norm and making an American buttercream. American buttercream is certainly strong enough to work, but isn’t as smooth as Italian meringue buttercream and so not as easy to sculpt into fine detail. For the more basic shape of this cake, that won’t be an issue.
In terms of tools to use, I made today’s cake with the items listed below, and not one of them is exclusive to sculpted cakes (I hate any tool that does only one job). In the case of the sculpting tools and dowel, avoid getting anything promoted specifically for cake decorating, because they’ll be outrageously overpriced. Just get a long dowel in the craft aisle and cut it to size, don’t buy the pre-cut dowels for cake building. It’s a scam.
Offset spatulas, large and small
Dull paring knife
Sharp paring knife
Serrate paring knife
Toothpicks (round not flat)
Wooden dowel (1/4”/.6cm diameter)
Rolling pin (a length of pvc tubing is ideal – found at home improvement stores)
Fondant (rolling fondant, not to be confused with icing fondant) is a clay-like icing that is used to cover just about all sculpted cakes. You can make your own or purchase it, but let me say that a craft store is the last place you should get fondant if you think you may use a good amount of it (say more than 2lb/906g) simply because of the cost. I had to get this cake done in a pinch, so of course I went to the craft store and picked up some Wilton brand. This was my first time using the Wilton stuff and while I liked it at first, in the end it was too soft and elastic for my personal taste and I probably wouldn’t use it again. If you’re new to covering cakes, though, it may be a good option for you as the elasticity will help prevent tearing.
To color the fondant I used gel color, which we’ve used in the past. Lots of different brands out there, so it’s probably just a matter of finding what works for you, but chef rubber and americolor are a good start.
rice krispie treats
Rice krispie treats are a staple of sculpted cake because they’re easy to mold and shape, and when compressed are firm and stable. I always just get the store bought treats instead of making them myself because they just have a better overall texture to work with.
sculpted cake – birthday chicken
vanilla confetti cake
453g butter unsalted, 1 pound
350g whole egg about 7 eggs
324g whole milk
48g vanilla extract
540g cake flour
15g baking powder
60g sour cream
Bring the butter, whole milk, sour cream and whole egg to room temp. before getting started.
Combine and sift the cake flour and baking powder and reserve to use later.
Combine the whole milk, sour cream and whole eggs and reserve to use later.
Combine the butter and sugar and cream in a stand mixer with a paddle attachment, about 3min. on medium speed.
Add the dry and wet ingredients to the butter mixture in three additions, mixing well between each addition.
Fold in the sprinkles.
Cast the cake batter into pans just over half full (I use 800g of batter for a 8×2”/20x5cm), using the remaining batter in cupcake forms.
Bake the cakes at 330F/165C for 30-40min. (or until a knife comes out just about clean), rotating them halfway through baking.
453g butter unsalted, 1 pound
500g powdered sugar
30g vanilla extract
Combine all of the ingredients in a mixing bowl with a paddle attachment and mix on medium-high speed until light and fluffy.
Just a heads up, this thing is going to look like ghoulish nightmare fuel up until basically the last seconds of the project. Just keep pushing through and I promise it will resemble an adorable chicken in the end.
Cool the cake overnight before cutting it, to give the crumb time to firm up. Keep in mind that no matter what, if the cake starts to soften while you’re carving it, stop what you’re doing and put it back in the cooler until it’s firm!
Trim the top and bottom crust off of the cake, and cut each cake round into two slices.
Fill and stack five of the cake layers, saving one layer of cake for later.
Cover the cake stack in plastic wrap and chill it in the fridge until the frosting is firm.
Cut the remaining slice of cake in half.
Make a second, horizontal cut along the lower third of the cake. The two larger pieces of cake will be saved as the wings.
Glue the two smaller pieces together using frosting and chill in the fridge (this will be the tail).
Before carving a cake, I like to have a little sketch or blueprint of the basic shape I’m going for. I’ll even draw a quick image on the parchment paper I’m using.
It gets a little hard to explain exactly how to carve the cake from here, but I’m gonna try. Start by carving the larger forms of the shape you’re looking for (remember you can always cut more cake away, but you can’t put it back!). In this case, I started by cutting away what will become the flanks of the bird, and then curving the form.
Cut a 90 degree angle in the bottom of the tail piece. Using toothpicks, place one in the cake at a slight diagonal angle and one in the tail at the opposite angle. Gently press the tail into the body.
Cut slightly more pronounced angled cuts on the top flanks of the bird body, then use frosting to glue the two wing pieces onto the body.
Using the small offset spatula, pack frosting into any gaps or seams between the body and the wings/tail. Apply frosting to help adhere the pieces to the body, then chill the cake.
Shape the rice krispie treats into rough feather shapes and apply them to the tail with frosting.
Using a cupcake, cut it into a pie shape to fit in between the wings as a neck support and, yup, apply it with frosting.
Shape rice krispie treats into the head shape, pressing in eye sockets, but otherwise leaving it featureless. Press the dowel rod into the base of the skull to create a socket hole. Mmmm, socket hole.
Estimate (or measure) the length of dowel needed to go through the cake to the base and still have enough length for 1-2”/2.5-5cm into the skull. Cut the dowel to length with a paring knife, and press it down at a straight angle through the neck. Press the head into the dowel.
Apply a thick base coat of frosting over the entire surface of the cake then chill and firm.
Using your hands (I tend to do this without gloves) smooth the surface of the frosting.
Repeat this process if needed to get an even (but thin) coat of smoothed frosting over everything.
Using fondant, shape a cowel and extra tail feather piece, attaching with frosting. Then chill and smooth again.
To color your fondant, I recommend using latex gloves and a non-stick baking mat. If you don’t have a baking mat, you can use plastic wrap but it kinda sucks. If you don’t have gloves, give yourself a day or two for the dye to wash out before that next job interview/bank loan.
Add the gel color to the center of the fondant, a little at a time.
I take a piece of fondant and spread the gel to avoid it squeezing out in clumps when kneading the dough.
Knead the dough until the color is consistently distributed.
Before rolling out the fondant, get some cornstarch ready. You can either put it in a powered sugar shaker or use a cheesecloth pouch.
Roll the fondant out to 1/16”/1.5mm, using cornstarch to prevent it from sticking to your work surface. I prefer to use a pvc tube for rolling. Work the dough into an even circle, making sure there is enough material to cover the cake.
While rolling, air bubbles may form in the fondant. Puncture the air pocket at one end and use the fondant roller toward the puncture to press the air from the pocket. A pin is best for this but I never have a pin and always end up using an xacto blade. I should get a pin.
Once the fondant is near its final thickness, slide the rolling pin over the surface with gentle pressure to even it out and continue to thin the dough.
Gently roll the fondant onto the rolling pin in order to transfer it to the cake.
Carefully unroll the fondant over the cake.
Again, hard to give a thorough explanation with the written word but here goes. Gently press the fondant to the high points of the cake first (the tail and head), so that the weight of the remaining fondant won’t create tears in those places. If a tear does occur, you can always patch it later. Working from the top down, gently press the fondant to the side of the cake, stretching it or compressing it as need to fit into the shapes of the cake and frosting. This takes time and practice, but the important thing is to work smoothly and efficiently. If everything goes to hell and you have to peel the whole piece of fondant off the cake and start over, that’s ok. I’ve done it a ton of times. Simply place the cake back in the fridge to cool again (smoothing and disturbed frosting). Add a small quantity of cornstarch to the fondant to reconstitute it and chill it, wrapped, for 10min. or so to make if firmer and easier to roll for round two.
Once all of the fondant has been applied to the cake, cut the excess fondant from the base of the cake. Use the fondant smoother to gently smooth the surface of the fondant and remove bumps or scratches. Don’t use the smoother if the frosting under the fondant has warmed, as this will push the frosting around creating lumps you can’t remove.
Remove a piece of fondant from the face of the bird to later adhere a beak.
Use the sculpting tools to accentuate and outline the features, and create details like feather texture.
Using rice krispies, frosting, and fondant (colored yellow), shape, frost and coat a beak. Place the beak in the freezer for 5-10min. until very firm but not frozen.
Adhere the beak to the face using toothpicks.
Use a scrap of white fondant to form two eyes. These can be applied to the eye sockets with a thin film of water or egg white applied like glue.
To create the cornea of the eyes, I used a black edible ink pen. You could also use gel color thinned slightly with water.
I used Cadbury cream eggs for the “eggs” of the cake. Gently smooth the surface with a paring knife, then wet the outside of the chocolate egg with a small amount of water. Cover with white fondant, and let dry at room temp.
Color the remaining frosting green and using a large star tip, pipe grass/nest texture around the base of the plate/bird.
Place the covered eggs, then sit back and admire your work!
Chicken themed birthdays will never be the same.
Cheers – Chef Scott