caking a painting

This year my niece turned 16 so I told her parents I’d like to surprise her by making a birthday cake. Yes, please, the parents said. (And then I learned from my mom that my niece was miffed at her parents for not letting her make her own cake, ha!) I fretted for weeks over the cake, trying to figure out what design, what flavors and fills, where to find models to learn from, how to make individual components, what special ingredients and tools I needed to order, etc, etc. Eventually I settled on a painter’s tableau, of sorts, modeled after her upstairs bedroom studio: I’d cake a painting and several accoutrements.

But I couldn’t find an exact cake to copy (as I had with the snake or the dragon eggs), so I was finally forced to accept the fact that I’d have to create the cake as I went. I’ve done this before and I hate it. The amount of brain energy that gets expended when I’m up to my eyeballs in Not Knowing What I’m Doing is all consuming. O the stress!

A couple weeks before Cake Delivery Day, I made a chocolate sheet cake (I’ve got a new recipe that I’m crushing on), and a half sheet pan of hot milk sponge that I saturated with lemon drizzle, and then I popped both in the freezer. (And then I made a second pan of hot milk lemon drizzle sponge because I still wasn’t exactly sure what I was doing and I didn’t want to come down to crunch time and have to halt production to bake more cakes, ya know?) I ordered stem wires for flowers. I watched YouTube videos on painting directly on buttercreams. I researched various buttercreams. I made a chocolate cremeux for the chocolate cake fill, and I made the raspberry and vanilla fills for the lemon cakes.

My niece’s birthday is on Christmas Day so I reserved all of the 23rd and 24th for assembly. And it’s a good thing I did, too, because I worked frenetically all day both days, barely even stopping to eat (which is not like me at all) or take photos!

The first day I shaped and assembled the cakes. This involved slicing the chocolate cake in strips and sandwiching them together with the chocolate cremeux.

I cut the two lemon sponges to make the painter’s palate, a pottery vase, and a mug, sandwiching the layers with the raspberry jelly and creamy vanilla whip, and I dirty iced all the cakes with Italian meringue buttercream.

I also made a Russian buttercream that didn’t turn out (because I went too far when neutralizing the creamy color with purple dye and turned it a greenish hue), I made a batch of fondant

Day Two my husband said my painter’s palette, which was modeled after the 11-inch microwave plate my niece uses for her real-life paint palette, looked like a hubcap so I cut the whole thing in half horizontally. Now parts of the cake were missing its raspberry fill and creamy whip and it still looked like a hubcap, but oh well. I cut the discarded bottom half into quarters, stacked them up with the raspberry and cream fills and slopped more cream whip on the outside for an extra “garbage” cake that they could eat later, if they wanted. I dyed fondant (this might’ve been the first day? can’t remember): blue for the vase, white for the mug, peachy-tan for the picture frame, and then I painted it all with gel colors mixed with vodka.

On Christmas Eve day I painted the actual painting: two peonies with leaves (that weren’t the correct kind but I didn’t care). I used just two colors — dark pink and green mixed with vodka. (Here’s where I got my inspiration.)

The palette didn’t end up looking very much like my niece’s palette, but painting on buttercream is an inexact science and good enough is good enough.

I made a batch of gum paste and a batch of gel paste for gluing things together (both recipes are at the bottom of this post), and then I spent hours tediously and very incorrectly making peony petals and leaves and paintbrushes.

The paintbrushes had a distinct Berenstain Bear vibe, I thought. (Also, phallic.)

The paintbrush holder was a mug modeled after one of the mugs in my niece’s studio. Since the one I was copying was missing its handle, I made gum paste handle nubbins, as well as the decorative jalapeño on its side. 

IN OTHER WORDS, I rolled, cut, painted, and glued for hours and then I declared it done.

The following day, several of us tensely and slooooowly drove the cakes over to the birthday girl’s house while she was out on a brief “remove her from the house” driving lesson. We arranged the cakes on the table, and then my sister-in-law called my brother to tell him it was safe to return.

I stayed long enough to see her reaction and take photos before skedaddling, but I later learned from other partygoes that they only ate the scrap cake that afternoon — they didn’t even cut into the actual cakes! — which made me laugh. 

(I have also since learned that all the cake has been consumed.)

Back home, I cut up the bits of leftover cake and slapped them together to make petit fours.

Newsflash: having bite-sized cakes always at the ready is a dangerous practice. Don’t get in the habit.


Gum Paste
Adapted from . . . I don’t remember!

Gum paste is a stiffer version of fondant, used to make all sorts of decorative shapes like flowers, fruit, people, paintbrushes, whatever.

I did not have any vegetable shortening; instead, I kneaded it thoroughly to soften it before using (and once I defrosted it in the microwave for a few seconds to speed it along). It worked fine.

450 grams confectioner’s sugar
2 tablespoons tylose powder
1 tablespoon meringue powder
½ teaspoon cream of tartar
2 tablespoons corn syrup
½ teaspoon vanilla
3 tablespoons water
1 tablespoon vegetable shortening

Sift together the first four ingredients into a bowl. Combine the syrup, water, and vanilla in a saucepan and heat until runny. Add the wet ingredients to the dry and mix thoroughly, kneading until combined. If the mixture is impossibly dry, add a little more water, a teaspoon at a time. Coat with a very light schmear of vegetable shortening. Wrap in plastic and store in the fridge. Allow the gum paste to rest overnight (or for a few hours) before using. 

Piping Gel
Adapted from Veena Azmanov

Piping gel is an edible “glue” that is used to adhere fondant to fondant, and fondant to cake.

½ tablespoon plain gelatin powder
½ tablespoon water
½ cup white corn syrup
½ teaspoon vanilla

Measure the gelatin and water into a small dish and soak for 2 minutes. Microwave briefly to soften. 

Add the gelatin to the corn syrup: the gelatin may be clumpy, so consider combining the gelatin with a small portion of the syrup to get it incorporated before adding the full amount of syrup. (A few gelatin clumps aren’t the end of the world, though — just mash them with a spoon, or remove them from the gel.) 

Heat the syrup and gelatin until it is runny and uniform. This takes just a minute or so, and it doesn’t get very hot — I heat it on the stove top, but the microwave would work, too. Stir in the vanilla. 

I don’t know how well the leftover gel paste will last — I’ve always tossed it after a project — but I’m currently storing some of the leftover gel from this project in the freezer, so we’ll see how that works.

This same time, years previous: she’s back!, what we ate, the quotidian (1.4.21), my new kitchen: the computer corner, Lebanese dried lemon tea, high-stakes hiking, Christmas cheese, five-grain porridge with apples, when cars dance,


  • Kbs

    Just incredible! Don’t see how I could actually consume such cakes before they sat and became inedible with age. Did she start (bite into) the paintbrushes, nubs of handles on the mug, palette of colors, or the “painting” first? (do you know?) Kbs

  • KC

    I *thought* that first photo of The Quotidian meant a painted cake was brewing! This is such a delightful one – excellent job!!!

    (randomly for reference, you can mold buttercream or scrape/shape/sculpt cold buttercream, to some degree, provided it doesn’t have too many reasonably-large air pockets, if you ever want to make a plate without fondant again but want it smoother than you can hand-frost it. But I think the plate with all its paint is *great* as-is! I only mention that because you mentioned dissatisfaction to some degree.)

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