Back in June, our Violet-Bug turned TWO years old! Hard to believe it’s been two years since she joined our family. Of course, a birthday in the Kentucky Dad household can mean only one thing – a hilariously complicated DIY cake project!
Now, just to bring you up to speed: we purchased Katie’s first birthday cake from a little shop here in Lexington, the name of which escapes me at the moment. It was a nice little cake; yummy, pretty, etc. We ate it at a little birthday party in Woodland Park. A good time was had by all.
Fast-forward a year. Katie, as kids are wont to do, is about to have another birthday. Violet had joined us earlier that summer. The budget was a tad tighter and logistics somewhat more complicated, so Mama and I decided to scale things back for Katie’s 2nd. We invited fewer people (i.e., fewer refreshments) and opted for a home-made birthday cake.
And the Kentucky Dad Birthday Cake Bakery was born. We’re open twice a year. My very first cake was Thomas the Tank Engine, Katie-Bug’s favorite character at that point. Next came Violet’s first birthday and, given the relatively uncomplicated proclivities of one-year-olds, her cake was a big pink “1.” For Katie’s third birthday, she requested a princess castle cake. All three cakes, while far from professional, received generally positive reviews. It’s become a tradition, and one that I actually even look forward to.
So as Violet-Bug’s second birthday approached, I began to wonder what to make for her. She’s refined her little personality quite a bit over the past year, so she actually has interests that I could take into consideration. Her absolute, hands-down, don’t-talk-to-me-for-the-next-thirty-minutes favorite TV show is Bubble Guppies on Nickelodeon. I pondered what I might could do related to that.
While the Thomas cake was of a recognizable character, let’s be analytical for a bit: his face is pretty much the only ‘character’ part; the other 98% is just a blue choo-choo train. But each of the Bubble Guppies is an individual character with his or her own very specific look and style. Translated into cake-baking terminology, there was a lot of room for error.
There were other problems, too. There are tons of free goodies at the Bubble Guppies website, but the only thing cake-related was a topper that I was afraid would be too basic to really have much of an impact. Also, I knew the only medium for the project coming together in my head was fondant, which I have never ever worked with. And finally, when I did a Google image search for inspiration, I found a couple of extremely (i.e. way outside my skill level) professional cakes and quite a few more that were, well… as we Southerners tend to say, bless their hearts. They tried.
A quick recap: this cake would be all about the characters, so they’d have to ‘look’ right; there were no commercially-available patterns to use; I’d have to dive in and learn to work with fondant; and, there was apparently nobody who had gone before me and lived to tell about it.
If there’s a silver lining at all to my generally appalling lack of experience, though, it’s that I have absolutely no idea what I can’t do.
Not that I headed into this with an overwhelming confidence, mind you. I stopped into Michaels one evening after work to buy a pack of fondant (since I already had to learn how to work with it, I certainly wasn’t up for learning how to make it as well) and some coloring. I made my selections and went to the counter, where the cashier looked the supplies over, looked at me, and asked, “You’re not going to try to use these colors with this fondant, are you?”
Why did she have to phrase it like that? I could say ‘Yes’ and out myself as an apparent novice, or I could say ‘No’ while slinking back toward the cake aisle to try again, thereby also outing myself as a novice. I panicked. My cake cred was on the line.
“Er, why? Does this particular type of fondant not receive color well?”
Yes, I actually said that. I even tried to appear surprised.
She (graciously, I suspect) ignored my question, and asked, “Do you have much experience?”
“Oh, yes. Three,” I said quite confidently.
One of her eyebrows arched a bit. “Three… months? Years?”
(In a small voice) “Cakes.” I had no other place to go with it.
Following that harrowing interrogation, however, she proved quite nice and helpful and pointed out the type of coloring I would actually need if I wanted to tint the fondant without turning it into, and this is a quote from a professional, “slimy goo.” I made my purchase and headed out the doors to a perhaps overly-patronizing “Good luck!” from my cashier.
At this point I found myself in an interesting predicament. I had the general idea of my theme. I had fondant. I had enough coloring to make about any color you could think of, and definitely enough to make Bubble Guppies. The only thing lacking was the pattern.
Then one night I was poking around on Pinterest and it occurred to me to try a search for the Guppies. To my surprise, one of the things that popped up was an array of cupcakes from a bakery in Europe, each topped with the face of a particular Bubble Guppy. It was exactly the inspiration I needed.
I wish I could include the pic, but the bakery has for whatever reason taken it down and so I’m not sure how to even ask for permission to use it. Regardless, I immediately made the decision to make a series of cupcakes, one for each of the six Bubble Guppies main characters. The original baker probably decided to make cupcakes so that each one could be its own tiny little edible masterpiece, a unique piece of art able to stand on its own merit without the benefit of the other cupcakes or to blend in and become part of the greater ensemble. I decided to make cupcakes because I could make 24 of them at a time and if I screwed one up beyond recognition I wouldn’t have to start completely over on the others.
My general plan came together rather quickly from that point. My ‘canvas’ would be limited to a circle the size of the top of one of the cupcakes, which I noticed just happened to coincide with the diameter of one of our drinking glasses. So my starting point was to roll out some of the plain white fondant and cut six circles.
This done, and with the fondant circles safely tucked away in ziplock baggies so as not to dry out, I took the same glass and made six circles on a plain white sheet of paper. Then I sat there with my pencil poised over the first circle for roughly an hour trying to figure out what to do next.
The printables that I’d gotten from the Nick Jr. website were too detailed to really be helpful. Finally it occurred to me to see how closely I could zoom in on my model cake photo, and it turns out, pretty close. I was able to concentrate on how they created their outlines and free-hand my own version into each of my circles. They didn’t turn out half bad, if I do say so myself.
The next step was to translate the paper sketches into fondant. But before I could do that, I set out to mix the various colors I would need. Luckily there weren’t a lot of shades and once I mastered the transition between batches (basically, wipe down the whole work area and wash your hands; if you try to cut corners here for expedience, you’ll wind up with some funky colors or, worse, a perfect color that’s ruined by a thumb print the same hue as the previous batch). Then, with all my different colors also stowed away in ziplock bags, I used scissors to cut out the character outlines.
From there it was a relatively easy process of rolling out the fondant and laying the cut-out pattern on top, then cutting around it with a paring knife. I used a straight pin to cut out the eyes and add
detail for the mouths. For pupils for the eyes, I noticed a drinking straw cut a perfect-sized fondant round. I was actually a little surprised at how quickly everything came together once I had all the pieces in place.
For the final presentation, I iced my leftover cupcakes (not to brag, but I only used six for the six Guppies!) and piped Violet’s name onto some of them and arranged the rest around the characters. Fondant ended up being a much easier medium than I had anticipated it was going to be, so that was good. It’s definitely a project I would revisit in the future, which is a good thing because we’re just about a month away from Katie-Bug’s 4th birthday!