Recently, my roommate Ben (whose birthday cake I made back in March) asked if I would make a cake for his girlfriend Randi’s birthday. I agreed, and asked what sort of stuff she liked so I could have something to base the design off of. He replied “Owls and hedgehogs!”. Cute! I figured owls would be easier than hedgehogs when it came to fondant modeling, so an owl-themed cake it would be!
I decided to go with a basic chocolate layer cake, filled with cheesecake mousse (my variation on Christina Tosi’s recipe for Liquid Cheesecake), fresh sliced strawberries, frosted with ganache and decorated in an owl/forest theme. Let’s dive in!
Yet again, I went the chocolate cake mix route. Any respectable baker worth their weight in Plugra butter would never dare use a boxed cake mix for a fancy cake, but I was short on time and mixes always come out consistent with little fuss and little time wasted. Usually I’d use my favorite chocolate cake recipe that appeared in Bon Appetit’s RSVP section in November 2004, but I simply didn’t have the time. With only one weekend to work on the cake, and a bare minimum of time available during the week in the evenings, cake mix was my savior.
When Ben asked me to do a cake for Randi, I knew right off the bat that I wanted to use my cheesecake mousse recipe. It’s amazingly good, dare I say better than the original? It’s light and fluffy full-on cheesecake filling and I adore it. So, the filling dilemma was solved! (Grab the cheesecake mousse filling here!)
Fresh strawberries and cheesecake? A natural match! So, those would go in, too.
I wanted a smooth, sleek final look on the cake, which meant poured ganache frosting. Done! (You can find the ganache recipe here!)
The fondant shapes were a little tricky cause up until now, I hadn’t made figures from fondant. I’ve made plenty out of Sculpey and the like, but fondant is much softer and (oh shit) it dries quickly if you forget to cover it. So, it was a bit of a learning curve but I think I did fairly well!
Little handmade baby owls were so much fun to make. I did some sketches beforehand with different owl designs, picked one of those, and set off molding. I used Satin Ice vanilla flavored fondant, as well as various colors of gel food color. The fondant warms up great once you start working with it, and the color integrated beautifully. I also used an edible black food color pen for some fine detail work. I wish I’d gotten more than just one photo of the process! Here’s one of the three finished owls:
I started out by just shaping the owl while holding it in my hand, but the warmth of my hands allowed the fondant to soften too much and lose its shape. I didn’t want a bunch of finger marks on the back of the owl, so I formed the body around a thin wooden dowel which I then stuck into a piece of styrofoam. Perfect! This way, I could work on the owls from all sides without having to smush them too much. The fondant was still quite soft, which resulted in the owls sinking and looking chubbier than I envisioned, but they still looked cute so it worked. Done! The owls were made about a week before the cake was made, so they had ample time to dry before being used as decorations.
All the components were ready, so now it was time to assemble!
The fondant border didn’t quite come out how I had hoped. I was intending the top edge to be jagged to mimic grass, but I had no good tools to cut out the jagged pieces how I wanted, so I just left it plain. Also, be absolutely sure you keep any fondant decorations (especially borders!) covered with plastic wrap until the second you plan on adhering them to the cake. I left mine uncovered for maybe 10 minutes and the surface started to dry out which resulted in ugly cracks along the edge when I curved the pieces around the cake. Blast! Oh well, we’ll just cover the cracks with some chocolate trees and no one will be the wiser!… except you, cause I just told you.
I neglected to get any photos of the piped chocolate trees, but it was dead simple. I could have just melted down some chocolate, piped it into tree shapes, let it chill and call it a day, but I didn’t want to risk the trees slumping over once the cake was at room temperature. This meant one thing — I’d have to do some dreaded tempering! *DUN dun dun!*
I’d read somewhere online, perhaps on Stella Parks’ BraveTart blog, that a simple way to temper chocolate is to just melt it low and slow so that it never goes out of temper in the first place. For those of you who are thinking “What? Tempering? Chocolate? Where am I?”, tempering is a process of controlling the size of cocoa butter crystals in the chocolate by heating it to a certain temperature and cooling it back down so that the cocoa butter forms small, uniform crystals.
The method I used included chopping the chocolate and melting it slowly in the microwave until about half of the chocolate was melted. Then, I stirred it until the remaining chocolate had melted, taking its temperature at the end. Dark chocolate can stay in temper so long as it doesn’t go over 91 degrees, so this will work as long as your chocolate doesn’t go warmer than that. You also want to stir vigorously cause the stirring and agitation helps the crystals form. The tempered chocolate will be melted, but will have a shiny, thickened appearance. Remember, this quick tempering method can ONLY be done if the chocolate you’re using has already been tempered by the manufacturer. How can you tell? At room temperature, tempered chocolate should have a nice sheen to it, not a dull appearance, and it should snap loudly when broken. It will also stay firm at room temperature without softening or losing that nice pretty satin finish.
Once my chocolate was tempered, I poured it into a disposable piping bag, snipped off the end and piped tree-like shapes onto a sheet pan lined with parchment paper. When they were all piped, the pan went into the fridge to chill. Tempered chocolate takes a lot less time than untempered chocolate to firm up, even at room temperature. So, I didn’t have to wait long!
When the trees were ready and I had my fondant border on the cake and the inscription done (using red Wilton candy melts), I piped more chocolate in a thick line down the sides of the cake where I wanted the trees to go, pressed them into place and chilled it once again to make sure they’d stay put. Finally, the little owls on their dowels (hey, that rhymes!) were put into place, two on the top and one on the cake board (I snipped off the dowel and used a little chocolate to adhere it to the board). Voila! An owl cake for the birthday girl.
Happy birthday, Randi! I hope it was a wonderful day, and I’m so glad you enjoyed your owl cake!