Monday, October 13, 2008

Chocolate princess on a birthday cake

I spent a good part of my childhood drawing princesses. Their fancy dresses ballooned out from their waists to reach each side of the page. I loved watching movies with "beautiful dresses." Come Christmas I was in heaven when French TV channels would broadcast episodes of Sissi, portraying a famous Austro-Hungarian empress. Gone with the Wind was also a favorite of mine.

I thought adolescence had laid this fascination with period costumes to rest. But then I had three daughters, and discovered the fantasy lives on. "Can you draw me a princess?" Oh OK, twist my arm.

However when birthdays came I felt a little guilty. I did not want to bake a dome-shaped cake covered in pink fondant and stick half a Barbie doll on top. Princesses are nice, but good food is better. So all my daughters received were dark-chocolate cakes with a few Smarties scattered on them as a token acknowledgement of their target audience.

Then I chanced upon a discussion thread (in French) about using the technique for "Windowcolor" with chocolate. I did not know what Windowcolor was, and in the process discovered a fun activity for the kids, who have now decorated our windows with colorful butterflies, hearts and flowers.

What I like about this method applied to food is that the decoration is entirely made of chocolate. OK, white chocolate is not really chocolate. But I'm sure the high quality kind is a lot tastier than the fondant or royal icing usually associated with cake decorating.

All you have to do is trace a drawing, or draw it freehand, with melted chocolate on a transparent plastic sheet, chill it, then fill in the spaces with another color chocolate, chill again, and then peel off the plastic and carefully place the decoration on a cake. More instructions are below.

And if flounces and petticoats are not your style, you can use any type of illustration as a model. Come to think of it, two years ago I used this technique for a World Cup-inspired chocolate tart. ("Allez les Bleus" means "Go France." Sadly the chocolate exhortation had no effect.)

Simple and unadorned is the most elegant.

Ah but it's such fun to make swishes and curlicues... And colorful Smarties are a birthday tradition in this house.

I love her look of surprise.

For my second daughter, princess and cake were decorated with rococo excess. Too much, said my husband, but I couldn't stop myself.

My second daughter had asked for a princess too, so there was less of a surprise effect. But she seems happy! If you squint really hard, you might see some "Windowcolor" decorations on the windows in the background. Sorry for the small photos, I just feel a little strange about publishing shots of the kids. I compromise by making small images. Which are convenient for hiding the sloppy frosting at the back of the cake. I ran out of glaze, and was in a hurry...

This is how you do it:

1. Find or make a drawing you want to use as a model. Dora, Spiderman, Winnie the Pooh can all be used instead of a princess. Make sure the drawing is not too intricate as the chocolate lines are thick compared to a pencil line.

2. Place the drawing under clear plastic -- I used "rhodoïd" sheets but a sheet protector is probably even better as the drawing you are tracing can be trapped inside.

3. Melt some good quality chocolate gently (so it doesn't get lumpy) and pour it either into a squirt bottle, as shown in an earlier photo in this post, or in a paper cone, as shown here. Instructions for making cones can be found in this video.

4. Carefully trace the outlines of the drawing.

For the contours and the details I used dark chocolate.

5. Place chocolate with drawing onto a baking sheet or tray and into the freezer for a few minutes.

6. Using another color chocolate, decorate or fill in spaces within the chocolate contour. Careful: make sure the chocolate for the second color is not too hot or it will melt the chocolate contour. I usually leave the chilled tray under the drawing.

7. Freeze again for a few minutes

8. Continue with another color if you wish. Near the edges of the drawing you want to be precise, so the filling doesn't bleed over the contours. But if it does, you can always scrape mistakes away with a sharp knife once the chocolate has hardened. For the center or large areas, I ended up using the back of a spoon, as it got too tedious using a cone or the squeeze bottle. Don't hesitate to make a slightly thick layer of white chocolate on top of the other color decorations as it will make the whole figure more sturdy.

After filling in the hair and flowers with milk chocolate, I covered the rest in white chocolate, carefully filling in the edges first.

I finished spreading the white chocolate with the back of a spoon. It looks very messy but once turned over it will be smooth.

9. Once the decoration has hardened, peel off the plastic and place the decoration upside down on a chilled cake. If the cake is frosted, you can embed the decoration in the soft frosting. Or you can place it loose on top of the cake, so that you can remove it before cutting slices.

Princess number 3 went to school with my second daughter. Since the teacher asked parents to avoid cakes with messy frosting, I simply baked some brownies with Smarties embedded in them as a frame, then once they were cool I added the princess on top. I did use a dab of left-over frosting to glue her in place for easier transportation. The heart has my daughter's name in it, backward. I had forgotten there's a mirror effect when you flip the chocolate over.


- If you include writing, write it backwards, as the decoration will be turned upside down.

- You can color the white chocolate with food coloring. I think some people had issues with liquid food coloring as it tended to make the chocolate seize, the way a drop of water will. It's still possible though. And I think powdered colors are probably a safe bet. But I don't know for certain, as I don't usually use food coloring.

- Make sure you use good quality chocolate. It tastes better, melts better, and hardens better.

- Careful: this chocolate is not tempered. That means it will not stay bright and crisp at room temperature. Keep it refrigerated. I think you can leave it out on the chilled cake for a few hours (ours stayed out 2 or 3 hours), but to be on the safe side, temper the chocolate if you need to leave it out for long.

- There is sometimes a problem with warping. To keep it flat, once the decoration is almost completely chilled through, I place another sheet of plastic on top of the decoration, then a book on top, and freeze the whole thing.

- Of course, you can make this decoration several days ahead, just make sure you have room in your freezer (or maybe fridge) and that nothing risks breaking the decoration.

- This may seem obvious, but mistakes can happen: make sure the cake is completely cool before placing the easy-to-melt decoration on top...

- The decoration is fragile. Handle very gently when you place it on the cake!


Elra said...

How beautiful, I like the to see the expression on your daughter face. She must be very proud!

Anonymous said...

I'm proud too!


Kai Carver said...

I believe you have outdone yourself. Bravo!

Claudia said...

Fantastic! The cakes were beautiful and exclusives.

I loved it and will take your idea into practice very soon since my daughter's birthday is in December. Besides it really looks easy.

I was thinking about what to do for the cake and the marshmallow snow men was not convincing.

Thank you for sharing your idea.

Anonymous said...

I LOVE that idea!!! And the looks of sheer joy on those adorable girls' faces is priceless. I cannot wait to try this. I daresay that my first attempt will not be nearly as nice as yours, but I will have fun practicing.

Tanya said...

Love it!!! I have to find an excuse to try this technique.

Astrid said...

Thank you all for your early comments. I felt a little silly posting so many photos of my princesses but I'm glad if others are interested. Do share with me if you try this method out, I'd love to see what others make!

Angry Asian said...

this cake is wonderful! thank you so very much for the detailed instructions. i was going to do the actual 3-D barbie cake for my bff's 30th but now i think i will do it this way... so much easier and less stressful!

Snooky doodle said...

wow this is awesome :-) thanks for the tutorial .

Anonymous said...

how do you make your chocolate is so shiny.

Gay said...

I remember you as a princess, too!!
Looks wonderful and I'll bet really tasty too!

Chic Cookies said...

So beautiful! I posted a link to your blog (and great chocolate instructions here) on my ediblecrafts column at You can see your link at:
Thank you for sharing!

Jude said...

Love the cute expression on her face. She looks so happy !

Caviar and Codfish said...

You are the coolest mom in the world! :D

Astrid said...

Thank you everybody!

Concerning the glazes I used, the dark chocolate one was the Williams Sonoma recipe I found on Farida's Azerbaijani cookbook, the white one was a white chocolate ganache from the Daring Bakers' Opera Cake (to be found on many blogs including the one above).

For both I tried to pour the glazes on at 90°F (32°C) as Alice Medrich says at this temperature a glaze stays shiny. For the dark chocolate glaze I managed to pour it all in the middle and tilt the cake without touching its surface to make sure that it stayed smooth. I only smoothed the sides with a spatula.

The white glaze was very thick and it was harder to let it flow by itself, but it turned out OK even though I pushed it around with an offset spatula. Only I didn't have enough for the edges. It hurts to think I used 300g of my best white chocolate from France for a children's birthday cake, and it still wasn't enough glaze!

Claudia said...

Thanks for the visit! We are just beginning down there!


Susan/Wild Yeast said...

Your girls must have been thrilled with their princesses! Thanks for sharing the technique, I'm definitely going to try it.

Claudia (fool for food) said...

Wow, what a beautiful birthday cake decoration! Outstanding! You are an artist! Great post and step by step instruction. Your daughters can be very lucky indeed.

Jen said...

I love it Astrid! What a fabulous alternative to the "shape" cakes I've been doing that are overloaded with buttercream. I will try it for Colin's upcoming b'day. I see a chocolate train in our future.

Tartelette said...

Your daughter are adorable and the cakes are "magnifiques"!!
Oh man, do I miss Sissi. Watching the movies with my grandmothers is one of the best memories!

Thrumze of Michigan said...

superbe Astrid, il va falloir que j'essaie cela pour le gateau de Camille en décembre !!!
A la maison, j'ai les memes fenetres....couvertes de coccinelle, oiseau et chaussures !!

Shari@Whisk: a food blog said...

Brilliant! Thanks so muchf or sharing this!

Aran said...

that is a dream come true for any little girl. gorgeous!

linda said...

I know exactly what you mean by not wanting to make barbie cakes (and I don't even have daughters ;)
The princess plaques are very very pretty! So I guess this was better than the tiger cake ;)

SugarEd Productions said...

wonderful use of choclate transfers! Nice blog; I like it a lot!

veron said...

This is an amazing cake. Love the surprise on your daughter's face!

Kate said...

What beautiful princesses you have (both on and off the cakes!). Smarties are always a festive winner in our house, too (especially those tasty orange ones ...).

Anonymous said...

What I want to know is why don't we ever see a picture of the chef? Would Paul Bocuse be so modest?

Astrid said...

Thank you all for your warm encouragements! It's lovely getting lots of comments.

As for the last comment, I'm no more modest than the author of the comment, who didn't give his/her name! But I have a strong suspicion this person is a near relative... (-; You're right though, there's no reason to hide. I'll work on it.

Leslie said...

What a wonderful idea! Thanks for sharing. My sons are a little older, so they'd probably prefer to see a princess come out of the cake . . . or something like that.

Sabrina said...

This cake is extraordinary! Love it! I would love to post something like this on my site do you have suggestions for how moms can get something trace-able to create the princess? I'm just thinking about moms like myself who are not good at drawing. I'm so impressed with your work these are truly beautiful. xsabrina

Diane Buckstegge said...

Wow! This cake is lovely and exactly what I would have wanted, when I was a child! Since I didn´t get one I think I have to bake it myself for my next birthday :) Thanks for the great explanation how to do it!

Penni said...

Hi, I know this is an old post, so hopefully you have your comments emailed to you!

I just wanted to say thank you so much for this, you have revolutionised my whole approach to cake-making! I used this technique for my daughter's cake on Wednesday and was so happy with the result (it's a bird cake). Thank you again.