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!