Everyone loves pandas. I baked this particular cake for a 50 year old man with a penchant for panda cams -- I did not make it, as you might expect, for a 5 year old. This turned out to be a good thing when it was time to add a candle. This Panda might be a bad role model for impressionable young minds.
Step 1: Bake a Chocolate Cake
Do NOT think you'll be all clever and make a red velvet cake rather than this chocolate cake. It was hard enough cutting into the Panda face, without having the extra surprise of uncovering a bright, blood-red interior. Plus you want nice dark brown ears.
Here is the recipe for the Devil's Food cake pictured here, adapted from a 1950s edition of Betty Crocker:
Devil's Food Cake
2/3 cup soft butter (or use 1 stick of butter and 4 tablespoons of shortening)
1 2/3 cups granulated sugar
3 eggs at room temperature
2/3 cup cocoa (the unsweetened dark kind, preferably not dutch processed, to get the best color)
1 1/3 cups cold water
2 1/4 cups sifted cake flower or 2 cups all purpose flour
1/3 teaspoon baking powder (i.e a heaping 1/4 of a teaspoon)
1 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1. Preheat oven to 350° F and grease and flour two nine inch pans and two sections of a muffin pan
2. Cream the butter, add the sugar and cream until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating after each addition until well blended. You can't over-beat it at this point, so leave the mixer on while you do steps 3 & 4.
3. Blend together cocoa and water. Set aside.
4. Sift the flour with the baking powder, soda and salt.
5. Add 1/3 of the sifted dry ingredients then 1/3 of the cocoa water to the butter mixture, stirring slowly (and briefly) after each addition. Do not over-beat. Do this two more times. Again, just mix until the ingredients are blended together, do not over-beat. Mix in the vanilla extract.
6. Pour into your prepared pans (about 1/3 full for muffin forms, then split the remaining batter between the 2 cake layers.
7. Bake about 30-35 minutes for the cake layers and 20-25min for the ears (muffins), till thin knife or toothpick comes out dry.
8. Allow the cake to cool for about 10 minutes before taking it out of the pans. (avoid loud noises when it comes out of the oven or the cake might collapse -- trust me, it does happen).
Step 2: Frost the Cake
Cream cheese frosting recipe
One 8oz package of cream cheese
One stick of butter (1/4 pound)
One cup of powdered sugar
2 teaspoons of vanilla extract
Allow the butter and cream cheese to soften to room temperature, and beat them together until smooth and well-blended. SLOWLY stir in the powdered sugar, bit by bit (unless you actually WANT your kitchen and your entire person to be dusted in sweet powder). Add vanilla, and keep on beating till it's nice and fluffy white. You can add more powdered sugar if you like -- I generally prefer frosting which isn't overly sweet, but some people add as much as a pound of sugar!
How to Frost a Cake
It took me a few years of cake making to figure this one out: it's very hard to frost a cake without getting crumbs all mixed up in the frosting. So here are a few tips:
1. Make sure your cakes are 100% cool, especially with butter cream frosting.
2. Instead of putting one huge goop of frosting on your cake and smoothing it out, distribute small clumps over it and smooth them out.
3. Especially on the sides, even with all these precautions your frosting will still get crumbs. So don't worry about it. Spread a thin layer of frosting all over the cake -- but make sure you keep plenty of frosting in reserve. Put your ugly cake in the fridge for 30 minutes (leave the extra frosting out and guard it fiercely from greedy fingers...). Then pull out the cake and top it off with your remaining frosting -- it will be crumb-free and gorgeous!
Step 3: Download the Stencil
The stencil template is, of course, FREE. You can download it from my website (don't be shy, take your time and poke around while you're there -- I have lots of paper projects you might be interested in).
The stencil is for a 9" cake, and needs to be printed on a tabloid sized sheet of paper (11" x 17"). Cut out the holes for the eyes, nose and mouth but you can leave the circle uncut. It's just a reference for positioning the stencil over your cake.
Step 4: Decorate
Prepare the ears by cutting a wedge off the cupcakes so they fit against the curve of the cake. Set them aside.
Either get someone to help you hold the stencil, or rig up a jig to place it just over your cake without touching the frosting. I used my cake cooler to hold the paper, balanced on top of a few glasses. Since they weren't quite tall enough, I added a coaster and a bamboo mat. In other words, improvise!
I had some black dusting sugar which was PERFECT for the job, but you could also try using dark cocoa if your baking supply store doesn't carry black sugar.
Very carefully sprinkle the sugar (or cocoa) over the stencil... then very carefully move it off without spilling any extra sugar where it's not wanted.
Add the ears. Since mine were dark enough, I used neither frosting nor sugar and they looked great. They're also good for guests who are trying to watch their weight while indulging just a little, to be polite.
Step 5: Finishing Touches
Even when you're fifty you must blow out at least one candle. This panda got his wish as well, and smoked one last cigarette before his untimely death.