To make this bourbon-buttercream flight of fancy, you'll want to have the following tools:
- 3 6-inch round cake pans (I only had 1...and so I baked for a looooong time)
- 1 stand to support your owl (I used a paper towel stand, but another great option would be a child's ring toss)
- 1 ruler
- 1 double-boiler (or your own jerry-rigged set up using a heavy saucepan)
- 1 candy thermometer (though I used a regular cooking thermometer)
- 1 stand mixer or 2 stronger-than-they-look shoulders
- 1 kitchen scale
- 1 melon baller and tin foil (to make eye molds)
- Standard baking fare, such as measuring cups and spoons, a good knife, piping bag, toothpicks
Cake Ingredients (makes 6 6-inch round cakes, ideally baked in 2 rounds for your sanity)
- 4 cups all-purpose flour
- 3 cups granulated sugar
- 1 1/2 cup cocoa powder
- 3 teaspoons baking powder
- 3 teaspoons baking soda
- 3 teaspoons salt
- 4 large eggs
- 2 cups milk
- 1 cup vegetable oil
- 2 tablespoons vanilla extract
- 2 cups boiling water
- 3 cups butter (at room temperature)
- 12 tablespoons of milk
- 6-8 tablespoons of bourbon (plus a nip or two for yourself)
- 6 cups of powdered (confectioner's) sugar
- 1 1/2 tablespoons of vanilla extract
Meringue for Feathers (If you have a scale, I find it better to measure the meringue by weight)
- 6 egg whites (about 200 grams)
- 1 3/4 cups of sugar (400 grams)
For the Owl's Features
- 1/4 cup melting chocolate chips (used to create modeling chocolate for eyes and beak. You can purchase colored melting chocolate or use white chips and add food coloring)
- 1/4 tablespoon corn syrup (used to create modeling chocolate for eyes and beak)
- Food coloring of your choosing
- 1/3 cup sugar (used to create the eyes)
- 3 tablespoons water (used to create the eyes)
- 1 1/2 tablespoons corn syrup (used to create the eyes)
- Flowers, branches, or other decor for the setting
Some Helpful Tips
- This isn't the easiest creation to move once it's built, so you may want to build the cake on a flat board or in its final location.
- You can make your buttercream non-boozy or another flavor. Just swap out the bourbon for whatever flavoring element you prefer.
- Think about the colors you want the owl's features to be before you begin: this has implications for the modeling chocolate and eyes.
Step 1: Let's Bake a Cake
Let's bake a cake...or, rather, let's bake 6 6-inch round cakes, cut them to size, slice them in half and then stack them ever so delicately. Here's how we do that.
Take your ingredients and divide in half. Make the first batch of 3 cakes:
- Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees F.
- Line your pan with parchment paper to keep the cake from sticking and driving you insane.
- Combine the dry ingredients in a bowl or stand mixer and mix.
- Meanwhile, combine all the wet ingredients except the boiling water, and whisk until combined.
- Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients (again, except the boiling water) and beat at a medium speed until smooth.
- Pour in the boiling water and beat at a low speed for another 2 minutes or so.
- Fill your pans evenly, and put into the oven.
- Bake for about 40-45 minutes, using the toothpick test to guide you.
- Once done, let the cakes cool in the pan another 10 minutes.
- Remove from pans, wrap in plastic wrap, and set aside until carving time.
Step 2: Let's Make the Boozy Buttercream
- Bring butter to room temperature. Beat on medium-low until light and fluffy.
- With your mixer running, add powdered sugar gradually, 1 tsp at a time, until you've used it all.
- With your mixer running, add bourbon, 1 tsp at a time, until you've used it all.
- With your mixer running, add milk, 1 tsp at a time, until you've used it all.
Refrigerate the buttercream until ready to use.
Step 3: Let's Make the Owl's Features
Your owl will have eyes made of modeling chocolate and sugar glass, and a beak of modeling chocolate.
To make the modeling chocolate for the pupils and beak:
- If you are using white chocolate and adding food coloring, you'll want to reduce the portions so you have enough chocolate of each color.
- Melt chocolate over low heat, stirring constantly. Chocolate is very finicky. Don't over-melt: stop when it's just become liquid, and remove from the heat.
- If you are using white chocolate, add the food coloring now.
- Continue to stir as you add the corn syrup. It will begin to form a ball.
- While the ball is still hot, remove from the pan and wrap quickly in plastic wrap.
- Allow the ball to cool (90 minutes is best, but you can probably do 60).
- After cooling, shape the chocolate into a beak and black pupils.
Alternatively, you could use fondant and food coloring instead of making modeling chocolate.
To make the sugar glass eyes, you'll need to work quickly.
- Make small molds from tin foil and melon baller
- Combine all ingredients (sugar, water, corn syrup) in a small pot and heat to 300 degrees. (Use your thermometer to measure. If you don't have a thermometer, heat until the mixture is thick and all the water has evaporated, creating a viscous syrup.)
- Turn off the heat. Working very quickly, add the food coloring of your choice, and pour the mixture into molds. (I made different sizes to see which would work best). Let cool for at least 10 minutes.
- Press the pupils onto the center of each glass eyeball.
Step 4: Make a Fluffy Meringue
Make a Swiss meringue by combining egg whites and sugar in a bowl of a stand mixer set over a pot of boiling water. Using a metal whisk, whisk constantly until the mixture reaches 160 degrees F. Remove from heat and attach to the mixer. Whisk on medium until stiff peaks form and the bowl reaches room temperature (longer thank you think - about 10 min).
Note that meringue needs to be used right away. You may want to build your owl first and then whip up the meringue and decorate.
Step 5: Let's Build the Owl
Now that your cakes are baked, your meringue and buttercream are whipped, and your owl's features are shaped, it is time to assemble the owl.
- Slice each of the 6 cakes in half horizontally, so you have 12 thin rounds.
- Trim the cakes to create the different widths needed to create the owl's body, leaving two untrimmed for the thickest portion of your owl. For this owl, the diameter of its bottom and neck were just under 4 inches.
- Cut a small hole in the center of each of the cakes to fit it over your center structure (mine was a paper towel holder).
- Stack your cakes, adhering them to each other with the bourbon buttercream.
- Once your owl's body is stacked, cover it with a very thin layer of buttercream to create a smooth surface for its meringue feathers.
- Fill your piping bag with meringue. I used an attachment used to make leaves. Starting from the bottom up, pipe its feathers. Pull away from the cake as you pipe to create the spike.
- Leave room for the eyes and beak.
- Remove your sugar glass from its molds and press black pupils onto them.. Press lightly into the cake. (The buttercream should hold the without problem).
- Push a toothpick into the back of the beak, and press into position on the cake.
- Touch up your Drunken Owl as needed, and celebrate that you made it this far without making any owl-related puns!