We used the Williams-Sonoma "Railway Cake Pan" to build the cake itself, and a variety of candy to do the decorating.
Step 1: Mix the Cake
I used the Williams-Sonoma Railway pan to make this.
Grease the pan like there's no tomorrow. I mean it!
Mix the batter according to the instructions in the "Vanilla Train Cake" recipe.
Fill up the cups in the pan, ONLY THREE QUARTERS OF THE WAY FULL. Don't fill up the pan all the way to the top or you will have a massive mess to clean up later (I learned the hard way!).
After you have filled the cups use a spoon (or whatever) to push the batter up the sides of the cups. If you don't do this, when the cakes rise they will mush themselves into a weird shape and your train will not have any place to put the wheels. (I learned this the hard way too.) Make sure you do a good job with the engine.
Step 2: Bake the Cake
Once the cake is done, you'll find that the cars have a dome on the top (really the bottom) which would make it difficult to display them. I just took a big knife and sawed them off, flush with the top of the pan, so that the tops (bottoms when inverted) would be flat.
Then, place a large, flat, rigid kitchen item of any nature (cutting board, cookie sheet, whatever) on top of the cake pan. VERY CAREFULLY invert the cake pan - Voila! Your train cars are right side up.
HINT: I recommend that you put a sheet of wax paper on the cutting board before you invert. The reason for this is that the bottom of the cars (which you just cut off flush with the pan) are very sticky and after they've cooled, can leave parts of themselves behind when you move them off the cutting board.
You will need to repeat this process until the batter is gone. In this case we only ended up with 15 cars total. The available types of train car include: Engine, Coal Car, Caboose, Tanker, Boxcar, Cargo Car. The last one is the most fun to decorate!
Once all is done, let the cars cool for a while. Refrigerate them if you plan to wait until the next day to decorate, or you might find that ants discover and eat your cars in the middle of the night, and you have to bake new ones at the last minute. At least if you live in South Florida, they might.
Step 3: Prepare the Candy
I got some of this stuff at SuperTarget, and the rest at Fuzziwig's. (I am lucky enough to have a really cool candy store near me called Fuzziwig's Candy Factory where they sell everything from the world's largest Pez dispensers to the world's smallest jawbreakers.)
Here's what I had for candy:
Twizzlers (for the train tracks - I've also seen it done with Kit Kat bars).
Smarties, regular (for the car wheels)
Smarties, large (for the engine back wheels)
Rock candy stick (for the smoke stack - can also use mini-marshmellows on a toothpick)
mini gum drops (from Fuzziwig's - we didn't end up using these but they are so cute)
The World's Smallest Jawbreakers (Fuzziwig's)
Andes Peppermint crushed pieces (important that they were peppermint, since this meant they were red and white - our theme colors)
Skittles (didn't end up using them)
Runts (very important!)
Spice Drops (non-essential, but fun to eat while decorating)
Store bought frosting (cheap, and better than what I make - take my word for it)
Food coloring (the gel kind... i don't think it would make a difference, but we liked this kind)
Stuff you should have if you want to do this for Christmas:
powdered sugar (for snow)
sifter (for distributing the above)
We didn't end up using the mixer. We just mixed the frosting up in little bowls.
Step 4: Optional: Sort the Runts.
Doesn't it just look better this way?
We discovered that those funny looking yellow runts are meant to be pineapples. Not relevant to our project so we left them in the bag with the red ones.
Step 5: Make the Board
Just make sure to use pretty sturdy cardboard.
Step 6: Frosting Time!
Get the frosting bags ready.
To make black frosting (for the coal car): mix all the colors together in a tiny bowl with a tiny bit of white frosting. You don't need much for that coal car. The black frosting was my friend's idea and I was very impressed. Sure, it sounds kind of obvious once you know it, but I never thought of this on my own.
To make pink use a tiny bit of red coloring. Later, when you are ready to use red, take your pink frosting, add more red, and voila! you have red frosting without making extra dirty dishes.
Step 7: Construct the Track and Build the Train
Throw the Twizzlers in the microwave for about twenty seconds, before you work with them. They'll bend much more easily and you will be able to get that curvy train track shape.
Glue the Twizzlers down with frosting.
To get the cross pieces to lie flat we cut little chunks out of them with kitchen shears - think Lincoln Log designs.
Once you're done building the track, place the train cars on it however you see fit. I suggest you start with the engine and end with the caboose, but hey, what do I know. I'm not a railroad engineer.
Step 8: Decorate the Cars!
If you find that your frosting is going on in a funny shape, try wiping the tip of the decorating thing with a paper towel. Turns out that the frosting collects there and makes the lines less sharp.
Make sure that you press into the side of the cake a little bit when you put lines on. This will make the beginning of the line clear.
Put some PAM on your finger if you need to adjust the frosting - this way you can push it around without it sticking to your finger. (I suggest spraying the PAM on a plate, and then putting your finger in it, rather than holding your finger up in the air and spraying the PAM. We tried it both ways.)
We used the rock candy for the smoke stack, obviously. The wheels were Smarties (the engine has big Smarties for the back wheels - and they have hearts on them, awwwww).
A very important tip: if your five year old walks up behind you and startles you, don't jump and stab the tanker car with your frosting bag. It makes it slightly less pretty than the other, un-stabbed, cars.
Step 9: Brag; Enjoy.
Take pictures of the train and send them to all your friends, proving how domestic and creative you can be. (Clean up the counter first so you can really impress them with how clean the kitchen is right after a project of this magnitude.)
Let your little (or big) boys eat the train. (Undertake this last step with great caution. The train has a lot of sugar and can make them go really crazy. But what's life without a little sugar-induced hyperactivity sometimes.)
Enjoy your beautiful, delicious train!