If you have a school-aged child in a California public school, you will most likely encounter the fourth grade California Mission Project which includes creating a model of your child's mission of choice. Having two children go through this process I've seen our share of missions made out of foamcore, clay, pasta, cardboard, styrofoam.... After my son picked Mission Santa Cruz and we went on a road trip to visit and photograph it, he declared that he wanted his mission made out of chocolate cake with orange buttercream. As a foodie mom, I jumped at the idea. I also loved that we would not have a mission model gathering dust next to the science fair display boards.
It took coordination with the teacher, and the timing was a bit of a challenge. Final assembly needs to happen the day of display and consumption. But it was a big hit with the teacher and the kids who got to tuck into chocolate cake during the mission presentations. It was such a win with my little boy that we went on to make a strawberry shortcake Mt. McKinley for his Alaska assignment for the fifth grade State Project. And for his sixth grade geology final project, he made an abandoned stone quarry out of chocolate cake and berry jello. I suspect more cake architecture is in our future.
The most important thing to know going into a project like this is that is needs to happen across at least two days - more realistically 3 or 4 if you include the design phase. It also probably require some last minute assembly the morning it gets turned in, unless you have a truly gigantic refrigerator.
Step 1: Ingredients and Materials
• Lots of hands and helpers
• 3-5 pans of 8x8 chocolate cake, depending on the size and scale of your mission
• more buttercream frosting than you think - we made 4 batches
• food coloring for frosting
• flavoring for buttercream (optional - we did orange extract)
• a batch of your favorite sugar or butter cookie dough for fences, gates, gravestones, etc.
• icing for cookies (we used store-bought black icing in a squeeze tube)
• green and black colored sugar
• foam core for base and reinforcements as needed
• tracing or parchment paper to draw out the model to scale
• plastic wrap
• toothpicks or wooden skewers
• decorations like model trees, a cross, etc.
• lots of spatulas
• frosting tubes
Step 2: Design and Pre-Assembly
1. Design: We started by calculating the scale and size of the mission, sketching in out, and drawing the base of the mission onto a large roll piece of tracing paper. This became our reference that we could place different pieces of the model on to size them as we worked.
2. Baking: We baked our sheets of chocolate cake, relying on cake mix. We also baked our sugar cookies in the shape of gravestones and different sizes for the gates and fences, since we weren't sure exactly what size they would end up be fully baked.
3. Preparing Cake: After the cake cooled, we leveled the pieces. This means removing the cake from the pan and cutting the rounded top flat with a long knife so it will lay flat.
4. Freeze Cake: We wrapped each piece in plastic wrap and froze for several hours to make nice clean cuts to the cake with less crumbling.
5. Make Frosting: We made 4 batches of buttercream frosting. One of them we colored terracota brown. It was trial and error getting the right color, but we did it with a standard batch of primary color food colors.
6. Cutting Cake: We cut the pieces of cake according to our scale model guide. We kept wrapping them up in plastic wrap and putting them in the freezer as we went along. The structures were mainly rectangular blocks. The roofs were cut diagonally.
7. Pre-Assembly: After the cut cake pieces hardened up in the refrigerator, we started laying them out and giving a pre-coat of white frosting. This is when we started testing and tweaking the scale and the design. The main building we made from one layer of cake, with a roof layer on top. There were some structures that were two layers of cake. The tower was three.
8: Reinforcements: We determined in this phase that the tower needed reinforcing, so we glued together two piece of foamcore, reinforced with skewers, to sit in the center of the bell tower between the layers of cake.
Depending on your timing, you can move right to final assembly, or you can put all the cake in the freezer or fridge and finish the cake off the next day.
Step 3: Final Assembly
1. Building: Using the design sketched on the tracing paper as a guide, we assembled the base of the mission piece by piece on the foamcore, frosting as we went along. The tower was the trickiest bit. We stacked two pieces of cake, two pieces of foamcore, and then another piece of cake, and reinforced with skewers. We put a cake dome at the very top.
2. Roofing: The roof pieces went on top, after all the white building pieces were frosted. They got a layer of brown frosting. We used a skewer to create a tile pattern.
3. Decorating: We used a frosting tube to fill in chinks in the white frosting, and to make the doors and windows out of brown frosting. We also put white frosting on the ground and dusted with green sugar for grassy areas and black sugar for dirt. We added some accessories like model trees for the orchard, and a little cross made out of toothpicks for the top of the bell tower. Then we decorated our cookies, and put them in the appropriate places for the graveyard, fences, and gates.
4. Hugs: Last and most important are the final hugs of thanks and satisfaction for a major and yummy project well done!
Step 4: Repeat
1. Repeated process with a strawberry shortcake Mt. McKinley
2. Repeated again with a chocolate cake stone quarry with berry jello.