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Yes, I promised cupcakes. Yes, this is a cake large enough to feed a family of giants (or in my case, a smaller than average sized family with someone who has a larger than average appetite for cake). Don't worry, I haven't forgotten about the cupcakes. It's just that after all that Christmas baking, which continues long after Christmas is over, plus baking this cake for my son's birthday right after, I just can't bring myself to work on another baking project at the moment. I'll probably break things up with at least one non-dessert recipe.
Right after I finished my last batch of Christmas cookies, I got really sick of baking. Which is almost unheard of for me. Probably two days later, I was busy working on something and I literally said out loud "Ugh, I wish I had time to make a batch of cookies. That sounds so fun right now." Good thing I had this cake to keep me busy shortly after!
I was pretty disappointed in the cake mix I used. Actually, it was awful. Partially my fault and partially the cake mix's fault. I'll get into that later but don't worry, I included the good cake mix in the recipe. It's the same cake mix that I used in Allen's first birthday cake last year.
Just like last year, I decided I'm going to make notes of what I did right and what I should have done differently. I took years off from cake decorating and now that everything is gluten free and dairy free, I have to learn how to work with these new ingredients. I definitely didn't make as many mistakes this time around but wow, it's surprisingly different from what I was used to.
Also like last year, I spent a long time trying to decide whether or not to go through the effort of posting the cake here. I think people like looking at cakes like these and drawing inspiration from them but not following through step by step to make the entire thing. I figured I'd just put it out there anyways and if people just want a dairy free buttercream recipe, a recommendation for a really good gluten free cake mix, some decorating inspiration, or even just want to know what piping tips I used, they can pull that from the recipe. I also made myself a stencil to help with positioning the lettering on the cake so I am making that available to download too.
What I learned
From the beginning, I should have noticed a huge red flag. I've never ever had cakes stick to the pan with the method I use but my first batch of cakes were really difficult to get out. The tops were also cracked a little. I hear nothing but good things about the brand that I used so I figured I just forgot what a good cake is supposed to look like and proceeded to make the next batch.
When leveling the cakes, they seemed really delicate and easy to tear. I sampled the scraps and thought it was just a little dry and not a very good vanilla flavor compared to the Bob's Red Mill cake mix (which has become my go-to cake mix). This flavor almost reminded me of a something with vanilla extract where the alcohol hadn't been "cooked out" of it if that makes any sense. It definitely left a taste in my mouth. But I figured after adding in all the buttercream it would moisten up the cake and give it a better flavor.
On the day of the party, we got really bad weather and had to postpone a day so I ended up putting the finished cake in the fridge. It would have been safe out one more day. I'm used to fondant covered cakes which really protect the cake from drying out in the fridge. I thought the frosting would work the same way but it was honestly the most dry, terrible tasting cake I've ever had. I don't think it was just the refrigeration that caused the issue either because the cake scraps I left on the counter in an airtight container had dried out too.
TL;DR: stick with a good quality cake mix and avoid refrigeration.
Our son loves vanilla flavors and cookie monster is like his spirit animal so I decided to make a vanilla cookies and cream buttercream using gluten free vanilla sandwich cookies. It wasn't worth it. I would have rather saved the cookies for a snack. It just added to the price of the cake and since they were vanilla (white in color) you couldn't see them in the buttercream. I couldn't even tell they were there because there was no change in flavor and they had softened so they really blended into the filling. I actually feel like it just made the already dry cake seem even dryer because you'd get patches of cookie in the frosting.
If you want to make a cookies and cream flavor, I'd try the gluten free chocolate sandwich cookies. That way you're incorporating a chocolate flavor into vanilla (instead of adding vanilla to vanilla) and people can visually see there is something added to the filling so no surprises. To incorporate the cookies, crush them up and mix them into the buttercream. I think I used about 1 1/2 cups of crumbs.
TL;DR: vanilla cookies and cream buttercream was a dumb idea
Gel Food Coloring
I definitely missed this important ingredient last year and used regular food coloring. The idea that a gel food coloring that's both gluten free and in the colors I needed just didn't even cross my mind. I'm glad I took a second to look and find what I needed.
Gel food coloring lets you avoid adding too much moisture to frostings and fondants while coloring them, especially if you need to use a lot for darker, bolder colors. Additionally, I was able to find a white gel food coloring which worked great for making (somewhat abstract) stars on the cake. I just used a food-safe paintbrush to flick the white food coloring on there. It was perfect and a lot of fun to do.
I almost got this one right. I was right to assume nobody wanted blue teeth and that the outer layer of frosting wouldn't be eaten. There was plenty of filling so frosting on the outside wasn't necessary in terms of taste anyways. I figured, why bother with a buttercream containing expensive dairy free butter if it's not going to be eaten? I had plenty of shortening so I decided to just use piping icing to frost the cake instead of buttercream.
Where I had issues was with the shortening. I have switched to Spectrum palm shortening because it was the only brand I knew for sure was gluten free. The bonus is that it's non-hydrogenated. I may eat like crap but hydrogenated fats is where I draw the line, even in desserts.
If you're used to working with Crisco or a traditional shortening, you'll notice that the Spectrum shortening has a more airy, whipped feeling to it. Since I measured by volume and the product felt much less dense, I believe I added far less shortening by weight than my original recipe calls for. I realized it was stiffening up faster than usual and slowed down adding the powdered sugar. I think I only added 3/4 of the amount of powdered sugar I used to use but the icing was still too stiff. You can tell because of how jagged the edges of some of the piping work is.
TL;DR: Nobody's going to eat the frosting on the outside of the cake for fear of blue teeth - just use piping icing since it's more affordable. When making the icing, very gradually add powdered sugar until it's stiff enough. It's unlikely you'll use all the powdered sugar if you use the shortening I linked to.
Yes, my piping icing was too stiff but I'm really not good at writing on cakes. I had already designed the cake on the computer (I know, I get carried away) so I separated out the text area and printed it to a scale that would fit on an 8 inch round cake top. Then I used an X-ACTO knife to cut out the letters. No, it's not an exact transfer to the cake. I don't think I could make that work. Instead, I took the stencil I made, positioned it on the cake where I wanted it, then I traced the letters with a toothpick. Those toothpick marks acted as my guide so I spaced everything out right, wrote in straight lines, centered everything, and made my letters the right size. I also tried to mimic the fonts as much as possible.
If you're good at writing on cakes, it's far easier to skip the stencil but if you lack the confidence and really need some help, I thought the stencil was very useful, even though it took a little extra time.
Another idea is to freehand the toothpick marks on your cake then trace over them with the frosting. With piping, you have to move at a certain speed but you can really take your time marking it off with a toothpick first.
TL;DR: If you're good at writing on cakes, skip the stencil. If you're not good at writing on cakes, give the stencil a try!
Learn to make this moon birthday cake for your favorite 2 year old using only gluten free, dairy free ingredients. Includes step by step photos and stencil.
*Please see notes section at bottom of recipe first*
Cake (steps 1-5):
- 2 bags Bobs red mill gluten free vanilla yellow cake mix
- about 2 Tbsp Spectrum palm shortening (Crisco may contain gluten), divided
- 1/4 C gluten free all purpose flour
- 2 eggs, divided
- 6 egg whites, divided
- 1 C dairy free butter substitute, melted, divided
- 1 C water, divided
**You may need more than one batch of buttercream and piping icing. Ingredient amounts listed below are per batch**
Vanilla "buttercream" (dairy free) filling, (steps 9-11):
- 1 lb powdered sugar
- 1/2 C almond milk
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 1/2 tsp vanilla
- 1 C dairy free butter substitute, softened and cut into 1/2 inch slices
- 1/2 C Spectrum palm shortening (Crisco may contain gluten)
Piping icing (steps 12-15):
- 2 lb bag powdered sugar (may not use all of it)
- 1 3/4 C Spectrum palm shortening (Crisco may contain gluten)
- 1/4 C water
- 2 tsp vanilla (not necessary if you aren't planning on eating the piping icing)
- Black, royal blue, and purple gel food coloring, as needed
- white gel food coloring, as needed
Special equipment needed:
- 2 8 inch round cake pans (make sure the walls are at a 90º angle to the base and don't taper outward like a pie pan would)
- cooling rack
- printer and printer paper - optional
- scissors - optional
- X-ACTO knife - optional
- self-healing cutting mat - optional
- 10 inch cake circle/cake board (I found plastic reusable ones but couldn't find them online. Something like these cardboard cake circles would work too)
- Lazy susan/cake turntable - optional but recommended!
- angled spatula
- piping bags
- small food safe paint-brush
- Wilton tip #107
- Wilton tip #2
- Wilton tip #101
- birthday candles
- Preheat oven to required temperature as indicated on your packages of cake mix (325ºF for Bob’s Red Mill brand).
- Use shortening to thoroughly grease two 8 inch round cake pans – you’ll want to make sure there are no bare spots. Add about a tablespoon of gluten free flour to each pan and completely coat the greased surface with the flour by rotating and tapping the pan. Feel free to add extra flour if needed – any excess flour can be dumped out or saved for the next batch of cake. Just make sure there are no large clumps of flour, especially in the edges of the pan that would create dents in the cake. Set aside.
- Follow instructions on the package to prepare the first cake mix batter (I just did one package at a time). For the Bob’s Red Mill cake mix, you’ll want to reference the “white cake variation” instructions. Divide this first batch evenly between the two cake pans. Bake according to package directions. Move on to step 6 while waiting on the cakes to bake and cool but as soon as the first batch of cake comes out of the oven, come back to steps 4 and 5.
- Once the first batch of cake finishes baking, move the pans to a cooling rack and set a timer for 15 minutes. While the cakes are cooling in the pans, prepare the next package of cake mix and set the batter aside.
- Once the 15 minute timer elapses, gently jiggle the cake pans until the cake moves around freely. At this point, you can flip them out of the pan and onto the cooling rack without the cake breaking. Wash and completely dry the cake pans and prep again as you did in step 2. Repeat the same process to bake, cool, and remove the cake from the pans.
- If you are proficient with piping lettering onto a cake, it may be easier to skip making a stencil and proceed to step 9. However, if you would like a guide for letter placement and size, I found the stencil to be really helpful. Just know that you cannot make an exact transfer of the stencil to the cake - instead, you will trace it onto the frosted cake using a toothpick and the toothpick marks will act as your guide while piping. If you decide you want to make the stencil, you can download the stencil here and print out page 2.
- Position the printout on a self-healing cutting mat. One with a non-slip bottom is safest. Very carefully use an X-ACTO knife to cut out the letters and discard them. The easiest way to do that without tearing the paper is to make all your vertical cuts first then go back and make the horizontal cuts and other angles with the aim being to avoid putting a lot of pull on a delicate area of the paper. The letters don’t have to be perfectly clean, just clear enough to trace a toothpick through it onto the cake.
- Use scissors to cut the gray oval area of the stencil. Set aside.
- Gather the ingredients needed to make the vanilla buttercream. In a stand mixer with a whisk attachment, combine the powdered sugar, salt, vanilla, and almond milk on low speed until smooth.
- Add the dairy free butter one slice at a time until incorporated. Add the shortening then whip at the highest speed for about 10 minutes or until it appears to have doubled in volume. Set aside to use as your cake filling later.
- Make a second batch of buttercream if you'd like to use it to frost your cake. (Since there's plenty of filling in terms of taste and the outside frosting will be colored so dark that you might not want to eat it, it's cheaper to just use the piping icing on the outside instead of a second batch of buttercream). If you decide to make the second batch of buttercream, divide it into thirds and use the food coloring listed under the piping icing ingredients to color the portions black, blue, and purple. You can add a drop or two of black to the blue and purple buttercreams if you want to darken them a bit. Set aside.
- Gather ingredients needed to make the piping icing. In a stand mixer with a paddle attachment, cream together the shortening, water, and vanilla extract. Slowly sift in the powdered sugar - you may not use all of it. Continue mixing in the powdered sugar until the frosting is stiff enough to pipe but not dry. (How much powdered sugar you use depends on the type of shortening. My original piping icing recipe calls for the entire bag but I'm not used to working with this new non-hydrogenated shortening I had to switch to and I probably only put in 6 cups of powdered sugar but it was too stiff.)
- Reserve about 1/4-1/3 C of the icing to pipe the lettering on with. This should give you plenty of icing to practice with if you need to. You can color it if you want but I kept it white. Store it in an airtight container with plastic wrap coating the top of the icing so it doesn't dry out.
- Portion out about a half cup of the icing to make the moon. Add a drop of black gel food coloring at a time until you achieve a light gray color. Set aside until ready to use, storing it the same way you stored the white icing in step 13.
- (Skip this step if you decided to make colored buttercream in step 11.) The remainder of the piping icing will be colored black, blue, and purple. You may need to make a second batch of piping icing at this point in order to cover the entire cake. You can get away with a fairly thin layer but having more makes things easier. Separate the icing into thirds and color the first third black. Repeat with the other two portions but color them blue and purple. You can add a drop or two of black to darken those colors if you prefer. Set each of these aside until ready to use, storing them the same way as described in step 13.
- After the cakes have cooled completely, use a bread knife, cake leveler, or your preferred method to level the cakes.
- If you’re wrapping the cake board in any sort of decorative foil, do that now (I chose not to do this). Place the cake board centered on the lazy susan and smear a small dollop of the piping icing you made onto the middle of the cake board. Place one of your four cake layers in the middle of the cake board so it’s secured by the icing smear.
- If you've never stacked and filled a cake before, Wilton has a really good tutorial. I was having a hard time writing the instructions in a way that was clear. If you're familiar with the process, this step should make sense. Fill a piping bag (you don't necessarily need a tip) with the buttercream you made in steps 9-10 (non-colored) and pipe a dam of frosting on top of your first layer. Fill inside the dam with more buttercream and use the angled spatula to spread it evenly. Top with the next layer and repeat until you get to the top (the top won’t need frosting over it). When you get to the very top layer, I recommend placing it leveled side down so you get the clean edges from the cake pan on top. Use the remaining buttercream to fill in any gaps between the layers so you have one solid stack of cake (this is where a piping bag is helpful).
- Use a small amount of the colored icing/buttercream (blue, black, or purple) to make a very thin layer of frosting all over the cake. Note that this is to be a crumb coat, not the actual finished cake frosting. It's not meant to be even, perfect, or beautiful. A crumb coat is a very thin layer of frosting meant to adhere any loose crumbs to the cake which prevents them from getting into your decorative frosting that will be seen on the outside.
- Use an angled spatula to place a few globs of blue icing onto the top and sides of the cake. Just randomly position them. Drag the angled spatula or an icing smoother around the cake to smooth the globs into streaks. You'll still have a lot of crumbcoat showing and that's fine for now.
- Place globs of purple icing over any areas where you still see crumbcoat. You don't have to hit all of them since we still need to add black but really start filling in the gaps. Streak the purple in the same manner you did the blue.
- Repeat with the black icing but this will be the final layer so be sure no cake or crumb coat is showing at this point and that the colors are distributed to your liking. Smooth it out as best as you can to finish without over-blending the 3 colors. You can finish smoothing it with parchment paper but I've never been good at this method so I skipped it if you couldn't tell ;)
- Squeeze a little white gel food coloring into a small bowl. Dip a small food-safe paint brush (stiffer or angled brushes work best) into the food coloring and drag your finger along the bristles in order to flick the white color onto the cake. (It will look like stars. You can practice this technique on some black frosting smeared onto a scrap piece of parchment paper or other material.) I did a cluster of these white "stars" on one area of the cake in order to make it look kind of like the milky way.
- Now you'll need to get an outline of the moon on the top of the cake using a toothpick. You can free-hand this if you're confident or you can make a quick and easy stencil. To make the stencil, you'll need a standard sized sheet of printer paper, one of the cake pans you used to bake your cake, a pencil, and scissors. Use the bottom of the cake pan to trace a circle onto the paper. This circle is the same diameter as your cake. Now slide the cake pan to the side until the uncovered area of the paper shows the size crescent moon you want. Trace the outside of the cake pan and you'll be left with a crescent shape to cut out on your paper. (You can touch up with your pencil if you'd like the middle thicker, more drastic taper, etc).
- After you've cut out the crescent moon, position it on the top of your cake with the outside edge of the crescent touching the edge of the cake. Once it's positioned where you like it, gently use a toothpick to trace the moon onto your cake. Carefully remove the paper. (You can see in the photos that I did this step and the next one at the same time.)
- (Skip this step if you aren't using a stencil for the lettering.) Place the lettering stencil you made in steps 6-8 on the non-moon area of your cake. After you have it lined up right, trace the letters with a toothpick the same way you traced the moon. Carefully remove the stencil.
- Now you can pipe the design onto the cake. To make the moon, attach a Wilton tip #107 to a piping bag and fill it with the gray piping icing you made in step 14. Pipe the gray icing into the moon shape on your cake - I did swirls and filled in the bare spots with "dots" of the icing.
- To pipe the text, it's easiest to use one bag with a coupler attached so you can switch out tips. Otherwise, go ahead and use 2 bags. Fill the piping bag with the white icing you reserved in step 13. Attach a Wilton tip #2 and write the text "let's go" and "the moon", using the toothpick marks as your guide if you made them. Switch the tip out for Wilton tip #101 to write the word "TWO". If you make a small mistake and your icing is stiff enough, you can generally pick off a letter using a toothpick and try again.
- Once everything is to your liking, insert the candles and it's ready to enjoy!
I've linked to many of the products I used for this recipe which worked for me (severely gluten intolerant and mild dairy allergy) but if you have food allergies/intolerances or are cooking for someone who does, please thoroughly research the ingredients you buy and follow safe practices to prevent the cross contamination of any problematic allergens while cooking.
Need to make this over 2 days instead of in a single day? Day 1: bake and cool cakes, make stencil, and level cakes. Wrap each cake layer in plastic wrap and store in an airtight container (I used a cake carrier) on the counter overnight. Day 2: stack and fill cake layers, apply crumbcoat, frost cake/decorate.
Even if you own four of those 8 inch round cake pans, you don't want to put four pans in the oven at the same time unless they all fit on the same rack. If you have some on the top rack and some on the bottom, they won't bake correctly.