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I’ve missed decorating cakes so much! You may have seen me mention or read in my bio that my passion for cooking began with cake decorating. After being diagnosed with gluten intolerance, I gave up cake decorating for a while because 1) I had to start cooking all my own meals so there was no extra time to make cakes, 2) I was unsure if certain decorating ingredients were safe for me, 3) I had my doubts that a cake without gluten would be sturdy enough to hold multiple layers and heavy decorations, and 4) I had to replace all my decorating equipment that had touched gluten which is so expensive! The idea of picking it up again was overwhelming.
I took care of my urge to bake by re-learning how to bake, this time using unfamiliar gluten free flours and other ingredients. I stopped sharing large cakes with people and started a blog to share my own original recipes. I also switched my creative outlet from cake decorating to food styling and food photography for the blog. All of this kept me happy but I still had the itch to make more cakes.
My son’s first birthday was in December and I decided to just go for it! He’s obsessed with cars and wheels (and anything that kind of looks like it might be a wheel) so I started thinking of how I could make a cake look like a car or the simpler shape – a tire.
I was at a loss on how to make the tread so I started searching Pinterest and yes, this had been done many, many times before. I really liked the tread pattern used on the website “Yes It’s Cake” so I tried to imitate that pattern.
Now, keep in mind, I wasn’t great at cake decorating before this and it’s been about seven years since I last tried! I took a few shortcuts that I knew better than to take and unfortunately, it shows. And those “shortcuts” really only saved a few minutes over the span of a nine hour project so it wasn’t worth it. I’ll tell you where I cut corners and what I would do different next time.
I think the most obvious mistake was the piping icing. I couldn’t find my recipe for the icing I usually make (which wouldn’t have even taken 10 minutes) so I just used the store bought stuff and figured I’d add powdered sugar to stiffen it. Except I lost my patience and didn’t add the powdered sugar. Since the icing was too runny, the grass didn’t hold a nice shape and many strands were too long. Thankfully, I found my icing recipe so I could at least include it in this post.
The other negative outcome from not making my own icing was that I also used it as my crumb coat and it was too wet. This caused my fondant to moisten and pull away from the cake. It actually developed a hole and slid partway off which has never happened to me before! I’ll admit, I was a little horrified ;) I patched it up but you can see what I mean about it sliding/pulling away in the photo right where the light hits the side.
I thought maybe I didn’t use enough powdered sugar in my fondant because it was a little wet after I rolled it out on the shortening greased countertop. I really forgot what it was supposed to feel like and just kind of guessed. However, now I think it was wet because I used regular food coloring instead of gel. I know you’re supposed to use gel coloring for fondant but I didn’t even think to check for gluten free gel food coloring. Turns out, it exists! (Update: I used it in the frosting on my son’s 2nd birthday cake and it seems to works well!) The wet fondant combined with the wetter crumb coat contributed to that hole I mentioned. I tried to let the fondant dry out a little by leaving the lid off the cake carrier as long as possible but there was no saving it.
I also wish I would have replaced my fondant rolling pin. Oh man, that was tough to get the fondant over the cake without one! I literally wrapped it over my forearm to lift it up without it tearing. Seriously, get a fondant rolling pin. And a lazy susan – I wasn’t able to find mine until about a week after I made the cake. Thankfully I was able to hide most of the bumps in my fondant with the tire tread pieces.
There was actually one area I cut corners on and it probably turned out better! I typically only decorate my cake with edible ingredients and planned on making sugar cookie cars but they probably would have been too big. I asked Lenny to pick up a red or blue toy car so he picked those and I love the way they look on the cake. He even found a CRX which he used to drive so that was a really neat addition!
Learn how to decorate a cake using only gluten free ingredients. I made this vanilla cake decorated in a tire tread pattern for my son’s first birthday.
*Please see notes section at bottom of recipe first*
- Black gel food coloring, as needed
- one batch of marshmallow fondant, dyed with the black food coloring
- 2 bags Bobs red mill gluten free vanilla yellow cake mix
- 2 1/4 C Spectrum palm shortening, divided (Crisco may contain gluten)
- 1/4 C gluten free all purpose flour
- 2 eggs
- 6 egg whites
- 1 C dairy free butter substitute, melted
- 1 1/4 C water, divided
- 2 tsp gluten free vanilla
- 8 C (32 oz) powdered sugar
- 32 oz (2 jars) gluten free, dairy free frosting of choice (I used Betty Crocker vanilla frosting which doesn’t use dairy ingredients but still carries some risk for containing dairy. Simple Mills is another brand I like and is less sweet.)
- Yellow food coloring, as needed
- Green 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
- 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 bag
- large fondant rolling pin
- fondant smoother
- Printer paper
- Wilton tip #2
- Wilton tip #233
- one or two small toy cars
- birthday candle(s)
- It’s recommended to let the fondant sit overnight so make the fondant (dyed with the black food coloring) the night before you make your cake, if possible. If you like, you can also bake the cakes ahead of time so they have time to completely cool (see next steps).
- Preheat oven to required temperature as indicated on your packages of cake mix (325ºF for Bob’s Red Mill brand).
- Use shortening (or butter substitute if you prefer) to heavily grease the 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.
- As soon as the first batch of cake comes out of the oven, 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 dry the cake pans and prep again as you did in step 3. Repeat the same process to bake, cool, and remove the cake from the pans.
- While the cakes cool the rest of the way, you can make the icing needed for the crumb coat and piping work. In a stand mixer with a paddle attachment, cream together 1 3/4 C of the shortening, 1/4 C of the water, and vanilla. Slowly add the powdered sugar and continue to beat. (It should be stiff.) Transfer to an airtight container and cover the top with a layer of plastic wrap before covering with a lid. You don’t want any air between the plastic wrap and the icing. Set aside.
- Once the cakes have cooled completely, use a bread knife to level them off. You’ll want to make sure the surface is flat then use a basting brush to brush away any loose crumbs.
- 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.
- Spread a thick layer of frosting (the store-bought stuff, not the icing you made) on top of this layer and use the angled spatula to spread it evenly. You can use a piping bag to dispense the frosting if it’s easier for you. 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 frosting to fill in any gaps between the layers so you have one solid stack of cake (this is where a piping bag is helpful).
- Get out the icing you made and if it’s been setting a while, you can whip it in a stand mixer to make it easier to spread. Spread a thin layer of this over the outside of the cake. Note that this layer isn’t for frosting the cake, it’s just to contain any loose crumbs and to allow the fondant to adhere to the cake. Too thick of a layer can cause the fondant to soften and break. After icing, make sure your cake is still stacked nicely before proceeding. Set the cake aside and store the remaining icing as you did before with plastic wrap and an airtight container.
- Clean a large, smooth work surface very well since this is where you’ll roll out your fondant. You can use a countertop or a fondant mat. Set out a bowl with plenty of shortening in it. Grease your cleaned work surface, fondant rolling pin, and hands (sorry) with the shortening. Knead your fondant until it is pliable and roll it out into a circle large enough to fully cover your cake. Use the shortening in the bowl to re-grease anything, as needed. If your fondant gets cracks, holes, or wrinkles, just knead it and roll it out again! You may need to add more powdered sugar if you roll it out too many times because it will absorb a lot of the shortening and become too wet.
- The easiest way to get the fondant onto the cake is to lift up one end and start gently wrapping it around the rolling pin until the entire circle has been wrapped up. Starting at the base of your cake, slowly unroll the fondant up and over the top then back down the other side until it is covered. Grease the fondant smoother with the shortening and gently coax the fondant to lay flat against every surface of the cake, down to the base. Once you work your way down to the base, use a fondant cutter or knife to cut away the excess fondant (save this excess for the next step!). Use a damp paper towel or cotton swabs to clean the exposed area of the cake board. *Tip: If you develop small cracks in the fondant after it’s already on the cake, paint in the area with some of the black food coloring.*
- Knead the excess fondant and roll it out again. Use a fondant cutter or plastic knife (if you rolled the fondant directly on your countertop, be sure to use something that won’t scratch) to cut into tire tread shapes as seen in the finished product photos. Each shape should be about the height of one layer of cake so you get four layers of “tread”. Follow the pattern in the photos to place each shape onto the cake. They should stick without needing to add anything.
- On your printer paper, draw or print a large block lettering style number (the person’s age!). Make sure it will fit on the top of your cake and use scissors to cut it out as nicely as you can. Place this on the top of the cake and use a butterknife or something similar to gently trace around the paper number so you get a shallow indention in the fondant then remove the paper.
- Take a small portion of your piping icing (not much, it’s just to make the yellow lines on the road!) and stir in some yellow food coloring until you get a dark yellow color similar to road markings. Use a piping bag and Wilton tip #2 to pipe road lines along the middle of the number. I just did a single dashed yellow line but you could do double lines or solid lines if you wish. Tip: practice on the paper number to see what looks best to you.
- Mix green food coloring into the remainder of your piping icing until it reaches the shade you’d like for the grass. Put this in a clean piping bag with the Wilton tip #233. Pipe grass all over the top of the cake, staying outside the number you outlined.
- You can also pipe grass around the base of the cake if you like. You could do just a few tufts of grass sticking out from under the tire or pipe to cover up the cake board like I did. It’s whatever you think looks best. Here’s what it looks like without the grass at the base:
- Finally select spots to place the one or two toy cars and candle(s) and you’re finished! (Finally!)
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.
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.