Before I say anything else, I want to apologize for the yucky lighting.
Above is the finished product - a birthday cake for a little boy who loves Thomas and all the other engines and cars and so forth. I'd asked his mom what other trains were some of his favorites, and she told me Percy and either Arthur or Duke. I knew who Percy was, but couldn't recall either of the other two. So I had a little research to do.
The first Thomas cake I ever made (and actually the only other Thomas cake I've done) was for my nephew, Calvin, when he turned 3. Oh, so very long ago. If you've read the post for that cake you may recall that I was less than satisfied with the end result. Especially the eyes. They just didn't look like Thomas's eyes to me. But Calvin, looking at it through his little toddler eyes, loved the cake. "That's the best Thomas I ever saw!" And all my anguish and frustration about the Thomas eyes was for nothing.
I learned a little lesson from that. One that I don't always remember, but from time to time it pops into my head, especially when I'm becoming insanely unhappy with my cake work, and my inability to exactly duplicate something.
So when I was working on this cake, I was, as usual, constantly criticizing my trains in my head. Those voices, you know. They were sniping away at me. Yuck, yuck, yuck - what an ugly cake this is looking like. But then yesterday morning, when I was finishing up all the detail work, Julia came into the kitchen (she really wanted to EAT the cake, but finally accepted that no meant no) and said it looked "beautiful!" Alex thought it looked great, too. And the "lesson-learned" voice piped up "look at it through their eyes!" and I relaxed a bit. This cake was for a little boy who was turning 4. I was not involved in a Food Network Challenge or anything. It was a birthday cake made by me, a non-professional cake-making regular ol' person. Chill. So I did, finally. Once it was done.
Here are a few process pictures - I didn't take many - I just got too engrossed in what I was doing. Plus there's always the panic that sets in. "I'm never going to get this done in time!" I don't need a competition. I create my own stress, thank you very much.
Above you see not one, but two bases for this cake. As you could see in the first photo at the beginning of this post, the little train scene was spread out over the two bases. Initially I had figured on just one base, but it would have been too crowded and orderly, and, well, boring. And once I figured out how much better it would look if it was more sprawling, the whole design fell into place.
The base, by the way, consists of two sets of 2 rectangular cardboard cake bases taped together and then wrapped in foil. The "L" shape was more interesting, visually, than the two rectangles would have been if I'd just lined them up side by side. I made the brown/tan "dirt" out of fondant colored with brown and copper gel coloring. I don't know how much I used - I just colored it until it looked right to me. I like coloring fondant and leaving it with faint streaks and swirls. Again - more interesting for some applications. I think I used about a 1.5 lb piece of fondant to cover the two pieces of cardboard. And actually, they didn't cover things completely. I left bits of foil showing. I covered some later with royal icing grass, but left other areas exposed.
I made two kinds of cake. One was a vanilla pound cake, the other was a chocolate cake. And for the filling, I made a simple ganache of semi-sweet chocolate, heavy cream and a little butter, and then, once that had cooled to room temperature, I whipped it in the stand mixer to change the texture to a more spreadable consistency. There's a little left over. I gave some to my sister. The rest is for me.
Each train is chocolate cake, and the two extra sections of Arthur and Duke are vanilla. The roundhouse (which is not round, I realize) is a layer of chocolate and a layer of vanilla. I baked the roundhouse cakes in a square 8" pan and the train sections were done in little mini-loaf pans but could just as easily have been baked as one square cake and cut into the little train rectangles.
Each train is layered - I sliced the loaf in half, lengthwise, and spread some whipped ganache in the middle. I also carved a bit of the train shape - the roundness of the engines, for instance - but not too much detail, since they were pretty small and would crumble apart if I tried to get too precise. I covered every component - trains, roundhouse - with more whipped ganache, and then covered them with the appropriately colored fondant.
I piped the tracks with black royal icing. And then I set up the scene.
I realize that proportions are way off. Arthur (the red one) could never have come out of that round house. Much too tall at the back end. And Duke is iffy as well.
Anyway, once all that fondant work was done, it was dime to work on the details. I had images of each train saved on my laptop, and I worked with the laptop open nearby so I could make sure I got the correct number of stripes or the right number of wheels, and so forth.
Here, for your entertainment, is a side-by-sidI e comparison of each train - the image I was looking at and the final product. I know - they're not perfect. Trust me - I know.
(Above, you can see my laptop with the images of all the trains. That's my niece, Natalie, in the background. She kept me company while I made the cake. I have no idea what she's doing in this photo. Perhaps stretching out her tired back muscles from all the prolonged standing and sitting she was forced to endure.)
Hmmm, what else. Oh - yes, I decided to do all four trains (Thomas, Percy, and then both Arthur AND Duke, rather than one or the other) because Liam, the little boy, was turning four, and so, hey, four years old, four trains!
Julia kept wanting DESPERATELY to either touch the trains ("I just want to LOOK!" she'd say, while, totally on its own, her index finger would rise up and hover half a millimeter above Arthur). And she wanted to help, which was out of the question. If it had been a cake for family, then fine, but since it wasn't, then I couldn't have her poking and prodding all the engines.
I delivered the cake on Sunday morning - a cold, drizzly morning, by the way. The cake went from the back of my Subaru into Liam's mom's SUV, and would eventually go to where his birthday party was to be held. But Liam got to see his cake - and he (and his mom and dad) seemed pretty happy about the cake. So - mission accomplished!