My challenge: to make a cake that looks like Mickey from In The Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak with minimal equipment and without using any traditional (commercial) food coloring.
First, we ran out of propane, so I had to bake the cake at a friend’s house. Oops.
Second, I have almost zero experience in making cakes look pretty (I bake a lot, but I don’t DECORATE them much) and no icing tips or bags or supplies.
Third, the cake was in honor of my sister, who can’t eat commercial food colorings or dyes.
Fourth, it needed to be a SHAPED cake. A cake shaped like Mickey. Which I’ve never done before.
So! A challenge!
I experimented with what might make a dark-colored dye after soliciting some suggestions from friends. (The suggestions included beets (!)(How on earth would BEETS make a BLACK dye?), squid ink (because I can just go pick that up here at the fish monger here in BFE), and corn smut (aka huitlacoche, because nothing is more delicious on a cake than agricultural mold). I ended up using ground-up black tea and poppy seeds (done in the spice grinder) and it made a dark gray-brown icing that wasn’t objectionably flavored.
I found a spice cake recipe, multiplied it by 1.5, and added some cocoa powder to it to add a bit more flavor, and baked it at my friend’s house in two pans (a 9×13 and an 8×8). The 9×13 became the base of the cake and I cut the 8×8 up into a variety of pieces to make the added on parts of Mickey (head, elbows, milk bottle, feet). To my delight, the 8×8 cake gave me exactly the right number, size, and shape of pieces. I had none left over.
I covered some cardboard with freezer paper and set the 9×13 and the 8×8 pieces on it for display, then made some buttercream frosting and did a crumb coat over the whole thing, using some icing to stick the pieces onto the main cake. I reserved a bit of the plain white icing and juiced a carrot and half a small pomegranate in our juicer, using cocoa powder and some of the carrot juice for the brown ‘cake’ part of Mickey and a splash of the pomegranate and tiny bit of carrot juice for his face skin. I iced the brown parts of the cake, the face, and the white milk bottle, which took up the entire batch of buttercream. Then, I made up a new batch of plain icing (powdered sugar with a bit of milk) and added the ground black tea and poppyseeds. It all mixed up into a goopy dark mass, which I scooped into a plastic quart baggie and snipped the tip off one of the corners. I piped the dark icing on to outline details on the cake and gave Mickey his features and hair, with a printed out picture that Dan photoshopped for me as a guide.
Here’s how Mickey turned out. He was pretty delicious, completely homemade, and had zero artificial coloring.