Nestled in the back of my mother’s recipe box I found instructions for several FUN-TO-MAKE CUT-UP CAKEs or, as I like to call them, cake puzzles. Printed on thick cardboard, and obviously torn from a box, these gems describe the steps for creating ducks, dogs, and butterflies using regular cake pans. These strips are all I have left, but I remember booklets she used to create other shapes as well.
I love that you can do something themed and fun without buying extra equipment. And there are plenty of events coming up this month that could use a cute cake – the Super Bowl, Valentine’s Day, and a couple of family birthdays. Why not go retro with cake puzzles?
The key to making this work will be a gluten-free cake that will hold together well and taste yummy. Our family has a combination of people who can and can’t tolerate gluten. I don’t feel a need to make two cakes as long as the gluten-free one is delicious with pleasing texture. For this task, I’ll opt for a white or chocolate cake because they’re tried and true and hold together well.
With that said, I’ve never tried a cut-up cake using any of my go-to cake recipes. It would be good form to bake a test cake prior to an event. It would also be unlike me, so I will probably wing it and consider what I serve the guests a test. That leaves lots of room for embarrassment, but it saves me time and ingredients.
I need to choose a shape. I can keep a Super Bowl cake simple by drawing a football field on a sheet cake from which I have removed and stacked strips to form bleachers. Another option is to remove a strip from the center of a round cake to create a football. For Valentine’s Day, I could use a square pan and round pan to create heart, but I could also make Cupid’s arrow, a car, or a dog (anything your valentine loves is appropriate). One of the birthdays demands a dinosaur. I’ll have to figure that one out.
For many shapes, you’ll be able to find an existing schematic – Mom’s strips have instructions for making a dog. Other shapes may require an internet search or a model to copy. If you only have a rectangular pan, look for patterns that use rectangles. If you only have round pans, use a pattern that begins with circles.
Create or place your pattern. Sketch or lay out the shapes you need in a space the size of your cake pans. Once you’ve puzzled the best way to make the pieces fit, print the pattern on paper, place the paper on foam board, and cut out the foam board shapes. Put the shapes on top of the cake and cut around them.
If you’re a decent freehand artist, you don’t even have to go to that trouble. Transfer your puzzle directly to the top of the cake by scoring each shape into it gently with the tip of a knife. Another option is to draw the shapes on the cake thin lines of frosting and cut along those lines.
Some directions for cut cakes may suggest layering. With gluten-free cakes, it’s probably better to bake the cake in thin layers rather than slicing layers in half. This may require more pans or more time so that pans can be used twice, but will help the cake hold together.
Most retro cut cakes keep it simple, but if you’re looking to construct something tall, you may need support pieces in the form of cake boards, foam core, or plastic sheets. You may also need straws to stabilize vertical builds. Make sure any surface that touches the cake is made of food-safe material.
Before construction begins, choose a base to hold your cake. It can be your serving pan, a cake board, a foil wrapped piece of cardboard, or a plate. Whatever it is, the cake will need to stay on it. Transferring risks destroying all of your hard work.
As you build, you may want to use frosting to hold layers together or disguise an accidental oops. You’ll also need frosting for decoration. Either store-bought or homemade is fine. Making your own frosting and tinting it with food color as needed will be the most economical route to take. It will also give you the most flexibility to alter your design as needed.
For perfectly smooth surfaces, you can purchase fondant. My cakes won’t require this effect, so I’ll stick with buttercream. Other decorative effects can be made using combinations of candy, marshmallows, coconut, cookie crumbs, colored sugar, sprinkles, and piped frosting. Premade cake decorations are available as well. Don’t worry too much about things looking perfect. Just have fun with your design.
Get the kids involved! Cut-up cakes are a visual geometry lesson. In my kitchen, they’ll most likely be an exercise in problem solving as well. I just keep in mind that the best food often comes from near disasters and keep moving forward.
I’m looking forward to solving some cake puzzles this month. I plan to go crazy with color and texture on top. I’m not too concerned about the visual results. The appeal for me is the puzzle solving and the chance to play with my food!
I hope you enjoy it as much as I do!