Just when I was thinking about what sort of cake to make for my niece’s birthday, my friend in Germany sent me this photo of a Very Hungry Caterpillar cake. Now, that is a spectacular cake, but I don’t really love decorating with fondant – and also, frankly, I’m nowhere near good enough at it to make anything that pretty.
On the other hand, it did make me think about caterpillar shapes and whether a very hungry caterpillar might fit nicely on a cake shaped like a 3. After all, he is an arch-plus-a-bit, once you count his head, and a 3 has two arches. I figured I could decorate the rest of the arch with the three plums he ate on Wednesday.
My niece is both fascinated by the idea of birthday cake and a VERY picky eater. She likes banana cake, but if it doesn’t look like banana cake, she might not be willing to eat it, because you just never know. Also, banana cake must be banana and nothing else. No rogue pineapples or dates or anything like that are allowed.
So I found a very plain banana cake recipe, and used it to make one ring cake and the little cakes. Since I needed chocolate cake crumbs for my brother’s cake, I made the other ring cake a chocolate cake, but for the purpose of this recipe, I’m going to recommend making a double batch of the banana cake. It’s easier, and you don’t have to worry about the icing tasting odd with one of the cakes.
A few notes. You will need two 20 cm ring tins (or one ring tin, which you wash in between, which is what I did) for the 3, a miniature madeleine tin (about 3x5cm for each cake) for the plums, a big friand tin for the head, and a gem scone tin (like a patty tin, but all the indentations are round rather than pie-shaped) for the body. Or rummage through your cupboard and find something roughly the right size, and use tin foil to make it closer to the shape you want. That’s what I did with the friand tin.
Unless you have a very large oven, I suggest you halve the recipe below, and make the cakes in two batches. I’ve provided the full shopping list below, with the halved amounts next to them for those who don’t like mental arithmatic.
You will also want food colouring pastes if possible – they give a good strong colour without having to use enormous amounts, which is what you want.
Your shopping list
For the cakes
250 g butter, softened (125 g per batch)
220g brown sugar (110 g per batch)
220g caster sugar (110 g per batch)
4 eggs (2 per batch)
6 large bananas (3 per batch)
2 tsp vanilla (1 per batch)
1 tsp cinnamon (1/2 per batch)
450 g self-raising flour (225 g per batch)
1 tsp bicarb of soda (1/2 tsp per batch)
pinch of salt
120 ml milk (60 ml per batch)
butter, cooking spray, kitchen foil and plain flour for the tins
For the decorations
250 g butter, softened
500 g icing sugar mixture
80 ml milk
zest of 1 lemon
150 g white chocolate
50 g cream
food colouring pastes – yellow, red, green, blue, purple
10 chocolate bullets
2 yellow smarties
2 purple jelly snakes
3 mint leaf lollies
Now what will you do with it?
Preheat the oven to 180°C.
Grease a ring tin with butter, then pour a little plain flour into the tin and bang it about a bit until the inside is coated with flour. Grease 5 mini madeleine tins and eight gem scone hollows with cooking spray. Fill one hole of a large friand tin with foil, then make a new foil ‘bottom’ for the tin so that the hollow is going to be a couple of centimetres deep. Spray with cooking spray.
Beat butter and sugars until fluffy, then add the eggs and beat until just combined. Mash the bananas well and mix in. Stir in the flour and bicarb with the salt and cinnamon, then the milk and mix well.
If you are doing this in two batches, I suggest doing the madeleines and half the gem scones with one ring tin in the first batch, and the friand and the rest of the gem scones in the other batch. The madeleine tins will need about 2 teaspoons of mixture – really not much, just nearly level with the top of the tin. You don’t want them overflowing, even though mine did! The gem scone tins and friand will need a little more. The rest of the mixture should go into the ring tin.
I found the little cakes needed about 10-15 minutes, and the big cakes about half an hour, but basically, you want things to be sproingy when you poke them gently with a finger.
Turn out the little cakes – you may need to use a teaspoon to loosen them onto a rack. Some of them will not come easily, but that’s OK, because you only need three friands and five or six caterpillar segments, so you have some room for error here.
Let the big cakes rest in the tin for a few minutes, then run a knife around the outer and inner rings, and gently invert them onto a rack. You want everything except the friand cake to cool upside down (unless the bottom stuck to the tin, in which case, do what you think is best!), so that the smooth side is up.
Once the little cakes are cool, use kitchen scissors to trim them around the edges, so that they are nice oval or circular shapes. Pick your best ones, and put them on a rack with their pretty, smooth, rounded sides up, and then put that rack over a plate to catch the ganache drips.
Now cut the big cakes. You basically need three-quarters of one, and two thirds of the other, but it’s easier to show than tell in this instance.
Lay out your little cakes on your big cake to see how many you need for the body. This is the part where I showed the cake to Andrew and went “Look! Can you see it?!” and he said “… I can see a 3…?” and I felt very sad because it was obviously a proto-caterpillar to me.
Now make the ganache. Chop the chocolate finely, and put it into a heatproof bowl. Bring the cream to a boil in a small saucepan, then pour over the chocolate, pushing the chocolate down so that it is covered. Cover the bowl for 30 seconds or so, to capture the heat, then stir the ganache until smooth. If you absolutely must, zap it for a few seconds in the microwave (though a better choice would be to use a hand-held food processor to blitz any chocolate bits that aren’t quite melted).
Get out three small bowls. This is the bit where I really worked by eye, so I hope these amounts are about right. You want a couple of dessert spoons of ganache in one bowl for the plums, 1-2 dessert spoons in another bowl for the head, and then divide the rest between two bowls, because it’s nice to get a couple of different shades of green. For the plums, I used a drop of purple and a tiny bit of blue to get the right colour; the head was a drop of red and a tiny bit of yellow. For the greens, I coloured both bowls green, then added a little blue to one and a little yellow to the other, and mixed them only partially, as a nod to Eric Carle’s marbled effects.
Pour the ganache gently over each cake in turn. You should be able to be reasonably generous. Don’t smooth it more than you have to – it should spread reasonably well on its own, and will give you a shinier surface if you leave it to its own devices. Leave just a little bit of green ganache for the eyes.
Add two yellow smarties to the red cake for eyes, and a bullet for the nose. Drop a little green icing onto the centre of each smartie.
While the ganache is setting, make the buttercream. To do this, beat the butter until it is very soft and allegedly white, but I, personally, am usually too lazy for the latter part, and besides, this is going to be coloured yellow anyway. Add the icing sugar and the lemon zest, and beat until it comes together. Then add the milk and a drop or two of yellow colouring, and beat again until you have a nice icing texture.
Spread the icing over the cake. I am hopeless at this, but my one and only trick is that apparently, buttercream spreads better if you use a knife to smooth it away from you, not towards you. I have no idea why this is, but it does seem to work.
Use a palette knife or egg flip to pick up each caterpillar piece in turn and lay it on the cake, trying to avoid touching the shiny ganache. Add licorice bullets for legs.
Cut the ends off two jelly snakes to make antennae, and tuck them under the red cake to hold them in place. Then put the plums on the cake, and add licorice bullets and mint leaf lollies.
Wait, no you’re not, because a birthday cake has to have candles.
We can blow them out lots of times, too.
(Yes, my niece is the cutest. Thank you for noticing.)
This particular cake contains gluten, dairy and eggs, but really, you can use any cake you like for the base. You just need two quantities of any recipe that would normally give you a 22cm round or 20cm square cake, and it needs to be a fairly sturdy recipe that won’t come apart when you cut it. My gluten-free flour mix makes a reasonably sturdy cake and should work here.