A few weeks ago, we had a big meeting at work at which our department Director would be in attendance.  Since she is retiring at the end of December, my manager asked me to bake a cake as a farewell to her.  It was a cute little (maybe not so little!) cake that everyone just loved.   Some of the people that were responsible for organizing the formal retirement party for our Director were also at that meeting, and approached me about making the cake for that day as well.  Of course I agreed. 

I had every intention of making a simple chocolate cake to feed anywhere from 40 - 80 people (since we had no idea how many people were to show up!), but then the wheels started turning and when I found out she was passionate about fishing and planned to spend a good amount of her retirement out on her dock, I just couldn't help myself...
In case you're curious, the first cake was a chocolate cake with vegan vanilla buttercream and of course, cherries on top:------------------------------->

Now, I'm not going to tell you how to make your ridiculously awesome fishing themed retirement cake, but I will tell you how I made mine:

1. Start off by baking two 11" x 15" sheet cakes (about 1 ½" layers each).  Or you can bake one 2.5 - 3" thick cake and slice it in half, but that's hard to do well and I prefer just to bake two thinner cakes.  They take less time to bake anyway when they're thinner so you're not really wasting any time.  No big deal.  Also, prepare a good amount of buttercream icing, enough to cover the cake and in between each layer and to add the details of the grass. 
I made one batch of chocolate buttercream for the cake, and one batch of vanilla for the grass and to top the cupcakes I made to go with this cake.  ** Remember to cover the icing that you are not using with plastic wrap, by placing a sheet of it directly onto the icing in the bowl so that no air can get to it.

2. Place the 1st layer of cake on a cake board.  Cut out four strips of parchment paper, and tuck them under the edges of the cake so that they're sticking out by at least 2" (as shown below).  This will help with some of the cleanup after you ice the cake, especially if you are as impatient as I am and just slather the thing as quick as you can.
3. If you're baking the cake a few days before it's to be served and want to ensure that it remains moist, prepare a simple syrup (To do this, put 3 parts water to 1 part sugar in a small saucepan and bring to a boil.  Reduce the heat and stir until the sugar is fully dissolved.  The longer you heat it, the thicker it will get.  I usually heat mine for about 5 minutes.)  and with a silicone brush, spread some syrup (not too much) over the first layer of cake.  With every layer you add, keep adding simple syrup.
4. Spread a thin layer of buttercream icing over the 1st layer of cake.  Don't worry about covering the sides just yet.

5. Place the 2nd layer of cake over top of the 1st, face down.  The bottom of the cake layer is flat, whereas the top of it is rounded off.  If you do it this way, you don't need to trim off any excess cake and it will still be a good rectangular shape. (Add more simple syrup here.)
6. Apply a generous amount of buttercream to the top of the cake and spread it evenly over the top and sides.  Don't worry too much about it looking good, as this will all be covered with fondant.

7.  Remove the parchment paper, clean off any spots left on the cake board, cover the cake and set it aside.

8. Divide your fondant so that about half of it will be blue, and of the remaining half, about 1/3 will be beige and the remaining will be green. 
Knowing exactly how much fondant to use to cover a cake comes with experience.  I still use a little too much.  For example in this instance, I used Wilton ready-made fondant.  There are two individually sealed blocks on fondant that come in the box.  I used like one and half of them and I'm pretty sure, I could have gotten away with just one of the blocks.  But it's all good, I learned from it.

Using gel food colouring ensures that you don't change the texture of the fondant, or any icing that you are using by thinning it out like liquid colours would.  So using these gel colours, apply a little bit of colour at a time to each portion of fondant and knead until well incorporated.  Keep adding more colour until it is as bright as you want it and knead well so there is no marbling.  Wrap each portion in plastic wrap until you are ready to use.

9.  Colour some of the buttercream green, to match as closely as you can the green fondant you just mixed.  Also, portion aside a small amount of buttercream and colour that blue, to match the blue fondant as closely as you can.  This blue buttercream will be used to "glue" the seaweed to the sides of the cake.  (The blue buttercream shown below was also used to top the cupcakes I made to accompany the cake.  If you are making the cupcakes, mix a much larger quantity of blue buttercream.)  Cover the icing and set aside.
10. Sprinkle a little bit of powdered sugar over a large flat surface.  Roll out the blue fondant so that the piece is large enough to cover 2/3 of the cake (length-wise), as well as the sides of that area.

11. Place the blue fondant over the cake as shown below, smoothing out the top to remove any air bubbles, and then smoothing out the side and corners.  If the fondant is drying out and looks like it may crack, smooth a little bit of vegetable shortening over it.  With a sharp, non-serrated knife, remove the excess fondant around the bottom edges of the cake.
12.  Roll out the beige fondant so that it is long and narrow.  Don't worry about trimming the edge length-wise to even it out.  Since the nicer of the two long edges will be the sand-bank, and the other will be covered by the green fondant, there is no need. 

13. Drape the beige fondant over the cake, overlapping the blue fondant as shown below.  Smooth it out and trim of the excess.   Set the excess aside (wrapped in plastic) because you will colouring it darker brown later on to make the dock.
14.  Roll out the green fondant.  Trim off a bit along the length of it to make for an even edge.  Then with a sharp, non-serrated knife, carve out pieces (about 20 should do) that resemble seaweed in various sizes (but none longer then the height of the cake).

15.  Spread some blue buttercream along the back of each piece of seaweed to stick them to the cake.  I placed mine strategically so that I could "glue" a Swedish fish on all 3 sides of the blue in between the pieces of seaweed, as you'll see in later photos.
16. Re-roll the green fondant and drape it over the final part of the cake so that the nicer of the two edges is overlapping the beige sand-bank area.  Trim off excess fondant.
17.  Fit a piping bag with Wilton tip #233 (grass tip) and fill with the green buttercream.  Cover the top part of the cake where there is green fondant with "grass".  If it's your first time using this tip, I suggest practicing on a paper towel a few until you get the feel for it.
18. Take the excess beige fondant that was set aside, and add some brown gel colour to it until it resembles the colour of wood.  Carve out plank shaped pieces, it's ok if they're uneven as this will make it look a little more realistic.

19. If you have food decorating pens, use the brown to add a little more wood texture to the planks.

20. In a small bowl, mix together equal parts graham cracker crumbs and brown sugar.  Add a little bit of agave nectar (or even maple syrup) and mix with a fork until the crumbs start to stick together.  Spread this mixture over the sand-bank area on top of the cake and a bit coming into the water to support the dock. (not shown)

21. Place the plank shaped fondant pieces over the crumb mixture.
22.  Here's the tricky part.  This was my first experience with gum paste (lately every cake I make leads to some kind of first) and let me tell you, it was a doozy.  Gum paste is similar in texture to fondant, but a little stickier to work with and it dries super hard.   To make it easier to manipulate, you coat your hands in vegetable shortening and work it through the paste.  This is the reason that there are no pictures of the process for my little hands were sticky and full of shortening for 2 hours!  I even had to have Señor put a straw in my mandatory-cake-making-wine-glass so that I could sip at it while I worked...not to mention the refills!

So gum paste is difficult to work with.  I'm sure it gets easier with time and after my experience, I would be willing to give it another go since the end results was pretty satisfying.  I got the pre-made gum paste in white so that I could mix my own colours.  You do this the same way you would fondant, using the gel colours.

I drew out the figure I would be making first, so that I knew which pieces to make (notice how I avoided making the feet by having her dip them in the water?).  Then I added colour and wrapped up the colours that were done in plastic to keep them from drying up (it dries fast!).  Then with each piece being worked, I shaped and smoothed and kept adding shortening until I was satisfied with what I had.

To get the pieces to stick together, I used a combination of gum paste glue (mix a bit of gum paste with water, and keep adding water and mixing until it's the texture of glue) for the nose, ears, hair and stuff like that and toothpicks to hold the bigger pieces together.   In some areas I used a combination of the gum paste glue and toothpicks, but until I got to the assembly point, I really didn't know what would be needed for each particular piece.
23.  Again if you have food decorating pens, colour a wooden BBQ skewer to serve as the fishing rod.  If not, it's no big deal, it would look great either way.  Use some leftover gum paste to form the handle and reel (place these about 2"-3" up from the sharp end of the skewer) and tie a length of fishing line to the other end of the skewer.

24. Place the fisherperson on the dock, and push the skewer through their legs to secure them to the cake.
For the cupcakes, I baked 78 mini vanilla cupcakes and I piped blue buttercream on each to look like waves.  I then topped each one with a Swedish fish.

For presentation, I covered the table with a blue tablecloth to represent the lake, and then surrounded the cake with cupcakes!


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