Apparently, unicorns don’t exist. Sort of like Bigfoot and the Lochness Monster…. despite countless accounts of their being, my wonderful husband just informed me that unicorns do not in fact exist. My bubble was burst.
But there is a magical world inside a 3 year old’s mind…. where Santa, Elsa, the Easter Bunny and Unicorns happily dance in an innocent waltz of childhood imagination. It’s magical in every sense of the word.
My daughter turned 3 this month, and as part of the birthday celebrations, we had a family movie night and watched Disney’s Cinderella. My daughter’s eyes bulged as the fairy godmother transformed Cinderella into the belle of the ball. Bippity boppity boo! She’s been using the phrase for months but she never understand the magic behind the fairy godmother’s wand until watching the movie. Once again, magical in every sense of the word.
But the movie brought to light a host of topics beyond a 3 year old. Death…. Cinderella’s parents were both deceased… leaving her to be raised by an evil step-mother. Cruelty…. her step-sisters are jealous and vindictive. Lying…. several maids indicate the glass slipper is theirs, which is not true. None of these concepts exist in her beautiful innocent mind.
I’ve tried every which way to freeze her in time and keep her perfectly 3 years old forever. But she seems to keep growing up every day. 😩 I’m coming to terms with that, but for today…. let’s talk about a magical unicorn cake. Which, by the way, does exist and is truly magical.
For months, we’ve been talking about this unicorn cake. As far as cakes go, I had a lot of performance anxiety. When is last time you talked about a cake for months before it was baked? Maybe my wedding but honestly…. I don’t know I was as excited about that cake as I was about this one. Something about a 3 year old makes a cake more exciting, right??
I used another recipe from Sally’s Baking Addiction. This cake is birthday cake the way it should be. Moist with a dense crumb that has you scraping the plate for every last bite. It’s a heavier cake than most… but in a good way. No… in a great way. I’ve made this cake countless times and come back to each birthday with such excitement. There are 5 eggs in the batter. It’s not quite the yellow cake you had growing up but its definitely heading in that direction. The cake uses buttermilk, a standard cake “moistener”. I actually didn’t have any on hand (oops!) so I used the DIY buttermilk recipe of whole milk mixed with lemon juice. It totally worked! I couldn’t taste a difference and the cake was just as moist.
For the frosting, I adapted Sugarhero’s Easy Swiss Meringue frosting. That frosting is great but it’s just a touch too buttery for a 3 year old’s birthday cake. I add some additional powdered sugar (it’s a mountain of powdered sugar added to a mountain of butter) to cut down on the butteriness and make it a bit sweeter. We LOVE it and it is super silky smooth to pipe on a cake.
This cake is actually far easier than it seems. It’s generally pretty forgiving but I’ll summarize my tips for you here. It’s not complicated but I’ll try to spell it out for you. Also, I used this tutorial from Rosanna Pansino, which was very helpful (note I did not use her recipe).
- Weigh your cake batter to ensure even cake layers. How is this done? Weigh your empty mixing bowl before you start. Write that down. Make the batter. Now weigh the bowl again with the batter. Subtract the original weight of the bowl and you’ve got the weight of your batter. Now….divide by the number of layers you are planning. I did 4. You should probably round that number down a a bit because it’s always tricky to get every drop of batter in the pans. I dyed each layer a different color. Remember that the batter is very yellow due to the butter and egg yolks so your colors will be skewed by that. Have fun playing with the colors. My pink ended up peach and my blue ended up teal but 3 year olds aren’t picky when it comes to pastel cake batter colors. My colors were supposed to be pink, blue, dark purple and light purple (to match my frosting colors). They ended up teal, peach, dark purple and light purplish gray. Unfortunately, the batter is so yellow, it was hard to get a light purple color. Maybe next time, I’ll just add sprinkles to the batter and make it funfetti.
- Once the cakes are cooled, you’ll stack your layers with a healthy dose of frosting between each. I used white frosting for the filling and around the cake. Once your layers are stacked, take a serrated knife and level the sides. This is so nerve wracking! But honestly, if you want your cake to have super straight sides, you’ve got to cut the edges so they are straight. Does that make sense? They don’t need to perfectly round edges but you’ll need to cut off any edges that are sticking out too much. I’ve made many cakes where I swore the sides didn’t need to be leveled and then once you’ve got the frosting on, one level is noticeably sticking out beyond the others. Frustrating! So save your cake and take a knife across the sides. You’ll end up with little bit of cut cake to snack on…. you know…. quality control. Another note….the frosting is also a bit yellow from the butter. To make it look a whiter, a common trick is to add a dot (think toothpick dot) of purple food coloring. I learned this from “I am baker”. It’s not perfectly white but it does cut the yellowness.
- Once all the layers are stacked and you’ve leveled the sides with a knife, apply a crumb coat of frosting to the cake. This is a thin layer of white frosting that will hold all the crumbs from the cake. This cake is best frosted out of the fridge, so it’s nice and cold. But it will produce some crumbs when you level the sides, so a crumb coat is definitely needed. After the crumb coat is applied, stick it in the fridge for about 15-20 minutes to firm up the frosting. This will make it much easier to apply a nice smooth outer coat of frosting.
- Once the crumb coat feels firm to the touch, take it out of the fridge and apply a nice even coat of frosting to the outside of the cake. I use the piping tip 789, which is designed for frosting sides evenly. I find it helps a lot! Use a bench scraper to smooth the sides of the cake. If you are having trouble smoothing the sides, stick the bench scraper in very hot water to warm it before scraping the sides (dry it off before touching the cake!) A warm bench scraper will soften the butter in the frosting, making it smooth out nicely. Don’t worry too much about leveling the top because it will be covered in the rest of your frosting.
- Now, the fun part. You’ll need a second batch of frosting. (If you have leftover frosting from your first batch….save it in case you need to do a touchup later. It will match your existing frosting.) Make your second batch and add another dot of purple to help clear up the yellowness of the frosting. Divide into four bowls (or however many different colors you want…) and color each to your desired shade. I use Americolor Gel color which gets dark very quickly so add your colors slowly. I use toothpicks to dab the color in rather than squeezing it out of the bottle. Colors will also darken over time so tread lightly here.
- Once you’ve got your colors sorted out, get your piping bags and tips ready. I used three different tips: Wilton 1M, 2A and 2D. I started out with the front “roses”, in between the unicorn’s eye lashes (in purple) with the 1M. I then added more roses to the top and side “mane” in purple. Next, I added the pink roses on each side of the purple center rose and continued to add more to the top and the side “mane”. There wasn’t any rhyme or reason for my unicorn. Maybe you’d like yours to be symmetrical but I had fun and just added the flowers as I liked. Continue with the 2A and 2D tips. I recommend using each tip for more than one color. I think it added depth to see the colors repeating in different flowers. So once you’ve added a sufficient amount of 2A flowers in a certain color, squeeze the rest of the frosting back into the bowl and start again with 2D or 1M. Also, it’s always a good idea to practice a couple times before going on the cake. Just practice on parchment or even the side of the bowl and scrape it back into the bag. Also, if your frosting is too “soft”, put the bag in the fridge for a few minutes to make the butter harder. If it’s too hard, use your hands and massage the bag. The warmth of your hands will soften the butter.
- Once your flowers are complete, add the fondant horn, ears and eyelashes. I bought mine on Etsy from FondantandFrosting and man! Am I glad I did! They look beautiful and saved me so much headache. Fondant cannot be chilled (or maybe it can, but the colors run etc. when coming back to room temperature….) so I added mine right before our party. I used just some water and a small brush to stick the eyelashes on.
- Phew! Done! Sit back and enjoy!
Are you still with me??? If you are, thank you. And now, please go make a little magic for someone in your life.
Unicorn Birthday Cake
Adapted from Sally’s Baking Addiction
Yield: Serves 12-14 servings
Prep Time: 30 MINUTES
Cook Time: 25 MINUTES
Total time: 5 HOURS (including cooling)
3 and 3/4 cups (431g) sifted all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 and 1/2 cups (3 sticks; 345g) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
2 cups (400g) granulated sugar
5 large eggs, at room temperature
1 Tablespoon pure vanilla extract
1 and 3/4 cups (420ml) buttermilk, at room temperature
1/3 cup (50g) rainbow sprinkles (plus more for garnish)
Easy Swiss Meringue Frosting (you will need two batches)
Adapted from Sugar Hero
6 fl oz pasteurized liquid egg whites (3/4 cup)
28 oz powdered sugar
½ tsp salt
24 oz unsalted butter (3 cups) , at room temperature
2 TBSP vanilla extract
Preheat the oven to 350°F (163°C). Lightly butter 4 8-in round cake pans and line with parchment paper rounds (optional but recommended). If you do not have 4 pans, you can bake two layers, let them cool for 10 minutes, turn the cooled cakes out on a wire rack and start again with the next layers. Washing the pan in cold water will cool it completely. Leave the batter out on the counters while the first batch cooks.
Bake the Cake:
Whisk the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt together in a large bowl. Set aside. Using a handheld or stand mixer fitted with a paddle or whisk attachment, beat the butter and sugar together on high speed until smooth and creamy, about 3 minutes. Scrape down the sides and up the bottom of the bowl with a rubber spatula as needed. On medium-high speed, add 1 egg at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in the vanilla extract. Scrape down the sides and up the bottom of the bowl with a rubber spatula as needed.
With the mixer on low speed, add the dry ingredients in three additions alternating with the buttermilk, beginning and ending with the dry ingredients, and mixing each addition just until incorporated. Do not over mix this batter. The batter will be smooth, velvety, and slightly thick. Pour/spread batter evenly into prepared cake pans.
Bake for around 24-25 minutes or until the cakes are baked through. To test for doneness, insert a toothpick into the center of the cake. If it comes out clean, it is done. Allow cakes to cool completely in the pans set on a wire rack. The cakes must be completely cool before frosting and assembling.
Make the Frosting:
Combine the whites, powdered sugar, and salt in the bowl of a large stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Mix everything together on low speed until incorporated. Turn off the mixer, scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl with a spatula, then turn the mixer to medium speed. Beat on medium for 5 minutes.
After 5 minutes, turn the mixer to medium-low and start adding the softened room temperature butter, 1-2 tablespoons at a time. Once all of the butter is incorporated, add the vanilla extract and mix it in. Stop the mixer and scrape down the bottom and sides once more. Turn the speed to medium and beat the buttercream for 10 minutes. It can be used right away, or stored in the refrigerator for up to two weeks, or the freezer for up to two months. If you have chilled the frosting, let it come to room temperature and then beat it for several minutes to smooth it out and restore its texture before using it. If your frosting has air bubbles, beat it at a low speed for several minutes to eliminate air bubbles. Finally, add a touch of purple food coloring to the buttercream to cut the yellowness out. Mix until fully incorporated.
Assemble the Cake:
See notes above for tips on decorating cake.
Once cakes are fully cooled, level them with a cake leveler. Stack cakes on a cake board, making sure to frost between each layer. Use a cake turntable to smooth white frosting over the entire cake. Make a second batch of frosting, dye to desired colors and pipe rosettes on the top and along one side of the cake using the pink and dark purple frostings each fitted with a 1M tip. Add dollops of details using the pink, light purple and blue frostings each fitted with a #2A and 2D tip and the blue and dark purple frosting each fitted with a #2A tip. You can use any combination of colors and tips that you prefer. Place horn on the top center of the cake and the ears on either side of the horn. Use some water and a small paint brush to attach fondant eyes to the cake. Finally, snap a pic of your creation!