I got creative this year and made a train cake for Cameron and Aidan’s third birthday.  It was a huge hit!  In fact, a bunch of older kids circled around us as I was putting on the final touches at the swimming pool before the party.  One boy said it was the coolest cake he’d ever seen, and another said he wished he had a train cake for his birthday.  I was glowing in the praise of small boys (and girls), but the best reward was the smile on Cameron and Aidan’s faces when they saw the finished product.  They loved their birthday train cake!

Train Cake

The Boys' Cool Birthday Train Cake

This cake wasn’t too hard to make, and it was a lot yummier and moister than most store-bought birthday cakes where they tend to sacrifice taste for decorating ease.  This is only the second birthday cake I’ve made, and even with a few icing mistakes and a seriously lopsided engine, the cake was still fabulous.  I used two boxes of extra moist yellow cake mix and five loaf pans of various sizes filled half-way.  I used one “loaf” for the engine and two loaves, cut in half, for the freight cars and caboose.  I cut the other two loaves to use for parts, such as the cab on the caboose and the boiler on the engine, plus I had a little left over to munch on while I worked.  Alternately, you could use pre-made Sara Lee pound cakes and save yourself a step.

The assembled train cake engine.

The assembled train cake engine.

After I made the cake, I cut the pieces and assembled them to look like an engine and freight cars. Then I stuck them in the freezer.   Frozen cake is much easier to decorate (freezing helps you avoid getting crumbs in the icing), and you can make your cake in advance if you know you’ll be pressed for time the day before the party. I chose to decorate with cream cheese party icing (see recipe below), but if you want a really fancy cake with elaborate decorations then opt for the traditional buttercream icing.  I mixed my colors in separate bowls and iced each car on a sheet of wax paper.  I went ahead and did the white piping and lettering (you can use a store bought decorating pen for this, a well-washed syringe, or a plastic sandwich bag with the tip cut out—my usual method).  I then stuck everything back in the freezer, which may or may not work in your situation.  We had the party at a swim pool and I needed the cake to survive transfer and not melt too much until we ate it three hours later. Also, the frozen train cars were very easy to move from the waxed paper to the train tracks, where a room temperature cake might not have been.

Blowing out the caboose candles.

Blowing out the caboose candles.

I assembled my cake a few minutes before my guests arrived at the pool.  I used chocolate Twizlers for the track and the connectors between the cars.  The coal is made of crumbled Oreos, the wheels are Oreos, the circus animals are animal crackers and the logs are Pirouline rolled wafers.  You could also use pretzel sticks for logs and M&Ms for headlights or other decoration (it would have been cool to attach one to the middle of each wheel).  In fact, the possibilities are endless (check out Coolest Homemade Birthday Cakes for other cake ideas.)   To me this was the really fun part!

My total hands on time commitment was about three and a half hours:  a half hour of mixing cake batter, pouring it into pans and directing excited soon-to-be-three-year-olds (don’t forget to grease AND flour your pans!); another half hour cutting the loafs in half and “building” the caboose and engine (no helpers here); two hours mixing the icing, icing the cakes, preparing the foil cardboard holder and trying to fix a few minor engineering problems (luckily no helpers . . .); and finally, a half hour assembling the cake and adding the wheels, coal, circus animals, logs and tracks (while unsuccessfully trying to keep two excited birthday boys from poking it).  I also spent time thinking and dreaming about my construction project, how I would transport it, what I would use for the various decorations, and where I would store it.  All in all, this train cake was a lot of fun and a fabulous way to “up” my cool factor.

Have fun making your own birthday surprise!

Cream Cheese Party Icing

8 oz. cream cheese, softened
4 tablespoons butter, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 cups powdered sugar

Put the cream cheese, butter and vanilla in a small bowl and mix until creamy.  Slowly add sugar, mixing after each 1/2-3/4 cup until the sugar is fully mixed in.  This recipe makes enough to ice one 9 x13 sheet cake, and freezes easily.  It also keeps well in the refrigerator and can be made in advance (it’s easiest to work with room temperature icing when decorating).