A Tree of Life Birthday Cake – a how to guide

My sister has just turned forty and wanted to hide under a rock and tell the world to go away! But the family were never going to let her do that! We decided to surprise her with a lunch at her favourite pub and I made a celebration cake (of course).

My sister isn’t into girlie pretty things and loves things a bit dark and gothic, so a pretty pastel floral cake with lots of bling wasn’t going to be her thing. She’s also very spiritual, loving and generous, so a cake that celebrates who she is as well as being a bit gothic and glamorous was what I needed to create. This post is really about the process I go through when decorating a cake to reduce stress and last minute panic. I’m by no means a professional, but hopefully by following these steps you too can create wonderful cakes without too much stress!

Step 1 – Research and Planning

When creating a celebratory cake like this, planning all the different components well in advance is really important. I always start by drawing a sketch of what I want it to look like and make lots of notes. I also do a lot of web research to get ideas from amazing cake decorators. This is where Pinterest really helps. In the end I decided that I wanted to make a two tier cake covered in dark purple fondant with a tree of life theme. I also wanted to represent her four children on the cake, so they became little birds on her tree of life.

What I used to decorate the cake:

  • 1 kg white fondant, to cover the cakes
  • 200 g black fondant, for the tree silhouette
  • 200 g white fondant, for decorations (leaves and birds)
  • Purple food colour gel
  • Leaf plunger cutters
  • Silicone bird mould
  • Glycerine (sugar glue)
  • 1 metre black lace, for cake surrounds
  • 1 glitter milliner’s bird (from a craft shop)
  • Silver pearl cachous
  • Silver edible glitter
  • Black round cake board

Step 2 – Make the Cake

The week before, I made two round sponge cakes; an 8 inch (20 cm) and a 5 inch (12.5 cm) and put them in the freezer (I also cut mine into two layers). You can find the sponge recipe here. Making the cakes well in advance is a good idea as decorating a cake is time consuming, so getting this out of the way early helps. As an additional benefit, cake that has been frozen and then re-thawed is also really moist.

Step 3 – Make the Decorations

As I planned on making a tree with lots of leaves and four birds in fondant, I made these a week before. Using some white fondant, I coloured it with purple food gel and used my silicone bird mould to make four birds. Silicone moulds can be a bit fiddly to use. I find that dusting the mould with cornflour makes the fondant less sticky and easier to remove from the mould.

I also mixed a little bit of the black fondant with some white fondant to make grey. Roll the fondant out so that it is nice and thin. I use cornflour liberally so that it doesn’t stick to my work bench. The leaf plunger cutters are really easy to use. I made lots of leaves, as I wasn’t sure how many I would need.

DSCN3499I left my decorations to air dry and harden.

I also coloured my 1 kg white fondant purple and mixed in a bit of black to make a deeper and darker colour. I double wrap my fondant in cling wrap when I’m not using it as it can dry out quickly if left exposed.

Step 4 – Assemble the Cake and Fillings

Two days before I made chocolate ganache to cover and fill the cakes. I used a simple method; 250 grams dark or milk chocolate mixed with 1/3 cup of thickened cream. Blitz it in the microwave for 30 seconds. Mix it thoroughly then blitz it again for 30 seconds. All done! I made two batches of this ganache.

Remove the cake from the freezer (it doesn’t need to thaw). Use a pallet knife to add the ganache and try to smooth it out as best you can. Don’t add the two tiers together now as you need to cover them in fondant first. Store the cakes in the fridge, so that the ganache becomes hard. Covering cakes creates an air tight seal which will preserve the cakes moisture. You can follow this step whether you use buttercream or ganache.

Step 5 – Cake Assembly

The day before I covered my two ganache covered cakes in purple fondant. Before rolling out the fondant, it’s a good idea to warm the fondant up a bit by kneading it. I used liberal amounts of cornflour when rolling out the fondant and I like using a silicone rolling pin, as it reduces the amount of sticking.

DSCN3635

I rolled out the fondant for the 8 inch cake first. As the fondant needs to adhere to the ganache covered cake, I brushed the cake with hot water to melt the ganache a bit. I then gently placed the fondant over the top and with my hands gently pressed down the fondant. I moved the cake around slowly smoothing the fondant down as I went. For best results, it’s good to use a fondant cake smoother afterwards to smooth out any bumps. Cut off the excess fondant.

After covering the 5 inch cake, I positioned the cake on top. I also circled the base of each layer in black lace to hide all the messy edges.

So far everything was fairly simple but making the tree silhouette was a bit difficult. I found a tree silhouette online and printed it off. I then overlaid it with baking paper and using a black marker drew an outline and then carefully cut it out. After rolling out some black fondant, I laid the cut out tree on top and using a toothpick made indents around the cut out. I then carefully cut out the tree with a sharp knife.

I painted the tree with some glycerine (sugar glue) and carefully placed it on the cake and positioned the branches. It was very fragile, but I managed not to break it.

I then added the four birds and leaf decorations using small dabs of glycerine.

Store the cake in the fridge.

Step 6 – Final Touches

On the day of the celebration I finished the cake by adding the final touches.

DSCN3664

One important thing to know about fondant is that it doesn’t like humid conditions and can become sticky or tacky to touch. Unfortunately it was raining and very humid on the day. The only way to combat the sticky problem is to remove the cake from the fridge a few hours beforehand so that it can dry properly. You can even use a fan to dry it quickly if time is an issue.

Once the fondant had dried, I added some final touches by dusting the tree, leaves and birds with silver edible glitter and added some silver cachous. I positioned the glitter covered milliner’s bird (the mummy bird) and it was finished!

DSCN3657DSCN3661DSCN3663DSCN3666

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4 Comments Add yours

  1. What a beautiful creation and wonderful gift!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. aseparovic says:

      Thank you Belinda! My sister certainly loved it 😊

      Liked by 1 person

  2. What a lucky sister,the cake is beautiful 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. aseparovic says:

      Thank you Tabitha 😊

      Liked by 1 person

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