How To Make a Thomas The Tank Engine Birthday Cake

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For this cake, I drew from several different sources for inspiration. I found several Thomas cakes on the web, and liked this one for several reasons, including the idea of Oreos for wheels, and for the tender cars carrying candy as their tender.

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Photo by Vicious Delicious

This cake is far more beautiful and professional-looking than mine turned out, but to replicate this I would have had to use more fondant, and I wanted to minimize this since many people don’t like the way fondant tastes. I decided to make the head and the smokestack out of fondant, and figure that these parts of the cake would be used just for show. I used regular frosting for the rest, coloring it with paste food coloring in blue and black.
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I used tube frosting to make piping on the sides of the engine and to draw the number 2 on the sides of all the cars, since it was Mini’s second birthday.

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The Engine was made with Red Velvet Cake, and the two coal cars were made from chocolate cake. I used colored cream cheese frosting for all of the cars, and crushed up a bag of Oreos to make “coal” for the tenders.

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I used four cake boards to hold the cake, two placed end-to-end, and the other two to reinforce. In retrospect, a plywood board might have worked better. I covered the boards in aluminum foil, and then put green frosting on them to look like grass. I then crushed up a bunch of grey M&Ms (you can get any color of M&Ms at party stores) to look like gravel under the tracks, black licorice for the rails, and graham crackers for the boards underneath the rails. Theoretically, everything was edible, but I didn’t encourage people to eat these parts!

The Construction

I would love to provide a clear, step-by-step instruction list for making this cake, but it didn’t work out to be a linear process. I would make something, realize it didn’t work or needed something else, and then make that, and take this or that off, the whole way. But what I settled on is as follows:

The first thing I did was to make all of the cake, which was not without its mishaps. I settled on making two 5″ diameter round cakes for the head, one of which I covered in fondant. I carved a round piece of gray fondant (color white fondant with a small amount of black paste food coloring) for Thomas’ face, and then added a nose and cheekbones. The easiest way to do this is if you have a Thomas toy right in front of you, so I used my son’s Thomas ride-on toy. I used white circles and smaller black circles for the eyes. After I attached the face, I wrapped the sides of the head in black fondant and cut away the excess. I was worried about the face so it was one of the first things I did–next time (?!) I would not do this so early, because as I found out, fondant cracks after a few days, so it looked better earlier on.

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The round face and another round cake were attached to a sheet cake cut into three different sized rectangles and stacked on each other to make the body of the engine The round arcs on the side of the engine were made from one 2″ diameter round cake that I cut in half, and attached to the rest of the cake with toothpicks, one on each side. I used a wooden dowel to support the face to the rest of the cake, and then used plenty of frosting to glue everything together. The coal cars are a sheet cake cut into four equal rectangles, and placed into two stacks, but if you are making this cake, you might have to experiment with cake pan sizes and batches to see what works best for you.

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Technically, this cake takes about the equivalent of 2 1/2 or 3 sheet cakes to make. I made the cakes up about two weeks before the party and froze them, both because the party was two weeks away and I didn’t want them to get gross, and because it is much easier to frost a frozen cake than it is to frost a room-temperature, cold, or (especially) warm cake.

Other Tips for Frosting

  1. I recommend always freezing your cakes before frosting. This works best if you do it overnight, but sometimes that is not realistic. Whenever you have the time, though, it saves some of the heartache of frosting if you freeze the cake overnight and begin frosting the cake while it is still frozen.
  2. Always do one “crumb” coat first before you worry about how the cake looks. This should be a relatively thin coat of frosting and its only purpose is to catch all the annoying stray crumbs of cake so that you can have as smooth a finish as possible when you are done.
  3. Always refrigerate your cake in between coats of frosting. You should do this for an hour at least, but I’ve found that the sweet spot is really more like 3 hours in between coats.
  4. Using baking spatulas makes it much easier to spread the frosting evenly.
  5. You should frost on a surface that you don’t have to worry about getting messy. This cake is too long to put on a cake board and then refrigerate, so I had to frost each part of it separately on regular cutting boards and plates, and then move it to the cake board at the last minute. Moving a cake is very tricky, but at least then you don’t have to worry about frosting getting all over the cake board you have decorated. Another way to handle this problem is to place pieces of wax paper underneath the cake edges that can be pulled out when you are done frosting, leaving a clean surface.
  6. Frosting is by far the hardest part of this cake making endeavor, so make sure you have lots and lots of time to do it. You will probably need a minimum of three different batches of frosting to get this cake frosted, and I made them up as I went along.

The end result was far from perfect, but when I showed it to Mini, he said, “CHOO!” so I figured it was a success. Also, people said it was very tasty.

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Enjoy!

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