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Sincere Acts of Sweetness

October 13, 2013

Mr. McGregor's Garden: From Scratch Oreo Cookies and Cream Cake

I think my favorite thing about making cakes is the journey. From vague idea to the exact "ah ha!" moment when I can envision the cake in my head is a truly magical process. It can take days, hours, weeks or just moments. I sketch ideas on random pieces of paper, I see my hands press and pull gum paste into shapes as I go on my morning run, I dream of cake. Sometimes I'll think I have a concept completely solidified but I'll see something that catches my eye like an illustrated children's book or a funky bookend on Etsy and my mind is busy again.

This cake took me on an interesting journey too and one that eventually arrived to what you see in these photos. It's a cake I am very proud of! Annie, a work colleague's wife, gave me full creative freedom to do whatever I wanted. She wanted the color palette to be soft and muted, much like Beatrix Potter's illustrations. She also wanted  the cake to have a lot of vegetables, have a garden motif and it had to have lots of messy dirt.

I looked at countless garden cakes online and saw the same theme over and over: cakes with their sides bordered by tiny picket fences and dotted with miniature heads of lettuce and carrots. I knew that's what I didn't want to do but how could I convey a garden theme without it looking like all the other cakes? Because the cake had to feed more than 30 people, I had the advantage of a big cake to work with. This meant that I could play with the idea of making the vegetables larger and that's when I had the idea of a dirt and a garden shovel pop into my head. Although the garden shovel eventually became a spade only a few hours before the cake was due (the shovel I made broke) the cake quickly began to take shape. My biggest worry was making the carrot tops look realistic, but I quickly gave up on that idea. Although I could have made the tops look more natural, I was too worried about breakage and didn't want to take the risk. I decided it was okay to keep it simple, even if it wasn't botanically correct.
I wanted the dirt to look realistic which meant that it needed to have color variation. I accomplished this by using a combination of two different materials: cake and cookies. First I made from a dark chocolate cake which I eventually froze and then crumbled using a food processor (freezing it makes it easier to crumb).  I also pulverized two different kinds of cookies in the food processor: dark colored Oreos and store brand chocolate sandwich cookies that were lighter brown.  The different colors and textures of the cake and cookies helped to give the fake dirt more contrast. I used more cake crumbs than I did cookie, probably about a 3:2 ratio.
In addition to the big cake, Annie also wanted twelve cupcakes for the kids that would be attending the party and a smash cake for Emma, her daughter, to destroy. Oh that wonderful rite of passage of turning one year old. Could you imaging if that was something everyone did on their birthday, despite their age? How funny!

Out of all the vegetables I made, I loved making the turnip the most! I just loved the way it came out. I also really liked the way the bottom of the lettuce came out. I thought it looked a lot more realistic than I had even anticipated!
Instead of cupcakes, I suggested doing a slightly more sophisticated dirt cup. I made them by first lining each of the tera cotta pots (I found the pots at Michaels for $1/each) with paper cups that I cut to size. I then lined the bottoms of each cup with chunks of chocolate cake (the cake I made the dirt from), a generous helping of chocolate mousse and topped each of them with chocolate cookie crumb dirt, some chocolate rocks and then, a sprig of fresh mint. I saw the idea of mint and chocolate rocks online (I can't remember where, sorry!) and thought it would be perfect for the theme. Unfortunately, it didn't really work. About 10 minutes after I took photos of the dirt cups, all the mint wilted! I had to run to the store on my way to delivering the cake and find a replacement. After scouring the produce section of my local Safeway, I left with fresh rosemary which ended up working perfectly.

The cake was an Oreo Cookies and Cream cake that I made from scratch and filled and frosted it with a mocha Swiss meringue buttercream. I made two 14-inch cakes ( two of the recipes listed below) and I made double the amount of buttercream as well. The container that the cake was in was made of plastic (I found that a local garden store) and I lined the bottom of it with a cardboard cake board. Each vegetable, as well as the handle of the garden spade, was made with a core of rice crispy treats and covered with gum paste. The smash cake was a simple white cake with vanilla bean Swiss meringue buttercream. The big cake weighed 41 pounds! 

Cookies and Cream Cake from Scratch
Adapted from Confetti Cakes 
by Elisa Strauss
Yield: 3 9-inch round, 1 half-sheet (13x8 inches) or 24-30 cupcakes

2 cups or 8 ounces of cake flour
1 cup + 1 teaspoon or 8 ounces of all-purpose flour
1 teaspoons of baking powder
1 cup or 8 ounces of unsalted butter, at room temperature
3 cups or 21 ounces of granulated sugar
3/4 teaspoon of Kosher salt
1 tablespoon of pure vanilla extract
1 cup or 8 ounces of fresh or pasteurized egg whites (about 7 eggs)
1 1/2 or 12 ounces of whole milk, at room temperature.
1 2/3 cup of crushed Oreo cookies, big chunks like this, not dust

Preheat the oven to 350F. Brush the bottoms and sides of the pans with melted unsalted butter and line the bottoms with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, sift together the cake flour, all-purpose flour and baking powder. Set aside.

In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, combine the butter and sugar and beat on medium speed for 3 minutes. Scrape down the bowl and add paddle attachment and mix again for 1 minute. The butter and sugar mixture should be very light yellow (almost whiteish) and fluffy.

Add the salt and vanilla and mix again for 1 minute.  Set the mixer to low speed and gradually add the egg whites, scraping often. After all the eggs have been incorporated, mix on medium speed for 1 minute.

Alternately add the flour mixture and milk to the butter mixture in two batches, starting with the flour mixture. Tip: When you add the milk and flour, mix by hand briefly, just to get the milk or flour mixed in a bit. This will keep the milk or flour from splashing or poofing up and out of bowl and all over you and/or the counter once you turn the mixer on. .Scrape down the bowl between each addition and beat until thoroughly combined. Set the mixer to medium-high speed for about 20 seconds then stop and scrape the sides of the bowl. Add the Oreo pieces and mix on low speed until everything is combined. 

Divide the batter evenly between the cake pans or cupcake tins. Please note that every oven is different so the speed at which your cake will be done can vary a lot. The following steps are what I do when I bake:  For 8 or 9-inch cake pans, bake 25 minutes and check the cake. If it's still really raw in the center, cook for another 10 minutes and check again. If it's mostly cooked but not cooked in the center, bake for an additional 5 minutes and check again until a toothpick comes out clean.  For cupcakes, bake 15 minutes and check. If the cakes are almost done but still very raw in the center, bake for 3 more minutes and check. If it's close to being done, reduce to 1 minute intervals. They are done when a toothpick comes out clean.

Allow the cakes to cool for 20 minutes. Once the cake is cool, release it from its pan by running a metal spatula or knife along the sides of the pan. Flip the cake over onto another pan or cake board and peel away the layer of parchment.

Once the cake is totally cooled off, wrap in plastic wrap and store in the fridge until you're ready to frost.

Mocha Swiss Meringue Buttercream
Adapted from Sweetapolita's awesome recipe
Yield: 5 cups

5 large, fresh egg whites
1 1/4 cups sugar
1 1/2 cups unsalted butter, cut into cubes and cool, but not cold
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
pinch of salt
3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder (good quality means better taste. Avoid Hersheys!)
1 1/4 tablespoons espresso powder

Put the whisk attachment on your mixer.

Add egg whites and sugar to the bowl of an electric mixer, and simmer over a pot of water (not boiling), whisking gently, until temperature reaches 160F, or if you don't have a candy thermometer, until to can't feel or hear any sugar in the liquid (rubbing a little of the mixture between your fingers) and the egg whites are very hot to the touch - around 6-10 minutes.

Remove the mixer attachment from the simmering water and attach it to your mixer's base. Begin to whip until the meringue is white and thick, a lot like liquid marshmallow and continue mixing until the bottom of the bowl feels only slightly warm to almost cool to the touch (this can take up to 10 minutes or so).  You want the mixture to be cool because if it's too warm all the butter will melt when you start adding it and that's something you want to avoid. 

Switch over to paddle attachment and, with mixer on low speed, add butter cubes, one at a time, until incorporated, and mix until it has reached a silky smooth texture (if curdles, keep mixing and it will come back to smooth). 

Add vanilla and salt, continuing to beat on low speed until well combined. Then add the cocoa powder and espresso powder mixture until well blended; set aside. 

Tip: If mixture is too runny, refrigerate it for about 15 minutes and continue mixing with paddle attachment until it comes together. It will come together, don't fret! Just get it cold again and eventually it will come together.

Chocolate Mousse
Yield: About 2 1/2 cups (enough to fill 12 small cups with some left over)
4 egg yolks
1/4 cup sugar
1 cup + 1 1/2 cups of heavy whipping cream
1 cup really good quality semisweet chocolate chips (don't use milk chocolate chips of the chocolate flavor will be very muted)

In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat egg yolks on high speed with the paddle attachment on high speed for about 3 minutes. Lower the speed to low and gradually beat in the sugar. Once all the sugar has been added, scrape down the bowl and the mixer blade and mix again for 30 seconds.

In a small saucepan, heat 1 cup of the whipping cream over medium heat until hot, but not boiling. Remove from the heat and pour 1/2 a cup of the hot cream into a measuring cup. Turn the mixer on low and using 1 or 2 tablespoons at a time, gradually the hot cream to the egg yolks. Don't rush this part! You don't want to cook the egg so take your time. When all the cream has been incorporated, stop the mixer and scrape down the mixer blade and add the egg and cream mixture to the cream that's still in the saucepan.  Return the saucepan back to the burner and heat on low for about 5 minutes, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens. Do not boil!  Stir in the chocolate chips until they are all fully melted. Pour into a bowl and let it cool on the counter for about 1/2 hour. Then cover and refrigerate for at least two hours or overnight.

2 hours later or the next day, put the mixer bowl and whisk attachment into the freezer for twenty-minutes.

Remove the melted chocolate mixture from the refrigerator and give it a good stir. Set aside.

Remove the whisk and bowl from the freezer and beat 1 1/2 cups of cold whipping cream and beat it on high until stiff. Carefully fold the chocolate mixture into the whipped cream until completely incorporated.  Keep cold.


  1. Wow--this is amazing. I love reading about your creative process and how you problem solve. Truly, this is a work of art!

  2. That is so darn cute!!! I love it!


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