A Birthday Cake with a ‘Day of the Dead’ Theme

One thing I never had to worry about is having too much spare time.  Because if my schedule looks like it’s lightening up, Miss Arabella will fill the gap.  This time it was her friend’s sister who was turning 21 and would it be at all possible for me to make the cake.  ‘I told them you would, mum, I mean, I did say I’d ask you, but you can, can’t you mum?’ ‘What do they want?’ ‘Just a round coconut cake; that won’t take long’, said Miss Arabella who has a deep hatred of cooking and is no expert on the subject.

'Day of the Dead' inspired 21st birthday cake

‘Day of the Dead’ inspired 21st birthday cake

So I agreed to make the round coconut cake but then a couple of days before the delivery date the sister of the birthday girl saw me at the swim centre and said her sister would like a ‘day of the dead’ theme and could I do that but without the skull.  I had no idea what she was talking about so I just smiled and said, ‘Absolutely; not a problem’. Then Arabella sent through the photo of where the inspiration had come from.  ‘So you just have to do this’, she said, ‘but remember mum; without the skull’.

The inspiration minus the skull

The inspiration minus the skull

I made two coconut cakes using a Donna Hay recipe and froze them overnight as this makes them a lot less delicate and there are no cake crumbs to drag through the icing.  I made a chocolate ganache and smeared some on the cake board so that the bottom layer of the cake would stick to it and reduce the risk of the cake sliding off the board.  The cakes were cut to a total height of 7cms each then I put the cut layer down on the board, then the other layer directly on top and I secured the two layers by pushing three skewers through the cake.

Stabbed with skewers

Stabbed with skewers

I covered the cake in chocolate ganache that I made by melting 600gms of dark chocolate with 3/4 cup of pouring cream over a saucepan of simmering water.  When the ganache had hardened, I combined three packets of Orchard White Icing that totalled 1.5kgs in weight then lifted it over the cake.  Once I had smoothed the sides and used a fine skewer to pierce the air bubbles, my blank canvas was ready.

Melting the chocolate with the cream for the ganache

Melting the chocolate with the cream for the ganache

I needed another packet of Orchard White Icing that I divided into four lots and dyed each pile a different colour using Wilton liquid dyes.  You do need to add a little more icing sugar to the icing when mixing in the dye as the liquid causes the icing to become sticky.  I used a CK Candy Writer in black to draw on the vines.  It was five hours from when I pulled the cakes out of the freezer to when I had finished decorating the cake.  This definitely wasn’t a sprint-to-the-finish but more of a marathon however I’m sure that anyone with some training and the right tools would be able to recreate this in a lot less time.

The cake covered in ganache

The cake covered in ganache

The birthday girl’s sister and her mother came to collect the cake a few hours before the party.  They were very happy with it and thought it was very pretty which is just the look they were hoping for.

My blank canvas

My blank canvas

Then it was on with the party where my Archie was the barman and as he had come straight from uni, he had his guitar with him and later in the evening morphed from barman to entertainer.  I asked him how the cake was and he said, ‘Didn’t have any’.  So there you have it.

'Day of the Dead' inspired 21st birthday cake

‘Day of the Dead’ inspired 21st birthday cake

And it’s not perfect.  There are a couple of dents where I leant on it when using the candy writer – bummer!

A Birthday Cake Inspired by ‘Day of the Dead’

Serves:  20-40 (depending on use – dessert or a small piece to have with coffee)

Degree of Difficulty:  4/5 (because it’s time intensive)

Cost:  There’s a lot of bits and pieces you need to purchase to decorate a cake well but once you have a supply, these cakes aren’t overly expensive but a local cake shop will sell you one for a lot less than something like this would cost to make – but it won’t be as nice!

You will need to make two of these cakes.  Here is the ingredient list for one cake:

  • 500g (1 lb) butter
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1 1/5 tspns vanilla extract
  • 8 eggs
  • 4 cups plain (all-purpose) flour
  • 1 cup dessicated coconut
  • 1 tbspn + 1 tspn baking powder

To Decorate:

  • 4 packets Orchard white icing (2kgs)
  • food dyes – pink, orange, green, blue
  • 1 x black candy writer
  • edible glue (found in specialty kitchenware shops)
  • a small paint brush
  • little flower cutters (I used primrose cutters made by Fnvn)

Pre-heat oven to 160C (325F). Grease and line 2 x 25cm round cake tins. Use an electric mixer to beat the butter, sugar and vanilla extract until light and fluffy.  Add the eggs two at a time, beating well.  Sift the flour and baking powder over the butter mixture and mix until well combined.  Add the coconut and mix well.

Pour the mixture in the cake tin and back for 1 hr and 50 mins or until tested with a cake skewer. Allow the cake to cool in the tin, then wrap in cling film and store upside down in a freezer overnight.

Remove cakes from the freezer, unwrap and level cakes to a height of 7cms each.  I do this by holding the cake on its side and measuring around it with a metal tape measure.

When the ganache has cooled and thickened to a spreading consistency, smear a little on the cake board then place one of the cakes upside down on the cake board.  Place remaining cake on top.  Secure with three skewers and use scissors to cut skewers to the height of the cake.

Cover cake evenly in ganache and allow to harden. Meanwhile take 3 packets of white icing and mould together.  Dust a bench with icing sugar then roll icing to 3mm thickness.  Lift the icing off the bench by rolling it up in the rolling pin then let if fall over the cake.  Use your hands dusted in icing sugar to smooth the icing around the cake.  This takes some time!

Take another packet of icing and mix with any leftover icing then divide into 4 lots.  Dye each lot a different colour.  I used orange, blue, green and pink.  Roll out icing and begin to decorate cake.  Stick icing onto cake by dipping a paint brush in edible glue and wiping over the back of each cut-out.  Don’t use too much glue or the cut-outs will slide around (especially on the vertical sides of the cake) and create stains on the white surface.

I cut all the pieces out by hand using a small sharp knife except for the small flowers where I used my primrose cutters.  To make the vines, it is quite difficult to use the candy writer on a vertical surface and doing black on white means if you make any errors you won’t be able to remove the black and start again!  However, wherever my vines went a little messy, I stuck a green leaf over that area – problem fixed!

The clean-up and this is only one of three benches!


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'Day of the Dead' inspired 21st birthday cake

‘Day of the Dead’ inspired 21st birthday cake

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  1. A gorgeous cake … though I think the skull would have made it more impressive. 🙂

    Still, it looks lovely and if it was what was requested, well, that’s what you have to deliver. Luckily I’ll never be expected to make anything like this so I can just enjoy reading the post and marvel at the work that went into creating the decorations.

  2. What a glorious cake – and I adore the theme. I am in Los Angeles where we have lots of Day of eh Dead associated items – cupcakes, cakes, tee shirts – you name it. Even cocktails. This one, however, takes the cake.

  3. So much work, Charlie! Worth the effort though, it looks gorgeous! 🙂

  4. What a colourful cake! And five hours to decorate it too-wow! Not just an easy cake is it? 🙂

  5. the cake looks awesome Charlie! You’re so talented. Not sure i’d have the patience or skills to decorate for 5 hours though!

  6. You are a wonder Charlie. Honestly, your generosity alone is incredible but then you throw in amazing cake decorating skills too! No wonder you have no spare time, I’m sure you are in hot demand for anything to come out of the kitchen 🙂

  7. You are so clever Charlie, your day of the dead inspired cake looks amazing and I would be over the moon if this was presented to me for my birthday.

  8. fantastic cake – I wish I could do these mile high cakes with pretty decorations – something to aim for I guess – I like the skewer trick – this is what I need as when I have tried to make layer cakes they slide apart so readily – and your decorations are very creative and pretty

  9. You can certainly made one beautiful cake.

  10. You’re my day of the dead cake hero. There is no way I would ever try that but yours turned out beautifully.

  11. I think you should be at the top of the list for the “Good Mother Award”. 🙂 You did a terrific job…I’m sure everyone was impressed.

  12. You made a gorgeous cake, Charlie! And what a labor of love…I hope Arabella appreciates what it takes to make something like that and what an artist you are! And I’ll bet it was delicious to boot. 🙂

  13. Great theme cake!

  14. Really impressive cake! I don’t have the decorating gene, alas, although it’s probably sheer laziness on my part – I could probably learn to do this if I tried. Really good job with this – congrats.

  15. Of course I love this theme (of course, of course…but I miss the skull, although I understand how some have problems with them…). Beautiful cake and your decorations are spot on. I am, as usual, in awe of the cakes you make for your kids. I hope my Zack never reads your blog and realizes how pathetic his cakes were in terms of design…Well done.

  16. Oh my goodness. You truly are an artist! And the best mom ever. Do you sleep? XO

  17. It’s touching your family has such complete faith in you that you’ll drop everything to focus on whatever projects they line up for you Charlie 🙂 The trouble is that you do it all so beautifully! Great job sweetie, I bet the birthday girl was thrilled xox

  18. Great Cake charlie! 🙂

  19. G’day Very labour intensive cake, but it looks great Charlie!
    Who enjoys the view from afar and would love to taste it? ME! 🙂
    Cheers! Joanne

  20. Charlie I think it looks fantastic! You’re so generous. I’m glad I’m not the only one who destroys their kitchen when making things like this.

  21. Are you even human? I feel like you’re too talented to be human. xo

  22. Wow, that is spectacular! I would have looked at the picture and passed out! You are a cake decorating master!!!

  23. Gosh, you are so good at this. I admire the way you meet the challenges that life/family keeps throwing at you. No danger of spare time, that’s so true.

  24. You are gifted Charlie, what a beautiful creation!

  25. Wow! That is amazing!! And I thought the vodka cake was nice… You are truly talented! Your kids are blessed to have a mum who is willing AND able to do such nice things for them!!! Well done, Charlie!!! xo

  26. Not sure I would ever brave doing something like this Charlie. You are clearly a natural though. All of your cakes are always exquisite.
    Have a hppay week ahead.
    🙂 Mandy xo

  27. I’d want the skull too, just to give it a bit of an edge, but you did so brilliantly with the design. Love the colours too – you’re such a good mum!

  28. You DO get paid for all this work, right? I agree with Jas, I’d have wanted the skull too – just so we’re authentic. 🙂

    The cake is very cool!

  29. I sure hope that these people who ask you to bake cakes actually pay you for the task, you are a professional! The cake looks gorgeous Charlie, you really did a lovely job. The decorations are very pretty too, it’s really too bad you weren’t able to find out how tasty it was.

  30. This is just gorgeous and so impressive, you should start selling them 🙂

  31. You get the mom-of-the-year award again, Charlie! The cake came out beautifully 🙂

  32. I have to say that fondant isn’t my favourite thing but this looks really good!!!! amazing job!

  33. This is so pretty! I make cakes, but nothing as elaborate as this. Do you have to warn guests to watch out for the skewers? How far ahead to you suggest to start making something like this?

    • Hi Shikha, the cakes can be made a fair while ahead as you can freeze them and then take them out of the freezer when you want to decorate them. I always decorate on the day they’re needed so this cake was being picked up at 5pm so I started at 10am. I haven’t made anything like this before so wasn’t sure how long it would take me but knew it would be a while! I let the client know about the skewers and she removed them when she started slicing the cake.

  34. Oh the things we get ourselves into! 🙂 Good for you making the best of an intense request and turning the cake into something so beautiful! 🙂

  35. I am in awe of you Charlie – what a wonderful creation. Mind you, you might have made a rod for your own back by setting the standard so high. 😉

  36. Wow! Looks so tasty!

  37. Truly a work of art, Charlie! I am so amused at a ‘Day of the Dead’ theme for a 21st birthday party. Dia de los Muertos celebrations are very big in Southern California and I’ve never seen a cake as beautiful as this one. ox

  38. Oh my goodness, your cake is just GORGEOUS!!! I miss celebrating Dia de los Muertos. When I lived in Tucson it was a big deal. Now here in Charlotte, it is just another day for most. I think you did a lovely job on that cake, and Arabella is very lucky to have a rockin’ mom like you!!! Hugs, Terra

  39. Another AMAZING cake!!! 🙂 You are going to have to start a cake making business soon! I like this cake even more because it’s a coconut cake hehe

  40. You’re a marvel, Charlie. This cake is so beautifully decorated. I must admit, though, I’d never heard of a skull-less Day of the Dead motif. Just goes to show what I know. 🙂

    • Thanks John. I hadn’t either. I actually had no idea what they were talking about as that Mexican celebration is almost unheard of Down Under. Anyway…the client thinks fulfilled the brief so that’s the main thing!

  41. Man you are a good mum. It’s so lovely.

  42. Not only do you do a million things for your own kids but for all their friends too… you are a saint! I have said it before and will say it again! What a beauty.

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