We’ve told you about Jo’s daughter celebrating her 4th birthday recently with a zoo themed party for her friends, but she also had a family party at home. Soon after deciding on a Disney princess theme for the family party, Jo’s daughter told her, “Mommy, I want Chica to make my birthday cake with ALL the princesses on it — even Mulan!” When it comes to little girls’ birthday wishes, I pretty much do what I’m told, so I set out to make the cake of her dreams.
I thought this would be a great opportunity to try a technique I’ve been wanting to show you all for a while now, called “color flow”. The technique involves outlining your designs with a special thick icing, then filling the spaces with thinner icing that flows into the corners. After it dries, you have an edible candy decoration that’s ready to place on the cake. There are an infinite number of designs possible, and the required skill level varies with each one, but here’s an intro to the technique along with details about what I did for the ultimate princess cake.
Prepare the design
The first thing to do is come up with your designs. For the princess cake, I searched the plethora of Disney princess pictures online until I found some I liked, and I printed them out. If you’d like to use the same images I did, here’s a handy PDF you can download. I also sketched a picture of the birthday girl herself, based on one of my favorite photos of her. I made her picture a little larger than the eight princesses, so that she would stand out in the center of the cake.
Once you’ve got your designs printed out, cut them apart and tape them each onto a piece of cardboard that’s a little bigger than the design. Then cover the whole thing with wax paper and tape it in place on the back. Having each one on a separate piece of cardboard will make it much easier to access them individually as you work on filling in the pieces with color flow.
Make the color flow icing
The special icing you’ll use for this technique is made using Wilton’s powder color flow mix. Follow the package instructions, adding powdered sugar and water to the mix and beating in the mixer until you reach a thick but manageable consistency. Be sure to keep the icing covered with a damp paper towel when not in use, because it dries out quickly.
As usual, I recommend using paste food color (instead of liquid) for coloring your icing, so that it keeps its consistency. You’ll use this icing full-strength for outlining the designs, but for filling in the shapes, you’ll need a thinner consistency that will actually flow. To create the thinner version, add water a FEW DROPS at a time, until it’s just thin enough so that a bead of it blends into a blob in a few seconds’ time.
Be careful not to make the color flow icing too thin, or else it will take longer to dry and might bleed into the other colors. Don’t make it too thick, either, or else you won’t get it to flow into a smooth finish. You’ll see that the right consistency becomes obvious pretty quickly after you start working.
Fill in the design
Start by outlining the design with full-strength color flow icing. Put the icing in a disposable decorator bag or make a bag out of a parchment paper triangle (I promise I’ll show you how to do that one day!). Equip the bag with a very small round icing tip. Follow the designs on your printed image and squeeze the icing directly onto the wax paper, taking care to connect all the ends so that the thinner icing doesn’t leak through later.
To reduce risk of bleed-through with dark colors, let the outline dry for an hour or two before continuing on to fill in the flow areas.
When the outline is dry, mix up your thinner color flow icing and start squirting it gently into the open areas of your design. If you have air bubbles, you can use a toothpick to gently pop them while still wet. If you’re having trouble getting the icing to flow into narrow points or corners, you can also use the toothpick to gently push the icing into place. As long as your consistency is right, any marks you make with the toothpick will disappear within a couple of seconds and you’ll have a nice glossy and smooth finish.
Allow the finished pieces to dry
Finally the hard work is done and your pieces are all complete. Now you need to have the patience to let them dry for anywhere from 1 to 3 weeks. The time will depend on the humidity in the house, the size of the pieces, and how thin you made the icing. Because color flow pieces last indefinitely, it’s better to be on the safe side and make them way ahead of time so that you’re sure they are completely dry before attempting to put them on the cake.
Do NOT store them in an air-tight container. You need them to be exposed to the air so they can dry out. Place them in a safe area that is protected from dust if possible (like on a high shelf). After a week or two, you can cover them lightly with a paper towel to keep dust away if desired.
Put the pieces on the cake
When it’s time to decorate the cake, you’ll need to remove the color flow pieces from the cardboard. Start by carefully removing the tape from the back and/or cutting the wax paper so that it’s free from the cardboard. Taking great care not to break the piece, peel the wax paper off the back slowly. It’s often helpful to put the piece on a counter or table top and slide it off the edge, while pulling the wax paper down and away. Keep the piece level and even and you’ll reduce chance of breakage.
If the piece dried properly, you’ll have a nice hard piece of candy. Here’s what it looks like on the front and back:
Now you can’t just put the color flow piece directly onto the cake, because it is made of an egg-white based icing that will deteriorate if it comes in contact with the greasy base (from the butter) of the frosting on the cake. To keep the pieces apart, just place a couple of sugar cubes or mini marshmallows on the cake to serve as little pedestal feet, then place the color flow piece on top. Despite being a practical solution, I love the way the pieces look when they are raised off the cake. That extra 3-D touch is unexpected and neat.
As luck would have it, I was out of town the weekend of the princess party, so I couldn’t make the actual cake. However, the color flow pieces were all prepared and ready for Jo to put on the cake herself. She opted to save time and ordered three cakes from a local bakery, and then placed the designs on herself at home before the party. The outcome was fantastic!
You can just imagine how happy the birthday girl was with her cake, especially when she realized she could eat her portrait!
Other color flow ideas
The color flow technique can be used on any design, and can be made in just about any size. If you are a beginner color flow artist and want to start small, try making cute little flowers to top cupcakes with or to decorate a cake. You can even stand them upright by affixing them to popsicle sticks or toothpicks (use a little bit of royal icing as “glue”).
Keep in mind that color flow pieces will last indefinitely, as long as they don’t come in contact with grease-based frosting. So after the party, if you’re able to keep everyone from eating those decorations you spent so much time on, you can actually remove them from the sugar cube pedestals and store them away to be reused on another occasion. I once made a 12″ diameter Marine Corps logo for a cake that the recipient loved so much that he kept it on display in a cabinet for months after his party, before finally breaking down and eating it!