How to make a simple Thomas the Tank Engine birthday cake (or even Gordon!)

Thomas the Tank Engine cakeAfter tackling Peppa last year, I was hoping for something a bit simpler this time round. Especially as I also have a rather large belly to work around this year. But being almost three, Scrip ensured she got her request in early and her cake had to be Thomas The Tank Engine-themed but not only that, it had to feature Gordon. Tough brief.

After much research (there’s some brilliant inspiration on Pinterest and YouTube – here’s my three year old party board) I quickly ruled out carving out a 3D train or even a face-on engine in favour of a simpler cake shape and making Gordon’s face out of fondant.

Although the internet is bursting at the seams with Thomas creations, Gordon is a lot harder to find. So this was mainly about adapting tips for Thomas and making sure I captured the angular face of Gordon rather than the (probably simpler) rounded one of the main character.

Gordon the tank engineIt’s also worth saying that there are lots of different versions of all of the characters – depending which book, cartoon or image you find. I went for this Gordon off the internet which is like the current TV CGI and I thought would be the easiest to copy.

I started off with the cake. As for last year, I used this sponge recipe from all recipes – it really does seem to be foolproof. The cake was 20cm x 20cm square and I used this adjustable tin from John Lewis which I had from last year. I made sure I followed the recipe to a letter and also remembered to follow my cake making rules from last year.

Tala cake toolsWhen the cake was in the oven, I tackled the most difficult bit: Gordon’s fondant face. As the detail was intricate, I bought some fondant tools and they really helped. Mine were Tala and I got them from John Lewis, but you can also buy them online. I bought this fondant rolling pin and these modelling tools (double sided).

My fondant was Waitrose’ own brand. I think Waitrose have the best supermarket selection of home baking ingredients, but I also got some ready-coloured fondant for the detail (like his black funnel) and I’d really recommend that to get the colour right. Mine was Dr Oetker Regal Ice Ready to Roll (Coloured).

I found a great tutorial online which helped with a few tips. Key with fondant is to try not to let it dry out too much, so I had sealable plastic bags on hand to pop in any icing I’d opened but wasn’t using straight away. I also had a little bowl of water to help smooth over cracks; be aware that too much of this makes for a shiny surface, so only use when you really have to.

marbelled fondant icingI started by deciding how big Gordon’s face was going to be on the cake. Mine was about 12cm to make sure I could fit the funnel and a few extras like her age and the candles around the outside. Then I got a biggish blob of icing and added a few drops of black to it to make the silver/grey colour of Gordon’s face and moulded and kneaded it until it was even all over (it stays marbelled for quite a while so be patient). Best to start with a little bit of colour and add more as necessary. When you’re happy with the colour roll it out with the fondant rolling pin to a few cm thickness and then make your circle shape. I used a clean round container of around the right size that I pushed down on the icing and cut around. Keep the bits around the edges as you’ll be using these for the nose and cheeks.

For the cheeks, turn the head over, roll two smallish balls (about the size of marbles) and put them on the back in the middle of the head. Push them in gently, then when you turn it over you can easily mould crease-free cheeks over them. Next was the nose. Thomas’ nose is round but Gordon’s is sharper. It was roughly the length of the cheeks. I stuck it on and smoothed it down with one of the rounder tools, adding a bit of water at the end to really get a nice surface.

Gordon fondant faceI used the tool with the sharp end to carve out the mouth and cleft above it, adding a bit of extra grey icing around the bottom lip to make it stand out. This only needs to be a very thin bit. Then I put another very thin bit of white icing in to make the teeth. I flattened it with one of the tools.

For the eyes I used my thumbs and the tools to make two indents above the cheeks, then added small pieces of white in half moon shapes. I tried to mould these before putting them on as I didn’t want to press them too much once in place. The pupils were tiny pieces of black fondant made into very small circles. I put them in place and then cut out triangles at each side to create his ‘twinkles’. This was fiddly and it was hard to make sure they both matched – but he looked a bit cross-eyed if they didn’t!

Eyebrows were much easier: black fondant shaped into two similar eyebrow shapes and laid over the eyes. Try and get the angle roughly right and make sure they’re around the same length as the eyes.

I then moved the face onto a plate using a palette knife (make sure you loosen it all the way around underneath before) and added a thinnish roll of black fondant to make the outline all around his face, and a small tube with a roll of icing on top to make the funnel. And Gordon was done!

Cake and icingWhen the cake was out I let it fully cool before doing my icing crumb layer (as I did for Peppa). The icing was buttercream plus a lot of blue food colouring. I couldn’t get the royal blue colour of Gordon with supermarket colours – probably only with professional colouring – but I got a nice blue shade which hopefully still looked edible and gave everyone the idea! I used a couple of tubes of Dr Oetker Sky Blue plus extra tubes from the Cooperative.

Once my crumb coating was fully cooled in the fridge, I put on the final layer using palette knives to smooth with a bit of hot water where necessary. As not much of the icing was on show it didn’t need to be perfect. Once that was set, it was time for Gordon’s face to go on. I transferred it very carefully using the palette knife and put it in the centre. I made a few puffs of smoke using white fondant formed into simple cloud shapes to look like they were coming out of the funnel and then used some star cookie cutters to make some star shapes which I piped number 3s onto with writing icing (careful as it can bleed a bit – so try and keep it as thin as possible).

The finishing touch was some wafer stars from Lakeland to go around the outside – two on each side. And don’t forget to leave an empty corner for the candles!

I hope that was relatively easy to follow. It was certainly appreciated by my little three year old – and that made all the preparation and fondant smoothing worthwhile!

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