Let me start with this  statement…

I am ABSOLUTELY NOT a cake decorator!

I dread and struggle with it every time an occasion calls for cake…  So for the past several years, as the 8th of February approaches, I start planning and scheming weeks ahead of time.

I only WISH I had half the cake decorating skills of Wendy Lou Ahmed or her sister Felicity (Deaners in Alaska) or the food styling skills of Taryn (blogger of Retro Food for Modern Times in Australia)…  But I still enjoy the challenge, work, and outcome of making cakes.  Practice makes perfect…I can have aspirations and dreams, can’t I?  (Just as a reminder, you can click on any of the images within this blog to see them LARGER.)

James Dean birthday cakes are a newer part of my life…  For 27+something years, I was in the floral industry and never had the chance to celebrate February 8th with all the other Deaners.  I was always swamped at work in Valentine’s Day preparations (the second biggest holiday for florists…the first being Mother’s Day, followed closely by Christmas…but Christmas is spread out over a whole month and a half).  So it wasn’t until I left the flower business and eventually published Recipes for Rebels: In the kitchen with James Dean, that James Dean birthday cakes became a “thing” for me.

Now I’m half way across the world on a tiny island in Greece and still can’t attend the fabulous James Dean birthday parties thrown by David Loehr of The James Dean Gallery in Fairmount, Indiana (this year he’s celebrating with The Sweetheart Ball dance in the newly reopened downtown opera house, The Stardust Ballroom–the event is HERE)…or I can’t attend Cindy Cronk’s very last James Dean birthday party at artist Kenneth Kendall’s studio in Los Angeles (the parties were started by Kenneth many, many years ago…now his studio and the surrounding area is scheduled for demolition in the next few months)…  So my celebration this year is limited to celebrating here in Greece with Alex (that’s still a good thing) and sharing that celebration through social media and this blog.  We’ll have a nice dinner…maybe one of Natalie’s recipes, Jim Backus’, or Aunt Ortense’s…and then of course CAKE!

This blog entry is all about the “personal” challenge of trying to create the coolest looking James Dean birthday cake within my ability…  Hopefully it also provides some of you with inspiration or a couple of ideas…you might make it your challenge too (or if nothing else, a little entertainment and a few laughs).

2 years ago..powdered sugar over a cocoa-dusted chocolate cake

Here’s a couple of cakes from previous years.  Two years ago I had a fairly successful outcome using a stencil and powdered sugar over a cocoa-dusted chocolate cake.  I used Bob Pulley’s mother’s recipe for the cake (Bob was Dean’s best childhood friend in Fairmount, IN, and Jim certainly was served this cake many times.  The recipe’s in the book).  It’s a fast, easy, moist, and flavorful cake.  The highly detailed (to me) stencil took a good amount of time to cut out…using an X-acto knife and regular-weight printer paper.  In hindsight, I only regret not extending the powdered sugar out to the edges of the circle…and something around posterboard-weight might have been easier to handle during the sifting and removal process…  All in all, it was easy and I was happy that it was fairly decent looking.

Last year it took me a whole day to make the cake.  THIS YEAR it took me TWO DAYS to make (not counting the days before in planning and research)!  This was partly due to filming the process for this blog…which often doubles, triples, or even more recipe preparation times.  I used the “Reverse Frozen Buttercream Transfer” technique (aka FBCT–to foodie bloggers all over the web, who seem to LOVE to use acronyms when and wherever possible).  It’s the same technique as I used last year, and had promised a couple of people that I’d show them how it was done.  So here it is…

Last years cake…a monochromatic “frozen buttercream transfer” on a 2-layer classic yellow cake

I enjoy the process…but it’s time consuming and a bit nerve-rattling for me.  I’m not at all comfortable with piping techniques and my hands are a bit shaky…hence the lettering portion of my plan for this years cake got scrapped after a couple of feeble attempts and total failures.

I learned a few things the first time I tried this technique…but totally forgot them by the time I was doing it again!  Maybe by writing it down here this time, I’ll remember for next (and so you can avoid the same pitfalls by learning from my mistakes).

I like this technique, because the finished cake is covered in all buttercream…not a hard, flavorless fondant (or sugar paste).  Slicing through nothing but buttercream looks and tastes so much better.  If you’ve ever colored in a child’s coloring book or can do a paint-by-number, you can get a good result with this too.  You could do your cake-top days ahead when you have more free time (keeping it in the freezer) if needed, and plop it on the cake right before your event…  You can do images for the sides of your cake like this too…

2 layers of classic yellow cake and chocolate buttercream filling

Did you know there are a bunch of different kinds of BUTTERCREAM?  Yup.  I learned a lot over these past couple of weeks…  This cake’s made with a “crusting” American Buttercream (ABC), the “crusting” refers to the thin, dry outside layer of icing that the sugar develops after being refrigerated…it allows you to do more dimensional decorating without fear of it melting off the cake or being easily damaged.

There’s also the Italian Buttercream (IBC), not as overly sweet as the ABC and meringue-based like the Swiss Meringue Buttercream (SMBC).  The French Buttercream also falls in that category, but each of these has it’s own unique qualities.  Also there are cooked, custard-based buttercreams like the Bavarian Buttercream and Ermine Buttercream (Ermine is the traditional frosting for Red Velvet cake, not the cream cheese-based frostings used mostly today).  Who knew there were so many kinds?








The American Buttercream used for this technique MUST have a 50/50 proportion of butter to solid vegetable shortening (like Crisco).  It’s the shortening that somehow aids in the crusting of the surface layer.  The recipe I used is:

crusting American Buttercream (ABC)

For the chocolate buttercream, I added about 3/4 cup of sifted cocoa powder to 1/2 of the above batch and more cream to get it back to a piping consistency.  I don’t have any cake decorating supply shops here on our island in Greece, so I had to use cheap liquid food coloring from the grocery store to tint the buttercream red and blue.  Powdered food coloring would have been best to use.  I added more cocoa to get the darker flesh tones and added instant espresso powder with more cocoa with blue food coloring to get the darkest shade I used (it actually turned out to be a great flavor!!!)

The finished cake MUST be refrigerated for a time (to get that “crusting”-thing happening), but you should take it out at least an hour before serving.  Buttercream should ALWAYS be served at room temperature (or it will taste like cold, hard shortening- yucky, instead of smooth, melt in-your-mouth buttery sweetness-yum)!



I’m not giving cake recipes in this particular posting.  This time it’s all about the decoration (regular readers have probably noticed there’s no specific James Dean history this month either…that will be back next month).  The cake recipes I used were from my well-worn, well-used, plaid covers falling-off, pages taped-in, dog-earred, food-stained copy of The “New” Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook…a classic yellow cake and standard chocolate cake.  I looked for 2 recipes with almost the same ingredient list, so that my finished cakes would have similar textures.

I really liked using parchment paper piping cones (you’ll see them in use in the video).  Easy to make, versatile, and no greasy clean-up (It bugs me to waste those plastic “disposable” ones, and I usually end up trying to wash them for 4-5 uses before they finally break).  I’m not going to discuss making or using them here either, since there are already dozens of people on YouTube with WAY more information about that than you’ll EVER need to know…  But definitely try making them…they’re great!

To make the checkerboard cake interior, I used 4 layers in 2 different colors/flavors.  Trim the domed part off each cake layer.  I made a pattern and then used that to cut each layer into 4 concentric circles.  Reassemble each layer with alternate color rings and frost with buttercream between the layers as you build up.  It’s not as complicated as it looks or sounds and only adds a few extra minutes of worktime, but really adds a WOW-factor when you cut the cake for your guests.



Screenshot from Rebel

EVERY description of this technique on the web, tells you to use parchment paper or wax paper over your pattern.  That’s how I did it last year.  I even taped my pattern to a piece of glass so that I could use an improvised light table to see the picture through the parchment paper…  BUT NOT THIS YEAR!  I simply covered the design with clear plastic wrap and piped over that…with a totally CLEAR view of the design…it WORKS!  Why did they make me struggle so hard last year?  I had experimented in the days previous to see if there was any reason NOT to use the plastic wrap, but for a complicated design like this…plastic wrap was CLEARLY SUPERIOR!  It works just great.

Last years design…you’re welcome to use it (click to see larger or print)

After PhotoShop, simplifying the number of colors (click to see larger or print it out for your own use)

Image reversed…

Selecting the right image is the hardest part of this project.  When you look at the vast majority of people on the web doing FBCT’s…they tend to use coloring book images or very simple graphics.  JAMES DEAN is just not that simple of a guy!  This year I took a screenshot from the movie Rebel, and manipulated it in photoshop to meet my needs.  You can find ready to use images on the web by using search terms like “James Dean high contrast,” or “stencil” or “3-color” or “graphic” or “duo-tone”, etc…

Last year I went monochromatic with a image…just done in 4 or so shades of chocolate.  But this year I wanted color…like an old hand-colored photograph.  A bit more complicated.  I think I used around 11 colors total.




Flaws and all…I was pleased with the outcome…

Some notes to myself on what to avoid next year if I do this again…



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I LOVE to hear feedback, it really makes my day!  …leave me a message below …and if you decide to make a cake of your own, I’d love to see it…send me a pic!


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  1. You do the most Amazing things Greg! Love It!

  2. Nan Muehlhauser February 2, 2017 at 3:42 pm

    Coolest cake I’ve ever seen. For sure!

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