This Is The Very Model Of a Modern Melty Chocolate Cake

My daughter Peo is slightly obsessed with “The Pirates of Penzance.” But when she asked for her eighth birthday party to have a Penzance theme, I pointed out that most other kids her age – even at her very nerdy school – do not know who Gilbert and Sullivan were, let alone have multiple librettos committed to memory. I suggested that we have a general pirate themed birthday but that the cake could be Penzance themed.

baby with a pirate patch

Peo’s little sister Robin wearing one of the pirate patches for the generalized pirate birthday party on her corrective plagiocephaly helmet. D’awwwwrrrrr.

baby with a pirate sticker

At the party itself, Daddy put one of the pirate stickers from the craft supplies on Robin’s helmet. I had the kids decorating their own mini pirate chests and colouring their own pirate bandanas while they waited for the big treasure hunt to start.

Since I happened to have a Mike McCarey treasure chest cake stand that he graciously gave me at the end of last year’s Austin cake show (see this post for what I did with a stand he gave me the year before), I suggested to Peo that instead of using the stand to make a cake-a-pult as she originally wanted, we make it General Stanley’s chest full of stuff he knows about from his Modern Major General song.

Later it occurred to me that the Pirate King could have stolen General Stanley’s chest, so we decided to have a shiny plate indicating that it was General Stanley’s but then have that crossed out with the Pirate King’s moniker scrawled over the top.

Thus, I spent almost every weeknight for a couple of weeks working on bits and pieces of the cake – including making the entire trunk lid with General Stanley sitting on it – while my husband dealt with the four-month-old. I also made two sides of a coin in polymer clay, one of which had a skull and crossbones, and the other that said, “Peo’s of 8” – a joke combining Peo’s 8th birthday and “pieces of eight”. I used my food-safe Composi-Mold to make a mold of each side, deciding that’d be easier than dealing with a two-sided mold, and made 19 coins out of semi-sweet chocolate chips. I then airbrushed them gold and put the two halves together.

chocolate coins airbrushed gold

The coins before the halves were choco-glued together. I turned one over so you can see the chocolate colour. It’s always best to airbrush or dust metallic colours onto a dark background like this to make the colour really pop.

I mounted Mike’s stand to one of my raised plastic stands for easier portability, and wrapped the whole thing in foil. Then two days before Peo’s party I baked four 9×13 chocolate cakes (the Betty Crocker Triple Chocolate mix with a big squirt of Hershey’s Special Dark Syrup added), filled and coated them with three batches of my Dark Chocolate Buttercream, and arranged them on the stand:

chocolate box cake

The cake squared off as much as possible, firmed up in the fridge and ready for decorating.

Then the night before the party I made four modelling chocolate panels measured to fit the cake and go up enough to create a lip around the top, mounted them, and added all of the pieces I’d made. I had originally planned to do a King Arthur as I’d made previously for my husband’s Monty Python cake – because combining nerd fandoms is awesome and Peo loves “The Holy Grail” almost as much as she loves “The Pirates of Penzance” – but I ran out of time and it was pouring rain so I couldn’t get the figure to dry fast enough. I’d already made the shield, though, so I stuck that on as well.

pirate trunk cake with no lid

The cake without the lid on yet, showing the chocolate coins filling the interior.

I ensured the lid fit properly and took some photos in the kitchen, but then removed it for safer portability the next day, especially with rain in the forecast and the party being in a park. Here’s the cake fully assembled at the park:

full Pirates of Penzance chest cake - front

There isn’t cake in the lid: it’s cardboard and foam board. I followed Mike’s instructions for adding rounded sides but also added a strip of cardboard along the middle of the arch to ensure the cardstock wouldn’t collapse under the weight of General Stanley. I didn’t notice that King Arthur’s shield had fallen over until after the photos had been taken, but I did stand it back up.

General Stanley detail - side

Side shot of the top figure from the kitchen the night before. General Stanley is made out of fondant, mostly my own recipe, with the parasol done in Satin Ice on a skewer. Peo requested that his outfit be the variation from the 1983 movie she loves so much.

General Stanley detail - front

Detail of General Stanley from the front. There’s foil in his chest, toothpicks throughout, and his parasol arm is 18 gauge wire. If this had been a competition piece I wouldn’t have allowed the parasol to rest on the helmet, but in this case when it naturally slumped there I decided a) I have a four-month-old, b) the 8-year-olds won’t notice, c) this is not a competition cake, and d) I’d rather the parasol be extra-supported and not fall off, because the 8-year-olds would notice that.

Peo on the table

Peo standing on the table singing the Modern Major General song to explain the elements of the cake to her friends. She is wearing her Pirate King shirt. Sometimes we use an eyeliner pencil to draw curly chest hairs on her when she dresses up this way, again because of the 1983 movie where Kevin Kline as the Pirate King is constantly showing off his hairy chest much to the chagrin of Angela Lansbury as Ruth. You may notice there’s something wrong with the cake…see below for more on that.

front of cake - detail

Detail of several elements from the song. There’s the sign for “Commissariat” pointing to the cake because of the line, “And when I know precisely what is meant by ‘commissariat'” – as in, that’s where the food is. King Arthur’s shield (“I know our mythic history, King Arthur’s and Sir Caradoc’s”) has fallen over but can be seen in photos above. The frogs are because “I know the croaking chorus from The Frogs of Aristophanes!” The cut cone is for the line, “In conics I can floor peculiarities parabolous.” The weapons represent the line, “When I can tell at sight a Mauser rifle from a Javelin.” The figure at the side is addressed further below.

detail of frogs and weapons

An above-shot of the frogs, javelin, and rifle. The rifle was surprisingly easy to make: just roll a snake fatter on one end, squish that end flat, pinch it to make the shoulder butt edge, indent the front end with a small ball tool, and let dry ensuring that the barrel is straight. Add the little black bits to suggest a barrel, firing mechanism, and whatever the thing on top with the sight and the powder pan is called, lightly stain the back end with some brown food colouring and voila, an old-school rifle. And of course the javelin is just a rolled snake with a tapered end and a white band added.

detail - nun's book on tactics

This is a young nun reading a book on Tactics because of the line “When I know more of tactics than a novice in a nunnery”.

detail - Pinafore poster

On the left side of the cake is a poster for “H.M.S. Pinafore” because of the line, “And whistle all the airs from that infernal nonsense Pinafore.” I actually kind of messed up the hand-painting on this classic poster (see here for what it should have looked like). After getting the lady done so well, I should’ve gone to bed but didn’t and then accidentally got the sailor out of proportion. I also ran out of room at the top, and ran out of time for more detail, so I fudged it.


I printed off some cuneiform samples I found online for Peo and she scratched similar shapes into this fondant block. It was even her idea to scratch them in versus painting them on afterwards. After it dried completely I gave it a black food gel wash. This is all for the line, “Then I can write a washing bill in Babylonic cuneiform.”

full cake - right front

The full cake from the right front side, showing the hypotenuse and acrostic on the side. Peo wrote the acrostic. These represent the lines, “With many cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse” and “I answer hard acrostics.” You can also see a scroll with calculus perched on the corner for the line, “I’m very good at integral and differential calculus.”

Caractacus figure

This is Caractacus, which should be Caratacus but as it says in the song, “And tell you ev’ry detail of Caractacus’s uniform.” Caratacus was a British chieftain who resisted the Roman invasion and is generally depicted as wearing a loincloth or partial robe and loincloth, thus making knowing all the details of his uniform quite the cheeky Gilbert and Sullivan joke. I made him with his axe here. Alas, his fate was not much better on this cake, as will become apparent below…

My original plan with this cake was to cover it in Satin Ice’s Dark Chocolate fondant, but when I realized my supply was going to be iffy for covering the cake, I decided to go with McCarey’s intended design for this stand and make modeling chocolate panels. Panels would also create the illusion of depth at the top, and the forecast for the day of the party was supposed to be warmish but raining, so I figured it’d stay up long enough.


The weather that actually hit was instead very hot and humid – low 30sC (mid 80sF) and over 90% humidity – so within the first hour of the party, we noticed the back of the cake was starting to bulge:

bulging cake


But we figured the modeling chocolate was thick enough to withstand a bit of buttercream pressure, so we just left it.

Meanwhile, I took the kids around the park on an evil scavenger hunt. Why evil? Well, as several of them noted two thirds through it, we were going in a circle. At first I denied it but then when they insisted that it really did seem like we were just walking a big circle and going back to the site of the party I said, “Oh come on. Pirates would never play tricks on you. Pirates are the most honest, chivalric, decent human beings there ever were.”

The children screamed that no, pirates aren’t like that at all!

I grinned.

They laughed.


(Although let’s make it clear that I was out in the park the previous weekend mapping this all out while pushing a stroller the whole time, and then again in the wee hours that morning to put the clues in little rain-proof baggies tied on branches and fences and whatnot so they could find them.)

Sure enough, the last clue on the scavenger hunt said that the meanie guts parents had turned into pirates and had their treasure. The kids had to present the solution to the puzzle for which they found clues on the hunt in order to get that treasure. I set this whole thing up so that when Corran could see us heading down the path into the the bushes for that last clue, he could pull out spare eyepatches and pirate costume gear and get himself and the other parents suited up.


Anyway, in that 45 minutes that I had the kids going around the park, the cake pretty much melted:

melted chocolate cake

The back of the cake with the chocolate panels drooping down.

melted cake, left side

The left side of the melted cake, showing how the decorations popped off as it melted.

melted cake, right side

The right side. It is saying something about how well I fused the panels together, though, in that the modeling chocolate slid down like a slowly stretching sock as opposed to just falling off. Yay me. Sigh.

The upside is that the gooey dark chocolate buttercream and the warm cake tasted awesome. The entire park area around the cake already smelled like a chocolate factory before the melting, and after…well let’s just say we’re probably lucky we didn’t get get stormed by all of the children in the park.

Plus, the melting added some unexpected fun: the bulging panels eventually popped Caractacus off, which made the children shriek with glee as they watched him fall. Then they grabbed him and clustered around him shouting things like, “I’m going to eat his axe! It tastes like blood!” and “Peo, eat his head!” and “Stab him in the face!” and “No, stab him in the loincloth!” It went pretty Lord of the Flies in the end…

Death of Caractacus.

A gaggle of little girl pirates horrifically dismembering Caractacus, thus showing him far less mercy than Emperor Claudius. And they say video games cause violence…apparently, so does opera, chocolate, and everything else.

So despite the melting, the cake was a hit and the party a success. And just in case there was any lingering doubt about my complete impropriety as a parent, later that afternoon I gave Robin, Peo, and I matching temporary pirate tattoos left over from the goodie bags:

pirate tattoos

Every four month old should have a matching family tattoo, right?

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This entry was posted in Cake Decorating, Fancy cakes, Figures, General Freakishness, My Recipes, Severe Nerdery, Working With Kids. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to This Is The Very Model Of a Modern Melty Chocolate Cake

  1. The_L says:

    Ooh, pieces of eight! Wait a minute, these are chocolate…OH FALSE ONE! YOU HAVE DECEIVED ME!

    All joking aside, this is an awesome cake, and sounds like a wonderful birthday party. 🙂 I’m sure Peo’s friends will be talking about it for weeks!

  2. @mbt4955 says:

    Uhmmmm, "complete impropriety as a parent" … excuse me? I would have to say you have complete awesomeness (not a word, I know) as a parent. I especially love the picture of Peo singing and hate to have missed the curly chest hair, but I do have a vision of it in my head! Amazing party. Thanks so much for sharing the adventure with us!

  3. Leo says:

    That is cool. Nice

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