Birthday Baking: Chessboard Cake with Chocolate Chess Pieces

It was that time of year again. We have a small friend whose birthday comes around right before New Year's, and we have a standing commitment to create his birthday cake. This occasion is always an opportunity to toss out modest tastes in favor of more child-appealing straight-up sweet sugar and ambitious ideas. Last year it was a medieval castle cake, complete with knight, torches and a sprayed-on moat.

This year, however, called for something slightly more grown-up...

Our small friend is a chess whiz, and his mother requested a chess cake. We quickly decided to mold the pieces out of chocolate - being not talented in any way in cake carving. Molding chocolate looked fairly straightforward, but it was more difficult than it looked (of course). We'll talk about that later...

For now, here are photos of putting together a life-size chessboard. We used four 9x9 square cakes, with the inner rounded corners sliced off to make one square whole. We were intimidated by the thought of making the chess squares out of frosting (we are not precise like that) so we made the board out of chocolate and white chocolate too.

The frosting was meringue buttercream, which was a concession to taste. It doesn't get nearly as smooth and pretty as more stiff buttercreams, but it's much better to eat.

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• After the four-piece cake was assembled, it was split in two to be filled.

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• Black cherry jam filling.

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• The soft meringue buttercream. We love this kind of icing because while it still has plenty of butter it's much lighter than plain buttercream. It's creamy and fluffy, which is partly why it's not very smooth on the final cake. Letting it chill for longer in the fridge could have helped, but we didn't have the space or time.

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• This was our first ever attempt at proper chocolate molding, and the mold we used had maddeningly small divisions between the squares. Hence the rather splotchy result.

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• Decorated with swags, ribbons and stars.

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• The final result.

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• Black and white.

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• Singing "Happy Birthday" - after which a group of fearsomely bright children played three games of chess with the pieces and ate cake.