Illusion Cake Showstopper Challenge

I AM OBSESSED with the Great British Bake-Off and Season 5 just started on Netflix in the US! (For those in the UK, it’s Series 8.) Happy to see Paul Hollywood is back and curious to see how new hosts Noel Fielding and Sandi Toksvig, and new judge Prue Leith get on the rest of the season. They’re ok so far, but I do miss Mel, Sue and Mary Berry.

The Season’s start was also the perfect push for me to start this blog. So for the next 10 weeks, I’m going to take on the #GBBObakealong! I’ll pick one of the challenges per week and have a go at it in my kitchen.

Show started off with cake week. Thinking I should start off with a bang, I picked the Showstopper Challenge, which was to create an illusion cake. Luckily, it was my husband’s boss birthday so I was able gift the cake to his office! Because he works for a seeds and plants brokerage, I decided to make a succulents tray.

Succulents tray illusion cake made with chocolate cake covered with fondant.

Lucky for me, I had four-day weekend so I was able to split up the construction. Friday night I went to work on the cake. I used an oil-based chocolate cake, which once I started construction, probably wasn’t the best idea. If I make something like this again, I would use my butter-based recipe to get a tighter crumb/more dense cake to hold up all the weight. That said, the cake was super moist and flavorful (recipe at the end of post).

So Friday night, I make two 9 x 13-inch cake sheets and froze them. To make sure they didn’t dry out, I wrapped both cakes with two layers of cling film after they cooled, then put them in dark-colored grocery bags. I left them in the freezer until Sunday night when I started construction.

On Saturday, I used my vanilla Swiss merengue buttercream (recipe in future post) to pipe succulents. I chose vanilla because I needed to make four different colors of buttercream — green, teal, purple and pink. I used a star tip to make the tiny cacti, petal piping tip to make the more floral-looking succulents, the leaf tip to make the one on the far left and tips 2 and 12 to create the tube succulents and add dots on the cacti.

I piped them on individual squares of parchment paper and bunged them in the freezer. I stored the buttercream I didn’t color in the fridge in an airtight tupperware.

img_2982To put the cake together on Sunday, I let the cakes thaw a bit on the counter for half an hour before cutting and shaping them. I’ve found it’s easier to slice and shape a cake when it’s cold.

I made two layers out of one of the cakes and filled them with chocolate mousse (recipe in a later post) and slices of fresh strawberries. I then shaped the other cake with raised squares where the wells for the succulents would be. I added another layer of mousse to the two already layered and stacked the shaped cake on top of those. I crumb coated the whole thing and put in fridge for 20 minutes. While waiting, I rolled out the fondant. I just used black and relied on the succulents to bring color to the cake.

I covered the cake Sunday night but I didn’t cut out the wells until Tuesday morning, shortly before it was getting served. To store until then, I covered the whole cake in cling film and put in two paper grocery bags facing each other so that the cake was completely sealed in the fridge. #Ishould’vetakenapicture

I used the crumb that I dug out to create “dirt” and added small, white candy pearls to look like fertilizer for that extra touch of authenticity.


Chocolate Cake Recipe

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 3/4 cup Hershey’s Special Dark cocoa powder sifted
  • 2 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 cup buttermilk room temperature
  • 1 cup hot coffee
  • 2 large eggs room temperature
  • 2 tsp vanilla
  • butter for greasing


  • 1 large and 1 medium bowl
  • Hand mixer
  • 9 x 13 Pyrex dish
  • Fork or small whish
  • Cake tester, skewer or toothpick
  • Small spatula for scraping batter
  • Sifter


  • I used a class Pyrex pan to make the cake. If using a metal pan, bake at 350 deg. F. The metal pan heats up quickly but doesn’t stay as hot as a glass pan so you’ll want to knock the temperature up by 25 deg. F. Here’s a good explainer from Chowhound.
  • You can use hot water instead of coffee if you don’t want that bitter flavor. However, you still need to use hot water in order to bloom the cocoa powder.
  • If you don’t have use for a whole container of buttermilk, I usually just make it at home (like I did for this recipe). Add 1 tbs of acid (lemon juice or white vinegar are my go-tos) to 8 oz whole or 2% milk and let sit for 5 – 10 minutes.
  • When tempering the egg mixture, I like to slowly stream in the coffee on the side of the bowl as I whisk. I usually do this in 2 – 3 batches.


  1. Preheat oven to 325 deg. F. Grease a 9 x 13 Pyrex dish and dust with cocoa powder. Line bottoms with parchment paper.
  2. Place all dry ingredients into a large bowl and stir with a fork or small whisk to combine.
  3. In a medium bowl whisk together all wet ingredients save the coffee. Temper the egg mixture by slowly pouring in the coffee so you don’t cook the eggs.
  4. Add wet ingredients to dry and mix with a hand mixer on medium for 2 – 3 minutes.
  5. Pour into the pan.
  6. Bake for 35 – 45 minutes. Be sure to check on the cake at the 35-minute mark using a cake tester, skewer or toothpick. They should come out clean if cake is done.

Author: Jorina Fontelera

I love eating carbs, feeding people and watching the Great British Bake Off (aka in the US, the Great British Baking Show). I'll be chronicling my attempts at all the challenges per GBBO season.

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