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Dye-Free Jungle Junction Birthday Cake

I’ve finally recovered.  Ever have one of those days where nothing goes as planned?  When one small blip turns into a gnarly black cloud hanging over your head for two solid days?  Boy did I have one of THOSE weekends! 😉

It all started on Friday when my sister called to point out that my city’s firework display would be held on July 3rd and not on the 4th, as I had assumed and planned for it to be (it’s always been on the 4th before)!  Not only were we celebrating Independence Day, but we were also doing Luke’s 3rd birthday party and I had promised him fireworks.  Naturally, I FREAKED OUT! 😀

As of Friday, I had 48 hours to accomplish 72 hours of work, a good chunk of which would have to be spent on Luke’s gluten-free, dairy-free, and dye-free Jungle Junction themed birthday cake.  After I managed to convince everyone to come a day early and pleaded with the inflatable jumper company to bump me up a day, I put on a pot of extremely strong coffee and set to work.

The following photos are not great, a lot of them were taken under less than desirable lighting conditions; either because it was 1:30 in the morning when I was working on it or by the time I finally finished it (an hour before the party was to begin), the sky opened up and the rain came down (almost as hard as my tears!).

Luckily, the rain soon passed and all was good again.

Okay, let me explain what I was going for and nevermind the fact that I’m just not realistic in what my amateur cake decorating skills can achieve.  I have spent my entire life trying to shove a square peg in a round hole! 😀

Somehow, I got the hair-brained idea to incorporate the floating jungle roads that the roller-animals go cruising around on.  As if that wouldn’t be challenge enough, I then decide to put my family on a dye-free challenge, so there went the colored fondant (none of the natural dyes could compete with the concentrated synthetic dye gel colors I used to use).

Like my improvised backdrop?  That would be my husband holding up the backside of a checkered tablecloth, I was desperate for the flash to bounce off of something other than my shiny granite countertops!

Back in the spring, when I was taking the cake decorating classes, I picked up quite a few cool ideas from my instructors, like using toys for decorations.  Granted, they used toys to embellish the colored icing and not for the entire cake, but this really got me to thinking, why do we need to eat the cake decorations anyway?  My kids certainly don’t need all that added sugar and fondant really isn’t all that tasty to begin with!  Have you ever found yourself actually wanting to eat fondant and gum paste decorations?  (I will say this, of all the fondants I have tried over the years, the brand I found to be the best tasting belongs to Satin Ice, and it also happens to be gluten-free, dairy-free and nut-free.  I actually have the White/Vanilla and the Dark/Chocolate Satin Ice fondant on hand and both are free of artificial colorings).

It was during the fondant class that I had an epiphany.  Since fondant is pretty much an edible play dough, why not find something similar, that you could take a step further and harden (by baking in the oven) and thus end up with something that looked like fondant but the synthetic dyes are not consumed or transferred to the icing?

My friend Kristen introduced me to FIMO modeling clay and it looked like a great possibility.  I contacted Staedtler, the company that manufactures FIMO and received the following email:

Dear Mrs. Kelly,
With your e-mail you have reached the STAEDTLER headquarters in Germany. Thank you for your interest in our modelling clay FIMO.


FIMO is gluten-free, dairy-free and egg-free.

FIMO as well as its ingredients have been tested by toxicologists in Europe and in the USA and have been classified as non-toxic. The product fulfills furthermore the requirements of the EG guideline for the security of toy (EN 71, part 5). It easily surpasses all minimum standards and requirements inflicted by the european and american authorities. FIMO is tested by ACMI (USA) and is permitted to carry the AP-Seal “non-toxic”.

Attached please find for your information the “FIMO instructions for use”.

Best regards,

Simone Schmitt
Customer Service

Woo-Hoo!  Now, all I had to do was channel my deeply hidden inner sculptor and try to create the little roller-animals.  I was actually surprised at how easy (and fun) they were.  The shapes are pretty basic, although my proportions were off.  This was my first time working with FIMO polymer clay and I will offer you this TIP: model all the light colored clays BEFORE picking up the blue clay (or wear gloves), I developed “Smurf Hand” syndrome, and everything I touched turned blue! 😉 Once you model your figures, place them on a baking sheet in a 230° F. oven for 30 minutes, then set aside to cool.

I then dug into the boys toy box and confiscated some Lego and Hot Wheel wheels (and bought some googly eyes at the craft store) to adhere to the critters with a glue gun (*do this after you bake the clay).

For Dozer’s wheels (above photo), I used the wheels from the Hot Wheels Custom Motors Humvee (finding a purpose for all the toys with missing or broken pieces!).

I used another set of wheels from a Custom Hot Wheels Custom Motors Power Set for Ellyvan (above) and Ms. Jolly (below).

All the other little character’s got LEGO Wheels:

I knew that I would never have time to make the floating jungle roadways in the show from the clay (frankly, this worked out okay because I wasn’t sure I would have been able to do it even if I had an extra day!).  So, off I went to the hardware store to find a short-cut.  The floating roads in the show are light in color, like bamboo or balsa wood… wood… wood… it echoes in my mind.  Of course!  I’ll get a couple of small pieces of wood of different widths and see which one would work best (plus it gave my husband a chance to use his manly power saw).  Bingo!  It worked like a charm.  If I wasn’t short on time, I would have covered the wood in chocolate fondant, but instead I added a few pinches of cocoa powder to my white icing until I achieved a tan color, then slathered it on the wood pieces.  Not perfect, but good enough!

Having solved my road problem, I turned to the cake itself.  I had to get it baked, built and the crumb coat on so I could chill it in refrigerator before finishing it the next morning (video tutorial on how to do a crumb coat).  Normally, I would bake my cakes ahead of time, cut the desired shapes, then FREEZE them before assembling and doing the crumb coat of icing, but time slipped away from me.  Gluten-Free cakes can be especially fragile and freezing them before adding the icing helps prevent tearing!

My first “base” cake (12 x 18 half sheet pan) fell to pieces when I tried to pop it out, so I was not looking forward to trying to get the second cake out in one piece  (FYI, one half sheet cake is THREE Betty Crocker Gluten-Free cake mixes, I only used two and it was a bit flat).  My second attempt was 90% successful, with only a few pieces sticking to the bottom or sides of the pan.  With no time to try again, a little dark chocolate icing to fill in the holes would have to do.  After all, the whole thing is going to be covered in two coats of icing, right?  With the bottom layer done, I made two 9 x 13 cakes that I cut down to the sizes I wanted.  I basically made a lopsided step pyramid (my husband’s description).

I will show you the photos of the process, and I will link to several videos of an actual professional demonstrating how to do these steps. 😀

First, you will want to level your cakes (video tutorial link) to remove the puffy top of the cakes.

Cutting my desired shapes.

I piped an icing dam the size of the smaller top cakes and filled with a generous amount of dairy-free decorator’s icing.  This will act as the “glue” to hold the cakes together.

Attempting to brush away some crumbs before starting my crumb coat, it didn’t really help me much.

This is my crumb coated cake (my crumb coat was thicker than it should have been because I made my icing too stiff and it was tearing my cake).  You can easily add water to thin out the icing (add by teaspoonfuls so you don’t overdo it), but I was in a hurry and just went with it.  The holes you see are where I added a couple of dowels for support.  Here is a video tutorial showing how to add dowels to a cake.  I used two Wilton plastic dowels that I bought at the craft store and cut to size with my hacksaw.

I filled the holes left by the dowels with more icing then applied the top coat of icing (video tutorial link).

This is where my camera died but I couldn’t hold off as time was running short.  After my husband cut the wood pieces for me, and I placed them where I wanted them to go, then I removed and iced the wood pieces and reattached to the cake with more icing.  I then added dark chocolate icing to the foiled cake board, so I could include it in my “scene.”  I picked up this trick in my “Cupcakes with Flair” class.  After covering the board in dark chocolate icing, I attempted to pipe another road from the light brown icing, then I placed all of my little FIMO Jungle Junction Characters on the cake.

As you can see, I still need a lot of practice but that’s okay; it’s not like I am trying to become a professional cake decorator!  We all had a lot of fun building Luke’s cake together and we now have tons of material for future funny stories.  We each picked a character and signed our name and the date on the bottom so Luke will always have a little piece of this special day to look back on.

Sam had so much fun that he said he would like to make FIMO eyeballs for this year’s Halloween cupcakes at school!

The main thing is that just because we have children with dietary restrictions, doesn’t mean life has to be boring and plain.  I really believe in the quote, “Where there is a will, there is a way” (we just have to find it!).  But, we can collaborate and do it together and enjoy a few good laughs (and tears) along the way. 😉


  1. Oh my! That is a fancy pants cake. Good for you. It looks fantastic. I used your stage technique but I just used a tiara to decorate.

    I'm glad to know that bit about FIMO, I have a bunch of it in the cupboard but thought it was too toxic for kids. I'll bring it out on a rainy day.

    p.s. found the tinkaya noodles today!

    • You guys are so awesome and supportive! 😀

      Kristen, I would love to see your tiara stage cake! Since I have two boys, I have become girl-theme challenged!

      In fact, if anyone has a homemade cake they've made for their child and would like to share it with others, please email me a photo at heidi AT adventuresofaglutenfreemom DOT com and I will share with everyone on my blog. I get so much of my inspiration just from looking at pictures of other peoples cakes!

  2. you did an awesome job!!!!!! =0)

  3. Rock on, Momma! That turned out AWESOME!! I am so proud of you ;0)!! All of your hard work paid off, and then you actually got to enjoy your 4th without having to spend it working on the cake! What a fun memory for the boys too! I am all about memories and traditions in my house – everyone makes fun of me! Hope you can relax a bit now.

    Got some stuff done on our little project as well! Found some great info!



    • Kim,

      That was a major bonus for the mishaps!! I did absolutely nothing but float in the pool for the 4th!! I am all about building memories and traditions too, I am kind of "Clark Griswold" (Christmas Vacation) that way, LOL!

      I can't wait to get our little project going!! Let's definitely try and finalize it by the end of July so we can let everyone in on it! :0)

  4. Heidi that is awesome! The boys are so blessed to have a mama who goes above and beyond to make the birthday special and still keep them healthy! My kids bday's won't come around again until next spring, but you have me brainstorming ways to make a gluten free and dye free cake! Actually, I need to start thinking about some fun treats for the fall. It's never too early is it?

    • Tai,

      I have been contemplating the the autumn and upcoming holiday season too, I used so much artificial food coloring last year for icing sugar cookies, etc., but I have seen some impressive changes in both Sam and Luke since going dye-free (and by consequence, their sugar intake has been reduced by not having candy treats around), that I do believe I am sticking with it. Halloween might be tricky, but I am pondering the idea of offering them a chance to "cash in" their candy for something better (and not edible), I just need to make it enticing! :0)

      Any ideas?

  5. Heidi, you are totally amazing! I was super impressed even before I found out you made all the characters. You deserve a big award for this cake and all your party efforts. I hope you got a big hug and thanks from Luke. 😉 I made fun cakes for Son over the years, but nothing this fancy. And, I always did things you weren't supposed to do, like just use the bottom of the cake for the flat top. Of course, that was in my gluten days, so baking gluten free definitely changes things. Anyway, you totally rocked on this cake and I love (pun intended) the Lucy photo! Hope you are rested up now after the event. 🙂



  6. So cute! You did a great job!

  7. Awesome job, Heidi!!!

  8. Your cake is just awesome!!! Good to see that my lovely colleagues from Customer Service were able to provide helpful information re. STAEDTLER FIMO 🙂

    We'd love to meet you on our facebook fanpage !

    It would be great if you became a fan, too, and showed your artworks on our page.

    Hope to see you soon and best regards from STAEDTLER headquarters in Germany, Yvonne

  9. It looks fabulous! I think you re-created the characters perfectly. I'll be thinking about you this week, while I'm trying to come up with a birthday cake for my son. 🙂 Haven't even come close to all the planning you've done.


  1. […] I really thought Sam would jump at the offer but instead, he recalled what I did for Luke’s dye-free Jungle Junction Birthday Cake back in July.  I made inedible characters out of FIMO clay (click here for the gluten-free status […]

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