Cakes / Cupcakes / Brownies Desserts

butterfly ombre cake

it’s monarch-y! ::::


As I child, I remember a humid summer night witnessing hundreds of monarch butterflies roosting on our willow tree. It was dusk; the sun crept away slowly. This bivouac of butterflies grew on the vertical lengths of leafy branches one-by-one. They each arrived alone but roosted together. They were almost soundless, save for the feather-like flutter of newcomers attempting to find a resting spot.



Roosting tends to occur during the monarch migration when they need a break from travel; a monarch truck stop of sorts. They refuel overnight, and flutter off to the next phase of the migration, slowly making their way to Mexico for the winter, often traveling up to 3000 miles. These butterflies are focused, determined, and driven. It’s exactly how I felt about this cake.


Peach painting butterflies


I’ve been eyeing Clockwork Lemon‘s beautiful butterfly cake for almost a year now. And I recently discovered ombre cake. So why not combine the ideas? I could have my own sugary (and edible!) butterfly encampment and have a stunning layer cake on which they could roost. Translated from French, ombre  means “shaded.” You might remember talking in similar terms in elementary school Astronomy class: “umbra” means “shadow” which is seen during a total eclipse. “Penumbra” is when light is only partially occluded, as in a partial eclipse.


Butterflies drying in the windowsill


And so the gradual color change of cake layers, like the dusky night of the monarch roost, a fading night sky, seemed nothing but perfect for my butterflies. Midnight Blue doesn’t come off very well in a cake so purple seemed the next appropriate choice. Once I planned my strategy to make the gum-paste butterflies (give yourself at least overnight to dry after cutting and painting; they keep for a month), make the multi-toned cake layers (I did it over two days), make the frosting (don’t taste too much before frosting the cake — I used every last bit of it to fill and frost), and assemble and decorate the cake (I made sure everyone was out of the house so as to not get distracted by diapers, screeching, or whining), it all fit together nicely, as if those butterflies were just meant to always flutter across an ombre cake.


Two of the cake layers: yes, that's my handprint


Besides the inspiration of a beautiful cake and a fond monarch memory, why make a fancy, time-consuming cake, covered with gum paste butterflies? I really didn’t have time for it (but being off work for a bit helped with planning). I didn’t have to make a cake for a birthday (although it would have been perfectly timed for a butterfly lover). And I really didn’t need another dessert in the house (why didn’t just make these?). But I did it anyway. And I thought Peach might be a good butterfly painter, as she is all things art, rainbow, princesses, and sparkly. She did make butterflies but ended up fluttering them across a pink cake for her teachers. I ended up making more of my own for the ombre cake.


Positioning potential butterflies to roost


I doubt that I will ever see such a roosting as I did years ago. Peach and I will have to set to work, painting gum-paste butterflies furiously for the next few weeks to simulate that experience. She wouldn’t disagree one bit, seeing as she could nibble on each one of those sweet butterflies daily, with cake or without. A migration to her stomach rather than Mexico, it seems.




Butterfly Ombre Cake

I’ve elected to not use the recipe formatter for this recipe, as I have too many components and extra notes to add. The formatter would explode, me thinks! This cake keeps for about a week in the fridge, well-covered. The butterflies also hold up well with this frosting, not softening them too much after a couple of days.


BUTTERFLIES (great tutorial at Clockwork Lemon’s website — she is awesome!):

gum paste (I used Wilton brand)

a small amount of butter or shortening


your color choices of gel food coloring (and make sure to get black to make the butterfly bodies and to line the wing edges)

butterfly shaped cookie cutter (somewhat small — mine was a bit big)

rolling pin


vodka or rum (to dilute the food coloring gel)

edible glitter dust (optional – I used pearl dust)




White Cake (for two 9×9-inch diameter pans) — but you WILL need to make the recipe TWICE (so double your ingredients). See notes below in Section B, number 8.

from The Way the Cookie Crumbles, by way of The Beantown Baker


1 cup + 2 tablespoons whole milk, at room temperature

6 large egg whites (3/4 cup), at room temperature

2 teaspoons almond extract

1 teaspoon vanilla

2 1/4 cups cake flour (unbleached, if available)

1 1/2 cups + 2 tablespoons sugar

4 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon table salt

12 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened but still cool




White Chocolate frosting – for a 3 to 4-layer cake

from Country Cleaver by way of The Beantown Baker. This a great frosting to use for piping stars and flowers. It is soft at first but hardens when in the fridge. If you want to serve a cake with a softer frosting, let it sit at room temperature for about 10-15 minutes before serving.


2 cups unsalted butter, softened

5 cups powdered sugar (or more, depending on desired consistency)

Pinch of salt

12 ounces good quality white chocolate, chopped

1/2 cup heavy whipping cream

1/2 teaspoon vanilla


Other equipment:

– at least two 9×9-inch diameter round baking pans lined with parchment paper

– cake turntable (or an upturned metal dumpling steamer, like mine)

– offset spatula (not necessary but helps with spreading batter before baking and with spreading the crumb coat onto the cake

– Wilton #32 star tip for piping bag (or whatever you want for your desired design)

– 3 piping bags, one for each color (I used disposable bags for easier clean-up)




For a detailed tutorial, please visit Clockwork Lemon’s website and search for her butterfly cake tutorial or click here. You can also take a look at her cake photos and see her flight of butterflies for comparison. Her instructions are very helpful with great play-by-play photos.  Give yourself at least 24 hours to make the butterflies before decorating the cake to allow them to dry properly after shaping and painting. They keep for a month in an airtight container. I made mine a couple of weeks prior to the ombre cake.



1.  Set oven rack in middle position. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Line two 9×9-inch diameter round baking pans with parchment paper. Set aside.

2. Pour milk, egg whites, and extracts into 2-cup glass measure, and mix with fork until blended.

3.  Mix cake flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt in bowl of electric mixer at slow speed. Add butter; continue beating at slow speed until mixture resembles moist crumbs, with no powdery streaks remaining.

4.  Add all but 1/2 cup of milk mixture to crumbs and beat at medium speed (or high speed if using handheld mixer) for 1½ minutes. Add remaining ½ cup of milk mixture and beat 30 seconds more. Stop mixer and scrape sides of bowl. Return mixer to medium (or high) speed and beat 20 seconds longer.

5.  WHEN MAKING THE RECIPE THE FIRST TIME AROUND: Divide batter into two bowls, leaving one white, and tinting the other with your color of choice. Pour batter into prepared pans. (You will make the darker layers later.)

6.  Bake until thin skewer or toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 23-25 minutes.

7.  Cool completely prior to frosting. I made my first two layers the day before I planned to decorate the cake, and the darker layers the day of with ample cooling time.

8.  Now make this recipe AGAIN for two more layers so that you have four layers total. Trying to mix up a double recipe at one time is difficult if you don’t have a huge mixer (standard home KitchenAids are not big enough). To ensure everything mixes up correctly and completely, make a single recipe TWICE. When you make the recipe for the second time, divide batter into two bowls again, and tint each darker than the previous colored layer you made. You should have one uncolored layer, one lightly colored layer, one that is darker, and another that is darker still. In my case, I chose to leave one layer uncolored, make one lilac, another purple, and the darkest very purple using Wilton food coloring gel (also used to paint the butterflies). A note with mixing: make sure you mix the food gel in well. I had some streaks. The more liquidy food coloring mixes in more easily. While I’m not normally a fan of artificial food coloring to this degree (I felt I used a lot  of food coloring in the darkest layer), I couldn’t find a natural purple dye that worked. Blueberry juice didn’t work in the past. Purple yam powder was harder to find than I expected, and I wasn’t sure if the amount I needed for the gradation of color would thicken the batter or the frosting too much. If you try a natural color, any color, for an ombre cake, let me know!


C.  When your cakes are cool, PREPARE THE FROSTING:

1.  Put chopped white chocolate over a double boiler, stirring occasionally, to melt the chocolate. Set aside and allow to completely cool to room temperature.

2.  Once the white chocolate has cooled, sift the salt and powdered sugar over the butter, in a large bowl. Cream the butter and sugar mixture together until light and fluffy, scraping the sides of the bowl as needed.

3.  Measure the whipping cream into a cup, and stir in the vanilla extract.

4.  With the mixer running on low speed, gradually pour the cream mixture the bowl.

5.  Once the cream mixture has been incorporated into the frosting, fold in the melted (but cooled) white chocolate until incorporated.

6.  Increase the mixer speed to medium-high, and beat frosting for an additional 3 minutes.

7.  If you make this ahead of time (up to a few days in advance), you can store in the fridge. However, it will harden and be difficult to pipe. Give it a whir in the mixer again to soften it up before placing in piping bags.



1.  Choose your decorating device (a real cake turntable versus my upturned dumpling steamer). Level each layer (I didn’t need to do much of this). Placing the darkest layer on the bottom, smear a thin layer of frosting on top using an offset spatula. Place the next slightly lighter color on top, repeating the same until the non-colored layer is on top. I tried evening out the sides so that they were more flush with each other, but my knife was too dull and tore the cake. I gave up and used the crumb coat to even my cake “walls” instead.

2.  Crumb coat your cake with the prepared frosting. What does this mean? A crumb coat is a thin layer of frosting put onto the cake to trap all loose crumbs. It makes the final layer of frosting more easy to apply and gives the cake a clean look. After crumb coating, place the cake into the fridge for about an hour.


crumb coating -- complete!


3.  While the crumb-coated cake is firming up, prepare your frosting colors. Take about  3/4 to 1 cup of frosting and place in a medium bowl. Do this again in another medium bowl. You should have three bowls, two of which have about a cup of frosting and the other with the remainder. Lightly tint the bowl with the MOST frosting (lilac), then do the next bowl in a darker tint (purple), and finally the last bowl even darker (very purple). I used every last bit of my frosting. No room for error.

4.  Place darkest color of frosting in the piping bag with star tip (or whatever design you decide) and pipe one-third up the side of the cake. Switch colors to the next lightest color and pipe the next one-third of the side of the cake, just above the darker color. Next, use the lightest color and finish the side, as well as covering the top of the cake. Let me be clear: I am NOT a cake decorator! Up until this post, my normal mode of cake decorating involved frosting and a Ziploc bag with the corner snipped off. You don’t have to much skill to make the stars like I did. And I bet you can make them better. 

5.  Lay out your butterflies and decide on placement. Once you stick them on, there’s no going back! I decided on an up-and-over roost on the cake. Depending on the size of your butterflies, you may need more or less. I made 14 butterflies and used 11 (and my butterflies were a bit large). I ended up removing two of the butterflies so I could cut the cake.


Many, many thanks to the creativity of Stephanie from Clockwork Lemon who inspired me to make her butterfly cake.  And thanks to The Beantown Baker’s purple ombre cake for color inspiration and for the cake and frosting recipe links.


Pearl dust on butterfly wings



  • amphion27 July 2, 2012 Reply

    The Monarch Butterflies actually migrate along the California Coast. I went to Pismo Beach a few years ago to see a whole butterfly GROVE of trees. It was wonderful. Could be a (long) daytrip, I think, if you live in Nor. Cal., but possible.

  • kmar August 12, 2012 Reply

    YUM. YUM. i think the kids ate a few bites and I ate most of what was left. Mommy’s time out was quite nice….

    • story August 12, 2012 Reply

      Who can resist purple cake? 🙂

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