Growing up, my mom used to make me ridiculous birthday cakes from the Australian Women’s Weekly Birthday Cake Book. One year it was a Koala, the next was an above ground swimming pool, dolly cakes were common place – they were these remarkable feats of ingenuity without technical skill. It was box cake and frosting held together with candy and a prayer. Inspired by those wonderful cakes of my childhood, I thought it would be fun to recreate the Sonoran desert as a Sonoran dessert (hangs head in shame, I’ll see myself out for the pun). It’s basically sticking cookies into a cake – that’s the gag – but the impact and result is so much more whimsical than the mechanics of it. This works perfectly with matcha, but you could try adding alternative colors, like beet juice for purple cacti, turmeric for yellow, and spirulina for a blue agave. Enjoy!

What you’ll need to assemble your cactus cake:

Buttermilk sheet cake (note: any yellow cake will do)

1 cup ground graham crackers (dirt for desert scape)

Plain buttercream for cake

Matcha Shortbread Cookies

Plain + Matcha Royal Icing

Beet colored buttercream for desert flowers


To build, first assemble your cacti. Lay all of the matcha cookies onto a tray with parchment paper. Put the matcha royal icing into a pastry bag with a #2 tip and put icing on the edges of the “arms” of the cactus. Attach the “arms” to the main cookie base, and let the cookie lie flat until the icing is set and fully hardened, about 20 minutes. In the meantime put the plain royal icing in a pastry bag with a #2 tip and add needles all over the cookies. Let the icing set completely.

While the cookies are setting, prepare the desert landscape. Put the sheet cake on a serving platter and coat with plain buttercream. Don’t worry too much about appearances, since you’ll coat the whole thing with graham cracker crumbs. Swipe away any excess crumbs.

Place the cookies on the cake, forcing them into the top, about a 1/4 inch down, or however far it takes for the cookie to stand upright. Put the beet colored buttercream in a pastry bag with a star tip, and add cactus flowers.


Matcha Shortbread cookies

2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 cup powdered sugar

8 ounces unsalted butter, room temperature

2 tablespoons matcha

Preheat oven to 350F.

Sift together the flour, salt, powdered sugar, matcha. Using electric mixer, beat butter in large bowl until light and fluffy. Add the flour and sugar a third at a time on low speed, then add the vanilla. Form the dough into a ball (or into a few balls, if making a big batch). Wrap the ball in plastic, press into a thick disc, and chill in the fridge until cold, about 30 minutes. The colder the dough, the better the shortbread will be. Also, the dough freezes beautifully and keeps for future use.

On a well-floured surface, roll out the dough to 1/4 inch thick, and cut out using cookie cutters or free hand. Roll up the dough, re-roll the dough, and cut out the remaining with cookie cutters or free hand. Repeat until you’re done with dough.

Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until the cookies are barely golden brown around the edges.

Remove from the oven and move the cookies to a cooling rack to cool completely.

Royal Icing

3 egg whites

4 3⁄4 cups powdered sugar

1⁄2 teaspoon cream of tartar

1 teaspoon matcha

In a large clean bowl, beat egg whites and cream of tartar with electric mixer at medium speed. Add powdered sugar in small amounts, mixing well on high speed after each addition. Beat on high speed 4-5 minutes or until mixture thickens. Divide the icing in half and add matcha to one, stirring to combine. Refrigerate, covered, until ready to use.You may need to stir icing to soften before use.

Buttermilk Cake

For 1 double layer 9-inch cake

3 cups all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

8 ounces unsalted butter, room temperature

1 3/4 cups white sugar

4 eggs

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

1 cup buttermilk

Preheat oven to 350 F with rack in center of oven. Grease one 9-inch x 13 inch cake pan. Then line the bottoms of the pans with parchment or wax paper, then grease the paper.

In a bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt together. In the bowl of your electric mixer, with the paddle attachment, (or with a hand mixer) beat the butter until soft and creamy and gradually add the sugar and beat until light and fluffy (about 2-3 minutes). Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the vanilla extract and beat until combined. With the mixer on low speed, alternately add the flour mixture and buttermilk, beginning and ending with the flour.

Evenly divide the batter between the two prepared pans, smoothing the tops. Bake 25-35 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean and the cake springs back when pressed lightly in center.

Place the cake on a wire rack to cool, in their pans, for about 10 minutes. Then invert the cake onto a greased rack. Remove the parchment or wax paper and re-invert cake so that tops are right side up. Cool completely before frosting.

Buttercream FROSTING

1 1/4 cups sugar

5 large egg whites

pinch of cream of tartar

1 pound (4 sticks) unsalted butter, chilled (doesn’t need to be rock hard)

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1/4 teaspoon salt

Beet Juice, for coloring

In a small saucepan over medium heat, bring sugar and 2/3 cup water to a boil. Continue boiling until syrup reaches 238 degrees on a candy thermometer (soft-ball stage).

Meanwhile, place egg whites in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, and beat on low speed until foamy. Add cream of tartar, and beat on medium-high speed until stiff but not dry; do not over-beat.

With mixer running, add syrup to whites in a stream, beating on high speed until no longer steaming, about 3 minutes. Add butter bit by bit, beating until spreadable, 3 to 5 minutes; beat in vanilla, and salt. If frosting curdles, keep beating until smooth.

Take a small amount, like a 1/4 cup, and add some beet juice. Vigorously stir to color it. Use this for your flowers.