Turkey Cake: Gotta hand it to the kids


Given my penchant for mismatched socks, funky earrings, and Mickey Mouse, it usually doesn’t surprise folks to learn I was a preschool and kindergarten teacher for many years before coming to King Arthur Flour. I love watching the uniqueness and curiosity of kids, and finding new ways to help them discover the world around them.

Being an artsy-crafty kind of gal, too, I must admit that project time was one of my favorite times of day. Macaroni necklaces, stained glass (plastic, really) windows, sugar art, and giant murals made me as happy, as the children and I still have a few of those masterpieces tucked away for safekeeping.

One of my favorite yearly projects has always been the hand-print turkey. What better way to capture the uniqueness of each child than with the hands they use everyday to explore and learn and share? Sure, it was messy, sure someone always wore paint home on hands, heads, and hair, but that’s part of the turkey’s charm to me.

When Halley on our King Arthur Web team, and Bill on the marketing team asked that we feature a turkey cake in the blog for this holiday season, I wasn’t sure if they wanted a cake made to look like a turkey, or a cake made of actual turkey and stuffing. I researched both, and neither was really sending me anywhere. Then I came across some photos of turkey hand-print cookies, and the Turkey Cake was born.

Your favorite cake, a little colored buttercream, some willingness to get messy, and ta-da, the traditional paper turkey takes on a whole new (sweet) life! Won’t Grammy and Papa be thrilled to see their favorite little chefs present this for dessert on the big day?

Let’s get started.

First, bake and frost your favorite cake. You can do round layers, or square, or even a 9″ x 13″ . Size and shape don’t matter, as long as you have room for your turkeys.

Place the cake in the freezer for about 20 minutes before beginning, to firm up the icing.

I’m so lucky to have such great friends in the kitchen. Fellow blogger Amy and her three munchkins came in to help out on this project. HI guys!

Measure out about 2 additional cups of icing. Decide how many colors you want to have. We decided to have red, orange, yellow, and brown for our little birds.

Color individual bowls of icing with gel food coloring. Using gel rather than liquid will keep the icing from getting too thin.

We decided we’d like to add some candy corn accents to our cake, too. Note to self : put candy out AFTER icing is made. We nearly ran out from all the nibbling going on.

How’s that dark brown comin’ along there?

Once all of your colors are ready, retrieve your cake from the freezer and let it sit for just a minute or two. Next, paint a thin layer of icing on each finger and the palm of the hand, just like you would have done in school.

You can do all one color, or you can vary the “feathers” by painting each finger a different color.

Press your hand gently onto the top or side of the cake, pressing just enough to make a full hand print, but not hard enough to squash the cake.

Little bakers may need someone to help out with this step.

Hey buddy, you are busted! You’re supposed to wash your hands afterwards!

Oooops! Looks like I’m caught in the act, too. Just be sure all of your printing is done before the licking begins.

Add details of feathers, beaks, and feet by finger painting with more icing.

Like this.

Different fingers pressed along the upper rim of the cake make great stripes. Try polka dots, zig-zags… whatever suits your fancy.

One more turkey on top ought to finish out this cake.

But wait! If you still have room, you can add candy corn decorations or fondant pumpkins to the base of your cake.

I love this cake because it really is a family project that everyone from baby Bob to Great Aunt Sally can take part in. No one needs to say “I can’t pipe a flower” or “I’m not a good decorator.” If you can lift a finger (pun intended!) then ANYONE can decorate this cake.

Oh, hi Frank!  Wow, that’s a big hand. I guess I need to make a bigger cake next year so you can play too!

There’s no printable direction sheet for this project, but do check out the recipes for some of our favorite cakes and icings.

MaryJane Robbins

MaryJane Robbins grew up in Massachusetts and moved to Vermont 20 years ago. After teaching young children for 15 years, she changed careers and joined King Arthur Flour in 2005. MaryJane began working on King Arthur Flour's baker’s hotline in 2006, and the blog team ...


  1. Mary

    As much as I’m behind the notion of getting the kids into the kitchen and helping out and being creative with cooking, I think this cake project is gross. The end result is certainly not appetizing. Really, who would want to eat something that looks like this and that’s had a kid’s hands all over it? Not too many people. Even if it were my own children’s work, I would not find this in the least appetizing.

    Refrigerator art belongs on the refrigerator, not on the top of food that’s meant to be eaten.

    Yes, yes. I know it’s supposed to be “cute” and after all, it’s “for the kids” – but there are much better cooking projects out there for kids to participate in just as creatively, that lead to more successful (and attractive) results, that instill better kitchen habits in kids, that teach real, usable kitchen skills, and that would be more likely to boost a child’s sense of pride and accomplishment in a job well done.

    Just yiiiiiiick.
    Thank you for your feedback. Clean hands are the most useful tool in the kitchen and are necessary to learn both larger and more fine motor skills used in cooking and baking. If there is any concern at all for decorating this cake with bare, clean hands, gloves may be worn.
    This may not be for everyone as is, (though our test kids loved this cake and were very proud of their accomplishments) so if you find a way to modify the idea that works well for you, kudos! ~ MaryJane

  2. tck130

    I think this is a GREAT project. No disrespect to Mary, but I know my two children would love it. And most importantly would be very proud of the results. We will try to do this in the next several weeks.

    As their loving parent, I would eat it gladly. I don’t find it “yick” at all. I’m all for “attractive” cooking projects, but realize as a novice cook that many of the dishes that come from my kitchen don’t always look “appetizing”. I think some of the most important kitchen lessons we can instill in our children is creativity and passion.

    And do you really think clean hands painted in icing is worse than cooks licking the spoon or other kitchen visitors sampling things? Maybe it doesn’t happen in your kitchen, but I know it’s happened in mine!
    I’m glad that folks are enjoying the concept of the cake, and as you said, the creativity it can unleash in our younger baking companions. If the process needs to be tweaked for your kitchen/comfort, go for it. I’d love to see pics if you do this with your family. Gobble, gobble! ~ MaryJane

  3. Darla

    I have to say I kept waiting for a picture of a kid putting on gloves. I love this idea, but this needs some food safe stamps (wouldn’t that be fun?) or latex gloves. Kids will enjoy it, but it is flu season.
    I’m glad you like the concept of the cake. If gloves make the project more do-able for folks, go for it with joy! ~ MaryJane

  4. Anne

    I have yet to start my holiday baking. Last year, among other goodies, the high point was six batches of cloud cookies – I had so much fun making them (quick ‘n easy) and they were much appreciated by the recipients. What would it be this year? But I have gotten a great deal of inspiration from the recent KAF posts.

    MJ, I think this hand-turkey idea is great – not only because the kids could get involved but also the baker (mandatory an adult?) could adopt the idea to any of his/her favorite cake and frosting. For those of us who no longer have small kids at home to lend a hand, I guess we could always paint the turkey on, free-hand style, or, as MJ suggests, make a bigger cake to accommodate bigger hand! Let our creativity flow, whatever our age! I think for sure the cake will be a conversation piece at dessert time.

    The kids would have had a lot of fun having MJ in the classroom – and vise versa? By the way, my first job, in my last high school year just before college-bound, was a teacher’s aid at a kindergarten. I don’t recall any of them by name, but some of those trusting, easy-to-please, little faces come to me from time to time. I didn’t realize this at that time, but the short experience in those few months, working part-time, somehow stayed with me all these years. We can learn so much from the kids, if we let them.

    Happy holidays, everyone.
    I’ve always had fun baking with my kiddos. Whether it is my own Dear Daughter, my “adopted” kids, or my students, creating something together and sharing together has a special place in my heart. ~ MaryJane

  5. eleyana

    My kids would love to do this. And I already try to get them in the habit of washing their hands before setting the table, unloading the dishes or helping me bake. They love to be hands on and I think that helps with the love of food and baking and creating. Total groan on your title pun. ;) Thanks for the idea! (It’s not easy to find kid sized gloves. Better to teach your kids how to properly wash their hands anyway.)
    Oh, believe you me, we washed and washed our hands and faces and elbows and… plus aprons etc. this day. Remember, I want to see pictures of other cakes when they start arriving! ` MaryJane

  6. kettlesmith

    Meh, if the kids have the flu, we’re all exposed in the house/Thanksgiving table, regardless if they help with the cake or not. And I know my hands are all over the cake when using fondant to decorate.

    This cake seems to be a nice stepping stone for kids that are too young to help with piping icing, but still want to help decorate. Although, I think there should have been more edible glitter. ;)
    Nice to see another glitter fan out there. YEA glitter!!! ~ MaryJane

  7. Bridgid

    I LOVE this idea! In fact, this may be one of my most favorite blog entries ever!

    And I am amused by the folks who think it’s yick. I am willing to wager that they have never worked in a restaurant, because if they had, they would never go out to eat again. If they think that gloves are ALWAYS used, and sanitary conditions are always adhered to, well, let’s just say they’d be awfully surprised at what actually happens in a restaurant kitchen. (I have 10 years experience.)

    The whole point is this the children’s hands – not some meaningless stamp. And willingness to have fun & get messy. And be together in the kitchen.

    I understand the fear of germs, I really do. I’m not dismissing that. But if someone is so worried about eating something that their child/niece/nephew helped to create, and that is more important than that child’s feelings, I guess they can bring their own dessert, right?
    Thanks Bridgid,
    I’m glad you like the cake. I’m glad we are embracing the idea of really getting into the kitchen with our kids. Hee hee, I’m just giggling over what this cake would look like if a few of us got together here in the test kitchen… too funny! ~ MaryJane

  8. screamingmadre

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen a picture of you on this blog (makes sense, since you’re the one with thecamera most of the time). You are pretty darn cute!
    oh, now you’ve made me blush! :oops:

  9. Sue

    I’m a childcare provider Young children learn not just by “school work” but mostly by play. They need to touch,smell and in this case taste.They will learn math,science,art and sharing and more.This is one of the best ideas ever! Each child will go home with their own cake. I can’t wait.Oh and a note on germs..washing hands before during and after.If you think gloves help keep germs away, all I can say is hahahaha
    I am happy Maryjane could provide a great activity for the little hands cared for by you! You do some important work. Elisabeth

  10. mstebby

    We are so doing this! I love the idea and have ate food art that my kids have created that haven’t been as cute or appetizing as this one (like the turkey’s made with cherry cordials, ewh)
    We don’t have to create stuff that looks like Martha Stewart all the time. Sometimes these hands-on (pun intended) projects are the most fun and memorable. I can’t wait for the weekend to give this a try!

    I wish I could have seen that turkey. I LOVE cherry cordials! Have fun with the wee little ones in the kitchen! ~ MaryJane

  11. Jordan

    I would be slightly grossed out if forced to confront the fact that someone had their hands all over a cake I’m about to eat.
    I’ve been thinking about this a lot, based on comments and while it works for many of us, some folks may just have to say “it is lovely, but I’m full” or such. I hope everyone gets the real message of “kids in the kitchen ROCK” and we all walk away looking for ways to get our youngest bakers involved. ~ MaryJane

  12. mukki

    Okay I was torn here. I had flashbacks to a kindergarten class I was a substitute teacher (how I paid my way thru college!) I quickly figured out why the teacher called in sick!

    Chow Mein Noodles and melted chocolate & peanuts mixed together and cooled to touch, then the kids reached in and formed spider treats! Sadly, it was after they stuck their hands and fingers in gawd-awful places!

    But, then I gob-smacked myself and said: “Voila!” what a perfect opportunity to teach kids proper kitchen techniques like hygiene, cleaning and hand washing… Too often we isolate kids to the safe and fun bits, not the essential not-so-much fun part of cooking!
    Oh, I remember those haystack cookies! I never made them with my classes, but I might make them later today. Thanks for the reminder too on teaching all kinds of kitchen techniques, not just the frosting and sprinkles! ~ MaryJane

  13. "Jennifer from Meals, Squared"

    My son’s second birthday falls on Thanksgiving. I think I’ll have to try this!
    Happy birthday! Elisabeth

    My brother Mark was a Thanksgiving baby. My mom put the turkey in the oven. Came back a little later, took it out and went and had a big baby boy instead. We’d love to see pictures of your Turkey Cake!!! ~ MaryJane

  14. clh2873

    We live far away from family but right now I’m so wishing we lived close enough to bake one for each set of grandparents! What an awesome fun surprise this would be (and totally space saving for their fridges that are already covered with tons of artwork). I can hardly wait to add cake to our list of desserts for Turkey Day dinner. Thanksgiving is already our big family celebration of the year anyway, now I’m going to add this awesome way to give the kids more “responsibility” in the celebration. They can find a recipe, measure, mix and bake it. Then get crazy with the frosting. Thank you so much for helping us spark our imaginations in new ways! You King Arthur peeps are the BEST!!!

    Any time we can get the next generation interested in baking, then our mission is nearly accomplished. Even better than that is generations of bakers working together on a common project! Happy Baking to you and yours. Irene @ KAF

  15. massullivan

    I think this a FANTASTIC idea!

    For all the squeamish folks out there, I hope somewhere tucked away in your childhood memories is a moment when you were decorating sugar cookies with a cherished adult. With all the icing, sparkle sugar and sprinkles, I suspect you recall sneaking a taste here and there…don’ cha? hee hee

    Whether you’re decorating cookies and cakes – or kneading and shaping bread – those memories of baking side by side with your BFF (Best Family Friend?) live on in family traditions. Pass it on! Irene @ KAF

  16. molly3162256

    I think the project looks like a ton of fun! I don’t have any kids, but it looks like a terrific way to unleash my inner child! And to those of you sooo concerned about germs – if you eat out in restaurants, um, no you’re not.
    Yes, please release your inner child! It’s such an important part of baking! ~Amy

  17. maryjobo

    I think the turkey cake is a great project and only wish that I had young grandchildren to make it with. My 4 daughters were always encouraged and allowed to help in the kitchen and the first thing I was vigilant about teaching and monitoring was proper handwashing. I used to host neighborhood graham cracker house decorating parties at Christmas where the young friends of our daughters would learn the same rules. Nieces and nephews got lessons in making the treasured family recipes as well as proper kitchen hygiene. I find it interesting that, on a website that involves so many hands-on recipes there would be such squeamish comments!
    HI there,
    Well, with 4 daughters, I’m sure grandchildren to cook and bake with are somewhere in your future. I love those little graham cracker houses too, how wonderful that you got to share making them with so many kids!~ MaryJane

  18. Terez

    I’m with the squeamish ones. The photos of the finger-licking was exactly what I was afraid of.

    Once I was in a store that had bins of jelly beans. A different color in each bin. And I saw a child opening the bins he could reach, putting a jelly bean in his mouth to taste the flavor then putting it back in the bin and moving on to the next bin. I scolded him away (perfect stranger!) and since then I will not buy any food in a bin at child-level.

    Likewise I would beg off if offered a slice of a cake with a big o’ handprint on it like that. UGH.

  19. --jej

    For the squeamish and also those living far away from grandparents, make some large sugar cookies (or gingerbread, chocolate, etc.,) and let the turkey decorations be used on them.

    Of course, the size of the cookies will depend on the size of the hands, but I should think that would eliminate the yuck / flu factors and any others imaginable. Plus the cookies can be securely packaged and well-padded, to be sent off to Grandma and Grandpa, etc., if necessary. –jej
    Thanks for the suggestions jej! ~ MaryJane

  20. janjeff

    I think the color of the base icing makes the cake look unappetizing. It is definitely an ugly cake, but I am sure the kids would have fun making it. Looks shouldn’t matter that much when kids are concerned because the true value is in the accomplishment, not the technical skill.

  21. jillreichow8

    I just spent Sunday evening baking cookies with my 3 yr. old grandson. We washed hands and didn’t nibble til the cookies came out of the oven and cooled…BUT trust me, this Mema would love to have this cake at my dinner.

    I grew up baking with my mom and aunts. I was 7 when I entered my yeast bread in a hobby competition. The memories that I have and that have guided me in my life come from spending time with these great women in the kitchen. How sad that we are so germ-a-phobic that we can’t enjoy the wonder of creating something with another generation in the kitchen. My guess is that some people will only eat what comes from their own kitchen…and how do we know if they washed their hands? Come on peeps!

  22. Alia

    This is adorable! As a pastry chef, and a Mom I love creative ideas that are simple to do with kids. Mine bake with me regularly and would absolutely enjoy making this, and family will gobble it up!

  23. Karen

    I think they’re great! Too bad I can’t transport them to Thanksgiving this year.
    If one is squeamish about the hands on the frosting, one can always eat the cake and the frosting between the layers that nobody’s touched. I often don’t eat all the frosting because it’s too sweet. Or you can tell the little artist you don’t want to mess up their picture.


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