The bad baker’s guide to kids birthday cakes – getting through not winning prizes.
With our new leather Recipe books finally available on the website I thought I’d write about my experiences in the kitchen. I am the last person who should be writing a blog about baking but perhaps that means I’m not such a bad choice for suggesting a few cheats. Where I live seemingly everyone makes their own semi professional standard childrens birthday cakes while I can barely manage a sponge. That said my mother always made us the most amazing birthday cakes and I feel the need to attempt to recreate the magic for my own children despite lacking the requisite culinary skill. Here are the most useful bits of knowledge I’ve gleaned throughout the humbling experiences of my childrens’ first seven years. By the above pictures you’ll see that I’m not going to be giving up the day job yet.
1.) Get through the baking. There are three things to bear in mind here – firstly buy more ingredients than you need so that when, at 10pm the night before the party you decide your efforts are too humiliating even for you you have the ingredients to try again. Secondly if you’ve got the fondant icing (see tip 2) it doesn’t really matter what the cake is like. Cakes are basically made using a whole load of fat and sugar consequently they mostly taste alright. Even if they don’t it’s not about the eating it’s about the sitting on a table being looked at during the birthday party. My daughter’s last birthday cake was a mountain of crumbs glued together with jam, squeezed into shape then held together with a blanket of fondant icing. It looked fine, cutting slices to wrap for party bags consisted of scraping crumbs and a sliver of icing into a napkin but who cares it’s not about the eating it’s about the sitting on a table. Tip – choose recipes with names like ‘world’s easiest sponge’ or ‘even the world’s worst baker can’t mess this one up’ and be prepared to prove them wrong. Self raising flour and baking powder in the same recipe seem to be a winning combination.
2.) Fondant icing will see you through. It doesn’t taste the best; blandly sweet with the texture of play dough but get over it, it’s the bomb. My daughter greedily shoved a fistful into her mouth today shortly before realising her mistake and spitting it all out but remember it’s not about the eating. If like me you are not only lacking any natural skill but also quite tight you can often find fondant icing on sale. As it has a long shelf life if you see this buy it in three different colours which vaguely work together and put it somewhere you won’t forget about it. When working with it if you warm it up it becomes very flexible but also very sticky so cover the rolling pin and rolling surface with icing sugar.
3.) Know your limits and learn from your mistakes. I have made some terrible birthday cakes and some which are not mortally humiliating. Remember what you did wrong last year and build that into the plan for this year. My limits are baking a cake with any structural integrity, creating anything that resembles something else and trying to copy things on Pinterest. I now accept that after the baking debacle I will be moulding together my base cake shape using will power, brute force and jam, simple striking decoration is the key to success and anything with any technical or mechanical skill I see on Pinterest should be immediately discounted. Use Pinterest solely to identify things which look effective but clearly take practically zero effort or skill (see ‘Decoration is the key’ no. 5).
4.) Invest in a few specific pieces of equipment. I’ve bought two things. The first is a hemispherical cake mould which has enabled me to make mountains and ladybirds. I don’t think I’ve ever managed to successfully bake a cake using it as there is so much cake mix that it never properly cooks and the centre always collapses in on itself but with the aforementioned jam and a bit of reconstruction it’s not too bad. The possibly more successful investment has been in star shaped cookie cutters, these are worth every penny. I’m financially cautious so only ever buy things I can imagine using for the next 15 years or so.
5.) Decoration is the key. When you are browsing Pinterest don’t look for the most amazing cakes look for the most foolproof solutions. My most successful decorating attempts have involved coloured sweets, fondant icing shapes and plastic toys. For the 6th birthday cake I just about managed to carve a number 6 out of the mismatched slabs of cake I had baked (I should have just bought cake). I got a box of gummy bears from the Cash and Carry, covered the number 6 in butter cream icing and just stuck gummy bears to it in coloured rows. It was really effective and almost inedible, the lesser tried combination of something incredibly chewy with disintegrating bits of cake is unlikely to take off. My smarties decorated chocolate cake also worked well, basically the smarties do all the work, they look great and everyone loves them. This years efforts have been covered in variously coloured fondant icing stars or other shapes stuck on with hot water and icing sugar. This is incredibly easy and your children can help.
If you naively think you might like to recreate your childs favourite film character get over it and simply invest in a plastic version. I have friends who have made the most amazing recreations of film characters from icing. I, however, am quite happy to spend £7 on a plastic toy which I can then give to my child as ‘a birthday present’ rather than 3 nights humiliatingly failing to recreate Elsa.
6.) Cake Sparklers always save the day. You can get these from Lakeland or for about a third of the price from large Tescos’ stores and, I’m sure, many other retail outlets. A good sparkler upstages everything else. Bring the cake to the table with sparklers and no one notices anything else.