The Fine Art of Making Birthday Cakes – Generation Lost

Princess Toddler turned two on Sunday. She had an absolute ball being with her loved ones, playing with the new toys generously given to her and indulging in her favourite foods. I was pretty pleased with my efforts of making it a party atmosphere. The living room was complete with balloons, a ‘happy birthday’ banner and a party tablecloth. Hey, I’d even managed to rustle together party bags complete with bubbles, sparkles and a couple of lollies. And had a whole lot of fun doing it. I made a DVD encapsulating who Princess Toddler has become and everyone seemed to enjoy the concept and creativity that went along with it.

But, alas, I failed dismally at the big one. The BC. The birthday cake! Admittedly, it was a slight improvement at last year’s effort but at least that one tasted good, even though it was hideous-looking. This year’s didn’t even satisfy the party taste buds. Where did I go wrong?

First of all, let’s go back a little in history. My baking skills are well, limited at best. Before motherhood the best I could manage was a packet mix teacake. Though, happily, I made a delicious ‘intermediate’ level cake on one occasion. But more often than not it was down to the local supermarket for a ready-made cake. When my daughter came along I actually pulled out the years old muffin tray – complete with cardboard insert still attached. I managed to create some yummy corn muffins and some sought after apricot muffins. So, for the big first birthday I figured I could make a birthday cake. The only difference being that the mixture goes into one big tin instead of a dozen small ones. Hey, if anything the cake was going to be easier than muffins.

Well, I certainly had that one wrong. The birthday cake was a dramatically unsuccessful sugar-free banana cake. Firstly, the cake came out on a very distinct, sloping angle. I tried a second cake and although it was more level, it probably only looked that way because it was only a few centimetres tall. Hubby had the brilliant idea of cutting the latter in half and making it into two rabbit ears. The first cake formed the face. Great! At least it was looking like something. The only problem was the mountainous angle the cake was on. Hubby came up with the next part of the plan. Icing sugar! Neither of us had made it before, but how hard could it be? A few spoonfuls of the icing sugar, add some hot water and voila!

Well, the icing sugar turned out as watery as, water. We were all out of icing sugar mix so that was the best we could manage. The icing sugar went on, the sides dripping off like lava flowing down a volcano – it didn’t help matters that the cake was uneven. When it set, most of the icing sugar had made its way down to the rabbit’s neck and pooled on the plate the cake sat on. Some sultana eyes, a strawberry nose and a few toothpicks for whiskers and it looked like a bunny. Only the bunny was the most terrifying looking thing I’d ever seen. It was much scarier than the rabbit from Donnie Darko or the hares in Watership Down.

My family kindly assured me it was a ‘good first attempt’ and told me it ‘just takes practise.’ But, ugliness aside, it actually tasted pretty good and most importantly my daughter scoffed down her slice of the nutritious cake. This year was different. I was sure I could do better this time. I was going to stick to the tried and true muffin. Okay, the element in the oven had broken the week before but they still cooked all right – the bottoms were just a little black in colouring. Well, a lot, but who can see the bottoms right?

Hubby bought the biggest bag of icing sugar the world has ever seen and mixed up icing sugar of perfect consistency. He even got the creative flair going and added some food colouring and orange rind to the mix. But that was where the creativity ended. We arranged the muffins into two caterpillar shapes (it was going to be one but making 12 muffins fit lengthways on one plate proved to be logistically impossible.) The icing sugar was spread over the muffin tops, sparklers formed the caterpillars’ antennae, googly eyes were stuck on the face and banana lollies made the legs.

Except for the googly eyes the caterpillars didn’t actually look like, well anything. But we graciously informed our guests of what we’d made before they even laid eyes on the creation. As it turned out, orange flavoured icing doesn’t actually go with apricot muffins and blackened bottoms also become an overriding taste – even if you manage to scrape some of it off. Most upsettingly, Princess Toddler may normally like my muffins but for one unaccustomed to sugary food, the icing produced the response ‘Don’t like it.’ So if we just scraped through on last year’s birthday cake, we were way off the mark this time round. I didn’t even have the excuse of it being my ‘first attempt.’

So, sadly, I have made the conscious decision that I WILL NOT be making a birthday cake. Ever again! Why has this skill passed me by? My grandmother made incredible fruit cakes, which were sold and photographed for weddings, anniversaries, birthdays. The icing was as pure and even as snow. She even decorated their tops with magnificent cursive lettering, tiny rosebuds and realistic leaves. The skill was not lost on my own mother, who creating these amazing birthday cakes for my sister and I when we were children. There was the wonderful Garfield cake that looked identical to the cartoon character. Then there was the swimming pool cake complete with jelly water. I’ll never forget the gingerbread house or cake that formed the shape of a doll’s dress.

I have wonderful memories of licking the wooden spoon covered in icing, the smell of the cake mixer’s engine whirring, scooping globs of cream off the mixer. But this has passed me by – I have severed the generational line of cake making as my attempts have failed. My daughter will never have any of those memories, or see a picture of a cake come to life on her birthday. She’ll have to endure the fake cream and heavier sponge of a store bought cake. But then again, she will have a DVD compilation of her life to reflect on. Complete with music and graphics. Maybe I can live with that. Maybe!

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