Throughout the highs and lows of my childhood, there was one certainty: on my birthday I could choose any cake I liked from the Women’s Weekly collection and my mother would do her best to recreate it. Blackboards with musk stick chalk and jelly-filled frog ponds are scattered through the photo albums of my youth, always exciting but never, at the time, truly appreciated. Unfortunately for mum, the cakes most likely to see the light of day in an adult anecdote are the ones that went wrong: like when the candles set fire to the Barbie doll embedded in a ‘dance floor’ gateau (which was a masterpiece, by the way – picture an aluminium foil disco ball suspended from a skewer). Perhaps it’s this latter point that has always made me so reluctant to give it a go?
My mother and I are alike in many ways, vastly different in others. One of these great chasms of difference lies in our patience and willingness to fiddle around with delicate bits of sweetness and colour in the name of the perfect birthday cake. Mercifully, she has made one or two of my children’s cakes for me, or at least contributed the more ambitious elements of the design. It was a blessed relief when we held one of Miss 5’s parties at a venue that only allowed ice cream cake. On other occasions, I’ve simply bought something round and pink and stuck a picture of the latest Disney hero on top. But this week is different.
As my baby boy turns 1 and Miss 3 turns 4 within days of each other, we’ve decided the time has come to host a proper party: the kind that includes balloons, and is held at your house, and has games, and where not a lot can be outsourced. The invitees are mainly family – but with quite a few cousins this soon adds up – plus a few of our closest friends. In short, this Sunday brings a sausage sizzle for approximately 50 people and 2 (count them!!!) 2 separate, handmade birthday cakes.
For the baby boy, I’m doing Humpty Dumpty. Even I can make a wall – plain slab of cake, brown icing, nifty trick with the end of a matchbox to create the illusion of bricks (thanks Mum). I hadn’t realised on the previous occasions, where actually making a cake has seemed impossibly complex, that there are many useful short cuts. I’ve cheated, for example, by picking up a Humpty Dumpty Easter egg (when I noticed them heavily discounted last month), so that the Smartie-filled Humpty only needs to be plonked on top of the wall and stay there (ironically). I think on some level I thought I had to channel Heston Blumenthal and invent a fully edible eggshell complete with a hat made of some exotic anemone.
Miss soon-to-be-4 requested Harmony (of The Fairies fame). This left me with two choices: buy a round cake and stick a readymade Fairies icing circle on top, or go the full monty. So, Dolly Varden it is. After some investigation I found a shop that hires out the hallowed tins which produce a skirt-shaped cake. These tins are ridiculously expensive to buy, particularly when the smart money is on an ice cream cake again next year. I bought a few dainty icing flowers and toadstools from the same shop and a varied collection of colourful pick-n-mix sweeties to complete the elaborate fairy dress I intend to create. So far, so good.
During my research I discovered that Dolly Varden is a character in the Dickens novel Barnaby Rudge. She is the lovely daughter of a locksmith caught up in a tale of valiant soldiers, religious dissidence and family betrayal. She goes on to marry one of the novel’s heroes and become the landlady at the Maypole Inn – who knew? Her image was interpreted by artists and her name became synonymous with beauty. No one seems to mind much that your average barmaid in Dickensian London would have had few teeth, dodgy personal hygiene and been one riverside stroll away from cholera. I’m sure Miss Varden radiated glamour from within. How she went on to inspire the cake which forms the litmus test of good parenting of daughters, I cannot say. However it did come to pass that by the 21st century weary mothers everywhere would be trying to make a double quantity of cake mix cook evenly through to the middle in what’s essentially a conical tin so that princesses and fairies can have dresses more detailed than their creators’ own wedding frocks.
As I type, I am picking at the crumbled remains of my first attempt. The exterior rose to attention like a proud Dickensian soldier. The skewer test, however, revealed a murky quicksand through the middle, like a mocking metaphor of my feelings: showing outward confidence whilst knowing, deep down, that it was never going to come together. Dickens originally wrote Barnaby Rudge as a serial, with readers eagerly awaiting weekly instalments. Similarly, in my own kitchen, I eagerly await actually getting a clue as to how I’m going to make this fairy magically appear, and have her looking more princess than plague.
While you’re here you might enjoy this post about sourcing stuff for kids parties online. It’s a great way to come up with new themes!