On Dolly Varden and her cursed conical cake

A ‘Dolly Varden’ Barbie cake (from Women’s Weekly Kids’ Cake Favourites

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.

Dolly Varden, by William Powell Frith

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.

Stay tuned…

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!

13 comments for “On Dolly Varden and her cursed conical cake

  1. June 28, 2012 at 8:46 pm

    You have used “Humpty Dumpty” in your post. Will you please tell me the meaning of it?

  2. Karen
    May 29, 2012 at 4:03 pm

    I am a Dolly Varden Veteran with 2 girls, now 11 and 17. I bought the ridiculously expensive tin – a Wilton kit complete with the tin, a half doll on a pointy thing and the secret aluminum heating rod that you screw into the base to heat the cake evenly. I used the tin when the girls turned 3, 4, 10 and in the past year have made at least 3 cakes for 16 year olds. It actually turned out to be a good investment. The other secret is to use 1 and half Black and gold butter cake packet mixes. Good luck!

    • May 29, 2012 at 4:08 pm

      Ah, now there is something I was wondering about – the heating rod thingamajig. I hadn’t heard of that, but it makes a lot of sense since I had the same problem on each attempt (soggy middle!). In the end I just overcooked it till it was solid. It was a little like eating styrofoam but I didn’t care as long as it held together and I could ice it! Let’s face it, the kids only lick the icing off anyway 🙂 Sounds like you’ve had some great successes. Will keep your tips in mind if I ever attempt it again.

  3. May 26, 2012 at 8:23 pm

    Coles definately still have the plain slabs if you get stuck. (I always cheat and use them hehehe). Good luck, I can’t wait to see them. My eldest girl has decied that my baby has to have “Tigger cake” for her first Birthday. I’m already scared lol

    • May 28, 2012 at 7:11 pm

      Best of luck with that Renay! Tigger sounds interesting. I did notice they had a lot of different shaped tins for hire when I went hunting – possibly there’s a Tigger amongst them. Thanks for reading 🙂

  4. Kasper Beaumont
    May 26, 2012 at 6:17 pm

    Good luck. My favourite masterpiece was Ryan’s pool birthday cake, which I cut out all the middle which hadn’t cooked properly and replaced it with blue jelly. A few cocktail umbrellas and some sunbaking jelly babies later, and it went down a treat. Sometimes the last minutes cover-ups can turn into memorable gems. I hope you’re going to post a picture of your Dolly cake. 🙂

    • May 28, 2012 at 7:12 pm

      That’s a great attitude Kasper! I had a ‘frog pond’ cake as a child that was similar – with jelly in the middle and Freddos around the outside. I bet Ryan loved his ‘pool’ – very creative way to overcome a soggy cake! 🙂

  5. Tanya Gill
    May 26, 2012 at 6:56 am

    Oh, good luck Lara. May the force be with you!!! We too have the tradition of the boys picking a cake from the Women’s Weekly birthday cake book. Fortunately I escaped that last year as making flash cakes in a caravan was deemed impossible (tho there are grey nomads out there who are sure to disagree!). The boy’s birthdays are in July, then August. So it’s going to be a busy time then! I’ve heard nasty rumors that one of my fave shortcuts has been removed: that is buying a plain slab cake from Woolies…if it’s true I am done for!! Enjoy Sunday. It will be fab!

    • May 26, 2012 at 7:36 am

      Thanks Tanya. I must admit I couldn’t find a slab cake at Woolies when I was looking at options for Humpty’s wall, but I don’t know if they’ve officially stopped doing it. I have another DV cake in the oven this morning as the hired tin has to go back by 9. I have almost every body part crossed that it works! x

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