Mary Berry would weep. I bake so seldom (once a year, per kid) that I have to buy all new ingredients each time in case of weevils. But I say to her – please make a programme for the poor souls among us who simply can’t do it: the half-baked, if you will. A Great British Bake-Off For Beginners, including things like how to fish the yukky bits out of egg yolks and what it means for a batter to “curdle”. All the books say, don’t allow your mixture to curdle – but I don’t know what this means, what it looks like or whether it really matters if it does.
However, despite my lack of ability, I love making birthday cakes for my kids. There’s something about being up really late on Birthday Eve, like Christmas Eve, doing something creative and rationally unnecessary (I actually fingered a boxed cake in the supermarket but walked away from its slippery charms), that makes me feel like a Real Mum, in a way that sorting their dinky but annoyingly disparate socks doesn’t muster. I have actually had some limited success in the past, thanks to copious icing and lashings of Haribo. However, this was not such a time. I felt I had to share, just as a brief guide to:
How Not To Bake a Birthday Cake
Disregard Your Audience
Before making the cake, have an idea about who it’s for and what they’re into. Don’t, by poor planning, restrict your choice to a cake mould you used for their first birthday, as it’s the only one you’ve got (I have lost the other half to my round set so couldn’t even have made a normal sandwich cake except in two goes; which was impossible, given the next point.) If they now like Star Wars, is a babyish aeroplane really going to cut it?
Bake At the Last Minute
Don’t start baking till after 9pm or it won’t rise. Fact. Leave no time for an emergency re-bake. Unless you count the wee hours, which to voluntarily enter on a school night is clinically untenable.
Pay No Attention To the Varying Depths of Your Mould
The cake will all cook perfectly in the same time regardless of its depth, right? Well…I took this baby out after 18 minutes, the wing tips were burning while the passenger seats were an oozing bulge. After putting it back in two or three times, the wings were frowningly dark while the middle was still a pale lemon quagmire. I dug out the heart and put it back in the oven. I tell you, I felt like an expectant dad outside a delivery room hovering by that oven door. After five minutes, no joy, so I took even more out and re-inserted it, until the cake was practically hollow, but cooked in its extant parts.
Do Other Things At the Same Time
I was concurrently baking cupcakes for the birthday boy’s classmates, which was a bit of a distraction, what with the quantity of mixture knocking around, the fumbling with wretched cupcake cases and the reveries about how I would decorate them. But it was a lucky happenstance, as it turned out – one cupcake was a fair fit to replace the core of my gutted aeroplane. Yes, I was to perform open heart surgery on a cake.
Leave Yourself 20 Minutes To Ice The Thing
The next day, I had 20 minutes until school pick-up. Ample to ice the cake – all I had left to do having spent the day tidying the house for the imminent in laws, and general faffery. If only my icing had gone to plan. Rather than be too runny and too scarce, so it ended up looking like this:
Leave Yourself One Minute to Re-Ice It, and Make Sure You Mix in Crumbs
If you’ve ever tried to rectify an icing mistake over a baking debacle, you’ll know that scraping new rather-too-stiff icing over wet, runny icing covering an unstable cake, will result in crumby drag-marks that are impossible to conceal, unless you apply chocolate buttons all over and turn it into a hedge-plane, or aero-hog cake. But who, with a functioning mouth, has that many chocolate buttons lying around?
Add the “Finishing Touches” While Your Child is Having Tea
With the kids engaged in their savoury course and under cover of the fridge door, I attempted to disguise the mess with some well-judged detailing, using my newly-acquired squeezy icing writing tubes. Yes – all the gear, no idea. After a while, I realised that my birthday boy was at my elbow, but by this time just being able to give it to him at all, even if not as a surprise, seemed a handsome goal.
Invite Mary Berry, or Equivalent
As I mentioned, my mother-in-law arrived for tea. She is very lovely. She is also an absolute master cake-maker, nay, cake-artist. She once made a cake that was an exact replica of a friend’s garden, complete with working fish pond – with a real fish in it. I kid you not. I warned her to look away, but she kindly smiled at my effort and suggested touching up a bit where a clod of cake had fallen off. I did so. It fell off again…
Present It To Your Child Like Nothing’s Happened
Even though its passenger cabin was held up by nothing more than a fortuitous naked cupcake, its fuselages were dripping glace icing and its badging was wobbly and inaccurate, my aeroplane cake flew right into my son’s heart. He blew his candles out (three times, and once for his little brother) and got stuck right in. After all, all he wanted was to have his cake and eat it – the very premise and right of childhood.
If you’ve ever made a really bad birthday cake, please do share.
Lovely, Jess! Reminds me of one I made – while struggling with bronchitis, refusing to be defeated – and it was dairy-free due to one child’s allergy. Quite disgusting. Mum and Lucio made everything right – as always – and I was evicted from the party. Several times, I’ve bought cakes, but my children say they are “not too ashamed” at that. And I have also paid neighbours far too much to make cakes. My fault for having 2 warring factions that share a birthday, and an angel that almost shares mine. However, this year’s cake – to accompany Paolo and friends to the Raptor Association – was a masterpiece: a green rugby pitch complete with goalposts, 2 brown owls sitting atop the crossbar, and lots of rugby balls nestled around the edge! It was a triumph, if I say so myself – taking the business card of the teaching assistant standing guard over her cupcakes at the summer school fete was an inspired move!!
I love that, Rebecca! Never look a gift horse in the mouth.