Munchkin turned two a few weeks ago and we threw a joint party for him with three other children. I volunteered to make the cake, safe in the knowledge that our friends are not the types to judge me on how perfect my decoration was. Because, of course, birthday cakes are mainly about appearances (although in my house, a good dose of chocolate and buttercream comes a close second, and yes, that includes the two-year-old). The birthday boy or girl gets to revel in their special status as the cake, decorated with their favourite colour, Disney character or animal, is carried towards them, aglow with candles and the proud beaming faces of their parents. All attention is on them as ‘Happy Birthday To You!’ is sung, they blow out those candles and then finally everyone gets to eat the cake (the delayed gratification of take-home party bags doesn’t go down well with toddlers).
Birthday cakes have been popular since the eighteenth century, especially for children, although candles have been used to decorate sweet offerings since ancient times – smoke and fire both having great significance in pagan and Roman traditions, for example. The famous ‘Happy Birthday to You!’ song was a late nineteenth-century addition and has been translated into many languages (in theory it has been under copyright since 1935). In some countries there is a designated traditional birthday cake which adds to the occasion and anticipation – the green domed Swedish Prinsesstårta I wrote about earlier is one. In Britain, North America and Australasia the birthday cake is an opportunity for parents to go mad with decorating (acceptable alternatives range from Mr Supermarket, through to high end Bespoke Beauty depending on the circles you move in). If you’re a home-baker then there are shelves of books available to help you make a cake in the shape of a princess, a favourite animal, a football or a treasure chest, and many a mother has stayed up into the night, cursing as she forms sugar paste animals, or tries to make sweets stick on to a doll’s cake skirt.
The trouble is, that this sort of activity can be terribly anxiety inducing. The cake becomes an expression of your love for your child (and possibly, just a wee bit of competitiveness as well – haven’t you seen what his best friend’s mum made and posted on facebook just last week…?) But really, your child is unlikely to notice that wonky bit, or the part that went wrong and has been hidden with more buttercream. What they will remember is the joy of the cake which is just for them, and which makes them king or queen of the world for that brief time. I have fond memories of many of my childhood birthday cakes – home made and bought.
So, when it came to Munchkin’s cake I was determined to keep it colourful and simple. The cake itself was a simple chocolate sponge – the recipe my family always uses for birthday cakes. Since the party was shared between four children I asked each mum to suggest a picture their child would like, and then I searched on the internet for images I could copy using shop-bought fondant icing. I used edible glue to stick everything down, and small letter cutters to add each child’s name. The white icing was as ropey as anything down the sides but I made sure that all the pictures were taken from an aerial view 🙂 The birthday children were all delighted with it and I was pretty happy not to be up at midnight wearily making sugar paste animals too 🙂