I’m not normally a sucker for peer pressure. I don’t easily get intimidated by other mothers’ accomplishments and I’m overall not a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses-type of gal. If anything, I suffer from a surfeit of confidence.
I’m also not a cook or a baker by any stretch of the imagination, though, so when it comes to my boys’ birthday cakes, I throw all that self-confidence right out the window. Little’s birthday is approximately two months from today and the cake planning (and its concomitant anxiety) has already begun in earnest. I know what you’re thinking, why not just buy the cake and be done with it? My official answer is because bakery cakes aren’t safe for Big with his peanut allergy. Of course there are nut-free bakeries around and I’m actually a HUGE fan of a local one, Moneta Moments. That’s not the honest and true answer, though. What’s honest and true is that I, as the boys’ mother, feel morally obligated to bake their birthday cakes from scratch. I tell myself that baker or not, I should be able to pull off a homemade birthday cake twice a year for the next however many years. Call me old-fashioned, a glutton for punishment, a martyr or just downright crazy, but that’s the way I feel. Hence the anxiety.
Adding to the stress is that I’m also fairly attached to the idea of the big reveal — the boys shouldn’t see the cake until we’re walking into the room bearing it all aflame and exercising our singing voices. The problem is mechanics; Big is now tall enough to see the top of the counter (and he and Little both could actually climb up on a chair if they really wanted to anyway). In previous years I would take off the day (um, week) before the birthday and decorate the cake right there at the kitchen counter, hiding in plain sight. I’m pretty sure I won’t be able to pull that off this year.
I realize that this anxiety is completely self-inflicted. In past years, the birthday cake bar has been set pretty high by none other than yours truly. Who exactly am I competing against? Myself! I have set unrealistically high standards for myself in an area where I’m by no means an expert. I also make myself crazy trying to get it exactly right. Some examples:
This was Big’s first birthday cake (of course it actually had his real name on there, not “Big”). That’s Bobo, the monkey who stars in Jez Alborough’s book “Hug.” Although I’m happy with how this cake looked, the technique didn’t leave it tasting very good. I’d read somewhere that you can trace your picture onto edible rice paper, place it on the cake and just pipe in the frosting. Brilliant! So proud of myself! Turns out I had bought the wrong kind of rice paper and although I suppose it was technically edible, it didn’t melt down into the frosting as I’d anticipated. When it came time to serve the cake, I couldn’t cut through the rice paper, so I was left peeling off Bobo and his talk bubble and most of the other frosting came with it. The kids gamely tried to bite into it (Big especially wanted to eat the monkey!) but they couldn’t really gnaw through it very well.
For Big’s second birthday cake, I finally got my hands on the right kind of rice paper. Fire truck win! I was pretty proud of this one.
This was Little’s cake for his first birthday and was probably the cause of one of my biggest parenting meltdowns thus far. Looks pretty good, right? That’s because it’s the second cake I made — in the middle of the night, mind you — after the first one FAILED. The rainbow layers inside were actually a snap; you basically make a double batch of cake batter, split it into six cake pans and dye each one a different rainbow color. Then you layer them on top of each other (in ROYGBIV order, of course) with frosting in between. Easy! But the Very Hungry Caterpillar on top was the bane of my existence. For its first incarnation, I’d tried a new technique where you pipe the frosting onto wax paper and then freeze it. (I’m not sure why I deviated from the rice paper technique I’d so recently mastered, but I guess there wouldn’t be a story otherwise.) In theory, you’re supposed to be able to deftly flip the frozen frosting pic directly onto your cake. Oy. I didn’t account for the fact that my picture would appear reversed on the cake, so I painstakingly tried to peel up every section of that looooong caterpillar and every damned little leg. Of course he didn’t emerge intact, so that frosting-covered piece of wax paper was angrily splattered onto the wall around 10 PM. The adorable caterpillar and all the little fruit shapes you see on the cake above were formed out of some ready-made fondant that I bought at Wal-Mart in the wee hours. That cake looked beautiful but tasted like chalk.
Big’s third birthday cake was this amazing winged dragon protecting his treasure of gold (chocolate) coins and ring pops. This one was actually really easy, too, thanks to a tutorial on Instructables.
Little’s second birthday cake, complete with diagonal black and yellow striped police tape layers inside. This one was actually the easiest of all the cakes so far! I got the steps from Fredellicious.
Big’s birthday last year. I made another attempt at that frozen-frosting thing and this time IT WORKED!!
Little wants a Batman cake this year. Two months out and I’ve started obsessing over the cakes on Pinterest, drooling over the adorable edible characters and the smooth-as-glass fondant. I’m in denial about the fact that many of my favorites were created by professional cake bakers.
The moral of the story? Don’t set your birthday cake bar too high or you’ll live to regret it. On the other hand, you can always call me if you’re stuck fighting with frosting in the middle of the night; I’m sure I’ll be up doing the same.