The Battle of the Birthday Cake
In my life I have made a lot of cakes. A heck of a lot of cakes
If you ask me to choose between pie and cake, I choose pie every time. Every single time. For my birthday my mom would make me a lattice top cherry pie. As a result there was only ever one precariously placed candle – no matter how old I was – but I loved it. It was my favourite. And even though the filling was from an E.D Smith can, I would still choose that pie every time over cake.
Apparently I am alone in my pie over cake choice. I say this because since Thanksgiving I have been asked to make a lot of cakes and not one single pie (unless you count the ones I was asked to bake into cakes. That’s a whole other story).
I’ve made carrot cakes, chocolate cakes, vegan cakes, champagne cakes, and one very special birthday cake.
One of my oldest friends (meaning I’ve known here since high school, not that she’s old) Joanne, asked me to bake a cake for her 6 year old daughter on her birthday. She wanted a slab cake big enough to feed all the kids and her daughter likes a vanilla cake with vanilla frosting and pink decorations.
I need to be transparent here. I am not an expert in cake decorating – not by a longshot. To begin with, I am an expert pie maker. I spent my formative years focusing on pie. And when I do make cakes, there are rarely for kids’ birthdays, so I felt the pressure to make an awesome looking fun cake that would please a 6 year old. While I don’t have kids, I have performed enough for them as an actor that I know that if the cake isn’t up to par, I will hear about it in crushing and direct terms.
A few years ago I offered to make a (non-decorated) birthday cake for Thom’s sister. We were up at the cottage. I handed her a stack of recipes and asked her to pick the one she wanted most. I was very surprised when she picked a vanilla cake. A simple vanilla cake with fudge frosting. Honestly, I wasn’t expecting it to be that great because it was so simple and plain. That day I was reminded again (as I seem to always be) that simple is best. That cake was rich, full of flavour, and most of us had 2 slices. That vanilla is equated with boring seems crazy to me now because that vanilla cake was amazing and full of flavour. (full credit to Anna Olson for her awesome recipe).
When I started on this birthday cake, I went straight for that recipe. Now for the frosting…Just because it’s a kids cake doesn’t mean it has to be super sugary and make the kids bounce off the walls. I decided instead to make a buttercream – because who doesn’t like butter!
Once the cake was made, baked, and cooled and the frosting had been whipped into vanilla awesomeness, I was faced with my big fear. How the heck do I decorate this???
I grabbed my offset spatulas, a stack of piping bags, every nozzle I could find, red food colouring, and got to work. I found that practicing my writing and my designs was key – although the pink butterfly on the cake never looked as good as my practice pink butterfly.
Now as I was baking this cake, I had a nagging feeling. Joanne is allergic to eggs. She told me not to worry about this when baking the cake because she knows eggs are very important in baked goods and she didn’t want to lessen the impact of the birthday cake because of her allergy, but I still didn’t feel right about it. I mean she’s the one who did all the work on the actual ‘birth day’. So, I baked Joanne a second cake. Just a little one. I don’t make vegan/egg-free cakes often, but I have a few recipes I like and I had some leftover ganache in my fridge. This recipe comes from Joanne Chang and her book Flour. It’s a rich chocolate cake that manages to be fudgy even without eggs.
The day of the party I was nervous. Honestly. Kids are tough critics! Would they like the cake? Well, you be the judge. I think the answer is yes.