Lisa’s Letters Home: A Brief History of Birthday Cakes

Lisa’s Letters Home: A Brief History of Birthday Cakes

I have a bit of  reputation as The Baking Lady, which is entirely my fault because I post photos of my creations on Facebook. The truth is, I’m not at all comfortable with baking because it’s so precise – I’m much more of a “chuck it in the pot and see what happens”  kind of gal. When my baking ventures go right I always end up pleasantly surprised, and that’s when the photo goes on Facebook. It’s not for bragging rights; it’s a genuinely shocked exclamation of “Holy crap, I MADE THIS AND IT DOESN’T SUCK.”

My mother never actually made cakes for me from scratch, but I think that might have been the acceptable thing to do in the 70s and 80s. We were making meatloaf in the microwave back then, for goodness sake. But these days, it’s the mommy cake wars and everyone is trying to do the cutest, most original, most fabulous cakey thing ever for their children. (Pinterest has a lot to answer for.) Sadly, I got sucked into this and it wasn’t always pretty.

This week, I present to you: The Cakes That Didn’t Quite Work. It’s my oldest daughter’s birthday week and in between bouts of panic baking (more on that next Friday), I thought I’d share with you a gallery of cakes that went a little bit wrong. Like Mia’s first birthday cake, for example. It’s a duck. No, really.

I copied an idea from the Betty Crocker web site, which looked remarkably easy but duck bodies are deceptively hard to recreate out of a round sponge cake. I think the horrified expression on my duck’s face sums it all up, really. It’s like a fat yellow surfboard with Q-bert’s face on top. (Ask your parents if you don’t know who that is.)

As friends of mine got into cake making and started posting pictures of their own, I started to get the idea that I could make equally impressive things, like dainty cupcakes. The kind with lovely flat tops, a glossy layer of icing or ganache, and decorative bits on top. The kind that don’t look anything like these:

The cakes didn’t rise and sit about one inch below the top of the cupcake cases. Oh, no actually they did rise, but only in one random spot on each cake. I meticulously cut out the flowers the night before and left them to dry on a plate. An unlined plate. 80% of them broke when I tried to scrape them off the plate the next day.

Eventually, and after lots of Internet browsing and tips from friends, I got a bit better at baking and decorating. I summoned up the courage to make a cake decorated in fondant, which is all kinds of scary. I don’t like it and I don’t understand it, even now after decorating 5 or 6 cakes with it.

I got the idea for a Tinkerbell cake after seeing a photo of a beautiful cake surrounded by tall grass and a gorgeous blooming flower with little toadstools on top.

My version? Droopy seaweed, a dead starfish or possibly a headless squid, and toadstools that look very much like boobs. The Tinkerbell looks good, though – thanks to the Disney shop.

The moral of the story? Don’t be fooled by Facebook and duck bodies are really hard to make. Also, don’t get too hung up about making the perfect cake. The duck cake made people laugh (in a good way) and everyone was complimentary about the wonky cupcakes and droopy Tinkerbell cake. I am my own worst critic and get frustrated when the image in my brain doesn’t match the cake on the plate. In the end, the only thing that matters is that your kids will remember these cakes fondly (or will look back on them with a good laugh). I still remember every birthday cake my mom made for me – my favourite was a Betty Crocker cherry cake with a plastic ballerina stuck on top.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have 28 cupcakes and one beach-themed cake to bake for Saturday. And I am totally blaming Pinterest for all of it.

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  1. Julie Crooks
    June 22, 10:32 Reply

    Your cakes are always fab & I had some of tinkerbell cake & it looked (& tasted) great to me! I love those mushrooms especially.
    You’re right though – if a website tells you something is easy under no circumstances should you believe it – I won’t even mention the cake pops! 😉

  2. Lisa Durbin
    June 22, 11:32 Reply

    CAKE POPS. *shiver*

    Thank you, Julie. 🙂 Dread to think what that green food colouring did to our kids, mind you!!

  3. Heather Smedley
    June 22, 11:46 Reply

    Personally I think the duck is adorable. I may make one similar on my birthday later this summer. 🙂

  4. Heather Smedley
    June 23, 08:58 Reply

    I’ve looked at the link. Yours isn’t all that far off!! The eyes on yours are different, that’s all….gives yours real personality :0

  5. ryanking
    November 10, 17:31 Reply

    Hey hun just wondering my brother is haveing his birthday next saturday and in desprete need of a surfboerd cake can you help me out let me know

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    Lisa’s Letters Home: A Brief History of Birthday Cakes – Sweet Potato Chronicles – Sweet Potato Chronicles

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