I get asked a lot of questions about cake and often get asked for advice, even holding tutorials down the phone or FaceTime when friends are mid bake and mid panic! A lovely dad friend of mine who was baking with his daughters for Mothers' Day once sent me a text at every stage of his Victoria Sponge making to check he was doing it right! It all just goes to show that someone's comfort zone is another person's torment. It's why I think there should be an online, national parental skills collective. Somewhere you can trade with other mums and dads to make this whole raising smalls just a bit easier. You know, I'll bake your kid a Peppa Pig, PJ Masks, LOL Surprise Doll mash-up birthday cake if you sew the bloody World Book Day costume. How amazing would that be? A burden shared and all that.
The act of baking is essentially an act of love. We do it because we want the recipient to smile and enjoy what we have created. Never more so than when we're making a birthday cake and it's when friends are preparing for their little one's birthdays that I get the most questions and requests for help. However novice the baker, there's something hard wired in most people about wanting to make their child's birthday cake themselves, but it can also be another pressure to add to the pesky parent guilt. It doesn't have to be that way.
Two years ago I put myself through the wringer making my little girl the 'perfect' first bitherday cake - three tiers, ten hand crafted picture book characters, two flavours and woodland flowers. My expectations of myself were characteristically sky high. The cake would be proof that I was doing a great job of this motherhood lark and belie the daily struggle I was really having with myself setting the bar too high & constantly measuring myself in terms of things I had not done and feeling plagued with guilt. It was no way to live and soon after that I made some conscious decisions to change the way I lived and baked. Sure, the cake was glorious, but it still just tasted like nice cake. It would have been demolished by the guests in much the same way if had come from Asda, Tesco or M&S. Alice can't remember it. It was a nice to do, but by no means a necessity and probably not worth the pressure it put on me. This year we kept things simple. A little 15cm chocolate cake with flowers and pink icing. Just what she had asked for and she couldn't have been happier. And the icing on the cake? I wasn't too exhausted to enjoy her day and her great big smile when the cake was brought out with the candles lit. After all, that's the moment you wait for right? That's the ultimate affirmation that you're not doing too badly at this parent thing after all.
With all this in mind I have wanted to put together a super easy birthday cake recipe for a while now in the hope of helping parents who really want to make the cake, but feel out of their comfort zone and worried about messing it up. A bit of research amongst friend's children suggests that all kids really want is a cake that looks like its oozing with usually forbidden treats. If you've read Simon Phillip's 'I Really Want the Cake' then you'll know the kind of cake I mean. Layers, bulging icing and a bucket load of sweets chucked at it. So here it is. My take on the 'I Really Want the Cake' cake. Simple enough to make and decorate with the kids if you wish or to knock up the night before with a glass of wine and a few episodes of something good on the telly box without causing too much stress or clean up. It tastes bloody good too. I decorated mine with mini jazzy buttons, sprinkles and party rings because when I was tiny and stayed with my Grandma we used to eat party rings in bed before breakfast and it felt like the ultimate decadence, but you could put whatever you want on there. Similarly, the raspberry jam can be omitted from the icing recipe to give you plain white frosting that can then be coloured to suit your little one with a tiny bit of food colouring.
Easy Peasy (not too chocolatey) Showstopper Party Cake
My little girl is the exception to the toddlers love chocolate rule, always trying something that looks wonderful only to spit it out and declare it 'too chocolatey mummy!' I keep this in mind when baking for children. They often don't like the super luxurious, rich and complex cake recipes that might be my go to if baking for an adult occasion. Something light and delicious is what we need. I apply this to the icing too. I can't remember the last time I made traditional buttercream. It's so sickly. The simple addition of cream cheese keeps things less silly sweet and more likely that both cake and icing will be enjoyed rather than smeared all over your kitchen.
100g unsalted butter
160g caster sugar
45g cocoa powder
3/4 tsp baking powder
3/4 tsp bicarbonate soda
1/4 tsp salt
170g plain flour
160 ml milk
3 greased 15cm round cake tins, lined with a circle of greaseproof paper.
I always pre weigh my ingredients if baking with the smalls. This allows you to combine ingredients in advance and cut down the number of steps in the bake. This recipe breaks down into four easy pouring and scooping steps if you weigh up the butter and sugar together in one bowl, the rest of the dry ingredients in another and the milk into a mug and the eggs (beaten) in another.
1. Beat the butter and sugar sing the paddle beater on a stand mixer or a hand held electric whisk. The mixture will turn pale and creamy. Add one large scoop of the dry ingredients and then slowly mix in the beaten eggs. The scoop of flour helps stop the mixture splitting, but if it does go grainy don't panic, mixing in the rest of the dry ingredients later will bring it all back together.
2. Slowly beat in the dry ingredients. Stop mixing when everything is just combined and the mixture looks quite smooth.
3. Add the milk and mix slowly until you have a nice velvety mixture. Pour equally into the three cake tins and bake on 170 for about 30 mins, but keep and eye on them. If they look like they're solid and slightly shrinking away from the sides they might be done earlier. A knife in the middle coming out clean will tell you they're done. Cool the cakes completely before attempting any kind of icing of decorating.
Beat together 250g cream cheese (prob best to soften this by stirring with a spoon first), 250g unsalted butter and 625g icing sugar. Beat it until its smooth. It can take a while to get rid of all the butter lumps. Be patient. Once you have the consistency you're looking for you can add colours or flavours. For my version I held back a few dollops of white icing and then added a few spoonfuls of raspberry jam and a tiny bit of pink food colouring to the rest.
This tends to be the bit that scares people, but it really doesn't have to be stressful. The reason I like this cake so much is because whilst being light and fluffy it can actually withstand immediate cutting and icing once cooled, whereas most cakes are much better if they are wrapped in cling film overnight to stabilise before you attempt to do anything with them. You could still do this if you had the time of course, but it's not strictly necessary.
In terms of icing, the genius of this design is having a naked look cake where the icing doesn't need to cover the whole cake, so neatness isn't an issue. In fact the more bulging the better really. I have piped the icing in between the layers here and put swirls on top, but you could just slather the icing on thickly and it would still look great.
If you want to achieve a similar look to me then follow these final steps.
1. Level the cakes. This simply means taking a bread knife (unless you have a cake wire of course) and slicing off the domed topes of the cake to make them level. They will stack better, look better and the whole cake will be more stable.
2. Put your icing in a large disposable icing bag then cut the end off about half an inch up the bag. This will give you a rounded ball shape when you squeeze the icing out. To do this apply pressure to the bag, pressing down slightly to adhere the icing to the cake. Stop squeeing and then lift up. Make a circle of icing blobs around the edge of the cake layer and then fill in the middle. Repeat on the next layer up.
3. For the top of the cake I used an open star piping nozzle. Start in the centre and swirl anti clockwise whilst pulling your hand up to give height to the swirl.
4. Pile it high with goodies and candles. Enjoy.