The train. The pool. The “dreaded tip truck”. Every weekend dozens of kids, puffy faced and flushed, blow out the candles on a novelty birthday cake. Perhaps it’s the same type of cake that, a generation ago, their parents blew on too.
This year, the Australian Women’s Weekly’s Children’s Birthday Cake Book turns 40. But it took two years of wheedling, back in the late 1970s, to get the book made. Pamela Clark, one of the book’s recipe developers, recalls that “the bosses, quite frankly, weren’t that keen on the idea … They didn’t really believe that it would sell its socks off.”
They could not have been more wrong. The book has sold more than half a million copies in Australia, and its 106 recipes have been birthday party staples ever since.
“I’ve been absolutely staggered,” Clark says of the book’s revered status. “It’s quite embarrassing. At various gatherings I’ve been to about this book, people arrive with copies under their arms for me to sign.
“Half the pages are stuck together with buttercream and splattered with food colouring. It’s been passed on from their grandmother … It’s reaching three generations at the moment.”
This month, as part of Melbourne Food and Wine festival, the book will be celebrated with an exhibition, Take the Cake.
A lot has changed in the decades since the book was first published. Clark now fields calls from parents concerned that the Smarties that stud a 1-shaped cake are probably a choking hazard. “And I’m thinking ‘I don’t think a one-year-old is eating Smarties’. It was a different world.”
Parents are far more cautious about sugar, gluten, additives and food colouring. “I was often seen with green hands or pink hands,” Clark jokes. On the other end of the spectrum, Instagram is flooded with cakes so elaborate, they could be sculptures.
“I find it fascinating, because at the high end of cake decorating that’s all over the internet,” says Clark. “Then you get these … daggy cakes, which they are in this book, and they’re more popular than all of the upmarket ones.” She’s even been sent photographs of a wedding where the bride and groom had a dozen or so cakes from the book in lieu of a traditional wedding cake.
“I remember all the meetings that we had struggling to think of things to do in the book,” she recalls. “We sat down and talked a lot. And I said ‘what about a swimming pool cake’ and they all looked at me like I was some kind of a crazy person.”
“Water, blue, green, jelly. It seemed quite logical to me … I said ‘look, a 20cm round cake is a very popular size cake pan. Everyone’s got one of those tins.’” She convinced the team to let her trial one out in the test kitchen. “There was nothing fancy about it, it was a prototype.
“Ellen Sinclair, who was the food editor at the time, said, ‘let’s shoot it little darling,’ which is what she always said. The poor photographer was dragged in … we held up a few white boards and he took a happy snap, and that’s the one in the book.”
One of the pleasures of cooking from the Children’s Birthday Cake Book is how simple, but effective, some of the ideas are.
One of Clark’s favourites, a Dolly Varden cake, is studded with pink and white marshmallows and topped with a legless Barbie. It came about because Clark didn’t want “anything with fondant and piping and all that stuff”. She thought to herself, “‘what can I do that anyone can do’ … Not that clever really, but I can’t tell you how many of those cakes I’ve made over the years.”
A spiky echidna ice-cream cake was inspired by a children’s colouring book. “I remember thinking ‘I could do that just by using chocolate sticks’, remembering the pool was also using the chocolate sticks. We abused those chocolate sticks back in those days.”
Not all of the cakes are that simple, though. “There are half a dozen or so cakes in that book where I would advise people to stick the pages together so that the child does not see them, because they’re hard work.”
A “fluffy frosting” (Italian meringue) covered castle with four pointed turrets ranks among the most challenging; while the train that sits on the book’s cover can be tough when ambitious parents decide to add extra carriages. But a tip truck with lollies spilling out of its back pallet is the hardest ask.
“I’ve had lots of phone calls about the tip truck and mothers who’ve said ‘I can’t do it but my husband’s an engineer, and you know what, he’s doing an amazing job on the tip truck.’” She says figuring out how the support structures work is the most complicated part. “We just used skewers, but I don’t know what an engineer would use.”
So, will we ever see another book like it? “We wouldn’t do the novelty cakes in the same way that we did back then,” says Clark. “Forty years is a long time! I think there are higher expectations than there were back then.”
In the kitchen now, recipe writers and food stylists, even those interested in novelty cakes, don’t “want their cakes to look daggy. And I got that. You can’t replicate things all the time. The ideas back then were pretty ordinary … But nothing touches the Children’s Birthday Cake Book.”
• Take the Cake runs from 18 5o 25 March in Melbourne, as part of Melbourne Food and Wine festival
Source: Thanks https://www.theguardian.com/food/2020/mar/15/a-daggy-delight-nothing-touches-the-childrens-birthday-cake-book