Each year, a month before our birthdays we were allowed to pull a chair up to the pantry. On the fifth shelf, behind some stray party hats and slumping candles was The Book.
To me and my sister the magic of birthdays came straight from the Women’s Weekly Birthday Cake Book.
Once we’d brought the book down we’d start thumbing through the pages.
There was the typewriter and the race track. The swimming pool with green jelly and a ladder made from liquorice rope. There was the slightly disturbing duckling (with the ruffled potato crisps as its bill) and the pistachio hued shark with its kind eyes and big grin.
I’m not sure we ever really chose a cake for what it represented. I think we picked them based on how many lollies could be stuck to the icing. I know that was my rationale for choosing the dump truck with its sticky cargo and mint slices for wheels.
It was only years later in a fit of nostalgia when I was surfing through the rather brilliant facebook group ‘The Women’s Weekly Birthday Cake book is awesome’ that I realised we hadn’t had the full book.
I don’t remember the sweets shop. Or the train. I definitely would have chosen the train.
It turns out there were certain pages that were glued together. Our book was censored to protect my mother’s sanity.
My mother is not what you would call a baker. She worked in kid’s hospital. She took care of premature babies. She has a mean backhand on a tennis court. She is patient beyond belief. She is kind. And every year our birthdays must have been a living nightmare.
I remember the deep breaths and half grimaces when we pointed at certain cakes, excitedly placing our requests. Yet no matter what we asked for, she never said no.
There were some tricks she picked up along the way; cutting a cold cake meant less crumbling than cutting a warm one. The same thing went with icing- if the cake spent a little in the fridge or freezer then fewer crumbs were dredged through the sweet stuff. A wet flat knife also helped.
She also maintains that she soon learned we never really ate the cake, so she started buying sponges from a supermarket. She says their cakes were straighter too.
When assembling them she rationalised that skewers worked like surgical pins on broken bones, giving extra support where it might be needed. A musk stick alone should not be trusted to support the top of a sewing box. And having toothpicks stick up out from the icing meant Glad Wrap could swoop over the top like a protective canopy, and not blur it like a burns bandage.
But it was the candy castle, with upturned ice cream cones, deckled with meringue icing that finally broke her and left her sobbing in the kitchen.
It was a hot day. The icing wouldn’t stick. It trickled and puddled, helped downwards by the steep slopes of the cones. She went through two dozen eggs trying to get it right. In the photos of my sister’s 6h birthday party, she looks a little more tired than usual.
The next year, I chose a flat pink number five, from the newly censored book . We decorated it with flowers. The petals were cut from white marshmallows and there were smarties for their centres.
It turns out that Women’s Weekly are reprinting the book. My mother still has her original copy- complete with scabs of icing sugar on the pages that aren’t glued together. She’s offered to hand it down to me when my turn comes. She’s even offered to help separate the pages out, so there’s the full book to choose from.
Now I’m ok with learning what the symptoms of Meningococcal look like. I think I’ll be ok helping a little one learn long division and even finding school shoes that will fit.
But birthday party cakes?
I’m just not sure if I’m ready for that kind of responsibility.
I think we might need to open this one up to group therapy.
Best cakes. Worst cakes. Biggest failures. Greatest triumphs. Let it out. And don’t forget to add your photos.
Just how bad is this going to be?
And er, don’t even try to compare to this one