Challenge Number 31 was originally to take Charlotte on the North York Moors railway, but after the Snowdonia meltdown debacle, I decided that making such a trip could turn out to be an expensive and stressful waste of money. Besides, there were too many challenges on the list involving trains. The idea was to do something nice for Charlotte in Yorkshire, and so what could be nicer than baking her a cake at home for her 2nd birthday?
I’m a complete birthday cake novice, and I’ve never iced anything other than occasionally pouring a citrus glaze over muffins. So this challenge was also about acquiring an entirely new skill, one which will hopefully serve me for several children’s parties to come. I found some cake decorating books in a charity shop for 50 pence apiece to get some recipes, tips and ideas. I had in my head a park theme, since we spend half our lives in Rowntree Park, whose duckponds, woods, willow trees and swings serve as our garden.
The whole process was a steep learning curve, from understanding the difference between vanilla essence and vanilla flavouring, to how long our oven takes to bake enormous cakes without burning them on top and leaving them raw in the middle, to how to make buttercream icing, to how to sieve apricot jam, to the different tastes of different coloured shop-bought ready-to-roll fondant, to how long defrosting and icing a cake actually takes when you’re trying to fit it in around a hectic toddler schedule and only have your exhausted evenings free.
This point about defrosting was because I had baked the sponge cakes a couple of weeks in advance and stored them in the freezer. This was to avoid a last-minute rush and (potential) last-minute disaster and subsequent trip to Waitrose to buy a replacement. I used a Victoria sponge recipe my aunt had told me about, which featured in Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall/ Fearlesslyeatsitall’s Guardian column a while back. The recipe’s quantities are based on the weight of the eggs used in the bake. However many eggs you use, you weigh them in their shells at the start, then use exactly that quantity of flour, sugar and butter. The theory being this gives you precise and perfect proportions. In this case, for each layer of cake, I used 8 eggs (beaten into the creamed butter and sugar individually), and 483g of the other ingredients, with a teaspoon or two of vanilla. It was scary putting the cooked sponges into the freezer without being able to taste them (I wasn’t ready to cut them up at that point because I hadn’t quite finalised in my head what I was going to do), and it was only once they had defrosted and I’d carved the top layer into the shape I’d decided on that I could have a mouthful and breathe a sigh of relief. The cake was, in a word, yum.
The icing process demonstrated my general scatterbrained cack-handedness, but next year I will be so much more confident and won’t forget crucial things like covering the sides in your carefully sieved jam before you have actually plonked the rolled-out icing on top of the cake. I covered as much of the cake with buttercream as possible, to stick the sponge segments together and create a topping, but didn’t make enough buttercream to do the sides as well, and had run out of icing sugar by this point to make any more.
I used ready-coloured fondant icing, but the ducks, pond and paving around the pond were all constructed by me. I managed to write Charlotte’s name in black icing. The flowers were shop-bought and attached with gin (a tip from a friend) to create a seal. The swing and slide are obviously inedible and a part of a Happy Land play park set from the Early Learning Centre, but the cake would have looked pretty feeble without them. So not too many fancy frills, and no proper piping – like the trip on the North York Moors Railway, these will have to wait for another year.
I used the cake trimmings to make a trifle, plus an extra cake with buttercream icing. (I’d bought some more icing sugar by this point.) The icing was coloured purple by me and covered with Charlotte’s favourite word of the moment, “sprinkles”. This was just to prove I could actually make coloured icing of some description by myself.
All that was left to do was light the candle and sing Happy Birthday, a song which invariably makes Charlotte wail in dismay. Daddy had to help her blow out the candle, but the swing and slide eventually distracted her from the accompanying music. At last it was time for the tasting. The guests at the party on Sunday (family from both sides) appeared to be truly impressed. It’s about the only food I’ve ever cooked for Charlotte that she has wolfed down and asked for seconds of. I am very proud of myself. And now I more or less know what I’m doing, hopefully next year’s cake will be even better.