Not Tom Brady.
All three children have now had pandemic birthdays, so I’ve had to learn some new skills. Cake making is tough to get right, mostly because the opportunities to practice are few and far between. Maybe you have honed your chocolate chip cookie recipe over the years by tweaking a monthly batch, but if you make an underwhelming cake, it will probably be a while before you have a reason to try again.
The first pandemic birthday was in August and my son declared he hated chocolate and would like vanilla cake and vanilla frosting, but “make it Mario.” So I looked online for a recipe and did my best. The buttercream was fine but the cake was moist and not dense but substantial enough to stand up to extra decorating. I have now made this
same base recipe four times, whether plain for the seven year old, split, doubled, and dyed for the five year old, spiced with nutmeg and cinnamon for Christmas, or dyed, doubled, and carved for the three year old.
I have made my share of boxed cake mixes and they are always too soft to really handle frosting, plus the vanilla just tastes like sugar. This recipe includes butter rather than oil, and also buttermilk, so it has a lot of layers of flavor before I even add vanilla paste. It makes a three layer cake, but if that seems overwhelming you could always freeze two layers and eat one at a time. The three layer design makes for a more impressive birthday cake, I have to say. And even though it’s a lot of cake for two adults and three kids to eat, it stays moist a long time.
My daughter asked for a blue cake “with a pink dress on it” for her birthday, which we celebrated this weekend though the big day is actually tomorrow. My son thinks she asked for blue cake because she remembers the flag cake we had for July 4th, but I have no idea where she got the idea. I know there are special doll-dress-cake pans or there’s the cake-in-a-bowl method, but I couldn’t see how the cake would be evenly baked with such a thick awkward shape. Surely the outsides would be crusty before the inside was set? So instead I made my trusty vanilla cake recipe twice and tinted blue to ensure it would be tall enough. I also know that there are special legless dolls made for dress cakes, but being the practical minimalist I fancy myself to be, I decided it was stupid to buy half a doll when my daughter would definitely want to take it out of the cake and play with it. If I’m buying a doll I’m going to buy one that doubles as a toy, rather than a decoration.
I needed a doll with clothes printed on her so I wouldn’t have to give her a frosting bustier or ruin her clothes with icing, and the one that fit the bill was a ballerina on Amazon. Which brings me to my lifelong gripe that Barbie’s measurements are ABSURD and thus required five layers of cake just get to the bottom of her butt. A sixth layer would have made the dress tall enough but really narrow (my cake pans are 8in) so I used five with a little extra frosting to cover her tush.
I used the same frosting for the Mario and rainbow cakes and we weren’t super thrilled with it, so around Christmas we made red velvet cupcakes with a marshmallow frosting which got rave reviews. I used that frosting for the Christmas cake, which made it delicious but more rustic looking because of the whippy texture from the marshmallow fluff. This time, I needed a stiff buttercream for the decorations but I used the marshmallow buttercream for the interior layers. The marshmallow frosting isn’t actually sticky like I assumed it would be, it’s just a lighter, fluffier consistency than traditional buttercream. The stiff buttercream was so firm I thought my piping bags would burst, but that is something you don’t realize until it’s too late. I couldn’t use most of the finer piping tips for this reason, but I honestly didn’t know which tips made which shapes anyway, so I just started winging it. The solution to decorating mistakes is always more icing! If you carve, thoroughly chill your layers first and you’ll need a crumb coat — a thin coating of icing to seal up the cake and keep loose crumbs from getting in your outer layer of frosting. The stress made my hands hot and sweaty which softened the frosting a little and made it easier to pipe, but obviously we try not to rely on cake anxiety to get the right consistency.
There is a point during complex cooking endeavors and DIY home improvement projects where you are questioning all your life choices and are baffled as to why you ever thought you could drill holes/paint a wall/carve a cake all by yourself. For me, that moment came when I sawed off a giant chunk of blue cake and crumbs went everywhere. It’s that panicked cold sweat that reminds you it’s too late to turn back now, the hole is already in the wall for better or for worse. I had to keep carving the cake as best I could to get a somewhat symmetrical skirt shape because I had already sliced off a sizable hunk and it certainly didn’t look like a dress yet. I had to remind myself — the solution is frosting. It’s easier to smooth and level frosting than a cake. Frosting you can add or scrape off. So I carved and I crumb-coated and then I piped until my hands were ruined. Rather than going for a smooth, tastefully decorated skirt, I went maximal with piped flowers and swirls and dots until the whole thing was covered (you could always just tint your crumb coat so “holes” aren’t as noticeable but I was too lazy).
The cake was still moist and flavorful under all that frosting despite the off-putting blue color (why blue??) and my daughter was THRILLED with the cake! She seemed to enjoy being queen for a day, and loved the balloons we blew up for decorations. Everything was pink and sparkly all day long, from the pink donuts to the pink cutlery, and she got to choose all our meals, which is a tradition for birthdays in our house. It seems too soon for our last baby to already be three, but we are thankful for every minute with her. She is so thoughtful, searching us out to give us spontaneous hugs and declarations of love. She loves donuts, ketchup, dolls, and her dad above all else, and we are so lucky she is part of our family.