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The Tyranny of Birthday Cakes

May 22, 2013

It’s probably not what you want when you’re knee deep in a war zone, but this time last year my husband, who was on the other side of the world, got a “Please ring me as soon as you get this.  No hospitals are involved.” email. (The last sentence became necessary after a previous incident when I’d sent a ‘Please call me asap’ email.  It was about a car purchase.  A didn’t know that and it took about 20 minutes for his heart rate to return to anything approaching normal.)

He kindly called straight away.  My side of the conversation went something like this:

“Hi there. Um, right, I’m standing in Sainsbury’s and they have a Peppa Pig cake for £12.  I wanted to make the Peppa Pig cake but they have one here and, quite frankly, I don’t know where to start to make a Peppa Pig cake.  I don’t even know where to get pink fondant icing from.  So, what do you think I should do?  Should I buy the cake?  But then I’d feel a bit of a failure as a mother as you’re supposed to be able to make your child’s birthday cake, aren’t you. Should I make it, or should I buy this one?  Any thoughts?’

A has the patience of a saint and an uncanny ability to understand when some serious wife-maintenance is required, so rather than telling me to get off the phone immediately, get a life, more importantly get a perspective and stop worrying, he pretended to think hard about it.  “You must do whatever you think is right, and if that involves buying a cake, then that’s fine. Don’t forget that H is going to be 2. He won’t mind, as long as there are candles.”  It calmed me down just long enough for me to remember that he probably needed to concentrate more on dodging the Taliban than on children’s confectionary so I let him go.

In the end I ditched the whole Peppa Pig idea – H hadn’t asked for it, I’d just decided that that was what he’d like best – and did a plain cake covered with buttercream and as many sweets as I could fit on.  It was a hit (despite looking like a test for colour-blindness as my darling husband pointed out…a while after the event).


A and I have been laughing about the big cake drama ever since…until this weekend.  It was H’s 3rd birthday party on Saturday and all he said he ever wanted for his birthday was a fire engine cake.  How hard could it be, I thought?  I’m quite creative and a bit nifty round the kitchen. I also have a good friend who whips up the most amazing birthday creations for her 4 children which lulled me into a strange and very false sense of security (she can do it to a professional standard, she’s my friend, ergo I must be able to ice like a demon – yes, I know, crazy, eh).

I had a false start a couple of weeks ago when I tried out the Pakistani food colouring I’d bought.  It was labelled ‘orange-red’ and turned out a delicate shade of peach.  Not quite what we had in mind.  Happily I managed to source some proper American hard-core colouring so that was taken care of.

Another good friend provided a link to the Daily Mail website showing how to make a fire engine cake proving that there is, indeed, something in the world that the Daily Mail is good for, apart from making fires.  Armed with the print out and having made the cake the previous night I took a slug from the large kir royale that A had placed at my elbow and set to making the butter cream.

An hour later and all was not well.

The ‘cab’ part of the fire engine was at a very unrealistically jaunty angle and was slowly sliding off the main part of the engine;

the buttercream was more cerise than red; and

the butter part of the buttercream was melting and forming a little pool of molten yellow at the bottom of the bowl.

Cue another Mummy Meltdown.  I put the whole thing in the fridge and went to bed in a big grump feeling an abject failure.  In the morning I opened the fridge, took one look at the cake and burst into tears.  A walked in mid-sob and asked what was wrong.  When I mentioned the offending cake he, too, opened the fridge, said “It’s all right. I don’t know what you’re crying for” and walked out.  It didn’t help.

I can move a toddler and a 4 month-old baby half way across the world and never once have a tear, wobble or even a slight bottom-lip-quiver, but ask me to produce a birthday cake and I completely lose the plot.  Suddenly only perfection is allowed and anything else, well, I may as well deny my children all the other great necessities of life as well…food, clothing etc.

As it was, this was the result:


It’s not the greatest fire engine the world has ever seen but it elicited a “Wow, it’s a fire engine” response from H which was, quite frankly, all the validation I required.  And it tasted quite nice.

At least it’s all over for another year.  Yes, there’s J’s birthday in August but he’ll only be one and too young to notice what cake it put in front of him – he’ll just be delighted that he’s being allowed to eat something other than pureed vegetables.  Or so I thought.  I reckoned without the joy of having an older brother.

Apparently J has been talking to H and he’s decided on his cake for August…..a police car.  Wish me (and A) luck.


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  1. Am sneakily hoping that might be me….?

    Mostly because the prospect of making the red car that M apparently (according to three small girls of my acquaintance) is after has already forced me to attempt to hide in the fridge and I haven’t even started yet…

    Am just reassuring myself it can’t be as bad as a friend here who lovingly crafted a train, only to be told: “it’s a poo”!!

    Ps B in Delhi at the mo. can’t imagine either he or A had much free time, but still it seems ironic… xxx


    • That is, indeed, you. I’ve always thought your creations were pretty amazing, but now I recognise their true genius. You should give classes!
      A is now out of Delhi, but how funny is that. Any chance we could persuade B to conduct vital business in Islamabad?


  2. cvheerden permalink

    Living in South Africa, I succumbed to the unrealistic pressure of producing TV-show perfect birthday cakes simply because most ladies in the church are doing it. The ones whose husbands are pilots and the likes, who stay at home and have something to prove or so it seems. Big pressures started looming on the horizon when I was pregnant with my first baby. “What’s the theme of your nursery?… Mine is thumbelina with curtains and matching beddings and picture frames all sewn by myself!”… Okay! Cool. I don’t sew. My theme was cosy, comfy and practical. Cakes! The first bab y parties my little one was invited to from about two month old where more elaborate than any wedding I had ever attended in Germany! Seriously! All included a professional photo shoot of the whole do and at least twenty guests! Being a mom can be so tough when there is hordes of moms putting on the thumbscrews on who’s the best baker! I love the fire engine and will do that for my babies second birthday. For my eldest it was a train, then a teddy bear, then a buzz lightyear and finally a knights castle… For his fifth birthday I might just take him out to the city, and watch a movie! 🙂


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