Spring is here and with it a fresh round of fund-raising fetes and cake stalls. Some parents will dread finding that notice in their children's school bag and pulling on an apron, under pressure to produce something that will sell at the school or sport club stall.
But those in the know say mums and dads should keep it simple, because old-time favourites often sell best.
Suzanne O'Connor has a son at Canberra Boys Grammar School and for the past two years has run the cake stall at their annual fete. She says that while some more complex baking, such as biscotti, sells well, tried and true recipes – think chocolate cupcakes – are usually the most popular.
"The things that sell the best are the really old-fashioned basic stuff: Anzac biscuits, chocolate cakes, tea cakes and fruit cakes. Another one that's a really big seller is coconut ice," she says.
O'Connor says to remember to bake both for people who want a snack at the fete and for those who are buying to take home.
Gluten-free options tend to get snapped up, O'Connor says. "We often have one section that's gluten free and that's usually gone by 11 or 12 o'clock," she says.
One of her regular bakers, Kacy Grainger, echoes the message. "I can only give one tip: Bake gluten free. It may be a little more expensive but you can charge accordingly and people will love you for it. Think rustic macaroons, gluten-free brownies and biscuits galore," she says.
Samantha Walker of Amore Cakes regularly sells her cakes at the Capital Region Farmer's Market and with primary-school-age children has done her share of school baking.
She also suggests that parents make old-fashioned cakes, nothing too complicated, and recommends keeping ingredients at a reasonable cost. Apples, oranges, dates and coconut are good cheap ingredients.
"We don't have to go for 20-year-old scotch whiskey or anything like that. We're trying to keep it as basic and as simple but as beautiful as possible," she says.
Walker encourages parents to avoid icing that is likely to melt on a warm day. Fresh cream is not allowed under food regulations.
"You want toppings that are fairly sturdy and non-perishable. You don't want to put fresh fruit on the top. For example, strawberries might look great to start with but by the end of the day they look terrible," she says.
"You could do some sort of icing if it's firm, but generally just a dusting of icing sugar on a simple cake or a crumble topping always looks really nice, and there's not much that you can go wrong with there."
Walker says parents could consider making nicely wrapped packets of shortbread and chocolate-chip biscuits.
"They last for a long time, you don't need plates to eat them and everybody likes biscuits," she says.
One cake that ticks all the boxes (not expensive to make, good keeping qualities, no ingredients that perish quickly and a durable topping) is her old-fashioned "lumberjack cake", for which Walker shares the recipe (on page 11).
The old adage that we eat with our eyes holds especially true at a cake stall, the women agree. O'Connor says that when she and the other parents set up their stall, they put the cakes at different levels so they can be seen, and they decorate the table with flowers.
They buy cellophane in bulk, and as the parents drop-off cakes, biscuits and slices in the morning, they are wrapped and decorated with ribbons in the school colours.
"We have labels that are heart shaped, all that kind of stuff, so the package looks pretty when you're selling it," she says. "If it's just basic and it's sitting on a plate with Glad Wrap over it, it might not sell as well as if it's in a nice cellophane bag with a ribbon."
Rosemary Thompson, who runs the sweets stall (selling lollies and homemade fudge) at the boys' grammar school fete, agrees. She sets up in a shaded spot and uses a red and white striped tablecloth to attract customers. "We make it feel warm and friendly, and affordable for people too," she says.
Walker suggests organisers consider finding jobs for parents not confident with baking. They could write labels, design the stall, wrap cakes and write ingredients lists, she says.
"As parents, we're all busy, so I think what we're looking for is minimum effort and minimum cost to get the maximum output," she says. "We want to make a good impact and make the stall look lovely, so I guess it's the trick of trying to put as little in as possible but make it look like you've put a lot of effort in."
Bev Carroll is a food technology teacher at Telopea Park High School, where students in years 8, 9 and 10 bake chocolate-chip biscuits, hedgehog, lemon slice, chocolate slice and banana cakes for the annual fete.
Carroll says it would be too difficult to have all of the students bake on the day before the fete, so they do their cooking ahead of time and freeze the baking, which works well. The students make 80 to 100 servings of food, which they package themselves.
She says when baking for a cake stall it's important to be economical.
"When we use a bar [cake] tin, for example, you can get more out of one mixture than a standard way, and then you can cut slices up into smaller packages," she says.
Walker says that when setting prices, estimate how much has been spent on ingredients, then double it.
"You shouldn't under sell these things, there's a lot of effort and ingredients that's gone into them, so ask a reasonable price, don't just give them away," she says.
But if the idea of baking for a crowd still seems unpalatable, "give it a miss, come buy something and spend your money," she says.
Tips for cake stall baking
■ Keep it simple - traditional cakes, biscuits and slices sell best
■ Don't use fresh cream or custard
■ To avoid a Friday night rush, bake ahead of time and freeze your cake for the day
■ Use sturdy toppings, such as icing sugar or crumble, which won't melt
■ Beautifully presented items sell fastest
■ Label all your ingredients
■ If baking is not your thing, volunteer to wrap items, decorate or staff the stall
What to cook?
Tea cakes, lemon syrup cake, banana cake, orange poppy seed cake, fruit cakes, cupcakes, brownies, gingerbread, chocolate-chip biscuits, Anzac biscuits, macaroons, coconut ice, jam slice, lemon slice, scones, and gluten-free anything. Check the goodfood.com.au recipe database for ideas.
This recipe has no copha. Using copha makes a firmer coconut ice, which stands up better at a cake stall (recipe below).
300g (2 cups) pure icing sugar
¼ tsp cream of tartar
395g can sweetened condensed milk
3½ cups desiccated coconut
6 drops pink food colouring
Brush a 30-centimetre x 20-centimetre rectangular slice pan with oil, and line with non-stick baking paper.
Sift the sugar with cream of tartar into a bowl. Add the condensed milk and coconut and stir well. Place half the mixture in a separate bowl. Add food colouring to one bowl and stir well to combine. Press the uncoloured mixture into base of pan, levelling well, then top with the pink mixture, pressing firmly.
Refrigerate for an hour to set. Cut into rectangles, place in cellophane bags, tie with ribbon and label.
Coconut ice with copha
300g (2 cups) pure icing sugar
100g sweetened condensed milk
1 egg white
250g desiccated coconut
6 drops of pink food colouring
Sift the icing sugar into a bowl. Add the condensed milk, egg white, melted copha and coconut and stir well. Continue as for above recipe.
>> Recipe from Canberra Boys' Grammar parents.
Old-fashioned lumberjack cake
Makes 2 x 20 cm cakes
250g soft butter
2 cups caster sugar
3 cups plain flour
3 apples, peeled and roughly chopped
400g dried pitted dates, soaked overnight or for a couple of hours in 2 cups of hot water with 1 tsp baking soda
2 tsp vanilla essence
1½ cups brown sugar
300g shredded coconut
Preheat the oven to 160C. Cream the butter and sugar until smooth and light coloured. Add the eggs and mix again. Add the rest of the cake ingredients and stir to combine. Spoon into lined tins. Bake for about 90 minutes, checking after about 75 minutes. They are ready when firm to the touch and lightly golden.
While the cakes are cooking, make the topping by heating all the ingredients in a large saucepan. When the cakes are just about cooked (after about an hour or so), pour the topping over the cakes and put them back in the oven for another 20 minutes or so or until golden brown.
This cake keeps up to four days. You can also use the recipe in very large muffin tins. Adjust the cook time accordingly.
>> Recipe from Samantha Walker.