Kids' birthday cakes never go out of fashion

The "Lego cake" from Burch & Purchese Sweet Studio in Melbourne is made from mousse, jelly and sponge cake.
The "Lego cake" from Burch & Purchese Sweet Studio in Melbourne is made from mousse, jelly and sponge cake. Photo: Supplied

When comedian Josh Earl dedicated an entire show to a culinary classic, The Women's Weekly Children's Birthday Cake Book – you know, the one with the train cake on the front – he was floored by the audience response.

Even at a show in the Queensland mining town of Mount Isa, where the audience appeared to be "three-quarters burly men", Earl's reminiscences about the pirate cake, the clock cake, the typewriter cake and the choo-choo train cake struck a chord. "There were men punching the air and yelling, 'Yeah! I had that one!'," he recalls. "It's the most accessible show I've ever done."

Earl's birthday cake show was so popular that it travelled around the country. He has performed it more than 100 times since 2010. This wouldn't be so bad, except that every time he performed the show he had to make the typewriter cake. "I type a letter to Ita Buttrose on the typewriter cake ... I ask her to re-release the original book because the cakes in [subsequent] Women's Weekly birthday cake books, like the toadstool cake, are too hard."

So Earl is possibly just the right person to ask what it is about children's birthday cakes that gets everyone so excited. After all, it's not just kids who get a rush from the big birthday cake reveal.

"I think it's because of the happy memories we have attached to them," Earl says. "It's back when birthdays meant something, before you grew up and birthdays became just another day."

Dimity Scales from cake making and decorating business Iced Affair in Sydney's Camperdown say the fastest growing part of their business is in selling ingredients and decorating materials to parents who want to make their own cakes.

"I think people are wanting to get more involved, but it's also a budget thing," Scales says. "It might cost $150 to have someone make you a fancy birthday cake, but if you make it yourself using fondant it might cost you $60."

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Besides the enduring Women's Weekly book, other cake books popular with parents include those by British cookery writers Debbie Brown and Lindy Smith. Scales said another source of inspiration is the internet.

"Parents will often look up a character on Google . . . Then they'll come in looking for the right green colouring to make the one-eyed thing from Monsters Inc."

Pamela Clark is editorial and food director at Bauer Media, which now publishes Women's Weekly cookbooks, including a special “vintage edition” and smart phone app of The Children’s Birthday Cake book. But in 1980 she was the head of ACP's test kitchen and the brains behind 60 of the birthday cakes that appeared in the book. Despite having earned the right to never make a child's birthday cake again, Clark still enjoys getting creative for her grandchildren.

She made a "goth dolly cake" recently for one granddaughter because "she was too old for a dolly cake", and a skateboard cake made from solid chocolate for another granddaughter (see photo gallery). "We had to use a hammer to break it up. They loved it."

She only has a couple of pieces of advice for parents. First, children's birthday cakes are pretty hard to get wrong. "If you make a mistake, you just cover it up or stick it back together with more icing." Second: "Stay away from three-dimensional cakes unless you're particularly arty."

Cath Claringbold and husband Darren Purchese make cakes at the more extreme end of the spectrum. Their Burch & Purchese Sweet Studio in Chapel Street, South Yarra specialises in unique desserts that incorporate some unexpected surprises; think exploding marshmallows and flavour combinations such as coconut, passionfruit, ginger and mint. One of their most popular children's cakes, the Lego cake, is layers of mousse and jelly on a sponge base; it is transformed into those instantly recognisable blocks care of a coloured chocolate spray.

Claringbold says many parents come to them because they want "a kid's birthday cake that actually tastes nice". There's nothing Claringbold detests more than professionally-made celebration cakes that rely on sheets of moulded icing at the expense of taste. Her tip for parents is to "have a go", and "find a nice, basic recipe". "We get a lot of people coming in saying, 'I tried to make such and such and it didn't work. I need a cake now!' "

Claringbold believes there's nothing better for a child's birthday than a cake made by family, and there's nothing wrong with letting loose with Smarties and Freckles. She says simple, old-fashioned cakes are often best. "My favourite cake as a child was chocolate ripple cake, and now I'm thinking about my mum's Swiss roll and I'm getting nostalgic."

My parents might have been the only ones at my primary school in the 1980s who eschewed the Women's Weekly book and went their own way when it came to birthday cakes. For them, a few musk sticks plunged into the side of a simple round chocolate cake sufficed for whiskers: "Voila! A cat!" I might preface this by pointing out that my parents a) had four kids, b) worked full time, and c) didn't like cooking. I don't remember feeling bad, which only goes to prove Clark's point – you can't really go wrong.

With this in mind, send us photos of your most memorable children's birthday cake creations: the good, the bad and the downright ugly, and we'll add them to the photo gallery. Check out the contributions we've already received.