My niece turned four last week, which means that she is of a suitable age for Women’s Weekly-style birthday cakes. Alas, however, my niece is also at a stage in her life when she is kind of opposed to eating in general, and so it’s a bit tricky to get buy-in from the chief stakeholder. But after extensive collaborative negotiations headed by my brother, we established that my niece wanted a) a chocolate cake with candles b) shaped like a castle and c) but no icing, because icing is scary.
My sister-in-law provided a further note that icing may be scary on cakes, but that my niece had, lo that very week, iced and decorated biscuits at childcare and had been very happy to eat those.
In other words, my niece is four years old and not, perhaps, always entirely consistent about what she will and will not eat.
(But will not is always more likely than will. Because that’s how things are when you are four.)
Fortunately, I have a bundt tin shaped like a castle, so making a castle cake without icing wasn’t too much of a problem. But I am also me, and I couldn’t possibly leave the cake undecorated, especially when the odds were good that my niece was going to be much more interested in looking at it than in eating it in any case. So I decided that the castle would be plain, but that it would sit in the centre of a park, with coconut grass and gingerbread trees, and maybe some gingerbread people to man the battlements…
The cake itself was made from the standard Women’s Weekly Chocolate Cake recipe, which I doubled to fit the bundt tin, and baked for an hour at 165°C fan forced. It worked really well – I got a really even texture, and it all came out of the tin in one piece (minus one tower, which I easily re-attached). An unanticipated bonus was the fact that by spraying the tin with canola oil and then sprinkling it with flour, I got a lovely effect where all the detailing on the tin really stood out beautifully.
Then… it got away from me a bit.
I mean, first, if you are going to have all this green grass and green trees and a plain cake, you need some flowers to add some colour. I wanted to do the classic Women’s Weekly marshmallow and smartie flowers, but they are really too big for this context. So I got some ruby chocolate and some white chocolate which I dyed yellow, and piped little flowers with miniature smartie centres, to scatter over the grass. Much better.
Only… you can’t have a castle without a moat, now, can you? But moats are easy. All you need is some blue jelly, and you’re sorted. Done.
But then… I was a bit worried that the moat might overflow its bank. So I got some chocolate sultanas and cranberries to be rocks by the side of the moat. Excellent.
Of course, if you have a moat around the castle, you then need a way to get in and out of the castle. So I got some dark chocolate this time, painted it in a wide stripe on some baking paper, covered it with hundreds and thousands, and then draped it over a rolling pin to set. One bridge, done.
I admit, the fondant moat monster was a bit gratuitous, but sometimes gratuitous is what you need. Besides, I needed somewhere to put that sparkly ‘4’ candle, and a lake monster’s tail seemed like just the thing.
The gingerbread came from this recipe, which I can indeed confirm does not spread, which is good, because my cake could only fit teeny tiny 5cm tall gingerbread people on its battlements. (It’s a great recipe, but I’d probably reduce the sugar next time – it was a little sweet for my palate.)
I was going to keep these really simple, and just use writing icing to pipe little faces onto them (royal icing would probably work better, but I had enough to do), but it wouldn’t stick to the biscuits.
So I made a big batch of lemon icing, divided it up and coloured it, and gave my gingerbread people little outfits and faces (only one skin colour, sadly, because I ran out of bowls and brown is hard to get right with food colouring), and then piped faces and embroidery on top of that.
The gingerbread trees were simpler – I had a set of flower cutters in different sizes, and I sandwiched pairs of each size together with apricot jam, spread them with green icing, and stacked them on top of each other to make conifers.
Oh, and at this point I figured I might as well make a nice sandy/gravelly path out of crushed violet crumble (it’s fun to whack violet crumble with a rolling pin while muttering ‘it’s the way it shatters that matters!’ in one’s most sinister voice). That, too, got edged with chocolate sultanas and cranberries.
There was some icing, but not on the cake. I basically spread the board (and I needed a BIG board) with a thin layer of cocoa buttercream, except where the moat would be, and used it to stick everything down. I kept the rest to serve with the cake if anyone wanted it.
The cake was very well-received, and actually worked quite nicely as a customisable / modular dessert – as each of the children came up, I asked if they’d like some cake, some icing, some jelly, some chocolate sultanas, some gingerbread, some violet crumble, some coconut…. Everyone chose the bits they felt like eating, and could avoid the bits they didn’t like. Which wasn’t something I’d really considered, but I think is something I might bear in mind for future birthday cakes.
And after all that? My niece, who was very definite about wanting chocolate cake and no icing… did not eat any cake, but went straight for the little gingerbread people who were almost more icing than biscuit.
Because that’s just how things are when you are four.
Happy birthday to my favourite niece, whose picky eating does, at least, justify my not-so-secret desire to decorate any cake I make to within an inch of its life. After all, if I put twelve different kinds of things onto a cake, she is almost certain to eat one of them!
(She ate the chocolate sultanas, too. And possibly also a chocolate flower. Which is the best hit rate I’ve had on anything I’ve made for her in the last year and a half.)