The Australian Women’s Weekly has released a 20th anniversary collector’s edition of their original children’s birthday cake book, just in time for those of us who grew up in the 1980s to be having cake-aged children. A shrewd marketing move, I must say. Naturally, I had to get myself a copy, for purposes of comparison with earlier editions. Besides, it’s the perfect baby shower gift, and a lovely excuse for a nostalgia-fuelled look through old photos…
For non-Australians reading this, the Women’s Weekly Children’s Birthday Cake Book was an absolute institution to those of us of a certain age. Published in 1980, it collected a bunch of birthday cake recipes from the Women’s Weekly Magazine, along with a lot of new recipes for cakes that looked like castles, lolly stores, baskets of flowers, aliens, sewing machines, pirates, aeroplanes, animals, sports fields, dolls in ball-gowns, and, of course, trains. Just about any toy, story, or other childhood hobby could be found in these pages, and it was probably the most exciting thing at my Oma’s house.
A favourite feature of this cookbook was the number cakes, for which bar or ring tins were cut into segments to create the numbers from one to ten, and decorated with flowers, racing tracks, spacemen, or just lots of smarties.
The book was phenomenally popular. Every household had it. We loved it as children, because you could pore over it as your birthday approached to decide which of many fascinating objects would become your birthday cake. The smart money was on the cake with the most sweets, though my mother was wise to that one from quite early on. My favourite cakes were the ones with marshmallow flowers – Oma, who made the birthday cakes in our family, rather specialised in these, and one year she even did the flower basket cake, which I loved so much that I requested it repeatedly for years afterward. It’s rather fun, looking back at this, to realise that I clearly inherited something from Oma – the flower basket cake she made is several steps more elaborate than the one in the book. Why stop at marshmallow flowers when you can have chocolate leaves and an actual carnation on top?
From an adult perspective, the book had multiple charms: the cakes themselves could be made from a packet mix or from a very basic buttercake mix with variations, and the decorations were, on the whole, not demanding of great skill – smarties became noses or eyes of animals, marshmallows became flowers, blue jelly from a packet became a swimming pool, round biscuits became the wheels of cars or trains or aeroplanes, and dessicated coconut (mixed with food colouring) became grass or animal fur, depending on the occasion. In short, you could make a big impression on young minds with a (relatively) low level of effort (we’ll come back to the ‘relative’ part shortly).
In the late 1990s, or possibly the early 00s, the Women’s Weekly brought out a new, improved version of their Children’s Birthday Cake book. This was the book that got me started decorating cakes, as my friends started turning thirty and were clearly in need of birthday cakes shaped like aliens, dinosaurs, and, of course trains. The chief differences between the new book and the old were more food colouring and less coconut. It’s not that the 1980s book was lacking in artificial colours, but the new book took them to a whole new level – where the birthday cakes of my childhood had been pale pink, beige-brown, or pale green, these cakes were vivid purple, bright red, emerald green, or turquoise in colour. A little scary, to be quite truthful, and it’s actually fairly difficult to make your icing work with that much food colouring in it, but I perservered. Also, there was more of an attempt at realism – the shapes are less boxy (which makes them a little harder to cut and ice, actually) – and there were recipes for gluten-free cakes, a sponge cake, and a chocolate cake, all in the same sizes as the recommended packet mixes.
This would be where the ‘relatively’ part comes in, because I soon learned that while one could decorate the average children’s birthday cake in under half an hour, decorating it really well was another story. I still can’t make icing look as smooth and beautiful as Oma’s, for example. It’s possible, of course, that Oma actually followed the recipe. And I comfort myself that she had a few decades of experience on me. Also, of course, I inherited Oma’s tendency to go above and beyond the original recipe. Sadly, I did not inherit her good taste, so where her cakes had bonus chocolate leaves, mine tended to have bonus icing skulls (on a pirate ship) or giant spiders (on a haunted castle) or entire icing skeletons and horrified and doomed gingerbread men (on a construction site that went horribly wrong – it started off with rubble and machinery, developed excavations and scaffolding, and then all of a sudden the workers found a skeleton at the bottom of the foundations, and then I had so many horrified gingerbread workmen that I had to do something with them, and they all started suffering horrible fates. And no, I don’t have a photo of this particular cake, and I regret that bitterly.)
And then, of course, we come to cross-dressing Ken. I really, really wanted a Barbie-doll cake when I was little, and I wasn’t allowed to have one. I believe my mother felt that certain gender stereotypes and images of female beauty were not ones that she wanted to perpetuate in our house, and good for her. It would, therefore, be unreasonable to blame my perverse need to dress Ken in an ever-increasing range of cakes on my Barbie-deprived childhood, though I am yet to come up with another reason. Other than general insanity, which probably shouldn’t be ruled out at this stage.
The new edition of the old cookbook has returned to the days when food colouring was used in less mind-boggling quantities, and a good thing too, especially since the trend among friends of mine who have children is for healthier cakes (healthy? cake? really??) with fewer artificial ingredients of the kind that will lead to children swinging from the chandeliers for hours after eating them. I can see the appeal of not making the children excessively feral, I must say.
If you have the original cookbook, you’ll find that this new edition is not much different. Mickey and Minnie Mouse and Donald Duck have been replaced, with similar but less trademarked cakes, and I think there are a couple of other exchanges whose reasons are less obvious (not political correctness, certainly – the girls’ section still has the sewing machine, sewing basket, stovetop, and so forth, and the boys still get cowboys and Indians, which surprised me a little). If you don’t have the original cookbook and hanker nostalgically for the birthday cakes of yore, then this is definitely the one you’re looking for.
I have to say, I’ve had way too much fun putting this post together, and it’s made me think about what other people’s favourite birthday cakes were as they were growing up. So, O my readers, I’m throwing the floor open to you. I think it would be a lot of fun to do another cake gallery post showing the memorable cakes from your childhood (or adulthood – but if so, they can’t be too grown-up, because that would be missing the point). If you think this would be fun too, email me before the end of August (17catherines at gmail dot com) with a photo and a brief (or not so brief – far be it from me to impose on others a virtue that I don’t have myself) note about when it was and why you chose it, or loved it, or remember it, or whatever else you find amusing or relevant (or entertainingly irrelevant), and I’ll do a communal cake gallery sometime in September with everyone’s photos and stories.
If you’re looking for the Women’s Weekly Children’s Birthday Cake Book, I can’t find it on The Book Depository at present, but Australian supermarkets stock it pretty much universally, and if you’re overseas, you might be able to get a copy from Amazon. Personally, I prefer the madly over-food-colored edition, but all the books in this series are fun.