You Don’t Know What You Got ‘Till It’s Gone


Joni Mitchell was right.  As this applies to my kitchen-less state, at least.  Being Canadian, turkey was on the menu this past Thanksgiving weekend.  So I left town in order to find a kitchen in which I could cook one.  And I find myself remembering things that I used to cook in an oven.  What comes to mind first is not turkeys.  It’s kids’ birthday cakes.  

I swore at my previous dual fuel [insert brand name here because I don’t want to disparage this company’s good name but it’s two words and one begins with “J” and the other with “A”] range in my head so many times.  Because I don’t really swear. 

But I hated that thing with a passion.  And I don’t use that “h” word much either.  But now it’s gone and I cheered it’s departure with great gusto.  But maybe now I kind of miss it?  I’m not sure…

Every time one of my children’s birthdays rolled around I have been determined to make them whatever cake they chose out of the nice birthday cake books and magazines I was fool enough to keep with my cookbooks. 

It’s important to note, at the outset, that while I am an energetic baker, I am not necessarily the most competent at kids’ birthday cakes.  They actually stress me out quite a bit. 

The kids all think my creations are neat, but I’m just glad we’ve past the stage of the mommies staying for the party…because now anyone who could pass “real” judgment on these birthday cakes is never invited!!

Each year my children pour over the pictures weeks in advance…debating between the teddy bear’s picnic made out of fondant, the race cars on an asphalt track, tropical fish aquarium, or the gumdrop candy mountain.  None of these are simple sheet cakes, but 3-D extravaganzas.  

But all cakes pale in comparison to the fateful year of the “Castle with Fantasy Village” (above) that my daughter wanted.  That was the time I did NOT swear-in-my-head at my range because I was too busy swearing-in-my-head at everything else cake-related in my kitchen…

It all started because I thought I was so smart.  So prepared.  So organized.  

Knowing that creating a cake castle with surrounding village would take some time, I baked the 8×8 inch square base of the castle, the loaf tin cakes from which the cylindrical turrets would be cut, and the giant muffin-shaped village buildings in advance.  I froze them.  A one-and-a-half by two foot foil base would hold it all.  A trip to the candy store secured a variety of confections to decorate roofs and simulate windows.  All was ready. 

The night before the party I set to work with my bowls of fantasy-coloured butter cream.  The “vision” for the castle was a chocolate cake square base with four pointed-roof  turrets on each corner of the square.  Each village building, in the picture in the nice magazine, resembled six inch-sized mushrooms, with enticing candy-coated roofs and miniature doors and windows. Winding between the village buildings and castle was a rock candy pathway. 

Quite charming…any little girl’s dream.  Is it possible the photo had been photo-shopped?

Icing the base of the castle was ok.  Cutting out the five inch cylindania out of the loaf tin shapes and gluing them together with the pale yellow butter cream to create turret-like cylinders worked just fine. 

Then the trouble started.   I thought crumbly cake pieces would be easier to ice if frozen.  I didn’t realize icing doesn’t like to stick to frozen cake.  It prefers to stay on the nice warm knife, thank you very much. 

Drats!!  Now what?  In order to convince the butter cream to leave the knife, I had to scrape it along the delicate constitution of cake which my other saran wrap draped hand cradled gingerly in the air. 

Anyone who’s iced cakes knows that having cake crumbs in your icing is not a desirable outcome.  There were so many dark brown specks in the pale icing that it looked like skin disease, not a confection to delight an eight year old and her friends! 

Walk away, I say to myself.  Unfortunately I didn’t listen.

Part of me believes if I just “try harder” things will work out.  It doesn’t.  I grit my teeth and clench my jaw through the other three “turrets” with similar results.  Who am I kidding?  It looks so bad I can’t even rationalize: “they’re children…they won’t notice”.  Oh yes they will.

To make matters worse, the top of the castle base has a slight slope to it.  It isn’t perfectly flat and the turrets do not want to stay put in their corners. 

So I use a very complicated and never-to-be-replicated system of wooden toothpicks to get the ugly turrets to stay in place.  Phew!  But really, they look absolutely awful and it’s getting late.  I have icing all over the place. 

So I focus on the little village and that goes comparatively well.  Almost charming.  But they kind of make the disease-skinned castle look even worse if that’s possible.  I look at the amount of candy on the non-castle part of my daughter’s stupid birthday cake (oh…was that an outside thought?)  and have an epiphany.

I will “attach” pastel coloured sprinkles (coloured sugar) to the sides of the turrets!  How?  They are vertically in place and I am NOT undoing the toothpick systems. 

Think, think, think.  I unroll more saran wrap and drape it over my hand.  I pour a liberal amount of sprinkles into my palm.  I quickly “shove” my hand against the side of a turret and most of the sprinkles fall onto the cake base…the counter…the floor where I’m standing. 

I’m almost afraid to look, but enough sprinkles have stuck to the vertical turret to cover up the yellow and brown skin disease.  I’m past caring about the mess I’m making and finish crystallizing all the turrets and plop their icing covered paper cones on top to complete the look. 

I’m so happy, but I can’t relax.  The kitchen is a sprinkle and icing disaster.  And the cake!  How, exactly, am I going to get sprinkles off  cake and village parts where they’re not wanted?

As I am vacuuming my kitchen floor with  my very powerful vacuum it comes to me. If I take off the attachment and hold the metal tube ABOVE the cake, it will suck up the sprinkles!  

Oh, I’m brilliant.  So I start sucking and it’s all very satisfying…holding the hose a couple of inches above the cake, only the loose sprinkles are going in until… OMGosh!!!  Like Icarus and the sun, I got too close.  Or rather the vacuum got too close. 

Suddenly a large chunk of the castle base disappears, leaving a gaping brown crater.  For a second I stopped breathing. 

Now what? 

I turn off the vacuum and pace back and forth.  And then it comes to me.  Kids love icing, right?  This part I can conceal and the kids will never know.  More icing is better. 

But I never could have served one of those pieces of half-cake, half-icing to one of the moms.  How on earth would I explain that???

My daughter’s birthday is in January.  Maybe there will be a new oven by then and together we will create another birthday cake masterpiece…or disaster. 




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