Happy birthday


When I was a young mother with pre-school children, the “at-home” birthday party with the games in the backyard was still the norm. 

This did not mean, however, that there was any less pressure to impress the young party guests and to ensure that the whole affair went well for the birthday girl or boy. Enter the “themed” birthday cake which had to look realistic enough to amaze the most sophisticated attendee. 

Over those early party years, I had attempted everything from giant teddy bear cakes to steam trains pulling carriages full of sweets. One year my four year old requested a “duck cake”. Apparently she was not alone in such a desire because there, pictured in all its glory in the centre of the Tired Mother’s Guide to Brilliant Children’s Cakes was a 20cm high duck-shaped cake, covered in fluffy, bright yellow icing, with candy eyes and a perfectly formed “quacker” of potato chips. 

At the time I did think it looked a little more challenging than last year’s “Number 3” shaped cake covered in smarties but, nevertheless, I was prepared to give it a go for the sake of my child’s happiness.

The evening before the party I baked two huge butter cakes. From the first slab I carefully carved a fat body with an upsweep at one end to represent the duck’s little upward-turning rear end. The head, to be fashioned from the other very deep cake slab, required me to carve a perfect sphere. 

Challenging as this sculpting exercise was, I managed it, but the real test came as I tried to fix the duck’s head to its body by means of (the recommended) wooden satay skewers. The problem was that the cake was too fresh, the round head too heavy and the skewers too weak. 

Before long, the inside of the head had been completely gouged out and the body - where the head was to attach - was looking pretty worn as well. Nevertheless, I pressed on ... past midnight, ... past 1am. By 2 am I was working with half the head I’d originally carved and was trying to attach it to a pool of crumbs lying in what was once the duck’s neck. 

Undaunted, I made up some icing and tried using that as a fixative but this only resulted in globs of very sticky crumbs and an even more pathetic duck head. By 3am I was distraught and, in a fit of tiredness and disappointment, I completely flattened the cake – head and body – into a pulpy mess on the tray. 

By now it was too late to make another cake, and certainly not one that would resemble a duck. But a cake of some sort was necessary and necessity (and desperation) being the mother of invention, I mixed together the cake crumbs and the icing and formed them into a rectangular shape topped with a triangle of cake. I then placed another small finger of cake on one side of the triangle. 

The resulting effect suggested a very elementary, and flat, house. I coated the whole shape with chocolate icing and overlaid this with flaky chocolate bars, leaving spaces for a little “door” of smarties and two lolly windows, one each side of the door. At 4am I thought the little “log cabin” looked quite good but, of course, the test would come when the birthday girl saw it. 

On the party morning she was up bright and early and, with some trepidation, I asked if she would like to see her cake. 

“Yes, yes, Mummy,” she squealed. I took her hand and led her to the kitchen table where the cake rested under a cloth. Slowly, I drew back the cover and waited as she stared quietly at the revelation. She said nothing, forcing me to ask, “Do you like it?”

“Yes, Mummy, I LOVE it.”

I was pleased but puzzled as I asked, “Do you know what it is?”

“Yes, It’s a duck.”

“There are two worlds: the world we can measure with line and rule, and the world that we feel with our hearts and imagination.”

(Leigh Hunt, 1784-1859)