Friday, 22 April 2011

The Most Awful Birthday Cake Ever

Really, I should just write a picture book with this title and at least make some cash out of the experience.

So despite having no cake decorating skills, I promised to make a Very Hungry Caterpillar cake for my twin cousins' fourth birthday.

And naturally, a few more spanners were thrown into the works:

  • One twin has multiple food allergies (nuts, dairy*, etc), which I struggle to keep track of. The poor boy missed out on his official birthday cake because the caterers included forbidden walnuts.
  • Both twins are largely unexposed to artificial colourings and other potential stimulants, and I am not going to be responsible for causing such exposure.
  • The cake had to be kosher and vegetarian, so gelatine was out of the question and I wasn't in the mood to experiment with agar agar or carageenan.
  • The mother is a health nut (and I have some sympathy for this) so anything using half a kilo of sugar wasn't going to go down very well.
I knew I could make red colouring pretty easily with the powdered freeze-dried raspberries, procured from The Essential Ingredient some time ago. If I needed it, purple/blue could easily be done with mashed up blueberries. But green was a bit of a problem.

I remembered seeing amazing lurid green things on Food Safari which involved pandan. However, all the pandan colourings I found in Asian grocers seemed to rely on artificial colours like 102 (tartrazine – which certainly sets me off into a hyperactive state of lunacy). Eventually I found fresh pandan leaf at the Therry Street Minh Phat (along with many other fascinating things).

Googling had assured me that pounding the pandan with a pestle and mortar and/or whizzing it in a food processor would mash the cell walls sufficiently to release some vivid green juice. Both methods failed for me, and I found that the pandan leaves demonstrated the sort of structural resilience worthy of Kevlar.

I managed to extract a wee dribble of green.

Aware that I couldn't waste a drop, I mixed this with some cornflour, milk, and a lot of sugar – the first two ingredients to try to make the icing a little less transparent. I then boiled this in a saucepan to thicken up the mixture and try to get it to a more controllable consistency.

Still rather pale… Argh.

The red was easy. I just mixed the powdered raspberries with sugar and water until I had a dark ruby paste. Thank god something worked.

For the cake itself, I made a simple sponge, beating organic butter with raw, organic vanilla-infused sugar until pale and fluffy. I then added three large eggs, more vanilla, and folded in wholemeal organic spelt flour (well mixed with baking powder).

The mixture went into a well-greased and floured balmoral tin and baked at 180 degrees for about 45 minutes.

The next problem was that the cake was nicely browned on the outside, and the lack of marzipan (nuts!) or very opaque fondant-type icing meant that the cake colour would show through. One solution was to cut off some of the crust, revealing the rather eggy-yellow crumb.
So you'd think I would have done that, right?


After waiting for it to cool, I glazed the cake with some homemade apricot jam. I then started to apply the green and red icing. It became apparent that the colours were not remotely intense nor opaque enough to make a significant difference to the cake's overall appearance.

Aware that time was running out, and I had no other options, I painted the cake with green and red icing, moulded some excess green icing into button-like eyes and split a segment of spent vanilla pod into thin strips to act as antennae. A trick a shamelessly stole from Heston Blumenthal, who did this for his BFG's cherry stalk.

The cake was, however, graciously received by the twins, who were delighted to have something that was iced (even ineptly) and that they were permitted to eat.

I promise myself that I will refine my natural food colouring technique (or indeed cultivate one) before the twins’ fifth birthday (with this in mind). Because by the standards of kids’ birthday cakes, this really wasn’t up to scratch.

Any tips out there in ye blogosphere for getting decent, naturally-coloured icing? Other than buying really expensive stuff from overseas…?

*My other flub was to use butter in the cake, completely unaware at the time that dairy was a no-no. However, no effects (ill or otherwise) were apparently noted. I wouldn't recommend this laxity for people with serious food allergies.

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