It's one of those rights of passage through which we mark our lives, but birthdays figure large even when we make them small. For children they have an almost reverential significance. And, wobetide the mother who didn't think to bother with a birthday cake this year. Children will never forgive you. You will take their pained expresions to the grave with you - and they will never, ever forget. So beware. This applies mostly to 'older' children (of ANY age). They will always expect a cake.
Over the years i have made many, many Birthday cakes. Some people are gifted in the art of sugar decoration - the rest of us construct something of a Blue Peter model with playdough icing and bits of swiss roll and chocolate fingers stuck together, perhaps in the shape of Thomas the tank engine or a fairy princess castle.
My Jane Asher books of novelty cakes all seem so amazingly simple, but less so when you're there at three in the morning trying to create the same effect, wondering why you've just spent the last seventeen hours in purgatory when to pick one off the counter at Marks and Sparks would have been certainly worth every single penny. But no, you are doing this for your loved one, the apple of your eye, your little cherub - and they had better bloody well appreciate all your effort.
And, strangely enough, they do. They love the lopsided writing of their name, the way the candles slide off the cake and drip every where. They appreciate your effort even when it goes ever so slightly wrong. I remember one year making the most spectacular rocket cake for Chris when he was about eight. It was about three feet tall with different sections and engines firing at the base. It looked perfect. And as i gazed at it with an ever-so-slightly self-congratulatory smile, i suddenly remembered that the party was being held at the village hall at the other end of the village and i had now to transport this three foot cake all the way there as it was fully-assembled. (Most of it made it there, anyway.)
When the Birthday cake is for an adult or older teenager it is mostly about the taste, but when it is for younger ones looks are everything. I think you could get away with icing a cardboard box as long as you stuck candles on it and took it away rapidly and sliced something up into paper napkins in the back room to put into take home bags. And is it ever eaten anyway? or just squashed and nibbled and thrown aside in favour of a small chocolate bar and a plastic novelty toy.
As Sophie and Molly are almost exactly twelve months apart, i thought this year to make a joint party. This took more than a little selling to Sophie who obviously thought she was being ripped off somehow and that Molly would get more, having a whole Birthday too on another day. I almost suggested a shared Birthday cake, but thought better of it: that almost certainly would have been the last straw. So i'm making two cakes for the price of one and averting another world war. (She's still in the corner muttering about who should get the presents and whether she's even going to invite Molly at all.)
While small children tend to have definite ideas about what shape of cake they want - a pirate ship, a teddy bear, a castle - older members of the household often have definite ideas too. There are those, like Hannah, who will have anything as long as it's a chocolate cake of some sort. I like fresh fruit and cream or a plain non-sweet ganache filling. And others, like Will, just want a very plain cake but their very favourite. He likes lemon drizzle cake (and you can't get plainer than that). But if that's what he wants, that's what he wants, and candles will fit on any kind of cake. I often make him two - one to share and one to smuggle away.
You are making a wonderful- looking strawberry mascarpone tart. In truth, almost anything covered in slices of luscious red strawberries would have that necessary wow factor as far as i'm concerned. The base of the tart is crushed sweet oat biscuits and you observe wryly that you 'want it to be more crumbly than the average cheesecake bottom, which can vary from the rock hard to the down-right impenetrable.' We've all been there with the pneumatic drill trying to bore through to the bone china plate beneath. The filling is a rich custard cream made with eggs, sugar and mascarpone with a little vanilla extract mixed in. I am very fond of vanilla bean paste which you can also get. I like the addition of tiny seeds added to a custard.