Life's better with cake and a sprinkle of fairy dust
Every 80s/90s kid in Singapore worth their salt would remember what birthday cakes used to look like. Long before fondant and all kinds of character cakes hit our sunny shores, birthday cakes quintessentially involved:
1) a light, fluffy buttercream sponge cake
2) a coating of chocolate vermicelli or chocolate “rice” on the sides
3) wafer flowers (A MUST)
Non-essentials like piping gel, glacé cherries, some chocolate writing provided the occasional distraction. Those born much later in the 90s might be lucky (or unlucky) enough to get a small plastic (read: non-edible) toy car or strange-looking, half-naked rubber (yuck) baby doll on their cakes.
Then, enters… the NUMBER cake. The VOGUE of all birthday cakes in the 80s and early 90s. Parents really had it much easier back then. No racking of brains over a cake design. No fussing over which favourite cartoon to feature. No deciding between colour schemes. Take X, the age of birthday person, bake X in cake, ice with buttercream, coat with chocolate rice, pop on wafer flowers…. there.
Sounds easy enough eh? Well, there’s probably a good reason these cakes fell out of vogue with the home baker. First of all, the issue of the PAN. I didn’t have a number 3 pan lying around the house (nor any of the other numbers, except perhaps I could pass off my bundt pan for a zero and a loaf tin for a one?)
No fear, the chart below came to our rescue.
Next, the buttercream. In my memory, the cream was very smooth, very light, not overly sweet, slightly greasy on the palette, yet holds its shape in the tropical weather. Definitely not whipped cream, cream cheese or ganache – these were luxury items back then. There’s no gritty mouthfeel, which rules out American. It stood up pretty well to heat (in those days, very few homes or bakeries were air-conditioned), so French is out. It piped smoothly, no holes created by air bubbles, which rules out German buttercream. I’m guessing the choice that comes closest to that old-school taste and texture is probably Italian or Swiss Meringue Buttercream. I went with Italian.
(After some research, I discovered the secret to that old-fashioned buttercream of my childhood is a hydrogenated vegetable shortening product called Krimwell. I don’t think many home bakers in Singapore still use it now, with the trans fat scare and all. Plus, it’s not that readily available, except maybe in JB. Added to the butter in buttercream, it adds stability to the creaming process and since Krimwell has a much higher melting point than butter, hence the greasy mouthfeel, the result is a frosting that stands up pretty well in warm weather.)
The no. 1 hurdle for me, surprisingly, was the chocolate rice. Made me wonder how bakers in the past did it. I figured early on that it would be quite diffcult to coat the cake, essentially TWO 7″ round cakes, after assembling them on the cake board. My best bet was to place each trimmed and frosted round cake on a 7″ cake board, coat the sides first, then slide both cakes with a cake lifter onto the cake board for the finishing touches.
It worked. Mostly.
Except for the part where I couldn’t figure out how to coat the INSIDES of the cake with chocolate rice. It was so awkward! How did those old-school bakers do it back then? Did they hold the cake at an angle and spoon the chocolate rice into the centre? Or did they use some kind of special equipment I don’t know about yet? This conundrum is going to plague me.
I left it at that and the insides were bare, but husband and I both agreed it was still an elegant-looking cake.
That was until I remembered this recipient of this cake was a 3-year-old boy.
He’s not going to care if his 3rd birthday cake is elegant, or vintage, retro, whatever. The adults in his life may have requested a bit of a retro (re)spin on things, but I sure hoped that this cake would be just as fabulous to the little man too. So with barely 20 minutes to spare (looks up to sky, why must I do this to myself all the time???) before pickup time, I whipped out my fondant tools and…
Lightning McQueen, meet Old-school.