Happy Birthday, Dear Pickle

birthday 2 candleI am now mother to a two year old. That is all kinds of weird. But also all kinds of brilliant. The funny thing is, I was really terrified of this stage, but while it’s nothing like easy, it is less horrifying, and far more enjoyable, than I expected. The tantrums, while louder and more stubborn than before, are also more avoidable; when they’re old enough to have things explained to them, and can have more forewarning, you can head certain issues off at the pass.

Reading a book and sneaking a cuddle have always been wonderful things, but now they’re even more wonderful because she’s so engaged with what’s going on. She’s memorised her current favourites (The Tiger Who Came to Tea, Slinky Malinki and Wocket in my Pocket this week) and can narrate them aloud even with no book in front of her. It’s almost like I’ve accidentally trained a Victorian child to read poetry to the class! What’s really funny is she keeps in my inflections too, so it’s like listening to a slightly scrambled radio recording of myself being beamed scratchily in from somewhere in the wilds of Eastern Europe:

Shlinky Malinki was blackern black!
A TALKING and YURKING aventchrus cat!
He had bright yeyyow eyes,
A WAR-bing wayul,
An’ kink at end of his YONG black tayul.

I could listen to this all day. Or this:

Once there was a yittle girl called SO-phie, and she was having tea wiv her Mummy  in the KITCH-en. Sudd’ly, there was ring at the DOOR.

Sophie’s Mummy said, “I wonder who can THAT can be?”…

When she recites “It can’t be DADDY because he’s got his KEY”, she tends to interject “a other one Daddy”, in case I think the book is about her Dad. “A other one” always makes me laugh; her bed time snuggle toys are called Weasel and A Other One Weasel.

She was very excited about her birthday, and kept announcing “is gonna be my BIRTHDAY soon, and I will have a birthday cake and blow out candles” – which is indeed exactly what happened. In fact we made a cake together on the day before, which then got chopped up and sent off to nursery, and then I made cupcakes the following day, which she enjoyed and which went down well with all the family. I’ve finally decided that life is too short for making frosting – I enjoy the baking bit so much more – and made Hummingbird Bakery recipe red velvet cupcakes* topped with piped on canned Betty Crocker vanilla icing. I then got out my decorating stash – red glitter, candy polka dots, jelly diamonds and sprinkles – and even used the mini chopper to blitz the thin slices I’d ended up with when levelling a couple of the cakes and sprinkled the crumbs on as a decoration.

The results can be seen here:

birthday cupcakes - red velvet and vanilla icing

And the ritual candle-blowing here. I wasn’t helping, honest:

Pickle Birthday Candles Alexandra R. Goldstein

I hadn’t intended to get Ramona very much for her birthday as she’s only two and has a full complement of grandparents and other relatives ready to spoil her, but I ended up going shopping that morning and splurging without quite meaning to. The official present from Mummy and Daddy was her first Peppa Pig playset (she loves playing with some her cousins have), but she also now has some gorgeous new clothes from the fantastic Tootsa MacGinty – I can only afford them in the sale, but it’s worth the wait! – and a really lovely range at M&S (I want these trousers in my size, too! Including the adjustable waist for after cake…!). She’s also already got stuck into reading Meg on the Moon (or, as she called it, “Meg Goes to the Moon”) and Dr Seuss’s ABC. What can I say? She’s a lucky pickle.

Even luckier, she’s actually having a party in a couple of weeks when more family can join us, so she’ll be getting more birthday cakes than years she’s been alive. Which sounds like a very good deal to me.

Two years of brilliant. And so many more to come. We’re all very lucky.

*My mother has given me two excellent pieces of baking advice (other than the obvious – Know Your Oven**) which have stood me in very good stead. 1) Unless your recipe genuinely depends on using butter, use Stork instead. 2) Unless your cake is supposed to be dense, use self-raising flour for everything, even when it says plain and you’re adding more raising agents. Fluffiest. Cakes. Ever. Trust me.

**No, really. I baked the first cake at 160 for 22 minutes, and the cupcakes for 13 minutes, again at 160. I just know that for most sponge-type cakes that’s the optimal temperature for this oven. Cookies are a very good way to find out if your oven heats unevenly, as you’ll be able to see the overcooked ones, and can open the oven door to check them which you can’t do with a cake.

Thus endeth the very amateur baking lesson. 

Red velvet cupcakes with white chocolate star mold topping

I don’t have as many funky baking gadgets and gizmos are you might expect, mostly for the following three reasons:

  • I’m not rich enough
  • I don’t have enough time to get really good
  • I don’t have enough natural / scary / innate talent to miss out the practice

But from time to time I feel I need to give in and get something a bit pointless that I won’t use very much but that will let me get creative in the baking department. Especially if it’s not too expensive. This lead to me splashing out a whopping £6 on Miniamo star-shaped mini molds, that can be used for baking or setting a liquid in the fridge. It was a spur of the moment decision made in a baking shop; you can undoubtedly find them cheaper online.

My first thought was to make mini star shaped cakes in a contrasting colour-  perhaps vanilla-based cupcakes with red velvet star shaped cakes on top. Then I thought about how to embed a star shape in the top of a cake, and the experimentation began…

I switched from Rachel Allen’s red velvet recipe to Hummingbird Bakery‘s, mainly because the latter had already been adapted (cooking time and temperature) for cupcakes. I’m glad I did; lovely as Rachel’s is, the Hummingbird cupcakes were undeniably fluffier and, as the recipe calls for more colour, a richer and more tempting red.

The experiment was, taste-wise, a success. However it wasn’t perfect, and I’ll explain what I’d do differently next time as I go through…

Unbaked cakes with molds

Once I’d made the mixture, I pushed in the molds delicately in the centre. I had thought that delicacy was wise, since I didn’t want the mold to a) sink to the bottom or b) get so deeply stuck in it ripped the cake apart when I removed it. However, I was a fraction too hesitant, as you’ll see from the next picture… Next time, I would push the mold in a little further and possibly weight it with a couple of baking beans or similar.

Cakes with tipsy molds

The more hesitantly applied molds – and possibly less evenly poured in batter – resulted in some cakes with rather random angles at the top, and also one or two whose indentation was too shallow. Contrary to this dreadful photo, however, some did come out rather well, as you’ll see below!

Unfinished cake awaiting chocolate

This was one of the best ones. Please note that you have to wait until the cakes are at least 90% cool before removing the molds. If you don’t, it will just get really shredded around the edges. I suspected this, so I tested on which became the ‘sample’ cake (don’t pretend you’ve never done that). And it was genuinely in the spirit of experimentation rather than impatience, for once! The good news is, between baking and cooling you’ve got masses of time to melt some white chocolate and half-fill some molds with it. I bought 24 so I could bake 12 and prepare 12 toppings at the same time, but you could wait, wash the molds and start from there.

Oh, and a tip about cooling chocolate; it will get far less gloopy if you cool it at room temperature before finishing off in the fridge.

Chocolate molds

Then, when set, pop them out and, handling as little as possible, press them into the indentation left in the cake!

Red velvet cupcakes with white chocolate stars

Again, I would have liked the chocolate to be a little deeper into the cake – possibly even flush with the top for a quite dramatic look – but given the cocoa base for red velvet cake the two went together very nicely and the stars added an element of creaminess without the sickly edge that a huge hunk of buttercream or cream cheese icing can give (and it says something when white chocolate is less sickly than pretty much anything else. I guess it’s the amount!).

Maybe I’ll find time during maternity leave to do more baking. Then again, a first time mother with a newborn? Maybe not.