When it comes to children’s birthday parties, there is no escaping the pressure of the showpiece cake.
Whether your child is after a celebrity theme or wants you to replicate PM Jacinda Ardern’s recent ladybug “stress bomb”, a truly Instagram-worthy showstopper may be easier to order custom-made. But they do not come cheap.
With the rising cost of living on the minds of many, we asked cake experts how to save without presenting a decorating disaster worthy of a #cakefail Instagram hashtag.
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Get in the kitchen
This may seem obvious, but Rachel Hart, the woman behind the One Handed Baker Instagram and Facebook accounts, says making your own cake is the best place to start if you want to cut your birthday costs.
“I would say shop around for the ingredients, there’s a huge price difference with things like butter,” says the mother of two.
It is also worth checking your garden (or asking your neighbours) for free ingredients, such as lemons, oranges and passionfruit.
“[Using free lemons], you could make a lemon cake, with lemon curd and lemon icing,” she says.
Destitute Gourmet’s Sophie Gray, whose two children are now adults, says homemade will not only be cheaper, but will usually taste better.
“Ask friends and family for [tried and true recipe] recommendations,” she says. “Or buy a box mix if you’re really desperate. It’ll cost more than making it from scratch but still less than buying ready-made.”
No shame in going small
Although huge layer cakes with multiple tiers look impressive, Hart says a huge amount of birthday cake does not get eaten, especially if the cake is wheeled out towards the end of the party when everyone has filled up on party food.
Her solution is to go for a smaller cake, but serve it on a tall cake stand. That way, it will be cheaper but will still look great.
What about icing?
Professional birthday cakes may conjure images of thick lashings of buttercream and fondant, but Hart insists these aren’t necessary expenses when creating a cake with wow factor.
She recommends making a basic icing, using icing sugar and a little butter. If you want to up the “fancy” stakes, Hart suggests a “naked cake”. By design, it calls for only a small amount of the frosting. And it looks impressive.
“It’s got a really thin scraping of buttercream around the edges. There’s way less butter there, so it’s way cheaper to make.”
Save chocolate – and lollies – for the top
For a simple cost-cutting measure, Hart recommends avoiding recipes that require any chocolate.
“Cakes can be just as good without it and I hate spending money on an ingredient if it’s not really necessary,” she says.
“My favourite chocolate cake that I’ve made dozens of times uses cocoa powder rather than chocolate, and I decorate it with a basic chocolate icing mix of cocoa powder, icing sugar, a tiny bit of butter and water.”
When it comes to the top of the cake, however, Hart says to go crazy with chocolate.
Her chocolate overload cake is a favourite with her family. She piles it high with chocolate treats such as crumbled Flakes and Maltesers.
“Kids think it’s amazing. It can look just as good as a professional one in terms of people saying ‘wow’, and there’s no skill there at all.”
You could also overload the top of your cake with lollies for the same “wow” effect.
Themes on the cheap
Themes can be daunting when you are trying to stick to a budget, but Hart says your local $2 shop is your best friend in this situation.
“You can print out photos of Taylor Swift or Harry Styles. Stick them onto skewers and poke the photos on the top of the cake. A few mini glitter balls from the $2 shop, a few lollies and colourful sprinkles, and it looks like this themed Harry Styles cake,” she says.
Gray agrees decorations do not need to be expensive.
“There are some really simple, effective tutorials online for easy to [decorate] kids’ cakes using lollies … [as well as] various other easy to source bits and bobs from unicorns to dinosaurs,” she says.
Cheap plastic toys are also a budget-conscious way of decorating cakes, says Hart. For example, sit mini plastic trucks in amongst chocolate “dirt” made from Flakes and Maltesers for a digger-obsessed child.
“It’s really cheap and the kids think it’s great.”
It’s important to keep theme expectations realistic, Gray says.
“If Miss 6 wants an Elsa cake, and you aren’t sure you can deliver on her vision, let her know. Better yet, let her help. Then it’s a joint effort, and she’ll appreciate how difficult it is.”
Rachel Hart’s Easy Chocolate Cake
• 75g butter, softened
• 1¾ cups white sugar
• 1½ tsp vanilla essence
• 3 eggs
• ½ cup cocoa powder
• 2 cups plain flour
• 2 tsp baking powder
• 1 cup milk
• Preheat the oven to 180C. Grease a 20cm round cake tin and line the base with baking paper.
• In a bowl, cream together the butter and sugar. (I use a hand-held mixer). Add the vanilla essence and continue beating until light and fluffy.
• Add the eggs one at a time, beating well each time.
• In a different bowl, sift together the cocoa powder, flour and baking powder. Add this into the butter mixture, alternately with the milk.
• Pour the mixture into the greased tin and bake for about 50-60 minutes. After 45 minutes, I check the cake and cover with tin foil for the remaining time. This ensures the cake doesn’t dry out, and makes it beautifully soft and delicious.
• Once the cake is cooked (the centre of the cake will spring back when gently touched), remove from the oven and leave in the tin for a few minutes, then turn out onto a wire rack to cool.
• Once cold, decorate with chocolate icing.
• 2 cups icing sugar
• 1 Tbsp cocoa powder
• ¼ tsp butter, approximately
• ½ tsp vanilla essence
• splash of hot water
• In a bowl, sift together the icing sugar and cocoa powder. Add the butter and vanilla essence, and just enough hot water to make a spreadable consistency. (If you accidentally add too much water, then sift in some more icing sugar).
• When the cake is cold, spread the icing over the top, dipping a knife into hot water if needed, to get a smooth finish.