which cake they're going to inflict on their poor parents
October 24, 2018 7:49 PM   Subscribe

How the Women's Weekly Children's Birthday Cake Book changed the shape of Australian birthdays as told by the author Pamela Clark. The Australian Women's Weekly's Children's Birthday Cake Book was first published in 1980. There have been a number of editions, and in 2011 a reprint of the original edition. posted by readinghippo (29 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I was sure I had learned about the train cake from MetaFilter, but this seems to be the first mention of it anywhere on the site. Ugh, this is really nagging at me! Where could I have read about it other than here? Do any other non-Australians remember reading about it recently?
posted by J.K. Seazer at 8:15 PM on October 24, 2018

The choo choo cake came up in the recent birthday cake thread, if that helps.
posted by halation at 8:41 PM on October 24, 2018

Lollusc and I mentioned it in the birthday cake thread.
posted by zamboni at 8:43 PM on October 24, 2018

The WW cookbooks were a huge part of my life, literally. Dad sold them door to door after he was laid off and we had so many boxes in the basement (never for long though).

Were these books popular outside of Australia? I never did know how Dad got his hands on them, just that they sustained us for many years.

One cake we always thought was funny was the punk cake but I could not tell you why. The cakes always seemed like impossible fantasies to construct! The difference in cookery terms also necessitated translation that often befuddled folks. Hundreds and thousands? Sprinkles, of course.
posted by Calzephyr at 8:44 PM on October 24, 2018 [4 favorites]

The hours I spent as a child, flipping dreamily through this book, imagining wondrous birthday parties to come.
posted by paleyellowwithorange at 8:45 PM on October 24, 2018 [6 favorites]

I would have loved this book growing up.
posted by greermahoney at 8:55 PM on October 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

I made 2 trains, 2 caterpillars, 1 Barney, 1 alligator, and at least a couple more that I can't quite exactly remember—always from scratch, which sounds like bragging, but if you've ever made a basic cake from scratch you know it's dead simple.

On their next birthdays, my kids will turn 27 and 30. I'm ready to do another set of novelty cakes but I didn't see anything in the linked material that really works. I'm looking for something that simultaneously celebrates their relative youth, i.e., so many possibilities ahead, etc, etc, while also conveying the notion that maybe it's time to start thinking past the end of next week.

I know it's a lot to ask of a cake, but I have several month to flesh out the idea.
posted by she's not there at 8:58 PM on October 24, 2018 [7 favorites]

I love this video so much, I think I made my poor mother make the piano cake once.

“Tip-truck cake. Bitch of a cake. Don’t make it.” Pamela you are a wise, wise woman.
posted by arha at 9:01 PM on October 24, 2018 [5 favorites]

We had these! I had the swimming pool, a teddy cake and a doll. I know we had the caterpillar and house and the treasure chest and maybe the bunny too. Definitely several numbers.

So many many hours going through these books looking at cakes and daydreaming.

They are I can report as an adult, reasonably simple designs to assemble with basic food colors and sweets. I made similar ones from memory for my kids although I didn't have the books and thankfully four of them were pre-pinterest.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 9:07 PM on October 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

My own mother would never have made these cakes, but my best friend's gran did, and we spent untold hours poring over this book each year planning out her next one. For whatever reason, we firmly believed the Sweets Shop was the best cake in the book. And I also definitely attended a lot of parties with the racetrack, swimming pool and dolly varden cakes.

Looking back now, I love how achievable these cakes were for the average mum and dad, versus the fondant-frosted masterpieces on TV today. Us kids didn't see any imperfections, they were totally magical.
posted by retrograde at 10:02 PM on October 24, 2018 [2 favorites]

Looking back now, I love how achievable these cakes were for the average mum and dad

Yes, this. They were basically just rectangles and wedges held together with icing, with lollies for decorations.
posted by paleyellowwithorange at 10:19 PM on October 24, 2018 [2 favorites]

I’m a little disappointed my personal favourite- the pirate ship - didn’t make the listicle, but I guess that’s what top 10s are for. I’ve also made, or helped make many of these (and variations thereof) for my young’uns. That train cake though, that has the nickname of “divorce cake” in our house - getting the right angles to sit straight ain’t easy, and when our very detail focussed 3yr old took issue with it not being perfectly identical to the photo, ooo-eee!
posted by threecheesetrees at 10:34 PM on October 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

I was lucky enough to have some of these as birthday cakes for my early birthdays. I had miss piggy, the Lion, the tiger and puss in boots. By the time my brother came on the scene my mother had had enough and out sourced the train to the local bakery and then that was it. I don't remember any further birthday cakes although we may have had some of the number ones.

I did give the reprint as a baby shower present to someone who I thought I'd had a conversation with about the book. Turns out it wasn't her but she is a keen baker so hopefully she'll enjoy the book.
posted by poxandplague at 11:50 PM on October 24, 2018

This made it to the UK, late 80s/early 90s me and my two younger sisters enjoyed many of these cakes!
posted by ellieBOA at 12:06 AM on October 25, 2018

We didn't have this specific book when I was a kid (in the UK), but my childhood memories are full of similar confections that my mum made for me and my sisters on our birthdays - I had a tank one year, and there were hedgehogs and cat cakes too that were super simple to make (the hedgehog is basically a cake baked in a pyrex bowl, and the cat was clever cutting up of a round cake).

When I got to my twenties I went through a period of making novelty cakes for most of my friends for their birthdays - sadly it's the era before smartphones and digital cameras, so the photos in the links on an early blog post I wrote about it aren't the best. (I reprised one of my favourites, the bacon and egg butty, more recently, so there's better photographic evidence of that :-)
posted by amcewen at 12:49 AM on October 25, 2018

I hadn't realised (until this post) that this book was a Thing in Australian culture. It was just a book Mum had among her many recipe books and scrapbooks. Sure, it was one I spent more than my fair share of time returning to; but I hadn't realised it was a touchstone of 1980s Australian motherhood/childhood.

Fascinating to make that connection all these years later - to discover something else I might have in common with my fellow Gen Xers and their Baby Boomer mums.
posted by paleyellowwithorange at 1:30 AM on October 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

80s South African child reporting in for 'cake from this book related' memories. We have grainy photos of my first birthday with the 1 cake and birthday number five was the teddy bear. I am pretty sure the train came out for one of my younger siblings and I remember having to page turn past the jack inna box because it creeped me out.

(we had and still a lot of the AWW cook books in my family - you could probably poach my mom's copy of this one and make a lovely broth with all the stuff that's dripped on it over the years but she's still using it, so probably best not to get it waterlogged.)
posted by halcyonday at 1:40 AM on October 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

I'm a few years too old to have benefited from this cake as a kid (12 in 1980), but got to know it in the 1990s through my wife and her much younger siblings, when they (and I!) got a tiger, a lion, a turtle, the swimming pool, the piano... Now our kids have grown up with it, so at least one kitchen in Edinburgh has seen the mouse, the racing track, the train, the number one, and others - and there may be more being baked around here, because the AWW cookbooks are reasonably easy to buy in the UK.

So much more satisfying than a shop-bought fondant-covered movie-marketing cake.
posted by rory at 2:11 AM on October 25, 2018

In fact, in that book there are 106. We wouldn't do that number of cakes in any kid's cake book now.

Does anyone have any idea why this is the case? I don't remember this cake book being particularly thick - 106 recipes doesn't seem over-the-top.
posted by paleyellowwithorange at 3:20 AM on October 25, 2018

I wish I made more cakes, because I really want to make the swimming pool cake. Although I might have to go with plain gelatin, colored blue and flavored with ... truthfully I don't know. But not whatever flavor blue is.
posted by uncleozzy at 5:02 AM on October 25, 2018

There's a comedian in Victoria who's worked his whole routine around the Children's Birthday Cake Book, and sings about the train on the cover. Oh, and it's very funny.
Anybody have a clip of that, or know who it might be?
posted by clawsoon at 5:29 AM on October 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

I might have to go with plain gelatin, colored blue and flavored with ... truthfully I don't know

In the early 1990s, when we made that cake for my brother-in-law, you could buy a flavour of Australia's ubiquitous Aeroplane Jelly (jello, in US terms) called Quandong. It was blue. They now do "Berry Blue" and "Blue Heaven" instead, for a choice of pool colours.
posted by rory at 5:47 AM on October 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

Anybody have a clip of that, or know who it might be?

It was Josh Earl. Here he is.
posted by rory at 5:56 AM on October 25, 2018 [3 favorites]

They now do "Berry Blue" and "Blue Heaven"

For non-Oz readers, Blue Heaven is an established flavour in its own right.
posted by zamboni at 8:09 AM on October 25, 2018

US 1970s kid who had train cakes all the time here! They were chocolate with spice drops along the top and animal cracker cars with red shoestring licorice bars as the cage. I looked forward to my train cake every year.
posted by Stewriffic at 8:40 AM on October 25, 2018

It was Josh Earl. Here he is.

Classic Dad:

"Course I can make a cake. Piece of cake. Where d'you think that saying comes from? Nah, don't need the recipe book, put it away, don't need that. It's a train cake is it? Well, I know what a train looks like. Yeah, 'cake', 'train', train cake. Done. Now get to bed, it's a school night."
posted by paleyellowwithorange at 1:24 PM on October 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

I share a birthday with a sibling. We had to have joint birthday parties but got our own cakes as a consolation. So our poor mother made two for the same day each year. I don't think we had the book though, just pages pulled from magazines. So that probably allowed her to veto the more difficult ones.
posted by kitten magic at 3:46 AM on October 26, 2018

Does anyone have any idea why this is the case? I don't remember this cake book being particularly thick - 106 recipes doesn't seem over-the-top.

I finally remembered to check this at home to confirm the reason. The newer AWW cookbooks (including the newer book of kids' birthday cakes from the early 2000s) have full-page photos of the recipes, with lots of whitespace around the single recipe on the facing page, so that each double-page spread contains only one recipe. Also, the new books are 120 pages or under. The older cookbooks are 128 pages, and you'd often have a few recipes across two pages, so not everything got a photo. This Children's Birthday Cakes book has a photo of every single cake, but many are 2/3 page photos with the recipe alongside or below them so that the whole recipe with photo fits on a page - only a minority get a double-page spread. So it fits in more recipes than the newer one does - the newer one has only 57 recipes.
posted by rory at 11:38 AM on October 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

I had the mouse and the Dolly, my sister had the train. My mum vetoed the swimming pool and we wailed in anguish, some kid at school had had it and said it was brilliant.
posted by harriet vane at 5:55 AM on October 28, 2018

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