Thursday, 17 September 2015

Culinary Traditions and the Curse of the Stegosaurus Cake

You may have noticed, cookery friends, that for the last week I haven't been around plumbing the depths of Colonial era cooking for your amusement. Don't worry - it's not because I've reached my limit on the number of pudding recipes I can tolerate reading, or developed a sudden and profound hatred of White Sauce.

It is, instead, because my every waking moment has been dedicated to the creation of this beast:


Behold, the Stegosaurus cake!

I love my wife a lot despite, or perhaps because of, her occasional childishness. You can probably tell how much I love her, in fact, when I reveal that it was for her that I laboured over this Frankenstein's dino.

In Australia, every child for the last few generations has held a reasonable expectation that on their birthday they would be presented with a cake in the shape of something their mum thought they liked. And, at some point in the week before they coughed up said cake, the mums turned to The Australian Women's Weekly birthday cake book. You can read a charming and detailed post about this key work in Australian food culture (complete with retro family photos) at Cate's Cates.

But aside from the fact that childhood Women's Weekly cakes are probably in large part responsible for my wife's request, those books feature only briefly in today's tale of triumph over adversity. That is because I own both the slim 1980s original, and the encyclopaedic 2000 reissue, and neither of the damn things have a Stegosaurus cake in them.

I was bewildered, betrayed, and generally cheesed off. Why had I devoted limited shelf-space to a cake book that couldn't even produce a Stegosaurus in my hour of need? What made it worse is that I know that there's an AWW one out there somewhere, because here it is:

According to the original caption, it can be found in the Bumper Book of Kids Cakes. That's nice.
Image from Women's Weekly online [http://www.aww.com.au/how-to/expert-qa/the-death-of-spearmint-leaves-21183]

Undeterred, I decided to strike out on my own, modelling it on this drawing my wife had found on the internet. With grim determination, I set out to bring it to cakey life:

My wife's dream Stegosaurus.
Image from Kids Dig Dinos [http://kidsdigdinos.com/Dinosaurs/stegosaurus.htm] 

In a whirlwind before carting my toddler to her twice-weekly stint at crèche, I grudgingly used the Quick Chocolate Cake recipe from the back of the AWW cake book to fill both of my cake tins in the vague hope that between them there would be the makings of a dino. [My hint for getting cake in two very differently shaped moulds to be roughly the same height (for evenness of Stegosaurus), is to use a skewer to measure the depth of the batter in each mould until it's roughly the same depth.]

My feeling of smug accomplishment was soon wiped out by the fact that my one month old dishwasher promptly kicked the bucket and refused to work. Perhaps it had seen the cake explosion in the kitchen and had simply given up on life. In any case, after some swearing I lugged my toddler to the car with a final vengeful look at the dishwasher.

As I explained to the lady who took my crèche payment, this Stegosaurus cake was cursed.

I arrived home in a somewhat calmer mood. Two hours of uninterrupted writing and a large latte will have that effect on a person.

My mood soon soured when faced with the reality of the situation. I had a circle and square of cake; three hours before my wife came home from work; and a toddler whose hunger for the aforementioned cake was only rivalled by her hunger for my undivided attention.

Even as a woman of 29, I am not ashamed to say I called my mother.

Wild Colonial Grandma arrived. She, who had made many a novelty cake for me as a child. She who, despite starting life in a dirt-floored shack on a share farm, had studied sculpture at University. She, who looked at the picture, and my two geometric slabs of cake, and rolled up her sleeves with relish.

What followed was one of the most pleasurable times I have ever spent cooking with my mother. My panic dissipated with each of her assured instructions: freeze the cake, it will cut easier; make the icing thinner than you expect it should be; sit the knife in a cup of hot water when you're not using it.

Though she and I had cooked together when I was a little girl, those times had often ended in frustration for both of us. Her direct tone and my extreme sensitivity were not a good combination, often resulting in furious tears on my part and utter confusion on hers. But this week, something slid into place and we worked side-by-side with perfect focus and companionship.

While the AWW cake books had let me down, my mother had not. Together, we defeated the curse of the Stegosaurus Cake, to the praise of our family and friends (and one lady walking her dog past our picnic table at my wife's party). It was a true victory, and even if the cake had turned out ugly and unrecognisable, it still would have been because of those three hours where my mother initated me into the venerable Australian tradition of shaped cakes.  

Stay tuned, cookery friends. A new vista of shaped cakes has opened up for Wild Colonial Grandma, who has now requested a Whippet cake for her birthday.

Hopefully, she will be happier with the results than this actual Whippet.
Image from Corbis [http://www.corbisimages.com/stock-photo/rights-managed/42-17039412/whippet-with-birthday-cake]