Let them make cake: Racecar pastry fails to impress

by Brian Clarey

There was a birthday in my house this past weekend – my middle child hit the half-decade mark. This meant presents, of course, and a party which would involve pizza, soda and skee ball. And then there’s the cake.

Like other Clarey birthdays, a simple sheet cake will not do.

Actually, that’s not entirely accurate. A simple sheet cake will do when, say, it’s my birthday. But what the hell do I care?

For the kids it’s a different story, and this is due in large part to my wife. In her we have a woman whose immense love for her children and need for a creative outlet manifest themselves in increasingly elaborate birthday cakes. There was a dino cake, complete with a dozen or so figurines from the Cretaceous period and an erupting volcano fashioned from an upside-down ice cream cone covered in colored icing. And there was a Spongebob Squarepants piece constructed from no less than 16 ingredients, including licorice whips for eyelashes, Ho-Hos for his shoes and taffy strips for the piping on his tube socks.

It was a major, major deal.

This year our middle child, who loves Hot Wheels, requested a racecar cake. My wife went into action.

Sure, we could have made a sheet cake with a racing oval and a few cars on the track. We did not. My wife ordered, via the internet, a bas-relief racecar cake mold from Wilton, the primary purveyor for items like that. She then sketched the car on a piece of cardboard and had the little tyke design it himself. Then there was the procurement of a pastry bag and three specific tips, a downloaded icing recipe and a discussion on the difference between icing and frosting.

FYI: Frosting is soft and creamy, you spread it with a spatula over the whole cake and you make it on the stovetop when you’re going from scratch. Icing can be made in a mixer and is intended for decorative flourishes or detailed work. Frosting stays soft; icing gets hard. You can eat frosting with a spoon; you might not want to do that with icing. Frosting is relatively easy to use; icing is a pain in the ass.

We used icing exclusively.

After making the cake itself, allowing it to cool for an hour and then dumping it into the biggest shallow pan in our kitchen, the icing began in earnest. I made it in the mixer with nothing but butter, shortening, confectioner’s sugar and vanilla. We divided it into containers and colored it with thick food colorings. We then painstakingly iced the cake, making little rosettes and thin piping, laboriously cleaning the pastry bag after the application of each color. Decorating the cake took like 90 minutes, though it was worth it when our middle child dragged a chair in from the dining room to watch and began hopping up and down on it.

“It’s gonna look so cool,” he said. He fell off the chair shortly after that.

Black icing for the tires; gray for the wheels. Red icing for the helmet and the car’s number – 5, of course. Yellow for the lightning bolt along the side. And for the body of the car? Brown. That’s what he wanted.

Our hands, our kitchen countertops, our mixing bowls and the pages of my notebook were all, by the end of the production phase, covered in varying hues of food dye.

The cake, which represented perhaps a hundred dollars in expenses and output of time, rode on my lap to the party site and had a prominent place at the table where the aforementioned pizza was consumed. It wore a lit number 5 candle during the singing of “Happy Birthday” which was ceremoniously blown out, and was then cut into squares for consumption by the congregation.

And my middle child, after taking the first bite of the first slice, made a face. He put down his fork and pushed the plate away.

As it turns out, he doesn’t like icing.

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