Ah, the things we are willing to do for our offspring! I don’t consider my kid being spoiled. Yeah, she does get showered in gifts by grandparents a few times a year, but my husband and I aren’t big on that at all. Ok, maybe I am in denial about it, but in my heart I don’t believe in loving with gifts (maybe with food, but that’s a whole another story). Our current strategy is — we don’t hold back on books, everything else is on as-needed basis. But birthdays… yes, birthdays are different.
We love our kid’s birthdays. While our own birthdays seem more like state of the union address rather than celebrations now, our baby’s birthdays are awesome chances to be children again, to have fun and yes, not afraid to admit here, to go all out on spoiling. And that means, the Kid gets to choose the party theme, and unless its something unrealistic, like Bipartisan Immigration Reform party, we are happy to oblige.
What this “happy to oblige” means for me personally? More than a few toss and turn nights freaking out about the party theme and going mad about how it’s going to be implemented, and how I know nothing about entertaining and making fancy cakes. For my husband this means going crazy from my freak outs and hoping for the best. I usually charge him with impossible set of tasks that contradict each other in timing. For instance, this year he was in charge of both grilling and entertaining the kids, which he managed with saintly patience and grace, while I was sitting like and idiot, trying to figure out why this huge helium tank only lasted for thirty balloons, and not one more.
Then there is this minor issue of me being and introvert and absolutely despising anything to do with crowds and small talk. I just can’t help it. I can prep the huge party, set it all up, but don’t make me go chatting the guests into oblivion, I am no good for that. I become this awkward sweating thing with a fake smile, who doesn’t know suddenly what to do with her arms. My IQ reduces in half as soon as I have more than three guests, especially strangers. I get overwhelmed and confused. My wonderful husband more than amply compensates for this deficiency. He is a charmer and the soul of the good company, and on more than one occasion he saved the day.
One of the funnest things for me, despite all the anxiety, is to figure out the cake. Once I figure out the strategy and read every source on related techniques, I come to this peaceful and highly focused state, and there is no stopping me from that point. I get completely engrossed in the process, and you better not distract me then! I guess, after all, I do like a good challenge.
This year our party theme was Cheetahs & Tigers. Don’t ask. I do not know where this idea came from. I was really freaked out about the cake, because everything I have seen on the Internet seemed like highly elaborate, extremely labor intense work. My problem was transporting the cake, because we chose to have our party at a park. Can you imagine transporting a tiger shaped cake to a park and then carrying it from the car to a picnic spot in a summer heat? Neither can I. Too many potential obstacles and failure points. No to mention the no small task of actually shaping the cake into a tiger. Something else had to be done. I figured it wouldn’t be a bad idea to make cupcakes instead and decorate them with animal faces. The question was how. With tigers, I found my answer very quickly. This wonderful site, Bronnie Bakes, had a very nice tutorial on making fondant cupcake toppers in a shape of a tiger. Cheetahs were trickier, any mention of cheetah cake implied animal print instead of a face, so I was completely on my own there.
I started from scratch. Had to make a side by side drawing of a tiger, fashioned somewhat after Bronnie’s decor, and my own version of a cheetah, trying to match the styles as closely as I could. Then I did a try run with uh-colored fondant, shaping various face details on both. I did this about two weeks prior to the party, which gave me a great sense of relieve. The hardest part was done. Then I picked a day to put all the faces together, and that was a lot of fun.
Working with fondant is very much like working with play dough, only you get to make up your own colors, which is even better. The key is to keep everything clean and dry, and prevent the fondant from drying out. The rest is just a combination of imagination and good spatial skills. I had a set of small standard cookie cutters – hearts, flowers, butterflies, etc, so I used those in various combinations to shape my animal face details. This part was a subject to experimentation, took a few attempts to figure out the combination and the order of the cutters to make all faces look uniformly and neatly shaped. Then gluing the parts together was done with a small amount of water and a paint brush. Small details were added with the edible markers.
There are a few words of advice to the fondant newbies. Never assume that you need special tools for everything fondant. Wilton and the likes will make you want to purchase expensive tool kits for every fondant operation “for best results”, and before you know it, you are a hundred bucks in without blinking. No, you don’t need a special rolling pin for fondant. No, you don’t need special brushes and molds and shaping tools and punches, unless you are planning to do this for living. I used my regular rolling pin, and to prevent it from sticking and to improve the smoothness of the rolling surface, I wrapped it tightly in clingy plastic, which was just as nice. If you own scissors, a pin, and a crochet hook, you don’t need anything else for shaping, just wipe them thoroughly with a bit of alcohol, and you are set.
Buy a small inexpensive cookie cutter set, and inspect every part of the cutter to see how its various sides and folds can be used to get you the shape you want. A butterfly doesn’t have to be a butterfly, it can easily become a pair of monkey’s ears or nose and cheeks for a tiger, and so can a heart and a flower. Use your imagination to put things together and do not be afraid. You can always re-roll the whole thing and start over, it’s very forgiving, as long as you keep it from drying out. If you feel you need molds to create lots of uniform parts, inspect your kids’ play dough kit before buying “professional” molds. You’ll be surprised with how similar they are, and shocked at how different the pricing strategy is. Don’t forget to wash and wipe the molds dry before using. And most importantly, don’t sweat the small stuff. Kids are not going to care about the decorating mistakes. They are going to love the cupcakes because that’s what kids do — they love cupcakes.
And don’t lose your sleep, you’ll need all the stamina for the party day, to transport your masterpieces to the park in 96 degree heat without melting, shifting and deforming, carrying all of the food and supplies from the parking lot to the picnic area one tray at a time, setting up the whole thing, blowing balloons, entertaining, smiling, jumping, taking hundreds of pictures of screaming and giggling mess at a splash pad, singing songs with hoarse voice because you forgot the boom box at home, making sure everyone is happy, making sure your rolling sweat doesn’t mess up the bean salad, chasing away the flies, small talk, more small talk and answering lots of questions about why your kid chose the cheetahs and tigers as her party theme, party favors time, then many good byes, load all the remaining mess back in two cars, drive home with a nose bleed, give kid a shower, unload the car and marvel at how idiotic one has to be to prepare so much food, manage the impossible amounts of leftovers ever wondering at how little space there is in the fridge, in the kitchen and in the house…
And only a few short moments before you drop dead of exhaustion, you’ll need all your strength to hear your perfectly content half asleep kid murmuring “I can’t believe I picked cheetahs and tigers for the party, I really wanted something else. Good night mommy!“