Birthday Cake Ideas

So it’s party time … and your little darling wants a masterpiece for a cake.  However, you don’t have a small fortune to hire someone else to bake the cake.  Where can you get ideas?  Ideas that are practical and simple!

I’ve found the website to be a valuable source of inspiration.  Ordinary moms have posted pictures of their extraordinary cakes (along with instructions on how to make them), and I’ve often been able to adapt an idea to make the birthday cake of my child’s dreams, without it turning into Mom’s nightmare.  Here I’d like to share some of my creations with you, in the hope that they will inspire you to even greater heights.  I don’t have a great deal of artistic talent, so if I could do this, I’m sure you can too!  I must add, though, that we have baking shop nearby which sells all the cake decorations you will need, and I support them royally when it’s party time!  You will save a fortune if you are able to make these decorations yourself, but I’ve never been able to manage too much of that.  I have, however, sometimes bought plastic icing and moulded a few bits and pieces out of it.  If young children can make creatures out of play-dough, then I’m sure you can work with plastic icing.  It’s the same type of activity.  At least, that’s what I tell myself.  I suggest you locate your nearest bake shop and pop in there before your next birthday party.  You’ll be amazed at what you can find.

A bit of good advice …

I used to wait until the day before the party and then bake and ice the cake on the same day, but that would make the day very rushed.  I believe in doing as much as I can in advance, so I bake the sponge cake about a week or two before the party.  I then freeze it.  Now, when it comes time to ice the cake the night before the party, I simply take out the frozen cake and ice it.  It actually works better trying to ice a frozen cake, because you don’t end up rolling crumbs into your icing.  If the cake has to be cut to a specific shape, I also freeze the cake beforehand.  So then it’s bake the cake, freeze the cake, cut the cake, freeze the cake again and then finally ice the cake.  I find it easier to cut the frozen cake.  Also, baking the cake in advance has the advantage that if the cake should flop for any reason, you still have time to bake it again!  It takes some of the pressure off on the day.

Now to the cakes!

This one I did for my daughter’s 4th birthday.  She wanted a princess castle, and it seemed easy enough to make.  Inspired by a friend’s cake, I constructed this for my daughter.  It was the easiest cake I’ve ever done!  I put two square cakes on top of each other, then cut a third sponge to get the four squares of cake for the turrets.  Upturned ice cream cones, some Smarties, a few bought flowers around the edge, flags made from wrapping paper and toothpicks, tons of butter icing in various colours … Voila!  My cake was done, and the princess and her friends were impressed.  Change the colours and you could have an impenetrable army fortress for your junior soldier.  Add a few army men (available cheaply from any toy store) to complete the effect.

Winnie the Pooh was for my son’s second birthday.  I discovered the technique for making pictures on the cake …  Take a piece of wax paper and trace your picture onto the wax paper.  (I suggest a simple picture – too much detail and you’ll find it too difficult to transfer the design to your cake.)  I suggest freezing the cake after you put the base coat of icing on it.  Then place the wax paper with your design on the cake.  (This is why it works better frozen – otherwise your icing will stick to the wax paper when you take it off.)  Now you simply take a pin and prick the wax paper along the lines of your design.  Once you remove the wax paper, you will have the dotted line of your prickings marking your cake.  I’m sure this technique works better on your hard, flat types of icing, but I’ve used it successfully on butter-icing too.  The grass on this cake is done by taking granules of sugar and dripping green food colouring  onto the granules.  If you only use a drop or two of colouring, you will colour your sugar without dissolving it.  Then sprinkle on your cake where you need the “grass”.  As this one was for a boy, I didn’t use any flowers.  The birthday boy also doesn’t eat cake but does eat Smarties, so I decided to use Smarties for the border so that he would be able to eat some part of the birthday cake.  The other Winnie the Pooh cake was done for a friend of my daughter.  In both cases, after I’d pricked the design onto my icing, I coloured in the design using butter icing and then piped the outlines onto the cake. The Eeyore cake was done along the same principles.

Getting more adventurous …

After these cakes, I felt I could handle the challenge of more complicated 3D designs.  In each of these cases, I cut the frozen cake into the required shapes and iced according to what I needed.


What little girl isn’t crazy about ponies?  When my little girl reached that stage, she wanted a pony cake and I had to improvise.  With a few tiny plastic ponies which formed part of her birthday present, we decided on this cake.  Tin foil for windows, chocolate disks as roof tiles, and a pretty garden.  She and her friends thought it was beautiful.


A quicker version of a pony cake is this one.  Still the same 3 ponies, but I baked 2 round cakes and cut one of them in half.  The two halves got put on top of each other, and I iced it to look like a waterfall (don’t mix the colouring in properly and make it slightly runny to get the effect of water flowing).  Green icing and blue icing is all that is needed.


I found the pattern for this dinosaur cake in a number of places on the internet, and was able to make it out of two round cakes which I then arranged on a rectangular cake.  I decorated it with butter icing and used chocolate disks cut into 6 slices for the scales on the dinosaur’s back.  Smarties were used for spots, and I put a couple of plastic dinosaurs on the cake for extra decoration.


Lightning McQueen and Sally were cut out of frozen cake.  I iced them and used a few bits of printed paper to make the decals on the cars.  Smarties were the eyes.





All parts of this mermaid cake were edible.  I moulded the mermaids out of plastic icing and used Flakes as the tree trunks.  The “island” was baked in a round Pyrex dish and I sprinkled caramel sugar on the icing to make it look like sand.





Nicole’s friend wanted a Barbie cake, and I wanted to do something different.  So I used two mini Barbie dolls and covered a tower of cake with rolled out plastic icing.  I made stools out of cake for the Barbies to sit on, and covered that with plastic icing too.  The cake for the tea party was made out of a bit of leftover cake, and I moulded the tea-set out of plastic icing.


I hope you’ve been inspired to do something extraordinary next time one of your children has a birthday!




Travelling with Kids

A very wise person once gave valuable advice regarding travelling with kids:  DON’T!

However, since I never had any intention of sitting around at home until my kids turned 21 or moved into their own homes, I’ve had to make the best of a bad situation and learn how to make a car trip a pleasant, memorable experience for all concerned.

I don’t remember much about travelling with Nicole (my now 8-year old daughter) before she was 3.  I know we did it and I know we survived unscathed (apart from an episode where she threw up in the car just outside Riversdale because of the heat – we didn’t have air conditioning in those days.)  But when Philip was 16 months old, and Nicole just over 3, we decided it was time to take Philip to Durban to introduce him to the family there.  We live in the northern suburbs of Cape Town, and at the time we were unable to travel the 25km to visit grandparents in Stellenbosch without Philip screaming the whole way, so naturally I was very, very apprehensive about the upcoming trip.  We planned to leave early in the morning and travel to Colesburg, just under 800km from home.  800km of Philip screaming would make this trip excruciatingly long.   However, I doubt he yelled for more than 10 minutes during the entire trip of 3800km!  Since that trip to Durban we have done a tour of the country – Kimberley, Johannesburg, Kruger Park, Maluti mountains, Beaufort West, home.  We have also done another 2 trips to Durban and numerous visits to the Garden Route and family in Somerset East and Prince Albert.  And always by car.  Flying is just too expensive when you have a family of 4, and still need to hire a car when you get to the other end.  And in spite of all those kilometers, I’m still sane.  Well, as sane as I ever was.

Wisdom of Experience
So what wisdoms have I managed to come up with over the years?  Here’s what works for me.

Firstly, your holiday usually costs a small fortune (even if all you’re paying for is petrol!), and you don’t want it ruined just because your kids are unhappy travellers.  So prepare to spend a few rand on making the journey more bearable.  As soon as you start planning your trip, start visiting all those cheap-and-nasty toy-selling places you never set foot in because the toys only last a few hours … In the car, a few hours are all you need, and variety is the spice of life.  We’re looking for quantity rather than quality.  Small children get bored easily.   Build up a supply of new treats for the journey.  Things that work for me are those “water arcade games” where you press a button and the water pressure forces balls through a hoop or rings onto a stick.  My kids had some of these in the shape of a cellphone, so that served a double purpose.  They could pretend to be phoning Granny or Grandpa or Mommy and have looooong conversations to pass the time.  Another gem is a drawing board.  You know the ones I mean?  The small magnetic ones which wipe clean.  The kids loved drawing on them, or handing them to Mommy so that she could “Draw Pooh-bear please!”  Then they would delight in wiping out my masterpiece and handing it back to me so that I could do it again.  As they got older, they would start drawing their own pictures.  I also had a couple of hand-puppets, which I would hold over my shoulder or in the gap between the front seats and entertain them with a puppet show.  Something else which worked wonders was a “slinky”.  I really never expected it to be such a hit, but it was!  Many, many happy kilometers were spent pulling the spring apart, and watching it spring back together.  You know what they say about small things and small minds …  A cheap calculator will also perform miracles.  Small children all seem to like pressing buttons and seeing things happen, and calculators allow them to do this without the sound effects that accompany so many children’s toys and could be distracting to the driver.

Power of Music
Don’t underestimate the power of music.  Children happily singing along to their favourite tunes will pass hours in the car without realising it.  Just a word of (general) advice – whatever cd you buy for your child, screen it before you play it for your child!  Do YOU like the music?  If you don’t, throw it away!   There is plenty of good children’s music out there.  Keep searching till you find some you like.  The idea of making the journey enjoyable for your kids is so that you will have an enjoyable trip too.  I’m sorry, but I won’t enjoy the trip if I have to listen to “Old MacDonald had a Farm”, but we have a number of other children’s cds which I would even consider listening to without having the kids around!  (Pooh’s 40 Funtime Favourites comes to mind.)  Stories on cds also work well for the slightly older preschooler or young child.

Many parents also say they take a portable dvd player and put on a movie for the children, or use handheld computer games.  This might work, but I don’t have the dvd player and my daughter suffers from motion sickness, so I tend to stay away from things like that which might aggravate her condition.  I have, however, taken paper and pencils and allowed them to be artistic while we travel.  This also keeps them occupied and happy for quite a while and doesn’t seem to make her car-sick.  Of course, my bookworm daughter (and son) would dearly love to be able to read a book while travelling, but I don’t feel like dealing with the car-sickness and headache this would cause, so we don’t take books in the car.  When they were toddlers, picture books worked well, but books stopped being an option once they started being able to read the words.

Something Old, Something New
Most kids like learning new things, so do your homework before you leave home.  Find out something about the areas you are going to travel through, get maps of the route, and as you travel your older children can read the maps (a valuable skill to learn) to find out where they are, what the next town will be, how far still to travel, etc.  Make it an adventure as you tell them stories about the history or geography of the area – better yet if you can link it to something in your family’s history.  Older children can play games involving the numbers on the licence plates of vehicles.  Add them up, or play “cricket” where you score “runs” according to the numbers on licence plates or colours of cars.   Google “car cricket” for more details on this.

As my children have got older, I’ve also invested in a few more durable travel-toys, such as Zoobs.  These funny building blobs (as opposed to building blocks) snap together and my kids have made the most incredible creations while travelling.  The Zoobs are bigger than blocks of Lego, so they don’t get lost in the car so easily.  They serve a double purpose, though – firstly they keep the children creatively occupied while the children make the toy, then they spend a while playing with it.  When the children get tired of the toy, they can make something new.

Never Leave Home Without …
Lastly, never leave home without a bottle of water for each child.  If the journey is going to be long, take along some snacks too.  I tend to avoid sugary snacks (last thing I want to travel with is a child on a sugar high!), but salty treats or fruit and salad veg can work wonders.  Make sure you have a pack of wetwipes.  Keep your child restrained in a car seat (no matter how much the child is screaming!  Rather pull over if your child needs your attention.)  Take some cash, not just a card.  And don’t forget the sunscreen.

Have fun shopping for car “sanity savers” as I call them.  Just bear in mind that in the event of an accident, anything unrestrained in the car could become a lethal projectile.  So don’t go for anything that could cause damage if it were to hit your head (or your child’s head) at high speed.  I also confiscate all toys that were given during the journey once we reach our destination.  That way, the same toys stay fresh and can be used again for your next trip.

Relax and enjoy travelling with your young ones.  It really is a special time.  After all, where else does the modern family get to spend so much time in each other’s company?