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Making elaborate birthday cakes for kids

Stefanie Gruenig, owner and operator of Stefanie's Isn't It Sweet, shows off a few children's birthday cakes. 
 (Photos by Christopher Anderson / The Spokesman-Review)
Story By Megan Cooley Correspondent

It all started 12 years ago, on Taylor Wright’s first birthday. His mother, Sandy, thought it’d be fun to make a Bugs Bunny themed cake for her son’s big day, so she handed her husband, Brett, a piece of wrapping paper with the cartoon character’s face on it.

“He made it look exactly like the Bugs Bunny on the wrapping paper,” Sandy says.

Every year since, Sandy has baked a cake for Taylor and his younger sister, Marin, and Brett, who has a background in architecture, has carved, frosted and finagled the cakes into three-dimensional figures that fit the children’s interests at the time.

He has made a skateboard, a guitar, a bowling ball with pins, a purse, a laser gun, a butterfly and even a Tonka truck that moved on its wheels.

“This year it was cute because Taylor said he wanted an ice cream cake from Cold Stone (Creamery),” Sandy says, adding that she thought maybe he’d grown out of his dad’s cake-making tradition for the first time. “But a couple days before his birthday he said to me, ‘I think Dad is going to surprise me with a cake.’ “

That he did – a Wii gaming device complete with two remote controls.

For many children, cakes are to birthday parties what gold medals are to the Olympic Games. Singing “Happy Birthday” and blowing out the candles is usually the climax of the bash, often taking place after the organized games are played and the gifts are torn open.

Between the Food Network television show “Ace of Cakes” and popular women’s magazines displaying an array of creative cakes on their covers of late, more and more amateur bakers seem to be taking on the challenge of making their families unusual birthday cakes.

Count Susan Leavitt among them. For her son’s eighth birthday, she played up the “eight” theme by making an octopus cake. The octopus’ body was a bowl-shaped cake and its legs were Twinkies. She covered the entire thing in fondant, a soft sugary confection that’s often used to give wedding cakes a smooth, polished look.

Newman Lake resident Tracy Morales has made her four children princess castles, jungles, and a cake set inside a dump truck covered in crushed Oreo cookies to mimic dirt.

Morales recently made a baseball cake “signed” by Ken Griffey Jr., after her son found a real baseball signed by the sports star in a Dumpster.

“I work full time. It’s not like I toil away and think about the next cake I’m going to make,” she says. “It’s easier than people think.”

She suggests people start by making cupcakes if tackling a whole cake makes them nervous, though.

And, “you don’t have to go buy an expensive cake pan. You can do them with pans you already have,” Morales says. “I think you’ll be surprised at how well it comes out.”

Stefanie Gruenig, owner of Stefanie’s Isn’t it Sweet, a bakery in northwest Spokane, offers some tips for amateur bakers.

She suggests freezing the cakes before carving or frosting them, even though that’s not a technique she uses at the bakery.

“You get a lot fewer crumbs, and when you ice it, the icing doesn’t pull away” pieces of cake, Gruenig says.

A fun way to involve children in the creation of their own birthday cakes it to create small figures with them out of fondant, which she calls “edible play dough.”

“Kids are surprisingly good with fondant,” Gruenig says. “They can make a snake on a pirate’s treasure chest or little treasure coins.”

Fondant can be made from scratch or purchased at a cake supply store.

Stefanie’s Isn’t it Sweet has a reputation for making bizarre and beautiful cakes. In the past, customers have ordered a basketball and hoop, cheerleading pom-poms, flip flops, fire trucks, dinosaurs, an Egyptian sarcophagus for a King Tut lover, and a pair of dirty high-top sneakers.

Yes, they had to look dirty.

For her own children’s birthdays, Gruenig has made a two-tiered frog pond and a “Peas on Earth” globe covered in bears, penguins, other wildlife and topped with friendly green peas holding hands.

Gruenig says the most important part of making cakes is to have fun and not to sweat the small stuff.

“The details get lost on the kids,” she says. “They’re more excited about the theme.”

Pirate Ship Cake

From For photo illustrations of these steps, visit

2 baked 9-inch or 10-inch round cakes

3 to 4 cups chocolate icing

Chocolate wafer sticks, such as Pepperidge Farm Pirouette Cookies

Milk chocolate wafer rolls, such as Waffeletten cookies

Several pieces of white or off-white paper

3 10-inch wooden skewers

Malted milk balls

Rolo candies

Rootbeer barrels

Plastic pirate figures

Cut the cakes in half and layer them, rounded sides all facing the same direction, adding a thin coat of chocolate icing between the layers.

Trim the bottom curves of the cakes slightly to help them sit flat, then turn the cakes upright, so that you’re creating the body of a ship. If necessary, wrap the cakes in plastic and chill in the freezer to make them firmer. Also, two drinking straws stuck through the four layers of cake will help keep them together.

Cover with the chocolate icing, then create planking lines along the hull with a butter knife. Chill at least one hour to firm the icing.

Use dabs of icing to anchor wafer stick gunwales along the edge of the deck.

Press the wafer rolls into both sides of the ship for cannons.

Cut sails from the paper, then slip them onto the skewers and set the masts in place.

Add malted milk ball cannonballs, plenty of Rolo gold booty, and root beer barrels, then station a few pirates to keep watch.

For safety, place the candles in the cookie cannons, far from the paper sails. Also, make sure that the surface on which the cake rests is impervious to wax, as the burning candles will drip.

Yield: 1 pirate cake

Nutrition per serving: Unable to calculate due to recipe variables.

Rolled Fondant

From Wilton Products Inc.

1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons unflavored gelatin

1/4 cup cold water

1/2 cup glucose (available at baking supply stores)

2 tablespoons solid vegetable shortening

1 tablespoon glycerin (available at baking supply stores)

8 cups sifted confectioner’s sugar (about 2 pounds)

Icing color and flavoring, as desired

Combine the gelatin and cold water; let stand until thick. Place the gelatin mixture in top of a double boiler and heat until dissolved. Add the glucose, mix well. Stir in the shortening and just before completely melted, remove the pan from heat. Add the glycerin, flavoring and color. Cool until lukewarm. Next, place 4 cups of confectioner’s sugar in a bowl and make a well. Pour the lukewarm gelatin mixture into the well and stir with a wooden spoon, mixing in sugar and adding more, a little at a time, until the stickiness disappears. Knead in the remaining sugar. Knead until the fondant is smooth, pliable and does not stick to your hands. If fondant is too soft, add more sugar; if it’s too stiff, add water, a drop at a time. Use the fondant immediately or store in airtight container in a cool, dry place. Do not refrigerate or freeze. When ready to use, knead again until soft.

Yield: Enough fondant to cover a 10-inch diameter, 4-inch high cake

Nutrition per serving: Unable to calculate.

Birthday Cake

From Williams-Sonoma

For the vanilla cake:

2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature

1 3/4 cups granulated sugar

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

3 eggs

1 1/3 cups milk

For the chocolate frosting:

1 1/2 cups semisweet chocolate chips

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature

1 package (8 ounces) cream cheese, at room temperature

2 1/2 cups confectioners’ sugar

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons heavy cream

Candies and sprinkles for decorating

Preheat an oven to 350 degrees. Grease two round cake pans with butter.

Make 2 circles on a piece of parchment paper by tracing the bottom of the cake pan. Cut out the circles and press 1 circle into the bottom of each pan. Grease the paper with more butter. Sprinkle some flour in each pan, and shake and tilt the pans to coat the bottom and sides evenly. Turn the pans upside down and tap out the extra flour.

To make the cake, put the flour, baking powder and salt into a sifter and sift into a bowl. In a large bowl, using an electric mixer, beat the butter, granulated sugar and vanilla on medium speed until creamy, about 3 minutes. Turn off the mixer and scrape down the bowl with a rubber spatula. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each one is added. Add about one-third of the flour mixture and beat on low speed just until blended. Pour in 2/3 cup of the milk and beat just until blended. Repeat, adding about one-third of the flour, the remaining 2/3 cup milk and then the rest of the flour, beating after each addition just until blended.

Pour half of the batter into one prepared pan and the other half into the second pan. Using the rubber spatula, spread the batter evenly and smooth the tops. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center of a cake comes out clean, 30 to 35 minutes. Set the pans on wire cooling racks to cool for 20 minutes. Turn each pan upside down onto the rack and lift off the pan. Peel off the parchment and let the cakes cool completely.

To make the frosting, melt the chocolate chips in a heatproof bowl set over simmering water in a saucepan, stirring often with a wooden spoon until smooth, about 4 minutes. Turn off the heat. Using oven mitts, remove the bowl and set it aside to let the chocolate cool slightly. In a bowl, using the electric mixer, beat the butter and cream cheese on medium-low speed until the mixture is smooth and no lumps remain. Add the confectioners’ sugar, vanilla and salt, and beat on low speed until smooth and fluffy.

Add the chocolate and cream and beat on low until well blended. Frost and decorate the cake as desired.

Yield: 12 servings

Approximate nutrition per serving: 624 calories, 31 grams fat (19 grams saturated, 43 percent fat calories), 7 grams protein, 83 grams carbohydrate, 118 milligrams cholesterol, 2 grams dietary fiber, 246 milligrams sodium.