Women’s Weekly Birthday Cake Book
Illustration by Leo Walton
Nostalgic or Problematic Nightmare?
The Australian Women’s Weekly cake book is the most iconic children’s cake book ever. It’s from a time where your biggest decision in life was the choice between the sick train cake or the jelly pool cake. And when your biggest problem was your sister choosing the clock cake with liquorice even though you hated it. I decided to revisit this absolute classic and opened up the wrinkled old pages for the first time in 15 years.
Two things initially struck me as I flicked through the colourful cakes. The first was how bloody complicated the decorations are. There’s a lot of cutting cakes up and reshaping them so they look like animals, castles and there’s even a duck with potato chips for a beak. I don’t know why this surprised me. I think I always thought the cake would magically turn into an elephant or giraffe in the oven? But, this was the first time I’d looked at it as an adult with concerns further than just wanting a cool cake to shove my face into. How my creatively-challenged and busy parents ever managed to make these cakes successfully, I have no idea. But it represents a level of organisation and skill that I’ll never have (sorry potential future children).
The second thing that struck me was the gendered sections. The fact people can be so obsessed with making their small children fit into weird arbitrary gender roles snapped me out of my nostalgia for a hot minute. Why are we gendering cakes?! The cakes under each section were as stereotypical as expected, with the boy’s cakes being all race car and other ‘manly’ machines. On the other hand, the girl’s cakes included a sewing machine, stove and Barbie with a cake skirt! This really challenges the warm feelings of nostalgia. A word of warning: this book isn’t all fun, sugary goodness! It’s a real representation of issues surrounding gender identity and gender norms.
Despite all of this, I surged ahead and decided to make one of the cakes. The iconic zoo animal one spoke to me as it had chocolate fingers and fell under the ‘three easy cakes’ section, which was the perfect match for my skill level. Also, the $2 shop only sold zoo animals and I decided against the racially problematic ‘Cowboys and Indians’ one.
The recipe lets you pick the type of cake you make and leave it as a normal circle cake. Yay, no reshaping! It’s decorated with ‘Viennese Cream’, coconut grass, chocolate fingers and animals. When making the viennese cream I fell victim of my own impatience. Being too lazy to wait for the butter to soften and with a broken microwave I made the decision to beat it cold. The butter immediately got stuck in the beaters and when trying to soften it over boiling water it all melted, taking on a weird texture. With some concern that my animals were going to end up sitting on top of sloppy grass icing I bravely persevered. The coconut grass to cover the horrible icing was a lifesaver in the end.
Next it was time for the chocolate finger fence. Many of the fence palings had already been eaten by me before construction even began. The final task was to add my horribly painted and presumably toxic animals to complete the zoo. The figurines I bought were far too big and awkwardly squished in, towering menacingly over their chocolate prison. The fact they were from a $2 shop really showed. Especially the tiger…that tiger had really been through it. But, overall the cake wasn’t a bad final product and was really fun to make. It brought me right back to being five years old, having the classic Lollipops party and, most importantly, shoving as much cake into my face as possible.