Birthday cake basics

Eye catching ... Jess Matson's butterfly cake.
Eye catching ... Jess Matson's butterfly cake. Photo: Jess Matson

Can making a spectacular birthday cake be stress-free? Marie Sansom asks an expert and an accomplished home cook for their tips.

Jess Matson began baking cakes with her four siblings when she was still in primary school.

Now a mother herself, she still loves whipping up cool creations for her children Remy, 7 and Edie, 5.

"I've always loved making novelty cakes," Matson says.

Edie Farrar-Matson blows out the candles on her aquarium birthday cake flanked by her brother Remy and friend Sophie Potts.
Edie Farrar-Matson blows out the candles on her aquarium birthday cake flanked by her brother Remy and friend Sophie Potts. Photo: Jess Matson

"It's so satisfying baking a cake and getting that beautiful thing out of the oven. It smells so good and you know what's gone into it. Mixes all have the same flavour and they can be very dry."

She learned the basics from short courses, visiting cake decorating shops and reading cookbooks. Her creations have included a North Pole with gingerbread reindeer, a weed and fish-filled aquarium and a forest made of cupcakes.

Her children remember the cakes she has baked them over the years and scour cookbooks for the perfect cake months before their birthdays.

"We always talk about what they would like for their cake," Matson says. "My whole family likes it as a bit of a project. It's become a tradition."

Evan Jones from Iced Affair in Sydney, which runs cake making and decorating courses, has lost count of the number of Disney characters and Iggle Piggles he has immortalised in sponge.

He says there has been a surge of interest from people keen to make their own cakes.


"People are prepared to give it a go," Jones says.

"They're wanting to do it themselves. It's getting back to being as a family. They do it for a bit of fun, for the satisfaction and for the look on their kids' faces."

The cake

Always do a test run ... Expert advice from Iced Affair's Evan Jones.
Always do a test run ... Expert advice from Iced Affair's Evan Jones. 

Jones recommends novices start with a round or square cake recipe from the Australian Women's Weekly because they are tried and tested, "they're basic but they work and this is the key."

If you want to be on trend and impress other parents, go for natural colourings, like saffron and blueberry and opt for plain cakes like vanilla and pound cake, rather than rich, chocolate cakes.

"People are really cautious about what goes into the cake, whether it has nuts and what colourings are used," Jones says.

Mint leaves in action ... A forest cake.
Mint leaves in action ... A forest cake. Photo: Jess Matson

Matson has relied on the same basic recipes for years, an all-in-one method, and often doubles or triples the quantities, baking it in a roasting tin or lasagne dish.

She suggests if you're strapped for time make a circle cake, ice it, decorate it with smarties or hundreds and thousands and write something in the middle - but make sure you practice first.

If you don't want to make one large cake, try cupcakes.

A gingerbread house cake.
A gingerbread house cake. Photo: Jess Matson

"They're easy to hand out, you don't have to cut them and you can decorate them individually," Matson says.

Shop-bought cakes are another option. For example, two swiss rolls could form a rocket, iced marshmallows on a slab cake resemble Lego or line up lamingtons as train carriages with lollies for wheels.

Jones says one benefit of packet mixes is the longer shelf life, which means they can be baked a few days before a party.

Striking icing ... An OMG (Oh My God) cake.
Striking icing ... An OMG (Oh My God) cake. Photo: Jess Matson

The design

Both Matson and Jones warn against over-elaborate creations, particularly on the first few attempts.

"People see wonderful books, fabulous cakes, but they're a bit over the top," says Jones.

"Straight away they want to be able to do these sorts of cakes. Strip it down and simplify the design. The kids up to three, they're looking at the colour. The design doesn't have to look exactly like Thomas [the Tank Engine]: just do the face."

Hiring a novelty cake tin is another option. These range from numbers and letters to Spiderman, 3-D houses, castles and even ballet shoes.

"There are hundreds of things now available to the public, as opposed to just in the trade," Jones says.


Icing the cake is where parents start to really get the fear: how best to render a perfect replica of BEN10 or Hoot the owl?

You can use pre-coloured and rolled fondant icing, ganache or buttercream to cover a cake.

If you are using fondant icing, Jones recommends putting an initial layer of buttercream or ganache on the cake first to create a smooth surface. This will also give the icing something to stick to.

Remember that icing a cake can cover all sorts of baking catastrophes. You can camouflage sinking or cracking with icing or butter cream.

"Most of the time you cut the top off to make it flat and even it up," says Matson. "Icing can hide a multitude of sins."


Both Jones and Matson are big fans of using lollies for dramatic effect.

Matson has used mint leaves for trees, chocolate sticks for railway sleepers, liquorice for train tracks and hazelnut meal for roads. Jones suggests creating a jungle scene with spearmint leaves for foliage, flakes for trees and sugar bananas.

Many shops sell premade cake decorations. Iced Affair sells sets of edible farmyard and jungle animals, flowers and insects, or you can use modelling paste to make your own people, animals and shapes.

Another option is to push modelling paste or fondant into a mould, put it in the freezer then turn out perfect seashells or flowers.

To colour a cake or produce special effects, many shops and websites have a massive range of edible food sprays, food paints, glitter and gels.

Rather than fiddling about with piping bags use icing pens. These come in a multitude of colours and can be metallic and glittery.

Test run

Whatever you end up baking, Jones strongly advises you do a test run first.

It's advice Jodie O'Callaghan wishes she'd heeded before she baked a number one cake for her triplets' first birthday last year.

"The only icing I had in the cupboard was pink, so I used that, but when I iced the cake it looked quite pale and flesh-coloured," O'Callaghan said.

No-one was game to say what the cake reminded them of until her sister piped up: "It looks like a giant penis!"

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