Clowns and Dolls: ’50s Cakes Were Scary

This month I’m spending a couple of hours each week in a cake decorating class learning how to make flowers out of buttercream frosting, gum paste and fondant. This is my second cake-decorating class; I spent eight hours in August earning a certificate in The Wilton Method Decorating Basics.

Judging by this image from "The Homemaker's Pictorial Encyclopedia of Modern Cake Decorating," less was not more for the brides of 1954.

This makes no sense for a couple of reasons. First of all, to be honest, I don’t really like cake. Sure, I can be tempted by pretty much anything chocolate, and a fresh, homemade carrot cake or coconut cake may turn my head, but for the most part, your standard office party bakery cake isn’t worth the extra calories. Plus, there’s the  icing. The day I found out bakery buttercream contains neither butter nor cream but is mostly shortening and powdered sugar was the last day I was able to enjoy those office cakes. I don’t know why, when I am so in love with butter and bacon, I’m so repelled by shortening, but I am.

So, why am I spending hours up to my elbows in powdered sugar and shortening? I have a 6-year-old son who’s allergic to eggs, and most bakeries don’t do eggless cakes.

There are a lot of cake-infested situations in a first-grader’s life. Mostly I handle this by keeping eggless cupcakes in the freezer. Whenever there’s a birthday party, I pull one out and frost it and take it along to the party so Trevor doesn’t have to sit and watch all the other kids eat cake. But Trevor has his own birthdays, and he deserves cakes that are just as cool as his friends’ cakes. OK, maybe cooler. “Happy birthday from your obsessively competitive mommy!”

Little Bobby required years of therapy after finding this cupcake clown on his plate.

When my mother-in-law found out I was taking the cake classes, she gave me the book her mother had used when she took Wilton cake-decorating classes in the 1950s, “The Homemaker’s Pictorial Encyclopedia of Modern Cake Decorating” by McKinley Wilton and Norman Wilton. Flipping through the pages, I immediately fell in love with this book. All of the color pictures have that pastel, slightly out of focus look, like Doris Day in “That Touch of Mink.” Even though I know in reality it couldn’t be the case, I like to imagine there was a time when life’s colors were soft and sharp edges were blurred, when my son might have asked for a simple cowboy cake instead of Transformers.

Scary doll cake circa 1954: Take naked scary doll. Insert scary doll into Bundt cake. Cover cake and scary doll up to armpits with buttercream.

Though I recognized many of the techniques illustrated in the book, it was immediately apparent that cake styles have changed in the decades since it was published. For the most part, this appears to be a good thing. Compared to today’s wedding cakes, elegantly covered in sheets of smooth fondant with restrained displays of gum paste flowers or themed patterns, wedding cakes in the ’50s were riots of buttercream, royal icing and spun sugar. Why have just one border on each layer when you can have six or seven? Lace, ruffles, roses, birds — they only stopped when they ran out of cake to cover. Intervention was clearly needed. “Harry, put down the pastry bag and step away from the turntable. These nice men are going to take you to a lovely place where you can get some rest.”

Cake themes have changed with the times as well. Little boys and girls in those days would be happy with a simple piped-on rendition of an astronaut or a ballerina instead of whatever major movie marketing campaign had the biggest hold on them at the moment.

There is one cake theme that has, unfortunately, survived to this day, and that is the clown cake.

Dolls, frankly, creep me out a little bit, so I'm hoping the doll cake trend stays safely stuck in the 1950s.

First of all, let me just say right here that I do not like clowns. Clowns are scary. Looking at both modern clown cakes (you can see some here at Cakewrecks.com) and the ones in the book, it appears that the cake decorators may have intended to make happy clowns (as though such a thing existed), but clowns are just inherently scary.

Fortunately, another scary ’50s cake trend seems to remain safely in the past, and that’s the doll cake. OK, I know there are a lot of people out there who collect dolls and love them. I had dolls, too, when I was a little girl. But as an adult I have come to realize something: Dolls are scary. Doll collections — a room full of dolls just staring at your with their lifeless plastic eyes? Scary. There was an episode of “Ghosthunters” in which the property being investigated had one room filled with dolls. Dolls in the dark. This was more frightening than the prospect of a ghost popping out, if you ask me.

For certain ’50s situations, however, it was apparently the custom to take a scary, lifeless-eyed figure, stand her up in a cake and surround her with layer upon layer of buttercream borders, ruffles and roses. Sugarcoated, but still scary.

So you won’t be seeing any clown cakes or doll cakes from me. The scariest thing I’ve done so far was when I tried an experimental tinting technique on a fall-themed anniversary cake. It was supposed to be burgundy mums surrounded by a cascade of fall-colored leaves. It ended up looking like three sea urchins on a bed of bacon strips. But we learn our lessons and move on. The only thing that matters is that every April one little guy has the coolest birthday cake ever.

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Another Eggless Cake: Kindergarten Graduation

I’ve been an unemployed journalist posing as a stay-at-home mom for nearly three months now, and weird things are starting to happen. Famous in the family for my brown thumb, I started a small organic vegetable garden with my son. After seeing three miniature bell peppers appear, I became obsessed and started sketching out plans for year-round plantings in the two large raised beds that I now plan to build.

After nine years, the fake bride and groom no longer occupy the crystal frame in our living room and our wedding party now appears in a large silver frame with eight tiny windows that used to say “1 1/4 x 2.” The fake bride and groom were with us for so many years I thought they’d earned a place in the family, though, so they are in the frame behind our own wedding picture.

I am seriously hoping I’ll find employment before I descend into full photo-album creation or, horrors, scrapbooking, but I have become a frequent flyer at the large craft store that just conveniently opened near my home. I’m finding myself on the hunt for cake decorating supplies, mostly. This is weird because I’m not really into sweets, especially cake. I’ve never gotten over the revelation that icing had shortening in it. Gross.

But I’ve got a little boy with an egg allergy who deserves cakes like every other kid for his birthdays and other occasions. Most recently was his kindergarten graduation. His teacher wanted to have a cake for the class, so I volunteered to make an eggless version, which she supplemented with storebought cupcakes.

Kindergarten graduation cake by Laurie Sterbens

For a kindergarten graduation, "Congratulations" seemed too stuffy. I went with "Yay!"

I decided that “Congratulations Kindergartners” was too stuffy for little kids, and also didn’t relish the idea of piping all those letters and trying to fit it into an appealing design. “Yay!” seemed more appropriate.

I used the same recipe I used for my son’s birthday Bakugan cake, which was a hit with kids and parents alike. I’m not a baker; I start with a mix. I use two boxes of reduced sugar devil’s food mix, each one baked in a 9×15 rectangular pan. Instead of the three eggs called for, I use two parts powdered egg substitute (available at health food stores) and a half a cup of applesauce per layer. This produces a moist, somewhat dense and nicely flat layer a little over an inch thick.

After allowing the cake to cool, I spread storebought chocolate-chocolate chip icing on one layer and topped it with the second layer. I then covered the entire cake with vanilla buttercream (I do insist on homemade buttercream) and put it in the fridge to set overnight.

To decorate, I first sketched out a design in actual size. I kept the piping to a minimal by using fondant for the balloons and some of the letters. I rolled the fondant out in a pasta machine and cut it with cookie cutters, letter shape cutters and whatever else was handy that worked. I piped on some of the lettering, the balloon strings and the yellow trim, which was vanilla buttercream. I then added star sprinkles. It was not a restrained, elegant design, but it was for kindergarten.  They’re not into restraint.

The cake was a hit, even with people who didn’t know it was eggless. Now I’m wondering what can be my next cake-decorating occasion. Although first there’s the garden…

Not to be confused with Cake Boss

When your little boy turns 6 and he wants to have a birthday party, standard operational procedure is to call the bakery and tell them you need a Spider-Man cake or a baseball cake or a “Cars” cake, or whatever is the current kindergarten favorite.

When your little boy has a food allergy, you have to go to plan B. My son’s allergic to eggs, so I am now the proud owner of a growing collection of professional-looking cake-decorating equipment. I have more equipment than skill. Hey, there’s a reason the saying is “easy as pie.” Cake can be complicated.

Recently my son had a birthday and though we’ve managed to avoid it so far by taking him to theme parks, this time he wanted a party, and that meant a big birthday cake.

These days you can go to a craft store such as Michael’s and have a good chance of finding a kit for making a cake with a variety of popular themes. You currently have no chance of finding what my son wanted, which was a Bakugan cake. Bakugan toys are currently wildly popular with kindergarten boys and were developed by cruel Japanese artists who never considered that somebody might have to reproduce these characters in icing.

My son’s additional requirements were that the cake would be chocolate inside with white icing, with red trim and letters.

After determining that there wasn’t a ready-made kit available, I did a Google search to see what other Bakugan cakes had been attempted out there in Mommyland. There were some brave attempts to reproduce the logo in icing, but nothing really grabbed me.

My solution: First, my standard kindergarten occasion no-egg cake: Two boxes of reduced sugar cake mix. Instead of the three eggs called for per box, I used two parts powdered egg substitute (available at health food stores) and a half cup of applesauce. Baked in two 9×15 pans, they will be slightly more dense than regular cake and will make nice 1 1/2-inch layers.

Eggless Bakugan Cake by Laurie Sterbens

Eggless Drago Bakugan birthday cake by Laurie Sterbens

I slapped a layer of canned chocolate/chocolate chip frosting between the layers, then covered the entire cake with vanilla buttercream. For the decorations, I blew up a picture of the Bakugan figure Drago from a tracing book, traced that onto colored fondant with a toothpick, cut out the pieces and assembled the Drago on parchment paper, then added details with edible marker. I then reassembled the figure on top of the cake and added the red trim (and I would just like to say here that red gel food coloring is pretty disgusting stuff) and lettering. I also added a little fondant platform for the actual Drago toy, which my son also wanted on the cake. The empty space up front later held six red candles.

It’s not Cake Boss, but my son thought it was the coolest cake ever.