thelittleloaf discovers why with Fiona Cairns’ new book, The Birthday Cake Book, you really can have your cake and eat it.
As someone more than slightly obsessed with cooking and eating, I love how special occasions are marked by what we consume. Think of a birthday or party you’ve attended in the last year or so, and (often in addition to copious amounts of alcohol) most likely there was some kind of cake involved. Whether picked from a beautiful line of boxes in a bakery, or slathered in icing as generous as the creator’s love for its recipient, this cake will have been chosen with a special person or moment in mind, marking the passing of another year, an achievement earned, a marriage made.
The association between cakes and celebration is nothing new. While ancient Egypt was the first culture to show any significant baking skill, we have the ancient Romans to thank for the round, flat fruit cake which made its way to our shores in the 14th century and embedded itself in British tradition; the majority of wedding cakes today are still made from a variation on a dense boozy batter packed with fruit and nuts.
I’m not a huge fan of fruitcake. I like the odd slice, slightly spiced and laced with brandy, but for me cakes and baking can be so much more; feather light sponges or a moist fudgy crumb, fondant and food colouring, silky ganache, sticky syrups, different tastes and textures and often (if not absolutely always) chocolate. Which is why when Quadrille first asked if I’d like to review the new book by Royal Wedding Cake baker, Fiona Cairns, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. If I’m completely honest, I was more excited by Will’s (17 kilo) chocolate (1,700 rich tea) biscuit cake than the official and terribly traditional 8-tier fruit version.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. Fiona’s role as Royal Baker - and the level of skill involved in creating Kate and Will’s incredible official cake - might make you think her recipes would be elaborate, conservative and unachievable but ‘The Birthday Cake Book’ is anything but, full of warmth and wisdom whatever your skill level. Her introduction invites the reader to ‘stir in happy thoughts’, not to seek perfection, but to enjoy the baking process, thinking about the person for whom they are making the cake, and the memories that will last long after every crumb has disappeared. This is absolutely what baking should be about.
Highlights from the book include a lifesize piggy bank complete with chocolate coins, an erupting volcano that kids will go crazy for, the slightly more sophisticated masala chai cake with ginger fudge frosting, giant Jammie Dodgers, a slightly bonkers savoury smoked salmon cake and, if you really can’t even be bothered to bake, a crispy Mars Bars fridge cake. Yes, there are some pretty complex recipes in here (life size football boots complete with threaded laces or the epic pirate galleon spring to mind), but with several standard sponge flavours to choose from, and simple little cupcakes, bars and biscuits in every chapter, bakers of every level will find something that they can try.
Fiona also makes several suggestions for variations on each recipe, allowing the confident baker to get a bit more creative in the kitchen. I loved the sound of Devil’s Chocolate Cardamom Cake, but with friends coming round for a dinner party, wasn’t quite feeling the Swarovski-studded crystal skull version included in the book. Instead, I baked a batch of the deliciously moist, darkly spiced cake then smothered it in rose scented white chocolate buttercream, copying an icing technique Fiona demonstrates on another cake.
The end result was absolutely incredible, and the process surprisingly simple; Fiona’s cakes don’t just look amazing, they taste good too. While most readers (me included) will have to embark on a journey of discovery before they feel prepared to tackle some of the more complex recipes in the book, Fiona is the best person to guide you along the way. I have no idea how many thousands of pounds the Royal Wedding cake ended up costing, but for the price of a book, you can soon be churning out confections just as delicious, if a little less beautiful. This is a book that will keep on giving over years to come, allowing you to develop skills as a baker, and ultimately, to have your cake and eat it.