Happy (allergen-free) Birthday!: The Cake

In our culture, birthdays without birthday cake are almost a breach of etiquette. Everyone expects cake when they attend a birthday party, especially the most important guest – the one with the birthday! To be sure, people all pushing those boundaries as they always do, and you will find variations of the famous birthday cake that aren’t exactly cake at all, but the vast majority of birthday celebrants still enjoy a nice big cake at the party.

Of course, though, it’s a landmine for food allergies: most birthday cakes are made with wheat, dairy and eggs, and storebought ones likely contain soy and nuts (or the risk of nuts) as well. If you’re lucky enough to live near a bakery that specializes in gluten-free or allergen-free cakes and the like, you can purchase a cake for your party… but only if you’re willing to pay for it!

The only other option is to make it yourself, which is a daunting task for anyone, even someone like me who loves to cook and bake and experiment with recipes. Cake is a challenge anyway, and to make it allergen-free? Without wheat or eggs or milk? Seemingly impossible! And on top of that, you want it to be special for your little celebrant, so it should also be decorated in some fashion… even more daunting!

Baby steps. That’s what you need. Tackle the daunting task in baby steps. Start well in advance of the birthday so you have plenty of time to fail, then try, try and try again. Practice will eventually make perfect! Here are some things to think through and suggestions to make it easier:

1. Find the recipe and practice it.

A no-brainer, right!? Unless of course, you’re a whiz in the kitchen with a master’s degree in chemistry so whipping up allergen-free baked goods is nothing to you, in which case you really don’t need to read this at all! If that’s not you, read on. Last year, for my Certain Little Someone’s birthday, I made a gluten-free version of the Wacky Cake, a WWII era recipe which is already egg- and dairy-free. It was edible, but it was also very dense and heavy. I was happy, though, to be able to make anything at all resembling a cake that he could enjoy safely!

This year, I found a recipe early in the summer in my Living Without magazine, and mentally earmarked it to use for his birthday. Several weeks ago, I made the first of 3 or 4 trial cakes just to make sure the recipe worked and to tweak it where necessary, and adjust the ingredients where I needed or wanted to. I’ve made 2 so far, and am going to attempt a 3rd trial tomorrow. So far it’s going very well. After the first one, I realized I really needed some fresh flax seed because the flavor was off and it was too heavy. Also, the batter makes 3 layers, but I only have room in my oven for 2 at a time. At first, I tried rotating them between racks, but that was naturally an epic failure. The second cake turned out practically perfect in every way, so my next trial is going to be a test to see if history will repeat itself!

2. Stick to easy frosting.

Normally, I like to cook and even bake with very healthy ingredients, but with my Certain Little Someone’s birthday cake, that goes right out the door! For one thing, it’s his birthday. For the other, it’s very difficult to make “healthy” frostings (meaning based on natural, healthy sweeteners as opposed to highly processed powdered sugar) without the use of dairy in one form or another, and substitutes are difficult to manage. I’m not saying it can’t be done, it’s just that it simplifies a major project for me if I just use a very basic combination of: non-hydrogenated shortening, powdered sugar, vanilla flavoring and a splash of whatever non-dairy milk (or even water) I have on hand. The advantage of this very basic recipe is that it also is perfect for decorating, a must when it comes to birthday cakes.

3. Use jam as a filling.

For layer cakes, you can get really creative with all kinds of fillings, but a lot of them call for eggs or dairy products. Keep it simple, and just use a jar of jam (I personally like to use low-sugar jam, either homemade or store-bought). It adds moisture and flavor to the finished product, it cuts down on the super-sweetness of the powdered sugar frosting, it’s almost always allergen-free (unless you are allergic to the fruits in question!), and it’s so easy: a win-win all around! If you use a sheet cake or 9×13 pan, you don’t even need to worry about the filling, which is another great option.

4. Choose your design well in advance and practice it.

Kids love fancy decorated birthday cakes with their favorite characters, and it’s easy enough to order one at the grocery store for most. Food-allergic mamas don’t really have that option, though, so if you want that fancy decorated cake, you have to make it yourself. If that seems impossible or scary, check out Coolest Birthday Cakes, a website that features thousands of pictures of homemade birthday cakes, most of them by amateurs. The majority of them also come with basic instructions for how to achieve the look. You’ll find everything from super-complicated to super-easy. Choose your comfort level and pick one in a theme your child loves. This year, I’m going to make one that looks like this Thomas the Tank Engine Cake. It’s easy, without hardly any actual decorating, but it’s cute – just my style!

Every time I bake a practice cake, I also frost it, at least partially, just to practice the different techniques and figure out what works best for me and the ingredients I plan to use. For example, in the pictured example, the original cake maker used rock candy chocolates for the tunnel and a border around the bottom. I’m having  a hard time finding the rock candy, and what I do find is made of milk chocolate, so I’m going to try it with gum drops or Jelly beans instead. I’ve also tried a couple different things for the train tracks just to see what works best.

5. Make the cake and decorate it in advance.

The layers themselves – unfrosted – can be frozen and pulled out right before you start to decorate. If you use the decorator frosting, you can decorate it the day or night before the party, freeing yourself to do other things on the day of, if desired. That also will give you time to deal with any emergencies that may or may not arise.

6. Don’t forget to let your child taste-test!

This is important from a medical standpoint if you use a new recipe with new ingredients for the cake, of course. You also want to make sure your child likes the taste of the cake, because after all, it’s his birthday!

7. Don’t forget to take pictures.

After all that hard work, you’ll want something to remember it by when it disappears so quickly!

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