Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Sunday, April 27, 2008

The Cake Man Strikes (Out) Again!

I don't know I came to be the official birthday-cake maker in our family, but I am. Ever since getting married, I have always taken it upon myself to make some kind of suitable confection whenever a birthday has rolled around for anyone but myself. Of course, there have been occasions when time problems have forced me to buy one instead (and I almost always wind up with a store-bought cake on my own birthday), but that never seems right. I've always believed that hand-made items, particularly crafted by someone you know, are far more meaningful than something coming off a store shelf.

One problem that plagued me for a while was lack of materials. It's obviously far quicker and easier to use a packaged cake mix than to make a cake from scratch, but packaged mixes are not easy to find in Japan. Shortcake and sponge cake are about the only kinds that exist in the the minds of most Japanese, and most people here would rather buy their cakes ready-made anyway. The few mixes one can find in the supermarket offer little to the imagination. For a while the import food stores had Betty Crocker mixes, and I used to keep a stock of those, but they stopped selling all but brownie and muffin mixes a few years ago. That limited my possibilities. There was only so much I could do with a plain, vanilla sponge cake.

Needless to say, I was really happy when one of my favorite import food stores in Narita suddenly started offering Betty Crocker German chocolate cake mixes again last month. I immediately bought a couple of them. When my wife's birthday took place at the beginning of April, I used one of those mixes to make her birthday cake. Naturally, I decided to experiment again, so I made two small cakes, one sporting each digit of her age. I also got funky with the frosting, and I thought it turned out especially well.

Yes, I was fairly pleased with my wife's birthday cake, but I still wasn't satisfied. Therefore, when my daughter's birthday rolled around a few weeks later, I decided to have even more fun. Instead of just having two cakes bearing each digit of her age, I wanted to make cakes that were shaped like the numbers. I also wanted to get even funkier with the frosting. I figured that, since it was my daughter's last birthday before becoming a (*shudder*) teen, I might as well make it one to remember.

I came home from work early...but not nearly as early as I'd hoped...and immediately started squabbling with my wife over kitchen space and shopping plans. Once those were settled, I tore into my cake-making endeavor in earnest. The expression, "I might as well make it one to remember," turned out to have been an understatement. Actually, "comedy of errors" if not "total disaster" would probably be even more fitting. You see, I'd bought a couple of small, square cake pans, and my plan was to cut the cakes into strips and triangular sections which I could then assemble like a LEGO set to form the numbers. The problem was that the Betty Crocker mix was one of those extra-moist types that include pudding. I had also added a generous portion of Hershey's semi-sweet chocolate chips, which had melted completely. The fact that the cakes wound up overflowing the pans while baking turned out to be the least of my problems. You see, once I took them out of the pans and tried cutting them into sections, the pieces immediately melted into shapeless blobs. It was really quite a mess. Undaunted, I decided to switch to "Operation Play-Doh" and mold the blobs together like modeling clay. It worked; I managed to get two cakes, one shaped like a "1" and the other like a "2". The fact that they were lumpy monstrosities rather than clean-cut shapes was, as the Japanese say, "Shoganai". ("It can't be helped.")

The frosting was an even bigger disaster. When I'd made it for my wife's cake earlier in the month, I had started with the traditional powdered sugar and hot water and added heavy cream, vanilla, and orange juice (topped with coconut and other things). It had turned out beautifully. However, at that time I had managed to get a large package of powdered sugar in Narita. Now I didn't have time to do that, and unfortunately the local supermarkets only had powdered sugar available in teeny-tiny, half-cup portion packs that were hideously overpriced. I didn't want to deal with that, so I went into the sugar aisle to find they only had the granulated type. However, I noticed they had one type that was different; it looked like powdered brown sugar. The package said it could be used in cooking just like ordinary powdered sugar, and it came in larger (and more economical) bags than the powdered sugar in the cooking section, so I decided to try it. Guess what? When I added the hot water the sugar immediately melted into syrup and wouldn't set up no matter how hard I beat it. I dumped almost the entire bag into the bowl, and it just sank into the swamp. I added cream, and it sank into the swamp. I tried melting some butter and putting that in, but it just sank into the swamp. Furious, I ran back to the supermarket and grabbed several of those tiny packs of regular powdered sugar and mixed those in, but it still wasn't setting up properly. In the end what I wound up with was more of a glaze than a frosting, and I had so much of it that I practically drowned the cakes in it. (When my son saw it he said, "Papa, is that cake or soup?")

daughter b-day cake 2008

This is the result. After all those wonderful food pics on Olivia's, Selba's, and especially Nikkipolani's sites, it's kind of embarrassing. It looks more like someone was playing a prank at a sewage treatment plant than trying to make a nice birthday confection. However, as it turned out, it tasted really good. Everybody wanted second helpings, and it wasn't just because of the Reese's Pieces I stuck on top just for fun (something I'd grabbed at Costco not long before).

daughter 12th birthday

And here's the birthday girl shortly before trying (and failing) to blow out her candles. I'd say she doesn't seem to mind if her cake looks like toxic waste. The smile alone is worth it.

Next year she'll be a teenager....


  • You will need to balance this out at some point by showing us a successful cake operation.

    Visually, the Reese's Pieces probably saved the cake. At least you give it a try. And if it tasted good, then that makes up for the rest. ;) I walk by a 10 foot wall of Betty Crocker cake mixes at the local grocery store ignoring each and every one. I do occasionally barbeque for birthdays though.

    By Blogger Don Snabulus, at 1:05 AM  

  • It was my birthday yesterday now 43

    By Anonymous Dave, at 1:15 AM  

  • LOL. Sounds like some of my mis-adventures in the kitchen. Mud pie?

    Ah, well, you added the most important ingredient - LOVE.

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 7:28 AM  

  • Happy Belated Birthday to MM's daughter :)

    Hehehehe *reads MM's son & pandabonium comments*

    Well, it's doesn't look very bad actually, how's the taste? And yes, the most important is the love ingredient :)

    By Blogger Selba, at 10:27 AM  

  • I have never tried to make cakes from scratch. Duncan Heines have one of the best moist chocolate cake mix. Love their devil's food!

    You're right, someone seemed to be messing around in the sewerage network.

    Good thing it tasted better than it looked. Heck, it goes out the system looking nastier anyway.

    By Blogger agus, at 3:29 PM  

  • That sure is one sweet smile. Great effort, MM. Kudos! Toxic waste? lol

    By Blogger Happysurfer, at 5:23 PM  

  • Maybe we can figure out how to send you some...

    By Blogger Hypatia, at 7:13 PM  

  • A beaming birthday girl gazing at a masterpiece of fatherly love!

    Question: Did you serve the surrounding beige slop in separate ice cream dishes?

    You are so funny! And you are a wonderful dad.


    By Blogger San, at 4:18 AM  

  • Snabudon
    I didn't take any pics of the cake I made for my wife earlier this month, unfortunately. That one turned out rather well. Wouldn't you know it...

    Happy birthday! Should I mail you a cake?

    That's why I put myself through this whenever a birthday rolls around. Gotta vent that extra love out somehow! ;-)

    MM's son??!? What????
    Thanks for the support. I'm beginning to need it!

    Unfortunately Duncan Hines mixes are more or less non-existent here.

    It got the job done. And we happily put it through our systems!

    A man's gotta do what a man's gotta bake things once in a while...

    I hope you're not thinking of it as charity! ;-)

    No, I just ladled an extra dose over each piece when served. Actually, that "beige slop" came out rather tasty! The eccentric combination of ingredients turned out to blend quite well...even if it didn't look or act the way it should have! Only the Reese's Pieces didn't really seem to fit the flavor...but were great eaten separately.

    Thanks! I hope my kids agree...

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 11:00 PM  

  • Yes, MM's son :)

    His comment was, "Papa, is that cake or soup?"

    Btw, practice makes perfect ;) can not wait to see more cakes pictures in this blog, hehehe

    By Blogger Selba, at 10:44 AM  

  • Haha! Yes, brown sugar makes great syrup :)

    Well, it's either the "toxic waste" cake, or the "mushroom-soup-with-a-heck-of-a-lot-of-black -black-truffles-in-it" cake.

    By Blogger Olivia, at 6:08 AM  

  • You know, it isn't that the cakes don't look edible (and they do look very very edible!) but that they would induce a sugar coma ;-) And for the record, I can't decorate a cake to save my life. So bravo to you for making a strong effort and an inventive one for a memorable 12th birthday :-)

    By OpenID nikkipolani, at 8:19 AM  

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