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Crisps, chocolate crispies and a passing fondness for the birthday child are all very well, but the real birthday-tea raison d'etre is the icing-tastic, candle-topped cake. As, indeed it is for your child, who is the one basking in the reflected glory of said candles before blowing them out to wild applause (as long as some other little charmer doesn't 'accidentally' blow them out first).
So, where's this crowd-puller of a cake coming from? The labour of your own fair hands, or shop-bought? Your smaller guests probably won't be much bothered either way, but should you opt for the halo-burnishing, bake-your-own route, you’ll need to decide your cake type and your decoration plan in advance.
If you're in need of some inspiration, here are some great-tasting recipe ideas from the Mumsnet recipe forums that are relatively low on effort but very much high on impact.
What type of cake is best for a birthday cake?
There are lots of great birthday cake ideas around, not to mention the ideas your birthday girl or boy might throw at you – dinosaurs in space anyone? But it’s helpful to also think about how many guests will be in attendance, any allergies and perhaps most importantly: how much time you have to bake the cake.
If you’re looking to theme your cake, or shape it into something particular, the key is a firm but moist sponge and swathes of icing. A classic Victoria sponge or chocolate cake recipe topped with buttercream usually does the trick. But lots of Mumsnet users recommend using pre-made cake mix or icing if you're short on time. Throw in a few smarties and you can’t really go wrong.
“I always use Betty Crocker cake mix, for the kids' birthday cakes as I need a reliable moist firm sponge for cutting into whichever weird shape they've chosen that year and decorating. Really good recipes using the cake mixes on the website too”
Here are our 16 favourite birthday cake recipes.
1. Piñata surprise cake
Up your cake game by adding a piñata surprise. Use a standard chocolate cake recipe as a base, or try it with Betty Crocker Devil's Food Cake Mix.
Top the sweetie-filled tower of chocolate sponges with buttercream icing, or chocolate fudge icing for a decadent birthday treat.
2. Classic chocolate cake
This Mumsnet favourite is tried and tested to deliver delicious chocolatey-goodness. Smother with chocolate buttercream and white chocolate buttons for added delight.
3. Firework cake
This fantastically simple cake cuts open to surprise sprinkles inside. Decorate with buttercream icing and sprinkles for pure birthday cake joy.
4. Princess castle cake
Make or buy one square and one round sponge cake, plus five Swiss rolls. Roll out fondant icing and cover the individual cakes. Assemble your castle with buttercream. Cover four ice-cream cones in buttercream. Then, dip the ends in sprinkles before placing the cones as turrets on top of your towers. Add detail to your castle with piped icing, sugar flowers and edible glitter.
5. Creepy crawly cake
This cake is perfect for children who love nothing more than getting grubby in the garden – and parents who can handle the look of green icing. Make a two-tier Victoria sponge or chocolate cake. Slather in green icing and decorate with red and black liquorice bootlaces and jelly snakes and frogs.
6. Toadstool birthday cake
A clever use of cake containers and fondant icing makes this cake look a lot more complex than it actually is. Bake two Victoria sponges in a deep round tin and one sponge in a pudding bowl. Allow the cakes to cool completely before assembling and decorating.
7. Fairytale princess cake
Nothing beats a little birthday magic, and a fairytale princess cake delivers magic in buckets. What's more, it’s actually not as tricky to make as it looks.
Bake two or three sponges and stack them on top of each other. Wrap a Barbie in tin foil up to her waist. Place said Barbie into the middle of the cake. Slather it in pink buttercream, then add sweets and sprinkles to make it look like a Barbie ball gown skirt.
8. Dinosaur cake
Making a dinosaur cake is more of an architectural challenge than a culinary one, but we think this method is pretty foolproof.
Make two 8” chocolate cakes. Cut a 1" slice from the edge of one cake to form the body. From this edge, cut out a small inverted U-shape piece and place the body on a tray. Using the remaining cake, cut out a head and tail and arrange next to the body.
Cover with green icing and decorate with chocolate shapes.
You can make these using a classic sponge recipe, dividing the mixture into individual cake cases, icing and topping with sweets or sprinkles when cool.
10. Teddy bear cake
For a teddy bear picnic-themed party, nothing can beat a teddy bear cake. Make an 8” round chocolate cake and two cupcakes. Dust them with cocoa powder to give the appearance of fur. Place the cakes on a foil-covered plate with the 8” round cake for the face and the cupcakes for the ears. Use Smarties to mark out the facial features, gave him a bow made out of ribbon and fixed it in place with a pin. For a sweeter treat, swap the cocoa powder with Betty Crocker chocolate fudge icing.
11. Star cake
Simple, but effective. This idea makes clever use of ready-to-roll icing to deliver a low-stress showstopper. Bake two Victoria sponge or chocolate cakes and cover with icing. Get some ready-to-roll icing. Cut out star shapes and spread them out on a sheet of paper, then mix some food colouring with a little vodka (don't worry: the alcohol evaporates). Use a small paintbrush and flick several (food-colouring) colours over the stars. Then stick the stars to the cake with egg white or icing. Easy and effective.
12. Train cake
Cover a square cake in green butter icing and use matchstick chocolates to make three train tracks of different lengths, with chocolate fingers broken in half as buffers. Stick on three toy trains and candles.
13. Arctic explorer cake
Cover a sponge cake with white ready-to-roll fondant and with icing sugar sprinkled on it for snow. Place sugar cubes piled around for blocks of ice, an igloo made out of a teacup covered with fondant icing and marked into bricks with a small icing entrance funnel thing. Add a Playmobil man with a sledge. Job's a good’un.
14. Sweetie house cake
Bake five loaf cakes and stick four of them together with jam to make a cube. Slice the fifth cake diagonally in two to make a sloped roof. Cover with butter icing. Use After Eights for square windows and candy stripes for window boxes with little sugar flowers in. Use pink wafer biscuits for roof tiles and decorate with jelly beans and dolly mixtures all around the edge.
15. Pirate ship cake
Bake two chocolate loaf cakes and stick them together with chocolate butter icing. Carve one end of the cake into a bow shape like the end of a ship. Cover with chocolate icing and chocolate fingers. Make portholes with any large round sweets. Make paper sails on BBQ skewers. Top with small pirate-y Playmobil or Lego figures.
16. Picture cake
If architectural challenges aren’t your bag, this picture cake idea is a great way to add a personal touch with minimum fuss. Make a square cake and level the top. Spread buttercream icing all over the cake. Place a laminated photograph of the birthday child on top of the cake in the centre. Stick sweeties of your choice on the remaining icing and press on gently.
Tips for baking showstopper cakes
How do you get a cake out of a cake tin?
You’ve baked your sponges to perfection, but how do you get them out? The secret is, don't rush it. Let your cake cool down completely, then run a butter knife around the edge before turning it carefully onto the cooling rack.
How do you ice a kids' birthday cake?
Icing a birthday cake takes practice and patience. Here are some top tips for icing showstoppers.
- Wait for the cake to cool completely before starting to ice the cake.
- For a polished look, apply a thin layer of icing to seal in any crumbs first. Refrigerate for 30 minutes, then add the second layer of icing to smooth over the edges before adding finishing touches.
- To avoid making a mess of your plate when icing your cake, place a small sheet of baking paper underneath the cake. When you're finished decorating, gently pull out the paper for a drip-free plate.
- If you’re planning to add food colouring to icing, check before the big day that the colours will work out how you had imagined.
How to pipe icing
Piping is a great way to personalise your creations, and it’s actually easier than you might think. All you need is a small food bag filled with icing, a writing tip, a steady hand and a little patience.
For simple piping-dots hold the bag at a 90° angle above the cake and gently squeeze the bag, keeping the tip down, until the dot forms. If it leaves a small ‘tail’ at the top of the dot when you lift the tip up, gently smooth it with your finger dipped in icing sugar.
For lettering, fill a piping bag with thinned icing for a smoother flow. Hold the tip at a 45° angle to the cake, then lift slightly and squeeze slowly to form your message. If you’re worried about getting it wrong, make or buy some extra icing and have a few practices on greaseproof paper before starting on the cake.
You don’t need much in the way of equipment to whip up an impressive birthday cake, but there are few utensils that make baking a lot easier.
Digital weighing scales
More accurate than old-fashioned scales, and a lot easier to wipe clean too. Salter Arc Digital Kitchen Scales, £9 on Amazon
Quick-release cake tins
Springform quick-release tins make taking a cake out of a tin as easy as, well… pie. It's worth investing in two so you can make a two-tier cake in one go. KitchenCraft MasterClass Non Stick Quick-Release Springform Cake, £10 on Amazon
Piping bag and nozzles
If you’ve got your heart set on some impressive icing work you’ll need to invest in a decent piping bag and nozzle set. Lakeland Professional Piping Nozzles & Reusable Bag, £15 on Amazon
An electric beater or stand mixer
If you’re in the market for a high-end stand mixer, Mumsnet users rave about KitchenAid mixers. While they're certainly well built and easy on the eye, they will set you back almost £400. If you’re not quite ready for that kind of investment, a humble electric hand-mixer will do the trick too. SQ Professional Blitz Hand Mixer, £20 from Amazon
Great for icing cakes and for licking bowls, the humble spatula is surprisingly useful kitchen tool. MOACC Silicone Spatula, £12 from Amazon
What types of icing can be used on a birthday cake?
Choosing the right icing for your cake depends on what kind of effect you're after and how rich you want the cake to be. While older children and teens may delight in decadent mounds of chocolate buttercream icing, a cake like that may be too much for younger children. And while a cake lightly dusted in icing sugar doesn’t always look as exciting, a birthday party full of children with sore tummies isn't exciting either.
To make glace icing, simply mix sifted icing sugar with a little water till it's goopy but not too runny. Add a drop of lemon or orange juice, if you like, to make less cloyingly sweet. This simple topping is perfect for glazing Victoria sponges or cupcakes for little ones.
Buttercream is ideal for icing themed cakes and slathering on top of chocolate cakes. Its thick texture means it can be spread easily across sponges and can build to thick peaks for pure luxury.
Gradually cream 100g softened butter with 1 tablespoon of milk and 225g sifted icing sugar until light and fluffy. Add a little sifted cocoa powder for chocolate buttercream or a couple of drops of food colouring for coloured icing.
Cream cheese frosting
Commonly used to ice carrot cakes, this deliciously rich topping has become increasingly popular for other cakes too (hello, red velvet). Beat 100g of very soft, slightly salted butter with 200g icing sugar until smooth. Add 50g full-fat cream cheese and beat well, then add another 50g before slathering onto cakes or cupcakes.
Ready-to-roll fondant icing
Ready-to-roll fondant icing is perfect for more elaborate decorating challenges. The more solid texture means you can cut shapes or roll into characters. To use this kind of icing you'll need to make sure your cake is firm enough to hold it. A simple Victoria sponge usually does the trick.