Australia Diary collects reader stories reflecting Australia’s unique character. Want to share your story, photo, poem or video? Email email@example.com.
When a Cake Is More Than Just a Cake
By Molly O’Brien
Growing up in my household, the months leading up to our birthdays meant one thing: poring over the chromatic, candied pages of “The Australian Women’s Weekly Children’s Birthday Cake Cookbook” — its beloved contents as much of a mouthful as its title.
My siblings and I were allowed to select one cake from the book each year as a sweet signifier of aging. For the uninitiated, these were not regular birthday cakes. On offer in the book was a smorgasbord of treats: castle cakes with cone turrets; duck cakes with potato chip and popcorn garnish; racecars; ghosts; and one terrifying (sociopathic, in hindsight) clown.
There were cakes that were more props and décor than anything actually edible: empty egg shells and top hats for “Humpty Dumpty,” tiny plastic farm animals to breathe life into a zoo-themed cake, real-life needle and thread to adorn the “Sewing Basket.”
On these cakes, confectionary was transformed into inanimate objects like marshmallow tutus and Kit Kat piano keys. There were witch cakes, number cakes, cricket-pitch cakes. The preparation, assemblage and decorating time rarely fell under the four-hour mark.
After our decision was made, we would submit our requests to our astonishingly patient and imaginative Oma, who would — without complaint — exceed every expectation upon delivery.
She was the patron saint of birthday cakes.
I had a cake from this book nearly every year up until my 21st birthday (the flowery No. 4 reimagined into a sophisticated 2-1).
Originally published in 1980 and rereleased in 2011, there have been more than one million copies of this classic cookbook sold to date. It has fulfilled countless sugary dreams for Australian kids and undoubtedly contributed to kitchen meltdowns nationwide.
Do you have pictures of your favorite cake? Send them to us or post them to Instagram with the hashtag #AustraliaDiaryCakes.
The quality of the cakes wasn’t even particularly sophisticated; most were made out of simple supermarket cake mix, in a very pre-Adriano Zumbo era. It was what they represented that made them taste so good: being special.
As a child, the process of choosing a cake was not taken lightly. I would pass smug judgment when someone chose a cake I deemed a poor choice (“Maypole”), experience slow-burning jealousy when a risky choice paid dividends (“Rocking Horse”).
The mention of this book never fails to spark conversation here in New York and elsewhere with my now late-twenties, Aussie-expat peers. What principles of psychology lie behind choosing the cakes we did? If we had our time over, what would we select instead?
From 1992 to ’96, ages 3 to 7, I maintained a steadfast allegiance to the “Swimming Pool” — the luscious alchemy of green jelly and vanilla sponge encased in chocolate wafer biscuits too good to risk on an unknown cake. What a fool I was! How I now wish I’d just once selected the desiccated coconut bunny.
On my fridge in my Brooklyn apartment sits a secondhand copy of the cookbook. The book, and my jar of Vegemite, serve as indicators of my upbringing.
The book has yet to be enlisted for practical use — under my ownership, anyway — but it is also more than just homely decoration. I like to imagine that one day I’ll flip through its pages with the same intent as my Oma did; perhaps when baking a cake would mean as much to its recipient as it did to me, perhaps when I can actually afford a KitchenAid, or perhaps even when I have kids of my own.
This cookbook is like a cherished family heirloom, but one not exclusive to just my family. It’s an heirloom I share with thousands of other Australian children whose birthdays were also brought to life by supermarket cake mix, nauseating effort and immeasurable love.
Do you have pictures of your favorite cake from the cookbook? Send them to us or post them to Instagram with the hashtag #AustraliaDiaryCakes.
And submit your own story. For guidance and inspiration, here are a few other recent entries: for the birds, no hat, no play, a housewarming party, tales of nippers, growing up on the creek, generational angst, paying with pineapples, magical mermaid pools, lizard friends, nude beaches, music and road trips, curious lifeguards, death and kindness, plus poetry and #metoo on the work site.
Want more Australia coverage and discussion? Join us in our Facebook group, sign up for the weekly Australia Letter and start your day with the Australian Morning Briefing.