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Kids Birthday Cake Themes and Tips from Southeast Michigan Bakeries

It's an essential part of any child's party. Local metro Detroit and Ann Arbor shops offer insights and advice on picking the right one, whether you splurge or DIY.

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Flip through photos of children's birthdays, and you're likely to see everything from princess-themed parties to all-out superhero bashes complete with balloons and streamers. While the decorations and ages of the kids might change, there's one picture that's always similar: a smiling birthday kid blowing out candles on the cake.

Cakes make a birthday celebration special. But finding that ideal treat – the one that pleases your child without walloping your budget – can be tricky. Fortunately, hometown bakeries here in Oakland, Washtenaw and Wayne counties have tips and choices for families. Read on for insider advice on whipping up a cream-of-the-crop creation!

Birthday cake basics

Cakes have come along way. With the popularity of the Food Network and shows like Ace of Cakes, which have elevated cake making to an art form, kids and parents alike are looking for unique creations.

But custom cakes carry custom prices. A quarter-sized sheet cake (about 9 inches-by-13 inches) has a tag of around $13.99 to $19.99 at the grocery store. At a bakery, the cost for the same-sized cake starts at around $19.99 or more. Add special fillings and extra designs, and the cost goes up quickly.

Bakers say their use of homemade ingredients and unique designs account for the difference in cost. Many bakers echo a similar thought: "A birthday only comes around once a year; it's all right to splurge a little for something special that also tastes good."

Cost considerations

To make your splurge worth it, get your child involved in designing the cake. All of the bakers said they're willing to work with the children's desires, along with the parents' budgets.

To understand how cakes are made and what impacts costs, here's a little frosting lesson. There are two main methods to frosting cakes: buttercream and fondant. As the name implies, the first frosting is made with butter for a creamy, kid-friendly taste. Fondant is a stiff, smooth frosting that makes for a more dramatic and sculpted finish, but often has a less kid-pleasing taste.

Bakers include a layer of frosting under the fondant, but prices on these cakes often are much more. If you still want that smooth look, opt for fondant accents, like polka dots and a bow to cut down costs and increase the buttercream flavor.

Planning – and leftovers

When it comes to ordering that dream cake, be sure to call the bakery at least two to three days before the event, advises Lisa Dodge, owner of the Buttercream Bakeshop in Wixom. This bakery is located in a bright main street area across from the library.

If your child's birthday falls near a holiday, she adds, you might want to order the cake a week or two in advance. Dodge, whose talented staff has over 18 years of professional experience, got her start begging her mom to cook when she was just 3 years old (she got her wish at age 4).

Colorfully frosted cakes that look like animal heads – and giant cupcakes – are her signature birthday creations. The bakery's sheet cakes are in two layers so you can get a filling inside. Buttercream also includes the expected cupcakes and cookies, plus surprises like individual slices of New York-style cheesecake and soft scones.

If there are any leftovers of the birthday cake, Dodge adds, cut them into individual slices, wrap in wax paper and put in a freezer-safe container. Slices will last up to a month this way. Bring to room temperature before eating (although the cakes taste great frozen, too!).

Going for unique touches

A specialty food spot like Zingerman's Bakehouse in Ann Arbor can be a great bet for something that stands out. Here, for instance, you can purchase a six-inch, three-layer "Zing'casion" cake at the deli – or special order your choice of colors for the cake (the signature version looks like a round gift with polka dots and a three-dimensional bow).

The Bakehouse is a bit of a "backdoor" secret. Zingerman's Deli is practically a Tree Town institution; this lesser-known bakery, just off I-94, supplies the breads, pastries and cakes. Set in an industrial park, it includes a bakeshop, creamery (for fresh Italian-style ice cream called gelato served year-round along with cheeses) and, of course, a huge bake house where bakers work 24 hours a day supplying Zingerman's favorites throughout Michigan. It's worth the trip to get still-warm croissants or sourdough with dark-chocolate chunks mixed into the batter.

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