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.
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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."
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.
Zingerman's also makes its own fondant, says Amy Emberling, one of the bakery's directors. Because the fondant is made in-house, the bakery can create a more appealing, kid-friendly flavor, and it's only slightly pricier than all-buttercream cakes. "It tastes like Oreo filling," Emberling says.
TLC for your OOAK cake
Cakes need a little love to stay perfect for your child's party, says Monica Ingles, who runs Sorella's Homemade Baked Goods in Livonia with her sister, Bertha Ferguson – both of whom grew up on pastries and specialty cakes in their Italian family.
Make sure to have room in your car – and then in your refrigerator – for the cake. Ingles reminds parents that buttercream frosting melts in warm temperatures, so keep it chilled until party time. "It's like butter," explains Ingles. "You wouldn't serve butter for bread cold or melting; it needs to be at room temperature."
At Sorella's, incidentally, they've worked and tweaked their buttercream recipe for years until they perfected just the right mix of silky, smooth buttery taste.
Here, you'll find buttercream cakes and fondant designs, along with single-portion treats like raspberry mousse-filled chocolate chiffon cake covered in chocolate and cheesecake pops (cheesecake bits on a stick that are then dipped in chocolate or other toppings).
With younger kids, Ingles admits that Elmo is always popular. But one of her favorite cake designs was a Candy Land board game – complete with all edible parts.
Go DIY with a baking theme
For a truly one-of-a-kind birthday cake, let guests join in the fun of making the cake. With your birthday boy or girl, drop off a wooden spoon with an invitation attached. Let the guests know they'll be getting messy!
To prep: Create simple aprons for each guest by using kitchen towels and ribbons. At the shorter end of the towel, sew a 16- to 20-inch piece of ribbon (depending on the age and size of your guests) on one end, and then sew the other end of the towel for the head loop of the apron. Lengthwise, halfway down the long side of the towel, make the back ties for the apron by sewing a 16- to 20-inch piece of ribbon on either side.
Then, make two eight-inch round cakes for the party. And purchase or make large (think four- to five-inch) sugar cookies for guests to decorate. Purchase or make cake frosting. Choose other cake decorations to have on hand for guests, too, like colored sugars, sprinkles, chocolate chips or small candies.
Big hint: Leave the cleaning for after the party. Your kitchen is going to get messy. Don't even bother to sweep before the sprinkles come out.
During the party? After you've played par
ty games and unwrapped presents, explain to guests that they will be helping make the birthday cake. Give each guest a large sugar cookie to frost while you frost the larger cake. Let the kids dive into different colored frostings and top their cookies with sprinkles and other fun decorations.
When you're done frosting the cake, let guests help you decorate. Carefully wrap up the decorated cookies to send home with guests, along with their aprons, as party favors. Take pictures of your one-of-a-kind cake and then enjoy!
You can also make decorating the apron with sequins, permanent markers or fabric paints part of the birthday fun.