It was my daughter’s 4th birthday on Sunday, and in a burst of rash optimism and maternal warmth some time in January it was decided she could have a joint birthday party with her best friend, S, whose birthday happens to fall just two days after hers. I’ve always subscribed to the theory that invitees to a child’s birthday shouldn’t number more than the child’s age, and we’ve stuck to that for the previous couple of years. However, a joint guest list, a burgeoning social life from starting nursery, and a throwaway comment from Anna along the lines of “how come other children have big parties and I don’t?” led to this year working out rather differently.
After much discussion and agonising, H (S’s mum) and I got the guest list down to a theoretically manageable 21. We briefly considered, and quickly rejected, hosting in one of our houses and booked the local toy library as a venue. I’m quite old school about birthday parties. I worry that the modern trend for huge parties with catering, entertainers, specially commissioned cakes and lavish party bags will just lead to children who are jaded and spoiled by the time they hit seven. Luckily H agrees with me on that, so we were clear that we would make the food and birthday cake ourselves, that the entertainment would be traditional pass the parcel, Simon Says etc, and that the party bags would be a small toy, a balloon and a generous slice of cake but nothing more.
So far, so good. The thing is, although I’m lamentably old-fashioned on the subject of children not getting spoilt, I also totally adore my daughter, and desperately wanted her to have a special and memorable birthday, and it turns out that organising a party for that many children is a huge amount of stress and hard work. I thanked heaven many times that we’d decided to go for a joint party, because it turned out that H was a dab hand at sourcing all the necessary paraphernalia on Amazon – invitations, party bags and suitable contents, plates, napkins, balloons – all appeared as links in my inbox for approval without me having to lift a finger. She also shares my borderline obsessive-compulsive streak for organisation (in context, on my wedding day the registrar told me I was the first bride in his 20 years experience to arrive 15 minutes early), and so wasn’t too freaked out by my to-do list emails.
My main contribution was to be the cakes. I enjoy baking, and H doesn’t, so I volunteered to make the birthday cake and fairy cakes for the party. This was in addition to Anna’s birthday cake for her family celebration which was due to take place the day before her party. What I had unfortunately forgotten was that, although I do love baking and always receive pretty positive feedback on my cakes, I am absolutely awful at decorating and presentation. And for a four year-old’s birthday cake the taste is very much of secondary importance to the aesthetic. This realisation and a dawning sense of my own inadequacies literally kept me awake at nights for weeks beforehand.
We’d considered a Peppa Pig cake, or a cat shaped cake as both children love cats, but a still, small voice of sanity stopped me in my tracks, and we opted for a simple rectangle shape, on the grounds that this would be easier to cut up for the party bags. After all, who wants to be carrying out vivisection on an anthropomorphic cat or pig during a children’s party?
A rectangle seems pretty simple, but I still managed to get stressed out, and needed several frantic conversations with my mum, a borrowed cake tin and mathematical calculations I haven’t used since school to get the right sized tin matched with the correct quantities of cake mixture.
Last Friday, two days before the party and a day before our family celebration, was D Day. Or C Day, I suppose. Luckily my parents were down for the weekend, and so I was able to delegate all responsibility for my daughter to them, while I turned my kitchen into a cake factory. It was also handy having my dad around because, as neither H nor I have a car, he was able to take us to Sainsbury’s to stock up on enormous quantities of hummus, olives, hula hoops, cocktail sausages and chocolate finger biscuits, which were the specific culinary requirements of the birthday boy and girl.
I was most nervous about the main birthday cake for the party, so I started with that, and it all went well. My biggest mixing bowl was just about big enough, and my geometrical calculations regarding mixture and tins had not let me down. So far, so good. I felt a little buoyed with what, it turned out, was false confidence and decided to get on with the fairy cakes while the birthday cake cooled. And so I did. Unfortunately, the sad, squat little patties which emerged from the oven a little while later were about as far from the Magnolia Bakery ideal as it is possible to get. I couldn’t understand what had gone wrong – I must bake a batch of cupcakes at least once a week, surely I could do it in my sleep? A little detective work uncovered the source of the problem. With a classic illustration of more haste, less speed, I’d grabbed a new packet of flour and chosen plain instead of self-raising. Agonisingly, by the time I made this discovery, I’d also made the family birthday cake, and that was now in the oven. I’d used the same packet of flour, and so had an agonising 40 minute wait to see if the baking powder I’d included in that recipe would rescue the situation or not.
Luckily it did, and that cake rose like a dream. However, I still had flat failures for fairy cakes. I decided to see if they looked any better once iced. It only took a couple of rounds with a piping bag and the first few cakes to confirm that, if anything, they looked worse. I was now running short of time, patience, and, crucially, butter.
I dashed to the local shop to replenish supplies, came back, made another batch of cakes, this time checking the flour with paranoid intensity, put the failed cakes in the freezer (the next few people to come to dinner chez moi can expect trifle for pudding!), and started to extract the main birthday cake from the tin. Unfortunately, in all the cupcake-induced woe I’d left it far too long in the tin, and it broke into several pieces on removal. I really was despairing by this time, but my parents convinced me that with enough icing slathered over the top, no-one would ever know. They also came up with the brilliant idea of freezing the cake for 24 hours, and icing it frozen so that it would be less crumby and more manageable to work with.
The family birthday cake and the cupcakes gave me no further trouble, but the nice dinner I’d planned for my parents, husband and myself that night was a casualty, and we ended up with a thrown-together pasta and a tub of Ben and Jerry’s.
I was semi-hysterical at the thought of icing the cake, but luckily my husband remained completely calm and kept my worst nervous excesses in check. He also made himself very useful cutting out star-shapes, balloon shapes, number 4s, and letters for the birthday boy and girl’s names from coloured icing. I ran amok with a bowl of fondant icing and then several tubes of Smarties, which, combined with the icing cut outs, managed to create a cake which looked reasonably acceptable. Phew. Now it was only the party itself to get through.
And that went fine. Hardly any tears, lots of excited laughter, mostly empty plates – you can’t really ask for more. We did a very hasty clean-up of the hall, and then came home for Anna and S to play together while their exhausted parents collapsed with a much-needed caffeine fix. Later we opened Anna’s presents with her, played with some of her new games, and read some of her new books. Happily all the excitement meant that she was in bed and asleep by 6.30pm, and so I could sprint to the fridge for one of the most eagerly anticipated glasses of wine I have ever enjoyed, and spent the rest of the evening getting increasingly tipsy and emotional with the ‘do you remember this time four years’ ago’ anecdotes.
I think that maybe her fifth birthday celebration can consist of a couple of friends coming round for tea.