You certainly can’t accuse my son of not knowing what he wants.
It was more than six months ago that he first informed me he wanted me to make him a pirate ship birthday cake for his party and his dedication to the concept has been unwavering ever since.
Which means I’ve had plenty of time to think about it. Or not. I adopted the same approach as with my tax returns of assuming that if I simply banish it from my mind it will go away. It didn’t.
The problem is I’m just not very good at baking. That’s not to say I can’t whisk together a perfectly serviceable standard birthday cake. I can also almost guarantee you that anything I bake will taste good. It’s just the aesthetic side which lets it all down.
In short, I’m utterly cack-handed at anything which requires neatness, precision, tidiness or patience, rather like an arthritic jellyfish who’s drunk twelve pints of extra strong cider trying to carry out keyhole heart surgery. An elaborate celebration cake which requires layering, cutting and decorating? I knew this pirate ship was heading for stormy seas.
But yet I insisted that I was going to have a go at something which was clearly beyond my capabilities. I could have bought or ordered an immaculate pirate ship cake. The problem was my son had asked me to make it, to do it myself. He’s just getting old enough now to be aware of my practical limitations, my complete ineptitude at DIY. Perhaps he just wanted some realisation of a mystical link between father and son, some physical evidence that daddy actually can make something. I knew I had to do it.
And so, while the rest of country was sitting down to watch Harry and Meghan’s wedding, it began. I came up with a method. It worked perfectly well – in my head.
The first bit was easy. I baked a chocolate cake in a large rectangular cake tin from an old recipe I’ve used before. When cooled I cut it into two long thin rectangles, one became the main body of the ship and the other I sliced into three parts to become the raised prow and stern.
The layering went better than expected and the cake was now starting to look ship-shape (pardon the pun). This involved the use of dowels to stabilise the cake. I bought these specially out of a baking shop although it did occur to me that a plastic straw would probably serve just as well (just remember to remove before eating!). Then I cut the front of the cake into an almost professional looking V-shape and my optimism was growing.
Before icing I tried to cover the cake with vanilla buttercream to smooth the surface before icing. This is where the inevitable decline set in. Frosting the vertical sides of the cake proved to be difficult and, at points, more of the cake seemed to be falling off than buttercream going on. The low point was when the whole prow broke off in my hand and had to be hastily stuck back on with another dowel. By now a sense of low panic was descending on me.
With the cake inexpertly frosted I tried to cover it with brown icing (which I thought would create a wood effect). But the cake was such an irregular shape that the finished task quickly developed into a patchwork of ripped and torn scraps of icing. As I attempted to smooth the icing down and I surveyed the messy criss-cross of joining lines it occurred to me that I had created the Frankenstein’s monster of pirate ship birthday cakes.
So the cake was ugly, bumpy, creased and, undoubtedly, leaning towards one side. And none of this was the slightest surprise to me. I knew my limitations and I had lived down to them perfectly.
But I did have a plan for a counterattack. When the appearance is not pleasing on the eye, then the tactic has to be to confuse the eye. With some edible glue I fastened a number of Milky Bar buttons to the cake as makeshift portholes. The lines and creases on the surface were covered with little silver candy balls which I thought would pass as metal bolts. In advance I had made gingerbread pirates and anchors which covered some of the rougher patches. As my granny used to say, to ‘take the bad look off it’.
A mast with Jolly Roger sail and flags was commandeered from my son’s toy pirate ship alongside a miniature cannon and treasure chest. I wrote a ‘Happy Birthday’ message with white chocolate. By the time some birthday candles are added hopefully the whole effect will be so busy as to disguise some of the obvious defects.
Tomorrow the cake will be presented to a room full of five-year-olds, most of whom probably won’t give it a second glance.
But I showed it to my son today. He didn’t say anything, he just stared at it for a while. Then he walked over and gave me a long, silent hug. Sometimes failure is not so bad.
The only thing left now is to work out how to slice the blasted thing.