I was recently called by my elder sister late one Friday night and asked if I would make a cake for our mother’s 80th birthday party the next day. Knowing the planning that had gone into the St Patrick’s Day party to be held at another sister’s country property at Kyneton in her honour, I suddenly felt the pressure. It was 10pm and I was half asleep, but how could I say no? “Buying a cake would cost a fortune, and yours are much nicer,” she added.
My mind started immediately rewinding to the last cakes I made. Only a few came to mind – after considerable rewinding. Aside from the kid’s birthday cakes, which were fun and spontaneous, there was the cake for mum and dad’s 40th wedding anniversary. They had children like rabbits in true Irish fashion, so with little time for planning, I thought something with a rabbit theme might be nice.
Time was of the essence then too, from memory, so without time to cook, I bought some round sponge cakes, separated the layers and formed two figure eights – the rabbits – covered them in white butter icing and coconut. Then with two pink and blue smarties for the eyes, I had mum and dad. Of course for mum the eyes were looking out into the world full of confidence, while dad with a little modification was in profile with just one eye visible as he was giving mum a kiss.
I used off cuts (or made cupcakes I can’t remember) for the 10 kids also with the icing treatment, and a row of sultanas across the bottom for all their poop! It was fun and well received.
Another that was hugely ambitious was a cake mum and I contrived for one brother’s 40th birthday. He has always been a mad surfie, so we fashioned the cake into a wave, coloured the icing in swirls of blues and greens and yellow for the sand that covered the base. He was perched on the crest of the wave, riding on a little surf board. Surprisingly ambitious and successful from memory.
This one required more planning. I pull out my trusty new phone, with all the internet support I could need, and google images of Irish themed cakes – as you do.
Born on March 19, 1932 in Paris, but brought up in Donegal with her grandparents and mother, Ireland has been a pervading force in mum’s life. The music, the people, the regard for others. The potatoes – her treat as a child – poundies – mashed potatoes made from spuds dug from the frozen earth in their back garden in Glendowan where her grandmother lived in a small, two-roomed thatched cottage, the cake had to have an Irish theme.
Mum moved to London where she studied dress designing in Bond Street and met dad, a tall dark and handsome civil engineer from Galway. They married, then dad was posted to West Africa with the Wimpy Construction company where he built roads and bridges through the jungle in Benin, Nigeria. They were posted on 18 month stints then returned to Ireland for six months. Consequently the eldest four children in our family were born alternately in Nigeria and Ireland.
After their return to Ireland, they decided to migrate to Australia with their then five children and settled in the country south of Melbourne. I was born three months after their arrival.
As children of a large Irish family in the small Australian country town of Pearcedale with a population of 392 – till we moved in, we must have seemed quite strange. We learned Irish dancing and my brothers the bagpipes in the Frankston Irish pipe band. They would practice at night outside and neighbours from some distance away would comment on the lovely Irish tunes that carried over the countryside.
We received gifts of Arron knit hats and jumpers thick enough to ward off the cold wind on the Irish Sea and claddagh rings with hands embracing a heart that meant something over there.
When I moved to the city and worked as a waitress while studying, family connections meant I easily landed a job as a wench in Bunratty Castle the medieval Irish theatre restaurant in Melbourne. The band would strike up and Johnny the fiddler would play – he was considered the best Irish fiddler in Australia – and while serving monstrous lamb chops and hearty Irish fodder, we wenches would break into the old songs of Ireland some of which I knew.
The images that appeared on my phone after my quick google search brought all that back to me. Cakes with Leprechauns, Guinness glasses, shamrocks, the colours of the flag – green, white and gold. There was such a dazzling array of cakes. My mind went into a spin. It brought back memories of our childhood. Hot sweltering summers, swimming in the dam and Irish records the latest rivals from a trip home. And the animals – a dizzying array of horses, cowes, cats and dogs that found their way to our home. Even the odd goat was not turned away.
I knew I didn’t have much time with the cake. I thought simplicity was important. Choose something achievable. It also had to be dignified given it was mum’s 80th. But I also wanted to get a bit of her personality into it.
Along with our family was 32 grandchildren most of whom lived close by. Each Sunday there would to be a gathering at mum and dad’s house where we all grew up. Mum has always enjoyed a little festivity and the mere mention of anyone’s birthday coming up or in the past week, would be enough to get her on the phone. “Would you bring a cake it’s someone’s birthday?”
After the meal – rarely a sit-down affair as there are too many to fit around the table – and it would not have been cleared anyway – the cake would be presented and everyone would gather around to sing happy birthday.
Then the birthday recipients would line up. “It’s Alycia’s birthday tomorrow,” someone would say, and we would all sing happy birthday to Alycia. They would duly blow out the candles, then someone would say, “It’s Michael’s birthday on Thursday.” So the candles would be lit again and once again we’d sing happy birthday to Michael. And so it would go on. If it wasn’t one of the little grandkid’s birthdays, the candles they would be re-lit to give them a go at blowing out candles anyway. Mum loved their excitement as the little child would climb up on to her or dad’s knee to get within spitting distance. They would watch, mesmerise by the flame, then after a sufficient pause, but not quite long enough to stop one of the older mischievous boys lean in and take the honours, they would take a huge breathe and blow out the flames helped along by a few bystanders.
Mum would make cupcakes in honour of the gathering and used to marvel at how she could turn a 50cent packed of homebrand cake mix into 48 little cakes. Her cupcakes became synonymous with family gatherings. So along with an Irish theme, I felt the birthday cake needed some cupcakes.
In googling the idea I settled on a simple cake – cooked in layers that are the colours of the Irish flag, with a shamrock on top. I could make little similar cupcakes to go around the side.
There was a cake on the net I found that fitted the bill for what I wanted.
For people interested in knowing, this is how it went:
You can see the jug of butter icing I used to ice the cupcakes (simple butter cake recipe), cover the main cake and glue the layers together.
Then I covered it in butter icing.
The biggest challenge of all was to cover it in the royal icing – with no bumps or creases.
Having not done this since high school, where a Christmas cake was iced in home economics, it wasn’t easy – but it’s not as hard as I thought.
When a dear friend turned up with cupcakes with shamrocks on top for my father’s funeral, mum was so touched, that I thought I should get some shamrocks in there. I made an urgent call to this friend Saturday morning to find out where they bought the shamrocks from, only to be told they had rolled out the coloured icing and hand cut them. They were so popular at the funeral that I didn’t see them that closely.
Hand cut the shamrocks!
Here’s my version.
So I did the cupcakes and added a line because mum’s life has been blessed with all the luck of the Irish!
She loved it. And guess what, to my surprise Johnny the fiddler from Bunratty was playing in the band!