all my life i've wanted to learn how to make a real grown-up chocolate cake with layers and pretty frosting, just like the ones i imagine i'd see in a charming bakery shop window if only i actually shopped at charming bakeries, and, no, costco doesn't count. it's why i had kids, i think--so that one day one of them would ask for one for her 9th birthday, and i'd have to rise to the occasion or fail her as a mother, and yes, i'm being dramatic.
look! we did it, olivia and i. it isn't perfect by any means, but for a first effort it's not bad. and, hey, under some very specific circumstances, unevenly distributed frosting might even be considered a good thing. (diabetic? you bet! on an all-sugar diet? you too! step right up, folks, and get your custom-frosted cake slice right here!)
okay. moving along--
making her birthday cake is a fun tradition to do together, and we'll continue to do it as long as her interest lasts. last year we made this simple (but still impressive, no?) 8-layer icebox cake. this year she wanted something a tiiiiiny bit more amibitious. we learned some things along the way (some of them a bit surprising, maybe?) and i thought i would share our tips for all you other aspiring makers of pretty layer cakes out there:
1) do yourself a favor and step away from the boxed cake mix. yes, i know that sounds snobby, and, listen, for a potluck church social for 100 people, a boxed cake mix will do just fine. but now i know why all my previous attempts to make a pretty frosted cake ended in a sorry, crumby mess. i was using boxed cake mixes! and here's the secret: aside from tasting only okay, they're simply not dense enough to stand up to the clumsy frosting attempts of a beginning cake decorator. use this recipe from Cook's Illustrated instead. i know, baking a cake like this from scratch is time-consuming and a tad involved, but believe me. it's worth it--from a flavor as well as a presentation perspective. trust me. you'll thank me later.
2) same thing goes for the frosting in a can. don't do it! it doesn't spread very well, compared to a homemade frosting. here's the recipe we used, and the flavor and consistency are miles above anything i've ever tried before.
3) also, while we're on the subject of frosting-in-a-can: totally misleading. no way is one of those enough to frost an entire layer cake. and why wasn't i smart enough to know that? i dunno. but now you are.
4) to properly frost a cake, both your cake and your frosting must be at room temperature. warm cake + cold frosting = disaster. but i'm sure you already knew that. still, it's worth noting.
5) a pretty cake needs a pretty cake stand. some people will tell you it's optional. they're wrong.
6) to protect your cake stand from inevitable drips and splatters, slide 3"-wide strips of parchment paper an inch or so under your bottom cake layer. remove them after applying your final coat of frosting, but before you pop the cake in the fridge to chill.
7) when frosting your cake, apply a thin coat first to seal in any crumbs. (but you're using the recipe i gave you, right? so you shouldn't have very many of those.) chill for 30 minutes before applying a thicker topcoat.
8) always spread the frosting in the same direction, turning your cake as you go. (this tip is my favorite and the key to a smooth finish.)
are you a baking expert? do you have tips of your own to share? i'd love to hear them--even if they seem totally obvious!
p.s. those strawberries on top (9 of them of course!) were 100% made by olivia and are a totally do-able kid project.
after a dozen years, he still likes me. even though i'm terribly unhelpful when it comes to planning a date. and i wear the wrong shoes. and spend half of a very nice lunch pouting about the cold sore that is conspiring to Ruin My Life.
also worth noting: i'm pretty sure i was born with a chronic condition called Low-Level Loneliness. he makes it better.
when i first had the idea for a secret decoder invitation, i wasn't sure if it could be DIY-ed, so i googled around a bit and then i saw this! exactly what i had in mind. once i knew it could be done, i got to work making my own card and background pattern.
the design of the invitation is simple--a big number 9 outlined in cyan, followed by the party details (also in cyan). the background is designed in shades of red and light red. if you look closely you can see it is made up of tiny letters a to z, all jumbled up to form a pattern.
to print the invitation, i used a regular ink jet printer and ran the paper through twice--first to print the party info and again to print the background to encrypt it.
the secret decoder glasses are another DIY using this template, cardstock, and some red cellophane from the craft store.
i know you are itching to send a secret message of your own, so i'm offering the background as a free download. happy decoding!
(psst...more details about olivia's Ghostwriter birthday party to come!)
edit: see the rest of the party here.
don't laugh, but i've recently taken a cue from my sister and started using the term home-educating instead of home-schooling to describe our family's approach to learning at home. maybe it's a silly thing, but i feel like it fits us better. and not that we have to have a label, but sometimes i need that reminder that the process of one's becoming educated doesn't (shouldn't?) have to look--or feel--like "doing schoolwork". it can be more organic than that, child-led, spontaneous, unpredictable, interesting, relevant, fun.
people ask me how we do it, and i'm never sure how to answer that. we try a lot of different things. some of them work and some of them don't. at the heart of it all, there's this element of growing trust between us. i trust that my children want to learn and try to give them the freedom and opportunity to do so. they, in turn, trust me to do the best i can, be present and compassionate, make adjustments when needed, and just generally not screw them up too much.
i can say that it's both terrifying and exhilarating following a path that isn't mainstream. we're just figuring it out as we go. and maybe that's why giving a name to what we do seems important to me right now? i find that i'm constantly asking myself: what is this we're doing? are my children getting the right opportunities? what exactly is an education anyway (i know it isn't the same as a diploma or a degree, though more often than not the terms are used interchangeably) and how do we get it?
are you educating at home? what do you call it? does it matter?
to be honest, we don't do it very often. it's a lot of work. but the kids love it. including the bigger ones disguised as adults.
lake la cygne is about an hour south of us. we rented a cabin with our friends the mullens, and the kids learned to fish (thank you, ryan, Official Worm Skewer-er!) and canoe.
(two words: life jackets. oh, and extra clothes.)
the other highlights of the trip were 1) the perfect weather and 2) the food:
also, we identified some local wildlife, including three ticks. our first experience with those--very educational.
edit: i don't know why my animated gif of asher swaggering around with a (very dull--but manly) machete isn't working. and i had such high hopes for wowing you with my 1990s high-tech awesomeness.