Decorations that take the cake On the cutting edge with homemade birthday cakes

April 14, 1993|By Cathy Barber | Cathy Barber,Dallas Morning News/Universal Press Syndicate

A homemade birthday cake used to mean colored candles and sugary decorations that broke before you could get them arranged.

Now, the supermarket stocks all sorts of materials for the amateur cake decorator, from colored sugar to canned icing with dinosaur sprinkles.

And that's just the cake aisle. The candy and cereal sections yield more possibilities, from marshmallows to Froot Loops.

Cut-up cakes -- sheets or layers cut and reassembled into fanciful shapes -- provide the ideal canvas for the cake-cupboard artist.

Cut-up cakes are an old idea reinvented. Kraft General Foods, owner of Baker's chocolate and coconut, introduced the cakes in the '60s and recently came up with new designs for the '90s, including in-line skates, a monster truck and a cowboy boot.

The cakes had become something of a cult favorite, says Lisa K. Van Riper, spokeswoman for Kraft. The company was getting about 200 requests a month for patterns -- and the last recipe booklet was printed in 1971.

"People still wanted the book," Ms. Van Riper says. "We got down to a couple hundred in stock and said, 'We've got to do something about this, because of the demand.' "

Three home economists started baking and slicing to create new patterns and simplify old favorites such as the bunny and elephant cakes. "The bunny cake has always been the big one," Ms. Van Riper says.

You may have seen Mr. Rabbit last week at Easter parties, or at least in a magazine ad. It's one of the simplest designs. One

round cake serves as the face, and a second is sliced hourglass-style to make ears (the edges) and a bow tie (the center).

That's the beauty of the cut-up cake: You don't need special equipment or a cake-college degree to make one. "It's almost like you made them in a special pan, and you didn't," Ms. Van Riper says.

The new Baker's recipe booklet gives basic patterns and shows the decorated cakes -- all covered in tinted coconut, of course.

It's a good starting point -- but some cooks don't need a picture.

Bill Sterrett has been making silhouette cakes for family and friends for about 15 years. He started making the cakes to give his two children something more interesting than a plain birthday cake.

"I'm with IBM, and I'm left-brained most of the day," says the software developer.

He remembers making Mr. Rabbit at some point. He has also made a giraffe, a cat, fish, cars, a soccer ball, even bowling pins and a ball. (The family went bowling for that party.)

"My wife does all the work," he says. "She cooks. I just cut it up and decorate it." No small contribution -- and he also does the dishes.

His most memorable cake: a train that stretched the length of the dining room table. He cut four 9-by-13-inch cakes into eight train cars.

Caterer Tina Danze recently made a bear cake for her daughter's second birthday. The chocolate bear was such a hit that she made a second white bear for another party later in the week.

"Everybody wanted a piece with candy, but there were only a few of those," Ms. Danze says. "You can tell everybody that you're saving the top part for last, so you can still see the face.

"When they're 2, they really like little smiling faces," she says.

The chocolate bear's smiling face was made with red rope licorice for the mouth; the eyes were flattened marshmallows with black candy centers. The white bear's face was made from jelly beans and chocolate-covered peanuts.

More than a sheet cake or layer cake, cut-up cakes need detail, whether it's a witch's scowl or a saddle on the hobby horse.

"The possibilities are endless," Ms. Van Riper says. "There's just a million things you can use" to embellish the cakes.

Some of her ideas: gum drops, jelly beans, mini marshmallows, Fruit Roll-Ups, malted milk balls, chocolate-covered raisins, wafer cookies and dinner mints.

The butterfly cake, for example, was cut from a sheet cake and decorated with Fruit Roll-Ups and candy.

Betty Crocker cake decorating supplies -- tubes of colored icing and matching gel, sprinkles and other basics -- are ideal for amateurs.

New products on the horizon include fondant icing "decals," printed with detailed animals, clowns and other designs. The soft decorations, which should be in stores in the next couple of months, go on top of a frosted cake, says marketing director Jennifer Beckette.

Gretchen Haben, a home economist for Betty Crocker, says store-bought frosting works fine on cut-up cakes and takes well to coloring. However, it's too soft to pipe. For that, she recommends the icing in a tube.

For tinting frosting, paste colors give more vibrant hues than food coloring, she says.

If you don't have kids, you may have missed the cartoon boom in fruit snacks. Besides the sheets of Fruit Roll-Ups, there are tiny Trolls, Bugs Bunny, Garfield, the Tasmanian Devil and other critters. Ms. Haben suggests using Fruit by the Foot -- fruit snacks that come in a long, narrow piece, rolled up -- to create a "bow" on top of the cake.

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