Who had the clown cake? Who had the terrible duck with chips for a beak? Who had that bloody train cake? Georgia Munn revisits the book that defined the birthday parties of your childhood.
If you grew up in New Zealand or Australia in the 80s or 90s, your household probably had a copy of the Australian Women’s Weekly Children’s Birthday Cake Book (AWWCBCB). From before an era when a cookbook needed a TV-ready or Instagram-famous author to sell, this instructional masterpiece somehow became ubiquitous. First published in 1980, the AWWCBCB has sold over a million copies – despite being out of print for years at a time – and inspired comedians, bloggers, and Facebook groups.
As a kid, I spent hours reading this book as if it were any other picture book, and I recently rediscovered it thanks to a Reddit post where someone had scanned every single page. The comments confirmed that this book was – and continues to be – hugely important to Kiwi childhoods. Mention this book to anyone and they’ve likely eaten, baked (or both) a cake from this book. Almost everyone I know remembers being thrown or attending a birthday party with one of these cakes, and plenty of us have a cake we always wanted but never got. For me, that cake was the iconic candy castle, with its ice cream cone turrets adorned with pink Smarties.
My mum Vicki, who raised me and my two brothers in Christchurch in the ’90s, says every mother she knew baked from the book, and speaks of the intense rivalry that the AWWCBCB created. She says “it was extremely competitive, and I always felt inferior. There was no sisterhood where birthday cakes were concerned. Most importantly, you scored bragging rights by how late at night you started the damn thing after the kids were in bed, and then how many hours it took you to complete”.
Sounds like the baking equivalent of getting an A on an essay, then saying that you only started it the night before it was due.
My mum also notes that “it’s important to remember this way in the days before the Internet – or at least Internet for me and my housewife friends – so we were greatly reliant on print. Of course, there were no retail outlets that sold cake either. It was the dark ages. It seems odd now, however, that we all made the same birthday cakes.”
Mum’s copy, which I must’ve spent 100+ hours of my life in the fond company of, was lost in the depths of a storage unit, but I managed to grab a copy on Trade Me. Some of the cakes are exquisite and some abhorrent. Some have stood the test of time, and others should be left in the 1980s with Rogernomics.
I have tried to compile a list of just five of the worst things about the book.
1) The lack of actual baking instruction
Although I’ve come to think of this as the cookbook that defined a generation, there is very little actual cooking instruction in this book. Some brief instruction sets the reader up for making butter cake, Vienna cream and ‘fluffy frosting’, and then launches into the most important part: the decorating.
This is essentially a craft book where all the materials just happen to be edible.
You’re expected to be a licorice artisan, dye desiccated coconut every colour of the rainbow, pipe decorations with expert accuracy and fashion delicate flowers from marshmallows. Many of the cakes require complex diagrams to take the reader from a square butter cake to castle, duck or dump truck. However, many of the cakes in the book have a charmingly sloppy devil-may-care look about them, offering some solace to frazzled parents everywhere.
2) The ridiculous train cake
The train has been called ‘the Mount Everest of cakes’ and is a particular sore spot for my mum. She describes showing up to a joint birthday party for my brother and one of his friends having lovingly crafted the classic ‘hickory dickory dock’ cake as her contribution, and being totally upstaged by the train cake. This feat of engineering requires a metre-long display board and the commitment to crafting individual carriages and couplings and even popcorn steam coming from the engine.
It seems that parents today still hold this cake up as a bastion of culinary art, as I’ve seen plenty of contemporary renditions.
3) The chapter headings
Harking back to the good old days when men were men and women made the cakes, a good portion of the AWWCBCB‘s cakes are separated by gender. It’s exactly what you’d expect. The ‘For Boys’ chapter features rocket ships, pirates, race cars, boats and planes – this myriad of modes of transport preparing your son for a career in engineering. The ‘For Girls’ chapter features sewing machines, dressing tables, baby baskets and even a stove (complete with sausages made of chocolate hail), to help resign your daughter to a life of domestic servitude.
4) The abundance of clown cakes
For the children who love horrifying clowns and John Wayne Gacy Jr fangirls. Bring one of these out during an It viewing party to really double down on the nightmarishness. Nothing says ‘conquering your clown phobia’ like eating a clown’s face.
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5) There are TWO ‘cowboys and Indians’ cakes
Not satisfied with romanticising colonisation just once in a children’s cake book, there are two of these packet-mix delights depicting cowboys and Native Americans in conflict. Ah, it really was the glory days!
So which is your favourite? Would you ever try to tackle one of these cakes now? One thing’s for sure, the Australian Women’s Weekly Children’s Cake Book will live on.
The Spinoff’s food content is brought to you by Freedom Farms. They believe talking about food is nearly as much fun as eating it, and they’re excited to facilitate some good conversations around food provenance in Aotearoa New Zealand.