The prospect of making a kids' birthday cake is overwhelming for many parents. LoveToKnow Kids turned to award-winning cake designer Jeri Gottlieb of Flour Girl for advice.
Jeri Gottlieb and Flour Girl
Trained at the French Culinary Institute, Jeri uses her innovative decorating techniques to create mouth-watering, eye-pleasing cakes for weddings, birthdays, special occasion. Jeri's unique creations were named "best birthday cake" by New York Magazine.
LoveToKnow (LTK): Tell us about your background. How did you become a cake decorator?
Jeri Gottlieb (JG): For a birthday present, my now husband got me a few cooking classes. I was so enamored, I decided I wanted to work with food as a career. Desserts were my favorite, especially the beautiful decorated cakes I would see in magazines. I imagined it was the perfect combination of creativity and science, of abandon and precision - and it is! You get to work with both your head and your hands.
LTK: Jeri Gottlieb's Flour Girl has a reputation as being hip and cool. What makes it different?
JG: We have a unique style, adopted and modified from my very first employer in the cake business. She also decorated her cakes with decorated cut-out cookies. I like splashy presentations and lots of color, and I like it when cakes are tall, making them a fun table centerpiece. So I started trying to make my cakes more three dimensional, where the decorated cookies literally pop out of the cake. I also like a sense of humor about the cakes - they're meant to be witty and fun.
Kids' Birthday Cake Basics
LTK: You have quite a variety of cake flavors. For kids' parties, do you recommend sticking with the basics?
JG: I do recommend sticking with the basics. (The variety of flavors is really for my benefit, to keep it interesting and try out new things!) For the most part, my customers have already figured out for themselves that it's best to keep it simple and have taught me that. Usually, there are a lot of tastes to please and, as a host, that's what you try to do. My favorite combination is the classic golden yellow cake filled with a chocolate buttercream and frosted with vanilla buttercream. Equally popular is the devil's food chocolate cake filled and frosted with vanilla buttercream. Either of these are crowd pleasers.
LTK: What are the most popular styles in children's cakes right now?
JG: There are certain enduring classics when it comes to children's parties. We have made a number of barnyard themed cakes, cakes adorned with flowers and butterflies (for girls) as well as our classic, a cake topped with cookies cut to resemble birthday candles and balloons. We've also done cakes inspired by the child's party invitation. What is a given, as well, is just how creative the moms I've worked with can be. They often have the best ideas.
LTK: Do you get many requests for character cakes?
JG: Yes. The two most popular are Elmo and Dora.
Make Cupcakes Special
LTK: Are cupcakes popular for kids' birthday parties?
JG: Yes, they are very popular, especially for the convenience factor.
LTK: How do you make cupcakes exciting?
JG: We top our cupcakes with a hand-decorated cut-out cookie that mirrors the party's theme. A lot of times, to make them really stand out, the cookies are baked with a lollipop stick, then affixed to the cupcakes, making a unique topper. That way, the kids get two fun desserts, a cookie pop and a cupcake.
Advice for Parents
LTK: What is the most important thing parents should remember in trying to make their own cakes for parties?
JG: I just made my son's cake for his one year birthday, and I'm not sure I'll do it again! There's always the unexpected to deal with when hosting (as well as all the work). It's an enormous undertaking to bake the cake, too. That being said, it is possible, especially if your party is intimate. And it certainly does make the cake even more special if it comes from your own hands -- it just requires military-like planning.
The key is to work ahead. If your party is on a Saturday, for instance, map your cake a week in advance. Sketch it out, determine what supplies you'll need to decorate it, tier it, if that's the case, and present it. Buy your supplies as well as your groceries the weekend before. Bake and freeze the cake layers on Monday. If you're making cut-out cookies like the ones I do, make, roll out and freeze the dough in sheets on Tuesday. Make and freeze your frosting and filling on Wednesday. Thursday, cut out and decorate your cookies. Friday, if you've made cookies favors, wrap those and put in the favor bags. Then block out a good part of the day to finish your cake. Try to avoid a late night (or panicked early morning) for decorating - you'll be stressed and as a result be prone to avoidable mistakes. It's a little scary to leave so much to the day before, but when it comes to cakes, it's best not to have them sitting around for long, taking up prime refrigerator space or simply left in harm's way. There's also the freshness factor. It's a bit of a tightrope walk.
LTK: Any other advice for the parent who wants to do it herself?
JG: First and foremost, it should be fun. After all, this is a loving gesture for your child, and feelings of not being talented, artistic or creative enough shouldn't in any way burden it. This means keeping it simple and not expecting or even wanting perfection. (Buttercream frostings, rolled fondant, royal icing - they simply defy perfection even to the professionals!) Sketch out a picture of the cake you'd like to create, but just use it as a guide, not a rule, and don't be afraid to get creative as you go. That is definitely part of the process. Also, as stated above, plan as best you can so you can work at a comfortable pace and feel good you're not under the gun. You can also choose to work in such a way that highlights your particular strengths. If you're an amazing baker, get creative with the flavors of the goodies you're baking, go all out with the best ingredients and put all your love and hard work into the dessert itself, then keep it super simple on the decorating. (Perhaps use organic fresh flowers to finish it.) If you're a beginner baker, there is no shame in a good quality mix! Don't drive yourself crazy here -- put your love into going the extra mile with the decorating. A cake decorating book may be helpful, too, but make sure you read through the project instructions first, and read critically. What's easy to a professional who works with the material every day can be quite time consuming for a busy mom. Choose a project that fits your schedule and your talents.
LTK: What equipment is necessary?
JG: If you plan to make one cake a year or are considering cake decorating as a serious hobby, there are a select few pieces of equipment that are necessary to make your experience with decorating do-able. The first is a cake turn-table, which simply makes frosting a cake neatly actually possible. The second is a few off-set spatulas, one small and one medium sized. No butter knives or rubber spatulas for your creations! And finally, you'll need some decorating tips (the type is up to you, but you can get a starter kit in any craft store) and, more importantly, pastry bags (the 12" size is the most versatile). I prefer the plastic disposable bags, so there's no time-consuming clean-up. And please, don't try to use a Ziploc bag in place of a pastry bag, despite this often-repeated bit of decorating advice - you'll end up throwing that new cake turntable and shiny offset spatulas out the window!
Jeri Gottlieb has launched a new venture, Flour Patch Bakery, which is located in Montclair, New Jersey, but offers delivery into Manhatten.