|My first turtle cake, June 2012.|
My family doubted that I could do it-- with good reason-- so it was supremely satisfying to undertake the project casually at the last minute and boldly decide that I was going to make my daughter a turtle cake in a few hours, in spite of how crazy it seemed. I took the photographs of the finished cake just as casually, which explains why they both look the way they do. But in my mind they're both perfect.
About a week before my daughter's birthday, I asked her what kind of cake she'd like. I didn't see much risk in this because she's always wanted some variation of a pink princess cake and I can make those in my sleep these days. This year was different. My daughter said she wanted a turtle cake. I was stunned-- a turtle cake? This came out of left field. I asked her why. She told me that it was because we were going to the aquarium for her birthday. Duh. We were indeed taking a family trip to the aquarium for my daughter's birthday. It never occurred to me that the desire for theme parties started so young. Or that turtles would ever trump princesses. This was a coup. A turtle cake she would get.
About the same time I asked my daughter about the cake, my extended family converged on our house for an amazing reunion/celebration of three family birthdays (in three different generations.) Unfortunately, I was slightly overwhelmed with the process of entertaining and feeding ten people for ten days that I forgot to think about the turtle cake until a few days before my daughter's birthday. Or perhaps I was just blocking the thought of it for fear that I'd actually have to do it eventually. Three days before the birthday, my mother volunteered to bake the cake if I could tell her what shapes I needed for "project turtle cake". I was suddenly faced with a crisis situation and everyone in my family knew I was in over my head.
My brother-in-law Mark immediately texted his mother-- the queen of kids' birthday cakes-- for advice. The delightful and exceedingly talented Shirley Doogue sent photos of her own turtle cakes within the hour. I started to sweat when I saw how great they were. Listening to Mark's stories of how his mother started making birthday cakes weeks in advance of the birthday, storing pieces of the cake in the freezer as she worked. My process would have to be different.
The bottom line was that I didn't have the time or energy to fret over this cake. It just had to get done. I studied the photos and websites that Shirley had sent and came up with a plan. I asked my mom to bake two round 9-inch cakes, a 6-inch cake and a batch of cupcakes. With this much cake, I figured I'd be able to come up with something that resembled a turtle. The next day, my mom whipped up several batches of frosting. I decided that my daughter's turtle cake would be iced in chocolate-- partly because this is her favorite icing and partly because the idea of using so much green food coloring to make a green turtle freaked me out a little.
I had about two hours to create a turtle cake from a table full of cake shapes and bowls of icing. No pressure. I took a deep breath and started. Assembling the turtle body went pretty well. I had an audience of four children as I started to work and I asked for their advice as I went along. Early in the process it became clear that my oldest nephew Sean and I were on the same wavelength. Should the turtle have a curved tail? Yes. Should the turtle have a long neck? Yes. Sean drew me a picture of what he thought a turtle head and neck should look like. The other three kids (including the birthday girl) lost interest pretty quickly, but Sean watched for most of the process and I soon gained confidence in my work thanks to my partner in crime. Sean seemed to think I could do it and he agreed with the choices I was making. It's surprising how much confidence a supportive 12 year old boy can inspire simply by being interested. We were off and running.
My mother hasn't understood many of my life choices over the years, but she does whatever she can to help me do whatever it is I think I want to do. On this day, I wanted frosting-- lots of frosting. My mother silently produced endless batches of frosting-- both chocolate and vanilla-- and I used it all.
After adding several layers of chocolate icing and some black icing for details like eyes and toenails, it became clear that my turtle cake wasn't quite girly enough, so I added green frosting highlights on the shell. I started with vanilla frosting that my mom made from an old Brethern recipe. It took a while to transform the vanilla frosting into a bright shade of green (and a surprising amount of green gel food coloring), but it eventually worked.
Near the end of production, when it was clear that this project was going to be a success, some of the men decided to brave the kitchen and check out the cake. My father even suggested adding a tongue and asked if I had any licorice. Nope. But I had gummy fruit. A red strawberry gummy makes a pretty decent turtle tongue if pressed flat.
By the time the party started, the cake was ready to go. I'd never make it on a cake-baking competition show, but that wasn't the point. Or was it? My sister said my cake might not look as realistic or professional as Shirley's cakes, but that it was great that we'd all been able to share the experience. My family had all pitched in to help me make my daughter's birthday fun-- each contributing some special skill of our own to the process. We all had a good time making the cake and we showed the kids that if you work together, surprisingly good things can happen.