A lifetime love affair with the Australian Women's Weekly Children's Birthday Cake Book

Minnie Mouse in 1989 for my fourth birthday - before the publishers lost the rights to use the Disney characters.
Minnie Mouse in 1989 for my fourth birthday - before the publishers lost the rights to use the Disney characters.

My fourth birthday was a picture of '80s nostalgia.

Fairy bread, chips in a brown woven wood bowl, a fringe cut perhaps using that same bowl, and, in the centre of the table, Minnie Mouse.

Her ears were covered in chocolate sprinkles, a pink bow between them. Her chin was a little droopy, but other than that, Mum pretty much nailed it.

It was her second effort from the Australian Women's Weekly Children's Birthday Cake Book and of all the cakes she made during my childhood, it was Minnie of which she was most proud. It was hard to get her expression right.

Mum's not a baker. We weren't the kind of family that had homemade slices or biscuits stashed in the pantry and she recently confessed to ringing her mother-in-law, many years ago, to ask how to make icing. (The packet of icing sugar didn't come with instructions and this was well before Google.)

But twice a year, after my sister and I had spent a good few weeks thumbing through the book, Mum would tackle our selection. Because if your cake didn't come from the Australian Women's Weekly Children's Birthday Cake Bookdid you even have a birthday?

These cakes bonded a generation of kids. There are a lot of memories from the 80s that haven't aged well (that bowl haircut for one), but the joy of Women's Weekly birthday cakes is still going strong.

Social media practically awarded New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern mum of the year status when she made the rabbit cake for her daughter Neve's first birthday a few months ago, although her incredible leadership and diplomacy skills may have helped sway the judges.

Nearly every Australian family has a Women's Weekly birthday cake memory.

The cakes are fun, easy, a little weird (Clarence Clown anyone?), but there's also an endearing honesty about them - especially compared to the super-slick Pinterest-inspired creations that appear at some kids' parties today. Don't even get me started on cake smashes.

As a kid the whole experience was magical. Choosing the cake was perhaps the most important decision of the year. I probably spent more time agonising over that choice than whatever present I asked for.

I was, and still am, pretty happy with anything that has that much sugar and most of my selections were based on the quantity of lollies and assorted decorations. Candy Castle? Check. Sweets Shop? Of course. Robert Robot? Twice. Sometimes I exercised some creative licence. Like the time I requested the number eight (or maybe nine), but with the marshmallow flowers that decorated the number four cake. Crazy, I know.

The train was the ultimate, and although Mum insists she made it, I have no memory of ever having it. I'll take her word for it.

How she pulled any of them off was one of life's great mysteries.

I never remember seeing her bake before my birthday. I don't know how she even found the time. But on the day someone would start singing Happy Birthday, and Mum would emerge carrying my cake of choice, which had been hidden ... well I had no idea.

For my fifth birthday in 1990, a version of the ballerinas cake from the Australian Women's Weekly Children's Birthday Cake Book.

For my fifth birthday in 1990, a version of the ballerinas cake from the Australian Women's Weekly Children's Birthday Cake Book.

I don't know when exactly, but there came a point when my cakes, if I had one, no longer came from the Women's Weekly book. Birthday parties became dinner parties. Cakes swapped for cocktails.

The Women's Weekly Children's Birthday Cake Book might not have gone out of fashion, but it was certainly out of mind.

Then in 2011 I came across a newly reprinted edition.

Minnie, along with Mickey, Donald and Quick Draw McGraw, were gone because of licensing issues. But all my favourites were there and none of the magic had worn off.

That same year I attempted to make myself the hopscotch cake.

I hadn't baked in a long time. Probably not since grade 8 home economics. For some reason - a likely mix of ego and ignorance - I skipped the instruction to use a packet mix, and instead decided to make the butter cake from scratch.

Now, I am certain I used self-raising flour, but for whatever reason my creation was less birthday cake and more pancake. Attempt two wasn't any better.

But somehow, after a long afternoon in the kitchen, I ended up with a cake resembling a hopscotch.

I've spent a long time strolling supermarket aisles thanks to the dreaded 'assorted sweets' in the ingredients list.

It was when sharing the ordeal with my mum, she revealed some of her own birthday cake memories - the kind you don't get to hear when you're eight.

Like the time she and my grandmother had a little too much wine while making the rabbit cake for my sister's birthday and coconut ended up from one end of the kitchen to the other.

Or when she put the completed robot cake in the oven (so that's where she hid them!) and turned on the oven light for one last peek before bed. She woke up to find she'd left the light on and the heat had been enough to melt the icing and decorations.

Robert Robot, the first cake my husband made from the Women's Weekly Birthday Cake Book.

Robert Robot, the first cake my husband made from the Women's Weekly Birthday Cake Book.

She can laugh about it now.

A few years ago, my husband and I revived my family's Women's Weekly birthday cake tradition. For each other, mind you. We don't have kids.

He had never had a Women's Weekly birthday cake as a kid. When I requested the robot cake, again, for my 31st birthday (no judgment please, I chose the one with the most lollies) he didn't know what I was talking about. I blame it on his parents being British.

But into the kitchen he dove, full of blind enthusiasm. Unfortunately he made the same mistake I did with the hopscotch cake and had to make a last-minute dash to the supermarket for an emergency sponge. But icing and lollies cover all manner of sins and Robert Robot looked just like the picture, which is always a bonus.

Since then we've learnt no cake is uneventful.

Women's Weekly cakes were designed to be made by anybody and so far I've found them frustrating, yet manageable. Although I haven't attempted the train, or the tip truck, which creator Pamela Clarke calls "a bitch of a cake". "Don't go there. Glue the pages together," she advised in one interview. Noted.

The pages of our book are now stained with batter and icing. I've spent a long time strolling supermarket aisles thanks to the dreaded "assorted sweets" in the ingredients list. Bought packets of Smarties because I needed two green ones for eyes. Metres of licorice to make one mouth. I still for the life of me don't know what sweets are supposed to be used to make the Brown Bear's paws or the Cuddly Koala's eyes.

Tommy Turtle was challenging as the required pudding basin, perhaps widely available in the 80s, proved difficult to find. In the end I used a Pyrex bowl. And Leonard The Lion, which requires three cakes, taught me the invaluable lesson to always double the Vienna cream.

But it's all part of the fun.

Rubber Ducky - complete with popcorn hair, a chip bill, and about seven bamboo skewers hiding inside.

Rubber Ducky - complete with popcorn hair, a chip bill, and about seven bamboo skewers hiding inside.

Since we started the tradition I've made four cakes, far shy of 20-odd my mum made for my sister and me. So when she started asking when someone was going to make her a duck cake, it seemed only fair that we obliged.

I had never so much as paused at this cake when flicking through the book as a kid. Popcorn hair? Chips for a bill? Bamboo skewers to hold it all together? The combination didn't excite me.

But after much musing over the instructions, we made the cakes and assembled our interpretation. By the time we'd finished it had been reinforced with seven bamboo skewers instead of the required two and the double batch of Vienna cream helped fix the almost disastrous moment when the tail fell off.

But the look on my mum's face when we presented the cake for her 65th birthday confirmed something I've long suspected.

You're never too old for a Women's Weekly birthday cake.

The Canberra Times