This is Pia.
And this is about the cake I helped make for her birthday.
I’m back in Sydney for a short stint. I’m here to sniff the crowns of babies’ heads and carefully lay out the train of my best friend’s wedding dress. But Pia thinks I flew from the other side of the world for her fourth birthday party (though she’s not far off).
When my niece was born four years ago, I carted some cake in a white box to the hospital. I have no memory of eating it. All I recall is walking into that ammonia scented room, spotting my brave and bold sister holding a wrinkled ball of blonde and blue - and bawling.
I remember clutching at a bundle made equal parts flesh, blankets and promise and realising I would do pretty much anything for that child.
I think Pia knows that too.
Four years on, Pia has a personality that belies her pint-size. She has strong opinions and stonkingly soft skin on the inside of her shins. She likes excursions on public transport with her Pa and solving puzzles with her Nana. She’s mother hen to a tribe of small folk who now make up the extended family. She shuffles them endlessly into games and endeavours- like her own living troupe of dolls. To my sister’s dismay she’s stickily drawn to pink and sparkles. And she has developed a way of saying ‘Torweee’ that turns my arteries to mush.
When we flew away to the other side of the world it was leaving her, her irrepressible little brother Zac and the bump that would unfurl into her baby sister Phoebe that was the hardest.
You can send presents. You can try and talk on the phone. But to the fickle heart of a four year old, nothing is quite the same as spending time.
This is a cake that doesn’t take much time at all. That’s if you’re baking it on your own.
It’s from Bill Granger’s Basics. It’s a vanilla sheet cake that can be doubled or tripled depending on how large you need it to be. There are three eggs for little fingers to crack and a cup of sugar for them to measure out. The pan should be greased and lined with baking paper.
Everything goes in one bowl and gets beaten together. If you use a hand mixer, you end up with two beaters to lick. Which is perfect if you’ve got two assistants.
We spent the afternoon making a blonde mixture that would soon be carved into a butterfly (by Pia’s mother, who in addition to inheriting feet that are better suited to running got a greater sense of spacial perception). There was no time for practiced photos or the anal application of royal icing. Life with three children under four is….busy.
The shade of lilac butter cream icing was decided by committee, one drop of natura colouring at a time. We iced the cake hurriedly before bath time and decorated it with a mash of hands that reached for lollies and biscuits- just the same as my sister and I had done with our mother when we were small.
It was glorious chaos. Zac ate more marshmallows than he stuck on the cake. We sadly lost a good bowl in the process of making the batter. It slipped clean from little hands and fell into shards on the floor.
But the next morning, in the Sydney sunshine, down by the watter, there was the butterfly.
Just as the birthday girl wanted it.
After the scones and jam, the jelly cups, pass the parcel and runs through the sprinklers at Pirrama park Pia blew out her candles.
Later she gave me a hug, wrapping her skinny legs around my spleen and said solemnly; ‘I love my cake Auntie Torwee’.
It was then I realised this time it might to be harder to fly away than ever.
Vanilla sheet cake for a birthday
Via Bill Granger’s Bill’s Basics.
(serves 10-16. We ended up making a triple mixture – both a large rectangle and a single circle. It’s always better to have a little too much cake than too little).
1 bowl (unbreakable is preferable). 1 electric beater. 1 20 cm square cake tin (for a double mixture use a large sheet pan).
2 1/4 cups plain flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
185 g unsalted butter, softened
1 teaspoon of vanilla extract
1 cup caster sugar
3/5 cup milk
Here’s how we roll
1. Preheat the oven to 180 C. Grease and line a 20 cm square cake tin.
2. Sift the flour and baking powder together into a large bowl. Add butter (cut into cubes), vanilla, sugar, eggs and milk and beat with electric beaters for 3-4 minutes until smooth.
3. Pour the mixture into the tin and bake for 45-50 minutes until golden brown and a skewer comes out clean. Double check that it’s really cooked. The last thing you want is a soggy cake.
4. Leave in the tin for 5 minutes then turn out onto a wire rack to cool.
5. To best ice and cut the cake, place it in the freezer for 20- 30 minutes. Ice with butter cream icing of the birthday girl’s chosen colour and lollies and biscuits according to her whims.