This is not a unicorn.
This is Pancake. He’s the smallest of the horses who totter around the paddock at the rear of my mother’s house. He’s the property of my nieces and nephew. He may be tiny, but his dreams are big. He insists on being the first at the feed and will back up his squat rear legs to his two companions (both of whom tower over him) if they dare get in front. He demands to be part of everything. He will not be overlooked. Twice a week while my mother rides around in circles, teaching her horse how to hold his neck with grace Pancake insists on standing in the middle of the arena, like a totem – just in case he misses out on any of the fun.
Nb, nobody really minds how Pancake holds his neck.
Around kids, he’s a joy. Calm and placid in the company of small fry he’s happy to have chubby legs plonked astride him and his mane brushed and fluttered until it flies around in the breeze.
It’s obvious to most that he’s not a unicorn. He’s just a small, scrubby horse. Yet I think of him as more of a cartoon than a proper creature. He makes me laugh every time I see him. And never more so than at family birthday parties, when he suffers the mild indignity of having an ice cream cone or a party hat strapped to his forelock, so all of the kids can stretch their imaginations and for seven minutes, take a ride on a horned, winged beast.
This year for my niece Pia’s 6th birthday, she requested exactly that sort of mythical creature for a cake. Despite my concerns that some children may feel strangely about eating a slice of a horse’s head, it seems that not many six year olds have seen The Godfather, so none were particularly perturbed.
And so, as a family in the days before the party we clubbed together; my baking and whisking was coupled with my sister’s superior spatial perception skills (mine are a little shady). It was a hit.
This cake recipe is sturdy enough to be cut and cleaved together into a variety of shapes. It has a firm crumb from the yoghurt and butter, but isn’t too bland. You could easily flavour it further with lemon zest or vanilla, but sometimes a plain ‘white cake’ is all that you need- particularly if it’s going to be gilded with a stunning quantity of lollies (as this one later was).
This is a cake that’s best to be made the day before and then wrapped in foil and placed in the freezer overnight. Chilling it seems to make it easier to carve into shapes- and ensure less crumbs flake off when it’s iced.
And the real winner on the day was the frosting. I think I’ve finally cracked the ratio for the perfect cream cheese buttercream. Buttercream on its own is sickly to me. Too cloying. Too sweet. Too… much. Yet with the the addition of cream cheese and a touch of lemon juice there’s a slight acidity that makes it tolerable- terrific even. It will still taste good- no matter what colour the birthday boy or girl chooses to taint it.
The below makes enough cake and icing for 1x 23 cm round cake and 1 x 23 cm square cake. Both of which you’ll need in order to fashion the unicorn (nb, you may have a little frosting left over- but it’s always useful to keep some in a tupperware until you serve- just in case little fingers swipe their way through the cake, or there’s an accident shifting the cake throughout the party. These are the things you glean the hard way).
I may only have been a mummy for six weeks now; but as I’m discovering; this is a gig that lets you learn on the job. Lucky I’ve still got 46 more weeks to figure out what in the heck we’re going to make for Master William’s first birthday.
Basic Birthday Cake
Makes 2 x 23 cm round cakes, or 1 x 23 cm round cake and 1 x 23 cm square cake.
4 cups plain flour
2 tsp baking powder
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
225 grams unsalted butter, softened
2 cups caster sugar
4 eggs, at room temperature
1.5 cups of Greek yoghurt
1/2 cup of milk
Here’s how we roll
1) Preheat the oven to 180C/350 F. Butter and line with baking paper your cake tins.
2) Beat together the butter and sugar in an electric mixer until pale and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, scraping down the sides of the bowl in between each egg.
3) Turn the mixer down to low and add the yoghurt and whisk to combine.
4) Sift in 2/3 of the flour, plus the baking soda and powder. Stir to combine.
5) Pour in the milk and stir gently, then fold in the remaining flour.
6) Portion the batter into the cake tins, smoothing the top and then banging the base on the bench once or twice to help discourage any air bubbles.
7) Bake for 35-45 minutes until the top is golden and a skewer comes out clean. If you can’t fit both on the same rack in the oven, swap them half way through.
8) Cool in the pan for 10-15 minutes, then invert and remove from tins. Allow to cool, then wrap in foil and freeze, before levelling off and cutting into the desired shapes.
Other tips; be sure to level off the cakes before you start to cut. A few wooden skewers are also useful to help pin the pieces together. This will make it easier to ice. And if you cut anything wrong, don’t fret. Just cut another part and use icing and skewers to stick it all together again. The kids will never know.
Cream Cheese Buttercream
This, to me is finally the buttercream I was looking for. Here are a few tips. Make sure both your butter and your cream cheese are at room temperature before starting. Don’t try and do this without a good electric whisk. A hand held mixer will do, but really, a stand mixer (or, crazy of all crazy, a thermomix is what you want to get great results).
125 grams of unsalted butter- at room temperature
300 g of full fat cream cheese
3 cups of icing/powdered sugar
2 tsp lemon juice
Your choice of colouring (nb, always add drop by drop. You can always make something darker, but it’s quite tricky to pull the colour back once you’ve added it)
Here’s how we roll
1) Add the butter and the cream cheese into the bowl of a mixer and whip on medium speed to combine.
2) Blend in the powdered sugar (you may want to place a tea towel over the top of the mixer to prevent any sugar clouds) and beat for 1-2 minutes until smooth.
3) Add the lemon juice and whip for another minute.
4) Fold in the colour with a spatula, drop by drop.