So! Your only child is turning three, and you want to make him something you know will delight him. You decide to make him a fancypants train-shaped cake, but you’re too cheap and too broke to buy a fancypants train-shaped cake pan. Luckily, your aunt taught you to decorate cakes when you were six, so really, how hard can it be?

So you sketch an outline of your design on paper. You break the sketch down into simple shapes you can cut out of a cake. Of course, squares are easier to cut than curved lines, but a train has to have wheels. And, um, a face.train-cake.jpg

Cakes tend to come out of the oven with their tops in a slight dome shape, so you cut off the dome and leave the cake with a level top. Oh, ho! The canvas is prepared.

Now you lay out the pieces of your template on your cake. It would make the sides of the cake easier to ice if you could align the sides of the templates with the edges of the cake (and bonus! This would mean less cutting of the cake, too), but you cracked the underside of one cake in a couple of places, so you put the bits of paper where they won’t be over a crack.


You cut out the shapes: the body of the train out of the chocolate cake…



…and the smaller pieces out of the white cake. (Such a thoughtful host you are, making sure your guests will have a choice!) And you assemble the cake on a foil-covered sheet of cardboard.


Now comes the fun part: you get to mix up different colors of icing and cover the cake with them. So you mix, and you frost the cake, and in the two decades or so since you last did this, you have forgotten that to avoid crumbs in the icing, you should put a big glob of icing in the middle of the cake and smooth it outwards with a spatula.


So the first layer of white icing will be full of chocolate cake crumbs, and the face of the train will appear to have more acne than… well. A little less acne than you had as a teen, but not by much. You wait for the icing to dry and add another layer on top, to cover up the speckles. You also refuse to take a photograph of the cake in this embarassing state.

Poor thing. You never really wanted your photo taken with that kind of acne, either.


At last, you can continue mixing icing in various shades of blue and finish coloring the cake. Your son thinks this is delightful. He brings a spoon to the table with every intention of eating the cake, but when you tell him you’re not finished coloring it and the cake won’t be ready to eat until tomorrow, he gives you the spoon. “Here, Mama. You color cake with my spoon.”

You congratulate yourself on remembering your aunt’s trick of waiting for the icing to dry halfway, and then pressing a paper towel against it to make a texture in the surface of the cake. Much easier than trying to get the icing perfectly smooth.


You mix up some black frosting for the finishing touches. The cake is done! Your son admires it before you put it in a bakery box in the center of the kitchen table, where it will be safe until morning.

Hours later, you return from visiting your grandfather, and realize your mistake.


That Cat saw the box on the table while you were gone. That Cat loves lying on and in boxes, especially when they’re on tables. That Cat is now seriously in the dog house. You cannot let your son see this. He would be devastated.

So you don’t cry (six hours of decorating that cake!), and you distract your child until bedtime, and you tuck him in, and then you consider your options.

Function Junction is a small town. The only bakery is a teensy one inside a grocery store. They don’t do fancypants cakes. Even if it were possible to get them to paint a blue train on an ordinary sheet cake in the two hours between when they open in the morning and the time of the party, it wouldn’t be the same. And the new three-year-old would know it. Not a good way to start the day.

The cake is unsalvagable. It’s not just that the icing is smeared, or even that the cake is a little squashed: when you lift the lid of the bakery box, the top half of the cake lifts with it. This was not meant to be a layer cake.

So seven minutes before the grocery store closes, you make a mad dash out, and buy more cake mix and more icing.

You now have 12 hours until the party. And in that time, you must not only reconstruct and redecorate the cake… you have to bake it first. It all goes much faster now, but it’s still two in the morning before you go to bed.

Six hours of work, followed by another four, all in a twelve hour period. Was it worth it?


Your son notes with glee the only visible change you made the second cake: “You colored my three in.”  You spend the first half of the party watching him drag each arriving guest to the refreshments table to see “my blue train cake!”

Was it worth all the work? Would you do it all over again?