I recently spent a fair amount of time engaged in clandestine baking.
This practice may be familiar to you, the illusion that we conjure for birthdays celebrated at a public venue featuring a cake that has been tacitly anticipated, silently approved, secretly manufactured by feverish hands (possibly in the dead of night), to appear as if by magic like a confectionary exclamation mark at the apex of the celebration.
It's an elaborate ruse that likely fools no one, yet still we collaborate in its creation, weaving an intricate web of deceit and ignorance that happily culminates in baked goods: I adore every sugary, surreptitious second.
Our third daughter turned 18 a short time ago and, as with milestone attainments for her sisters, we elected to visit a local restaurant, looking forward to a little fine dining and sophistication. My parents, brother and sister-in-law would join us for the occasion, which would be a particularly festive affair this time around as my sister-in-law had turned 40 the day before my daughter's coming of age.
An 18th birthday cake would surely be required, bedecked with flaming candles, its arrival heralded by harmonious voices raised in a rousing chorus of 'Happy Birthday'. To this end, I conspired with my elder daughter, who is of a creative bent, plotting with her about designs and logistics. To embrace the subterfuge, I needed to bake the cake furtively, but it was half term; how was I to proceed?
Serendipitously, the birthday girl had arranged a trip to Plymouth with friends a couple of days prior to the meal, furnishing me with the ideal opportunity to cook the basic sponges; the following day, my elder daughter would be free to commandeer the sanctuary of my parents' kitchen to decorate the cake.
But wait! What of the other birthday that was being celebrated - my sister-in-law's? Granted, her special day was not the primary focus of the occasion, but why not capitalise on the surprise and produce not one but two birthday cakes?
No-one would expect another cake to appear, hot on the heels of the first, similarly aflame and again delivered alongside the lilting strains of 'Happy Birthday'. Admittedly, we would need greater organisation and preparation, but we could swing some more hours at my parents' without too many questions being asked. We were on to a winner!
With time nipping at my heels, I somehow produced the sponges my elder daughter had commissioned, thankfully managing to finish the first within the parameters of the 18 year-old's Plymouth trip.
I removed the sponges from the tin and placed them on cooling racks covered with a tea towel to deflect any identification (fooling no-one, I'll warrant). I completed the second baking batch at my parents' house later that evening, sneaking ingredients out under cover of darkness with vague allusions about 'visiting Nanna'.
I nursed hopes that my elder daughter would apply herself to her decorating task the following morning; alas, that was not to be. Consequently, we found ourselves working on the cakes that evening, mere hours before the arrival of my brother and sister-in-law.
We had plumped for variations on the same theme for each cake: my daughter's was a vanilla sponge which would be fashioned into the figures 1 & 8, sandwiched with vanilla buttercream and topped with fruits and pretty fripperies, and my sister-in-law's was a chocolate sponge crafted into the figures 4 & 0 and adorned with chocolate buttercream and a selection of chocolates.
We tackled the chocolate cake first, reasoning that we could finish my daughter's vanilla cake the following morning, in plain sight of family members at my parents' house who would not raise an eyebrow at these anticipated antics.
Obliged to create templates for the numerical figures, and demonstrating a deplorable lack of technical skill, we struggled to produce convincing drawings of any digit. Eventually, after much head-scratching and questionable measuring, we produced passable examples, and my daughter laid the stencils atop the sponges, carefully cutting out the shapes. She piped small neat rows of chocolate buttercream domes onto the middle layer, repeating on the top and augmenting the surface with a variety of chocolates.
We eased the cake into its box and placed it in the car overnight, confident that it would stay cool and hidden. The next morning saw us return to the scene of the culinary crime to assemble the other cake, topping it with sweets, soft fruit and flower wafers before safely stowing it in the car and travelling to the venue.
Having secured nearby parking we approached the restaurant gingerly, carrying our fragile wares. We conversed with an amiable member of staff who, having diligently recorded our instructions for the evening, casually accepted a cake box in each hand; we averted our eyes as he ascended the long curving flight of stairs to the kitchen - all we could do was cross our fingers and hope for the best….
I am pleased to report we enjoyed an evening blessed by food, drink and laughter - and the deliveries went off without a hitch. Faithfully observing our directions, a member of staff brought out my daughter's illuminated cake, setting it in front of her whilst we sang lustily, joined by sundry friendly diners.
Moments later, whilst all gathered were still exclaiming over the colourful decoration, a second cake appeared; we enthusiastically repeated our choral rendition of Happy Birthday as it was placed in front of my sister-in-law, who was gratifyingly surprised.
Mission very successful - although I am rather inclined to think everyone had suspected all along that something along those lines might happen. Who were we kidding? Perhaps only ourselves. No matter; at least we could all have our cake and eat it. And I rather think clandestine baking has a certain sweetness all its own.
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