On my sixth birthday, my mother made me a coconut cake shaped like a bunny. It’s the only cake from my childhood that I can recall so clearly. It was perfectly shaped like a rabbit and covered in soft white icing. The icing was dusted with flaked white coconut to look like fur. It had licorice whiskers and gumdrop eyes, and the coconut was dyed pink for the ears and nose. It was a perfect cake. It was nearly a perfect birthday, except that in the middle of my party my brother threw a daddy longlegs in my hair while I was opening presents. (I bet he feels pretty rotten now, knowing that he is the only blemish on an otherwise pristine childhood memory. Isn’t that right, you ass?)
That cake stuck with me. Rather, what stuck with me was the notion that one day someone might make you a cake that you remember your whole life. They won’t even know they’re doing it. Our minds are fragile and unpredictable and it’s so strange which memories we choose to keep and which we disregard as useless information not worth remembering. Because of the bunny cake, I’ve always had a deal with my kids that they can choose whatever kind of cake they want for their birthdays. No limits. I’ll make anything. I never know which one, if any, might be something that makes them feel loved and special every time they recall it.
It started the year my oldest was turning three and said he wanted a cake like Uncle Donny’s lawnmower. A push mower. Not a picture of a mower on a rectangle cake, but an actual 3-D lawnmower. A tractor mower wouldn’t have been much trouble, but the handle of a push mower defies gravity when it is made of butter and flour. Knowing that what he really wanted was a frosting covered tribute to a part of his 3 year old life that he valued beyond measure - time with Uncle Donny - I did my best. As I recall the result was not pretty. Since then I’ve gotten much better. Over the years I’ve made gardens and trains and butterflies and beaches and Millenium Falcons and turtles, all with passable success. Today I may have met my match.
My youngest (not counting the new kid, who is still in utero) is turning four tomorrow. She wants a carrot cake in the shape of all things... a radish. A radish? “You know, she’ll make you anything you want,” said her 10 year old sister. “Eh-n-y-thing-guh. She’ll make you a princess cake. Or a pony! Or a princess riding a pony!” Undeterred, the youngest smiled her brightest smile at us both and then rode off on her tricycle singing about radishes. Okay, well, how hard can this be? It’s just a bulb with a stringy root on one end and some leaves on the other. I’m not the first person to try to make a carrot cake look like a radish. Right?
So I googled “radish cake.”
Google said I am the first person to try to make a carrot cake look like a radish.
There is a popular dim sum dish called Turnip Cake or Daikon Cake. If you google “radish cake” you’ll get lots of information on those. They look delicious! But not for a 4 year old. What you won’t find is a single image of a cake that actually looks like a radish, nor any ideas about the best way to shape a cake like a radish.
Now I’m convinced that she knew exactly what she was doing. That’s what that smile was. She knows that I won’t be satisfied with a two-dimensional radish out of standard circle cake pans. She knows that I won’t be happy piping the image of a radish in red frosting onto a regular layer or sheet cake. She knew that I was going to try to create an actual radish out of cake. That miscreant little turd... she knew! Well, I will not be made an ass of by a 4 year old. This is going to be the most fucking amazing radish shaped carrot cake ever, and I’m going to document the whole thing so that the next time one of you diabolical little pre-school smart asses tries to use a root vegetable to make your mom look like a chump, she’ll have somewhere to turn.
I looked up images of radishes and considered my cake pans.
Wow. They are really up high. And the mister is not around right now for me to borrow his tall. That kettle is going to fall right on my head if I try to pull those down. Okay, I see a daisy-shaped pan, a bundt, and then your standard 8 and 9 inch rounds. Maybe I could use the bundt and tell her a worm ate a hole through the radish. That happens in nature all the time. I considered using a ½ sheet pan and layering and sculpting a radish from that, but that would never work with a carrot cake. Too delicate.
While I was googling images of radishes, I came upon a festival in Oaxaca called Noche de Rabanos , Night of the Radishes. Every year on December 23, since 1897, artists showcase elaborate carvings and sculptures made entirely of radishes. And I thought to myself Holy Salad Toppings! If someone can do this with a radish...
...I can make this damn cake. Encouraged by the ingenuity of my fellow radish artisans, I kept hunting through my cabinets for inspiration.
In the end, I settled on a medium saucepot for the bulb of the radish and a big, flat skillet to make the stringy roots and leaves. My first bit of advice when you’re baking with these sorts of pots is to butter and flour the ever-loving shit out of them.
Seriously, I cannot stress this enough. Whatever seems like a normal amount of butter and flour, double that. Maybe triple.
Once the cakes are baked and cooled, you can start to assemble your radish...
At first, your radish might look a little like a one-horned reindeer with a goatee. Frosting fixes everything.
Or does it?
There comes a time in the life of every one of my cakes where I think there is no possible way to fix all the many things that are going wrong. I once exploded an entire pastry bag of green frosting all over the ceiling of my kitchen. I’ve learned to be more patient through the process. Don’t panic, my radish cake making friend. When it starts to look bad, just put your cake in the refrigerator for a while to let the frosting set, then pile more on top. Repeat this step as many times as necessary. I always make a double batch of frosting for emergencies like this one. Your family will not complain about the three layers it takes to make things look better.
I repeat: don’t panic. Even when your husband points out: that’s not a radish at all and that you have made the Roadrunner.
It's only 1 am. I've got plenty of time to fix the Roadradish. He's chilling in the fridge while I crank off this blog entry real quick, just in case someone out there is googling "radish cake" tonight and hopelessly wading through recipes for dim sum.
You're welcome. And happy birthday to your sweet and strange little troublemaker.