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A Very Special First Birthday Cake

December 1, 2014

P1060870A flying James, held by his father, Brian, inspects the progress on his first birthday cake.

How many one-year-olds today have their first birthday cake baked an old primitive way, over a fire, in a woodstove?

We had planned to celebrate our second grandson James’s first birthday last Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving.

But the snow started falling early Wednesday and fell steadily throughout the morning. In this part of Virginia, that’s a little unusual for Thanksgiving, in fact most of us around here had a hard time remembering when we’d had a significant snow on or around Thanksgiving.

My daughter Michelle was in the middle of making the birthday cake for her son when the lights blinked and then stayed off. The oven, which had been pre-heating, went off too, of course. It took a minute for everything to soak in. The electricity was really off off. Would it come back on? When? How would she bake the cake? Already she had spent a good hour preparing the batter.

For this wasn’t just any cake. It was a “Tie-Dyed Rainbow Cake,” which Michelle had learned about proofreading the Mennonite Girls Can Cook: Celebrations cookbook for Herald Press two years ago. On pages 60-61 of the cookbook, the deep colors of a beautiful cake topped by white icing caught her imagination, and I think before she even got pregnant, dreamed of one day making that cake for a child of hers.

It takes six different pots of colors—made with the currently popular gel food color that create much brighter colors than the old liquid food coloring many of us grew up using. She had cut the parchment paper liner so carefully too—having learned that the batter would stay in better circles if the edges of the paper laid flat instead of getting crunched up by the sides of the pan.P1060871

But now, all that painstakingly colored and spiraled batter would soon be loosing its leavening agents, wouldn’t it? Doesn’t baking soda go flat? The snow was still falling. Would there be a party? How could we bake the cake? The roads were too snowy to consider driving to a neighbor’s house at that time.

Michelle looked to me and her sister, Doreen. “Is there any way we could bake it in the woodstove?”

P1060873Doreen babysitting the cake in the basement woodstove.

Doreen and I looked at each other, and instead of dismissing it, said, “Well, let’s see!” People made cakes in wood cook stoves long before there were electric or gas stoves.

I dug out the grilling rack I use to make hot dogs and hamburgers in the woodstove; we found a piece of wood that was flat on one side on which to anchor the rack. We covered the cake pan with foil to keep ashes off and proceeded—carefully and slowly—to cook one layer. Doreen patiently babysat the cake layers and the separate, smaller loaf cake that would be for James (we could only get one onto the grilling rack at a time).

P1060875BurnedLayer(Top, edible layer; bottom, burned layer, which we discarded)

Eventually (long story made short) we ended up with one edible layer along with a little loaf cake for James. Michelle took it all in stride: in the great scheme of things, matters could be a lot worse, and oh well, we’d just have a great story to tell him instead of pictures of a beautiful cake.

The snow stopped, the snow plows came through and my son-in-law shoveled two paths out the driveway (my husband was at work). Our electricity still hadn’t come back on so we changed the party location to my son-in-law’s mother’s house (James’s other grandmother) about 15 miles away. My husband got home, showered at my office, and we were soon all on our way. I so appreciated Grandma Jeannie hosting the party at the last minute!

And the little boy and his birthday cake? After eating his supper, listening to us sing “Happy Birthday dear James” and his mother blowing out his candle, he picked that cake right up and just bit in like he knew exactly what to do with it, even though it was the first cake he’d ever been given in his life.

P1060885Um, Mom and Dad, did you really mean to give me this whole huge big piece of cake?

EatingCake2Hmm, I guess so! Well, here goes!

Our pictures and cake didn’t quite turn out like the lovely photos in the cookbook, but did James care? Not one iota.P1060887

Tie-Dyed Rainbow Cake Recipe (as adapted by Michelle to make a smaller* 2 layer cake). See original post, and gorgeous photos, at author Judy’s blog, here.


1 white cake mix
3 eggs1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 cup water
gel food coloring

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Prepare 2 9-inch round pans, lining bottoms with parchment paper and spraying with cooking spray.
3. Empty cake mix into large mixing bowl. Add eggs, oil and water.
4. Stir until combined, then beat on medium speed for 1 minutes.
5. Divide batter equally into 6 individual bowls or mugs.

6. Add gel coloring to each bowl: purple, blue, green, yellow, orange and red. In the first pan, pour half the purple batter into the center. Carefully add the blue batter right on top of the purple, followed by green, yellow, orange, and red. Do not stir!

In the second pan, use remaining batter in the reverse order, beginning with red.

Bake for about 25-30 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool. Frost when cool.

(*Judy’s original recipe uses two cake mixes and 4 eggs, for a large, taller cake. To figure out how much water to use, in a 4-cup measuring cup, combine eggs and oil, and then add enough water to make 3 cups of liquid.)

Use your favorite white frosting, or this from Mennonite Girls:

2 packages vanilla instant pudding (4-serving size)
2 cups milk
1 16 ounce tub frozen whipped topping, thawed

Combine pudding mix with milk and beat for 1 minute. Fold in whipped topping until nicely mixed. Cut a thin slice off the top of 1 cake layer to create a level top. Place layer on cake plate. Spread a generous amount of frosting over layer. Top with second layer, and frost top and sides of cake. Decorate with sprinkles, if desired. Refrigerate until ready to serve. (Original by Judy Wiebe)


Mennonite Girls Can Cook Celebrations


If you have a copy of Mennonite Girls Can Cook Celebrations, do check the recipe and photos for more in the way of a tutorial. If you don’t own the book, it is a drop-dead gorgeous book and 40 % off (new jacket on book) until Christmas, over at the MennoMedia store.

The authors generously donate all royalties on their books to projects that benefit children.


There are also a dozen or more illustrated lovely kids’ birthday cake ideas from Judy here on the Mennonite Girls Can Cook blog.


And yes, we already celebrated one first birthday this year: my first-born grandson’s birthday party story was posted here!

  1. I love the suspense in your true-to-life story this week. Actually, I never heard of a Tie-Dyed Rainbow Cake before, but I doubt I have the patience to assemble all of the spirals.

    Your family is a perfect illustration of the old adage: Life is all about how you handle Plan B. Great post!

    • It looks harder than it is. Anyone who knows how to make homemade butter without a churn … Yes, the birthday was definitely a Plan B. My daughter said afterwards, “I’m glad I didn’t have a big production planned” (other than the cake)!

  2. Beverly Silver permalink

    Wonderful, Melodie! You document beautifully! What an adventure on the day before Thanksgiving. Thanks for sharing! I went back to read about Sam’s birthday too! Love, Beverly

    • You got the details on the blog of the story that I skimmed over in our Sunday school class. 🙂 Thanks so much for your comment and all your support.

  3. Caro-Claire Wiles permalink

    Hi Melodie
    This was a great story to read and I am sure because you have documented it so well with your written words and photos , it will will be a special memory in years to come .
    Thanks for sharing .

    • Yeah, it is funny–disenheartening really–how many details we forget if we don’t somehow record or write them down, right? I’m glad you enjoyed it as well.

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