Wednesday, May 9, 2012

On Goldilocks Birthday Cakes: Reflections of an Eighties Child

Oliver,  helping Narra reach her candle (grandparents looking from behind)

In an age when custom-crafted fondant cakes are the rage, a classic Goldilocks birthday cake may seem rather old-fashioned.  A number of features make Goldilocks cake designs dated: the two-dimensional cardboard backdrops; the conventional staging of props, figurines, and sugar flowers; the free-wheeling combination of elements; a radioactive color palette; and the unapologetic abundance of all things artificial (color, flavor, non-edible toppers). What would possess me to want this cake for my daughter? There's a simple answer to this question: Nostalgia. I am a child of the eighties after all, and my earliest memories of happy birthdays involved Goldilocks.

Narra's 2 cakes from Goldilock's "Dora the Explorer" Line

Times have changed, and standards for the quality of design and the ingredients used in making cakes have been raised to laudable heights.  We live in a health-conscious world of low-sugar, low-fat, and all-natural food offerings, and in such a setting, Goldilocks sugar flowers and ultra-thick boiled icing, may be read as a form of resistance.  Like a renegade soldier who refuses to surrender long after the war has been lost, Goldilocks can be seen as something of a rebel hero, one that enjoys independence from the dictates of fashion.  I found myself inexplicably drawn to the unhealthy attraction that was my daughter's birthday cake. In all its artificial glory, I marveled at how it retained its authenticity as the Goldilock's classic cake of my youth.

Narra, looking composed and behaving well as she waited for everyone to sing.

I remember my first Goldilocks birthday cake. The year was 1980. I was three years old then - the same age Narra is now. It was a "Hansel and Gretel" cake, shared with my cousin Ian, who was three days older than I was.  The cake was the highlight of our joint party.  It had a gingerbread house (though not really made with gingerbread), with icing for windows and doors, and a lot of candies as adornment. There were two figurines, a boy and a girl, and a lot of Goldilock's signature sugar flowers on toothpicks, inserted on the corners of the rectangular cake. There were even lollipops stuck in, and chocolate "coins" wrapped in gold foil scattered about. I was in heaven!  It has been three decades since, and Ian and I are now both parents. At Narra's party, I just had to ask him to pose for a pic behind a Goldilock's cake again, y'know, for old times' sake.

My cousin Ian and I, posing with Narra's cake. We had a joint party when we
were 3 years old 3 decades ago, and shared a Hansel & Gretel cake back then.

"For old times' sake".  An expression to denote doing something in the present in order to remember a pleasant or happy time in the past.  I relived many of my happy birthdays by walking Narra through the process of getting her first Goldilock's cake. We searched their on-line catalogue and she fell in love with a "Dora the Explorer" cake, specifically the model named "Explorer's Wanted".  It's a 9-inch round cake, made with boiled icing, with a card board tree at the back, and a lone Dora figurine at the center, surrounded by flowers, and lovely insects (ladybug, bee, butterfly) topping 13 cupcakes.  My mother, who offered to be in charge of buying Narra's cake, found it too small a cake to feed everyone. She wanted to get a bigger cake, with more servings, but Narra won't be swayed. She was in love with her chosen cake and she described in detail to her grandma: the insects, the cupcakes, the flowers, the tree - the shape of the cake - "the green one" she explained. There was no mistaking it. She was crystal clear and firm, that among all the cakes shown to her on-line - from Goldilock's, Red Ribbon, and a host of other fantastic galleries of independent home bakers who make amazingly beautiful fondant cakes - this particular Dora cake from Goldilock's was HER cake for HER 3rd birthday.  

Narra's choice: The Dora the Explorer "Explorers Wanted" Cake and Cupcakes

But my mother had other ideas. She decided to buy 2 cakes. The bigger one she was eyeing, and the smaller one Narra requested.  My mother has her own ghosts of post-war scarcity to exorcise with her  abundant gift-giving. For my dad and my mom, who are both from typically large Filipino families of their generation, cakes were rare luxuries. My mother made sure I did not feel any deprivation growing up, and she made it a point to get me birthday cakes. Now, she does the same for her grand children. When Narra saw both boxes of cake - she was just overjoyed!  This image triggered happy memories for me too...the image of a birthday cake, packaged in a flimsy box with plastic cover walls sitting on a table before the party started. As a kid, that always made me excited.  The packaging is meant to be obvious: a means to display the contents to anyone who wants to look.  And boy, do people look.  It's more thrilling to peek at a cake before its big reveal.  Narra looked, and looked, and looked. 

Narra, excited to see her boxes of Goldilock's Cake hours before her party.

Goldilocks hasn't lost its magic.  Through the decades, it's kept its ability to capture the imagination of children with its design formula.  Those card board back grounds? Inedible figurines? Multi-colored fancy sugar flowers? And inch-thick icing in synthetic colors? All those things that make a cake old fashioned... all are part of the magic.  Take the inexpensive figurines used as cake toppers, for instance.   After her party, Narra had the Dora figurines plucked from the cake, and she took them with her to her bath, washing them with soap and water, and wiping them down. Many independent bakers make it a point to advertise their cake toppers as "completely edible", suggesting that having an all edible ensemble is far more desirable than a cake with fake elements. In some ways, I see why that is the case.  I know that the cake arts has an ephemeral quality, and we can't have our cake and eat it too.  But getting a keepsake from a very happy day is a good thing too. I know somewhere in our attic sits a little princess made of plaster - a topper from my 18th birthday party from half a lifetime ago.  I was unable to throw it then, and couldn't do so now. In some ways, I regret that our wedding cake was more updated, and done in all-edible fondant - so we don't have a topper in our chest of family treasures.

Narra, listening to everyone sing "Happy Birthday".

When it was at last, time for Narra to blow out the candles on her cake(s), I looked around and saw in the kids' faces, the familiar look I've seen around the birthday cake table, especially when a Goldilocks cake was involved: it's that scoping look, to see what delightful little treat can be picked off.  And Narra's face, full of great expectation, as she waited for the right time to bend over her cake to blow out her candles, was just priceless.  She stood there, well behaved, looking at everyone singing to her, waiting for her cue (with her enthusiastic grandpa "conducting" in the background).  How serious she was, in trying to blow out that stubborn little flame.  It was just a precious moment!

We sang Happy Birthday not once, but twice! Lucky Narra!

I'd say, there are things you wish would change for the better, and things you wish would stay the same.  When it comes to Goldilocks cakes, I wish their cakes tasted better, with improved texture for the actual chiffon cake inside: I wish their icing was less sweet too. But truth be told, for my kid, their cakes were appealing just the way they are. The icing invited a quick swipe with the finger - something a fondant cake doesn't encourage as much. The sugar flowers were just waiting to be plucked.  And the cupcakes around the cake, were popular take home treats. People went through the trouble of lugging them around, and saving them for later.  

A cake waited for Narra at her grandma's salon where staff celebrated with her.

When Narra went to the beauty salon owned by my mom, there was cake waiting for her there too. Surrounded by the parlor staff, who are like a second family to us - who've seen Narra grow from since she was still in my womb - we make it a point to have mini celebrations of birthdays with them.  There was a classic Goldilock's mocha cake for Narra, simply decorated with the colorful flowers they are known for; and a dedication written in red gel; and a candle, of course. Without the fancy adornments and multi-colored icing, the cake still made Narra swoon.  I found it so appealing as well. The buttery icing, and sugar flowers, and the fluffy chiffon cake underneath. It's a classic for good reason. 

Narra, enthralled by the classic Goldilocks Mocha Dedication Cake.

Goldilocks struck a chord with my generation, and would most probably continue to do so with more generations to come.  I know Goldilocks has developed a new Luxe line, with more sophisticated cakes, with subtler designs and flavors, finer crafting, more artistic rendering of cake decor, and premium ingredients. I think they launched that line just to prove that they can do other kinds of cake.  But I am glad they haven't abandoned their traditional line that makes use of their time-honored  decorating approaches.  Be it with the colorful birthday cakes or the simpler classics, Goldilocks continues to capture the hearts of Filipino children today. I saw it in my child's face. And as she enjoyed her first ever Goldilocks cake, she tapped into our collective memory, as Pinoys... children of all ages - always children when in the presence of a good old fashioned cake, like mother used to buy.

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