Tried & Tested: Good Enough To Eat

If a children's birthday party without a cake is unthinkable, why not try the supermarket? Our panel sorts the sweet from the sickly

IF IT IS TRUE (as one cynical member of our panel remarked before the trial) that "no self-respecting child eats birthday cake; they are only there to mark the occasion and decorate the table," then it may not matter what modern manufacturers produce, as long as it looks good. But our trial of children's birthday cakes, available from supermarkets, certainly proved otherwise.

THE PANEL

At a dedicated, cake-only children's tea party, the panel consisted of Simon and Catherine Gallimore and their children Amy and Arthur; Dorothy Scott and two of her children, Harriet and Freddie; Sajita Majeed and her three boys Moeed, Haseeb and Nial, myself and my son Elliot. The kids ranged in age from one-and-a-half to seven.

THE TEST

Since many parties are family occasions, the winning cake had to be approved as edible by both adults and children. Secondly, it had to be attractive in a way which did credit to the confectioner's art, rather than the ingenuity of character merchandising. Value, size and topicality were also considered. Each supermarket was invited to send two sample cakes - many have huge ranges, and also invite customers to order themed cakes of their choice.

***SAINSBURY'S

World Cup cake, pounds 8.49; Noddy cake, pounds 7.99

With football fever at a high pitch, all the boys approved of this World Cup-themed cake which is only available in England. Sainsbury's is the "Official England Supermarket", and their version (Safeway sent another) features a picture of the England's footballers on rice paper. The cake is rather small for the price, but you do get four "free official England squad medals", which were squabbled over by the brothers. The verdict on its flavour was mixed: "It looks nice but it's yukky inside and the top tastes like paper!" said a scandalised Moeed (seven), whereas the adults declared the sponge to be "Not as jammy or as good as Safeway's football cake." Sainsbury's Noddy is a huge image of his face. Everyone admired the jolly packaging and sugar work, though it was something "you want to spray with lacquer and put on the wall," as Dorothy Scott said. Arthur (four) thought the cake "too babyish". Simon Gallimore said he had reservations about eating anything blue (such as Noddy's hat), but this appeared to be adult sophistication: the children ate this sponge like any other.

****MARKS & SPENCER

The Wombles cake, pounds 8.99; 12 mini chocolate cakes, pounds 2.99

Juvenile television fashions held sway in the judging of Marks & Spencer's Wombles cake, a shaped Orinoco figure complete with textured red scarf and hat, which the adults admired as the best-crafted icing. The sponge underneath was found "buttery, vanilla-y cake, more like Madeira. This is superior cake and not as sweet as the others." (Sajita Majeed). The trouble was that the children couldn't identify which Womble was depicted and would not admit to watching the programme on television. Dorothy Scott took a practical line: "I wouldn't buy it, because it's obscure. Even if they have tried to revamp the TV show, the kids don't like it." Meanwhile, the chocolate mini cakes were quickly identified as a cunning wild card. They are as described, "chocolate sponge, topped with chocolate buttercream covered with chocolate and decorated with chocolate logs" and taste as everyone agreed "fantastically chocolatey". They only missed winning as, "you still have to buy a birthday cake" (Catherine Gallimore). They also begged the question: "Why can't all birthday cakes taste like this?"

****WAITROSE

Gromit cake pounds 9.95; Teletubbies cake pounds 8.49

Made to order, Waitrose's cakes are presented in pristine white boxes, without pictures which struck the testers as "much classier" than other cakes' garish packaging. The Gromit cake benefited from an appealing coat of soft chocolate buttercream, crowned by Gromit faces in chocolate-dipped shortbread biscuits. These were eaten instantly; but when the cake was revealed, there was a general feeling of disappointment. "It isn't chocolate!" wailed Amy (seven). It was vanilla sponge, and not bad either, but somehow not what we had expected. Meanwhile, the tiny tots greeted the Teletubbies cake with cries of "Uh-oh!" by way of recognition and "Aaaah!" by way of approval. The sugar figures were flavoured - lime for Dipsy, blackcurrant for Tinky Winky etc. Elliot (one-and- a-half) cradled Po lovingly; Nial (two) ate La-La quickly. Even the adults admired the cake's buttery flavour and restrained tone - "merchandising at its most acceptable," said Simon Gallimore.

**SAFEWAY

Musical cake, pounds 7.99; Football cake, pounds 3.99

"It looks like a football - only flatter," declared Moeed of the 6in Football cake, which has a silver cup motif in the centre. Both this and the 9in Musical cake, decorated with balloons and iced musical notes, are described as "light sponge with a delicious buttercream and raspberry jam filling covered with soft icing". The Gallimores approved of the fact that the Safeway cakes exhibited "less product placement and more traditional celebratory motifs" than the others. The Musical cake led to a rousing chorus from the children of "Happy birthday to you, squashed tomatoes and stew..." "Quite a good idea, really," said Dorothy Scott.

**TESCO

Action Man cake pounds 5.99; Barbie cake, pounds 7.99

"It's camp, tacky, I love it," said Dorothy Scott of Tesco's Barbie cake, which features a curiously flat-chested Barbie torso in a relief made from something which tasted "faintly of synthetic marzipan and strawberry flavour bubblegum" (Catherine Gallimore). Simon Gallimore complained "It's nauseating, and that's before I've even tasted it." Surprisingly, Harriet (six) and Amy (seven) agreed. "Yuk!" they said, though their mothers claimed six months earlier, it would have been their favourite. The sponge was not especially good, and as the cake was so small the parents were dismayed by the price. The Action Man cake, a layered chocolate sponge bearing a plaque depicting him on a vicious looking motorbike, was thought "cool" by Moeed (seven). A dozen or so mini sugar plaques on orange swirls of cream show Action Man engaged in heroic feats, most involving deadly weapons. "That's one theme I'm trying to get them away from," sighed his mother, who was glad when her sons declared the cake "tastes yukky".

*****ASDA

Hetty Hedgehog & Friends cake, pounds 6.49; personalised fruit cake, pounds 4.36

There was no dispute about the winner. As soon as the cakes were unpacked, all the children gravitated towards Hetty the Hedgehog, with spikes of chocolate buttercream and attendant tiny hogs made from puffed rice stuck together with chocolate. The smaller children stuck their fingers in the cream and licked them without further ado. When asked, "Why do you like it?", Nial (two) seemed to speak for all of them: "Because I want to eat it," he said, not taking his eyes off it for a second. Dorothy Scott thought it was the best cake "for pretending you've made it yourself". Asda's second sample was also generally approved. It exemplified their undecorated range (fruitcake, vanilla or chocolate sponge), which is personalised free-of-charge in the store. Ours was decorated with a sugar teddy bear plaque and the name "Jessica". "The icing looks professional," said Sajita Majeed. And best of all, the fruit cake below was rich, fruity, nutty, traditional and appealed to everyone who liked fruit cake (half the children and half the adults.)

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