Miles Kington: How to have your cake and philosophise about it

Cakes represent the dichotomy between function and uselessness. On top, the sugary world of imagination, beneath it the lumpen world of flour
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The Independent Online

Many people write in to me asking for instructions on how to make a birthday cake with a difference. It tends to leave me feeling bashful.

"Aw, shucks," I tell them, "I cain't pretend to know a great deal about birthday cakes. Why don't you-all write to someone who really knows? Delia Smith or a gentleman like Jamie Oliver?"

I use a mock-Southern accent to persuade them I am an idiot and to deter them.

It never works.

"Lawdy, lawdy," they write back," we already done tried that, and it was no darned good at all, no, Suh. Delia Smith didn't ever write back at all, and Jamie Oliver jest sent a load of Waitrose brochures. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall sent us a handwritten reply saying 'This is a handwritten reply from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Please desist from contacting me in future.' So it sure looks like you are our last resort, Mr Kington, kind sir ..."

Well, I am as susceptible to flattery as the next man.

And when you read in the papers how celebrities have celebrated their birthdays with fantastical birthday cakes, you can understand the desire of ordinary people to emulate them.

Was it not Liz Hurley who had a birthday cake made in the shape of herself?

Was it not Elton John who had himself fired into space in his own birthday cake rocket?

Was it not Pete Doherty who was arrested for possession of a birthday cake?

And was it not Nicholas Serota who bought Damien Hirst's "Birthday Cake" for Tate Modern with the immortal words, "By the time anyone has worked out if this is any good or not, I shall be retired on a fat pension"?

So let's get cracking with that cake mix!

But first, a word from a philosopher, Professor Hugh Scranton.

"Hello. Hugh Scranton here. I specialise in philosophy as applied to daily life. Yes, yes, a bit like A C Grayling or Alain de Botton. But for heaven's sake, you might think that those two were the only pop philosophers in the business! Honestly, every time I open the paper, it's Grayling this and de Botton that! Don't people realise that there are other fresh voices waiting to be heard? Eh?

"Sorry. Not very philosophical. Pull myself together. Now, the thing about birthday cakes is that they represent the ultimate dichotomy between function and uselessness. The cake itself is for eating. Dull, daily fare. But the superstructure is pure fantasy! It's the tracery of the icing versus the stodgy filling! Play combined with duty! On top we have the sugary world of the imagination and beneath it the lumpen world of flour, eggs and raisins, a metaphor for the combination of spiritual human aspirations with our base nature! Was it not Nietzsche who said...?"

Well, that will teach us to let a philosopher in on the act. Let's try a structural engineer instead. Sir Fergus MacQuill.

"Hello, there. You know, I am sometimes horrified to find that people are prepared to accept the first design of birthday cake that comes along. You should put the cake project out to tender to at least four different companies. Get the drawings. Choose the right design. Commission the scale models. Why models? Because marzipan is a very poor load-bearing material, and the greatest care has to be taken not to ask it to do too much. I wonder if anyone still remembers the great Royal Birthday Cake Disaster of 1859?

"An instructive tale. No less an expert than Sir Joseph Paxton, designer of the Crystal Palace, had been drafted in to design and build the cake for Queen Victoria's 40th birthday. Ten feet high, self-draining, able to withstand winds of up to 40 miles per hour, it seemed a marvel of the age. Yet there was one thing that Old Sir Joseph had forgotten. Marzipan will expand in the heat of a crowded drawing room. And so it was that when Crown Prince Ludwig of Hesse strayed incautiously close to the cake, he looked up too late to see the whole structure buckling and collapsing towards him ..."

Alas, I am afraid I have run out of my allotted words and will have to return to this recipe some other time. Watch this space for ingredients and method!

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