Thursday, August 5, 2010

Science Party Part 1: The Cake(s)

This is the first of three posts about my eldest girl's 7th birthday party, scheduled for tomorrow afternoon. The theme is Science, as my girl is greatly enamoured of science & maths and dearly wanted a party that reflected her interests.

For her cake, we discussed a number of options. We thought about a dinosaur cake, she considered a solar system cake, and briefly toyed with the idea of a test tube cake. In the end, however, she decided, she wanted a cake based on ...

the periodic table of elements.

All 118 of them.

I'll wait a bit while you absorb that.


After reflection, we decided the best way to go with fulfilling this request was to make 118 cupcakes and ice / decorate them as an element each.

So last weekend and this week, I have been engaged in making cupcakes. Vanilla cupcakes. 144 vanilla cupcakes, to be exact (6 batches of 24). I knew some would turn out to be not as good as others and that built-in redundancy was a must.

This was a good call; instead of the 26 I would have left over if everything had gone perfectly, I have 12 left now, a comfortable barrier and one that can easily be eaten up in lunchbox snacks next week.

The recipe I used was a very straightforward one, and my trusty Kenwood made it dobale - if I had had to hand-mix everything, it would have been utterly excrutiating. (I've included the recipe at the end of the post in case you are interested).

So, by yesterday afternoon, I had all my cupcakes prepared and awaiting decoration. My friend, who has decorated some damn impressive cakes in her day, madly offered to come and help with the elemental production line. Normally I decline offers of help, deprecating that oh no, I'll be fine, I can manage. This time I had the good sense to say YES, PLEASE, ABSOLUTELY! when she offered, and I'm so glad I did.

After discussing methods of proceeding, we decided to slice the tops off the cupcakes to provide a flat working surface, then apply a layer of buttercream icing, then to cut a disc of white icing (the kind you buy pre-made in packets - it's sometimes called fondant icing) to the cupcakes, after first colouring it the desired shades with colouring gels. We then coloured some more buttercream and using my friend's thinnest piping nozzle, we wrote the chemical symbol on each one.

We needed to make 7 different colours of icing to match the coloured sections of the periodic table - red, orange, dark and light green, yellow, blue, purple and grey. Some of the colours were better matches for the chart than others, but that's life. They were all recognisably different, and that's what counts.

Once the buttercream was made (it took 3 bags of icing sugar and 1kg of margarine to make enough), the process began in earnest. My friend kneaded the colours into the white icing and the girls cut discs to apply to the cakes. We all had a go at piping the symbols on - mine and my 7-y-old's efforts being decidedly wonkier than my friend's smooth writing! Once we'd worked out our process, it really was a matter of rinse and repeat x 117.

Easy ;-) Except, not, really, or at least not quick - we began the process at 6:45 last night, and with both of us working flat out and the two big girls helping a lot until 8:30 and 9pm respectively, we still didn't finish until just after 11:30pm. By the time we'd cleaned equipment and surfaces, it was almost midnight and we were both shaking with tiredness. Which makes my friend even more of a champion, as she had to go to work today! (K, I owe you. Big time).

All in all, though, I'd have to say the result was worthwhile. They look pretty awesome (if I do say so) and my big girl was just thrilled to her toes to see them all on the table this morning.

Let's hope the other elements of this party come together as well! (Sorry for the bad pun ;-)

Vanilla cupcakes


* 200g margarine or unsalted butter, softened (I tried both, marg worked better)
* 1 ½ cups caster sugar
* 4 eggs
* 2 ¾ cups plain flour
* 2 teaspoons baking powder
* 1 cup milk
* 1 tablespoon vanilla extract


Preheat oven to 180°C. Place cupcake papers in two 12-hole muffin trays. (Tip - don't use flexible bakeware, it distorts the shape too much.)

In an electric mixer, beat butter / margarine for 2-3 minutes until pale in colour and creamy. Add sugar one third at a time, beating well between each addition. Add the eggs one at a time, beating for about a minute between each addition. Add the vanilla essence and beat until combined. Sift flour and baking powder and add half to butter mixture with half the milk, beat until well combined. Repeat with remaining flour and milk.

Spoon into cupcake papers (try to get it even!) and bake for about 18 minutes until a skewer inserted into the middle of a cupcake comes out clean. Transfer to wire racks and allow to cool completely. These freeze well and can be stored in airtight containers too.


  1. I love it! We recently had the same dilemma for my son's 8th science themed birthday. We solved it this way:

    But this is a brilliant idea to remember for the future.

  2. Have a great time at the party everyone. Especially Miss 7!!!

  3. Please tell me you'll get a picture of all of the cupcakes laid out as per the chart??

  4. You are fantastic! What a brilliant project to do with your children for a birthday.

    I not only admire your determination and desire to do something educational and fun, but to get such close matches to the colours on the charts is incredible.


  5. What an amazing effort! What a wonderful party ~ no doubt your girls will remember that through to adulthood!