Friday, February 26, 2010

A Challenge of Royal Proportions: Queen of Hearts Cake

This card required some detective work and an unusual purchase. In order to make any of the cakes on the card, I needed to obtain a copy of the New Party Cakes for All Occasions booklet. Since the card mentioned that the booklet could be obtained by sending 10 cents to Betty Crocker, I figured this was something that had been printed a very long time ago. I scoured the internet and eventually sent a letter to General Mills to enlist their help. They wrote back to let me know that, yes, they did have a copy, but it was in their archives. However, they directed me to a bookstore in New York City and suggested I try there.

One of the things I have loved so much about this project has been the people I have met along the way. And this experience would turn out to be another one of those serendipitous connections. The bookstore General Mills recommended was Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks, which specializes in antique and out-of-print cookbooks. Her website states that she prefers calls instead of e-mails so I picked up the phone and crossed my fingers that she’d have what I was looking for. When Bonnie answered the phone, I briefly explained my project, the recipe card and the title of the booklet. I admitted that I had no idea when it was distributed (I learned later that it was printed in 1931). She took down my information and said she’d look around. The next day she called with great news – she had a copy! But it wasn’t just any copy, it was her copy. I was in shock that she was willing to part with it and felt honored that she chose me as the recipient. She asked about my project and while we were talking, she looked up the blog. And that’s when we realized we had a lot more in common than just a love for old cookbooks.

The first page she saw was one of my horse stories. It turns out that she too loves horses and volunteers with the mounted police in Central Park (how cool is that?!). And then she saw Murphy. She is also a dog lover and has a beautiful picture on her website of Floppy with the caption, “In loving memory of the most beautiful dog to ever grace a bookshop.” Floppy looks like a dog who Murphy would have loved to play with. Bonnie laughed and said we were sisters who were separated at birth and I had to agree. I’m sure if we had spent the rest of the afternoon on the phone, we would have discovered a list full of other things we had in common. But she had to return to work and I had challenges to tackle in the kitchen. 

A few days later, the booklet arrived. I was excited to get started on the first month of birthday cakes, but when I saw which cake was listed for February, my excitement level dropped a little. The Queen of Hearts Cake was the exquisite cake pictured on the front of the booklet. To put it mildly, I felt way out of my league on this one. But I knew I had to make it so I started to gather ingredients, one of which was rather peculiar. I needed to find half of a doll (a Barbie-type doll). Um….what? Yes, that’s right, half of a doll. I thought of one place to look and sure enough, I got it on the first try. Joann Fabric and Craft Stores has a great cake decorating section, complete with half of a doll to use as a cake topper. Now that I had all of the ingredients, it was time to hit the kitchen.

The cake itself isn’t difficult. Please note, however, if you are brave enough to take on this challenge, I only baked the cake for 1 hour instead of the 1.5 hours listed on the card. Also, this cake is baked in a bundt pan, but you’ll need something to fill in the hole to support the doll (she has a stick coming out of her waist to insert into the cake). I used a portion of the batter to make a single cupcake and that fit perfectly.

Next came the icing. And of course, it was my nemesis: boiled icing. The first attempt was a complete failure. The icing separated and was a total mess. I turned to the internet for help and found a video. They made it look so easy and didn’t offer any inside tricks to help make the process successful. So I took a deep breath and went back to the kitchen. Attempt #2 stayed together, but was runny. There was no way it was going to stay on the cake. Finally, the third attempt was a success. It wasn’t perfect, but it was fluffy and firm enough to frost a cake. I want to send out a HUGE thank you to everyone who offered support and advice on the Facebook page! I got a lot of great tips that will help me perfect this challenging icing. And it was just another example of all the incredible people I’ve met through this project.

So, after going through 11 cups of sugar and 2.5 dozen eggs, I finally had my cake and frosting. Now I had to decorate it. Most of the icing is light pink, but a small amount is dyed dark pink or red for accents. And my hands will be dark pink for probably the next month. Since the icing wasn’t as thick as it should be, some of the accents ran down the sides a little, but for the most part, they stayed in place. I sprinkled the rest of the cake with tiny sugar hearts. Then it was time for the final touch – the doll.

After my second failed attempt at boiled icing, I decided I needed to take a step away and relax. So I decorated the doll. I made her a beaded necklace, a shiny strapless satiny gown (complete with a beaded bustle in the back) and a pink tulle shawl. My husband came home from work to find the kitchen in complete disarray and me sitting in the middle of beads and fabric decorating a doll. He just shook his head. I told him about the icing and said I needed to take a step away. He looked at the doll. “And this is relaxing?” he asked. For me, yes. I’ve never been able to sit still. Even when I watch TV I have to be flipping through a magazine, working on an art project or surfing the web. I like to have my hands busy; it helps to refocus my mind on something more productive than stress.
When the doll’s ensemble was complete, it was time for her to take her place on top of the cake. I was pleasantly surprised once it was all together. It looked pretty good. Nowhere near as elegant as the one of the cover of the booklet, but it was still a beautiful cake. I wish I had a daughter to give it to, it would be the perfect cake for a little girl’s birthday. I didn’t want to cut into it. I had put so much time and effort into the cake that when it came time to actually eat it, I found I wasn’t even that interested in tasting it. For once, I realized that cooking was about so much more than just eating the product of your hard work. It was the hard work that I was proud of. The Queen of Hearts Cake was a challenge that I had shied away from and never thought I’d complete. And after two failed batches of boiled icing, I really considered giving up. But I didn’t. And I had this pretty pink princess cake as a trophy of my success.
We finally did cut into it and sadly, it wasn’t nearly as good as it looked. The cake was decent; it’s a light, lemony cake. But the frosting is really sugary (what did I expect when the recipe calls for 3 cups of sugar?). My teeth felt like sandpaper after eating my piece. But I didn’t care, I was still riding high on my happiness of completing the challenge. I felt like an Olympic athlete holding my medal high in the air. Mine may have been made of sugar, but it probably weighed about the same and was only slightly less expensive to make. 

I thought back to my first blog post and my reference to Dan Eldon’s journal entry: “the journey is the destination.” When I started this blog, I had no idea I’d be buying half of a doll or separating 30 eggs in one day. I can’t believe how much I’ve grown in the few shorts months I’ve been doing this and I can’t wait to see where I’ll be when it’s over. But Dan was right, the journey is incredible. And it’s all those steps along the way that make us the people we become in the end. Today, I dined with royalty. I may not be able to put it on a resume, but I can honestly say I’m a better person for accepting the invitation.


  1. LOVE THAT recipe, the image and whole idea! The picture is going into my back cover of the journal I was working on yesterday! :-)

  2. I had a doll cake for my birthday when I was a kid. The whole doll was in the cake. She was the prize for the birthday girl. But she was naked under the icing and needed a bath.

    What a great collection you have of these old recipes, photos and art. Thanks for sharing it all here on your blog.