It’s officially spring – time to prep the garden, get the seeds and soil ready, kick off your boots and go barefoot… hooray!
And, in our house, it’s also birthday season! Health-conscious as we are, birthdays tend to include birthday cake (or whatever the treat of choice may be). In fact, so far, when anyone asks what our kids would like for their birthday, the kids simply respond “truck cake”, “dragon cake” or “shark cake.” They don’t care about ‘stuff’ – they just want to have (and help create) a fun cake!
My mother’s unending inventiveness began this cake tradition for me and my siblings – growing up, our birthdays included “butterfly cake,” “dinosaur cake” and even a “Popple cake” (remember Popples??!!?)
My kids’ requests for this year include a “tower cake” and a “red bull cake” (no, I’m not talking about the caffeine syrup in a can… I’m talking the classic 80’s animated film The Last Unicorn… that red bull!) You can likely tell by the kids’ cake selections that we don’t watch a lot of TV or movies (i.e. no requests for minions, Olaf or other characters). But The Last Unicorn? It had to be done. And kid #2 is now obsessed with The Red Bull.
While these personalized birthday cakes are by no means ‘healthy’, they are certainly a ginormous improvement over the refined-oil-and-sugar-packed, artificial colouring-infused recipes and mixes that exist. Plus, as always, we use this indulgence as an opportunity to learn – about the ingredients in our food, how we can create the colours naturally – and most importantly it’s an opportunity to have fun creating together as a family 🙂
Last year, my daughter’s 5th birthday request was a “rainbow cake” and I had fun talking to the kids about how the different colours could be made. Some of their inputs:
- Yellow – banana? lemon? turmeric?
- Orange – oranges? carrots? sweet potato?
- Pink – strawberries? beets?
- Green – lime? green apple? parsley? kale?
- Blue – blueberries?
Pretty great suggestions for 3 and 5 year olds, I’d say!
So we set to work on some experimenting – mixing various whole foods into our basic white buttercream. Ultimately, we used turmeric powder for the yellow, pureed carrots for the orange (though sweet potatoes or squash also work), pureed beets for the pink (berries can work too) and pureed kale for the green (parsley or other greens are also an option). Blue isn’t the easiest colour to get naturally (blueberries do not make blue) – the closest I’ve come to success was a light bluish pastel colour (see hilarious shark cake) by steaming purple cabbage and retaining the purple-blue steam water (thanks, mom!). For the rainbow, 4 fantastic colours seemed sufficient.
To get these wonderfully vibrant colours from real foods isn’t difficult. Though, I’m not going to lie, I like it best when my kids request cakes that involve yellow (turmeric), white (nothing) and brown/black (cocoa) icings only. So simple. But even the colours requiring a puree merely take minutes more.
FOR YELLOW – Simply add powdered turmeric (don’t worry, the bitter turmeric taste will be masked by the icing sweetness!). Start with 1/2 tsp turmeric for every 1 or 2 cups of icing. Mix it in and let it sit a few minutes as the yellow colour intensifies with time. If you need it to be brighter, add a dash more turmeric. C’est tout. Yellow beets are another option – follow the same steps as for the pink/purple beets.
FOR ORANGE – Prepare carrots, sweet potato or squash by simply following the same directions as for beet puree (sweet potato and squash will require slightly less steaming time, and slightly less water). Once steamed and pureed, add veggie mash (approximately 1 Tablespoon at a time for every 1 cup of icing) until you get the desired colour (anywhere from a light pastel to vibrant orange) and icing consistency. Be prepared: you may need to add extra icing sugar if your puree/icing is too runny.
FOR PINK/PURPLE – Prepare beet puree, and add the puree (approximately 1 Tablespoon at a time for every 1 cup of icing) until you get the desired colour (anywhere from a light pastel to vibrant pink/purple)and icing consistency. Be prepared: you may need to add extra icing sugar if your puree/icing is too runny. To use fresh (or frozen) berries, you need to mash them up and strain off as much liquid as possible (otherwise you’ll have a vicious cycle of adding more icing sugar, then more berry-colour… more more more). Try to get the berry mash as concentrated as possible.
FOR GREEN – Lightly steam a handful of desired greens (I like kale or parsley) in a small amount (approximately 2 Tbsp) of water. Less than a minute should be sufficient – just until the greens become vibrant. Puree until smooth and not too runny (drain out some liquid if you can)! Add the puree (approximately 1 Tablespoon at a time for every 1 cup of icing) until you get the desired colour and icing consistency. Be prepared: you may need to add extra icing sugar if your puree/icing is too runny.
You can use any old icing recipe with these natural colours (buttercream, cream cheese, whatever). I choose to make a SIMPLE buttercream icing*, using 1 cup of organic butter (from grass-fed cows) and about 3.5 or 4 cups of icing sugar (homemade corn-free icing sugar recipe to come). Add in almond milk or rice milk to desired consistency (keeping it fairly thick, particularly for any batches that will be coloured with a liquid puree). Mix in natural colourings as desired.
*This is the same easy ‘recipe’ that my sister and I used regularly when baking for L’Oven customers – never using artificial colours, just things like tumeric, beets, cocoa – even matcha green tea! And everyone *loved* our icing, even though it was SO simple.
[Note: Of course these creative cake designs could look more ‘professional’ by using fondant, but honestly, that sh*t makes me gag. I prefer the edibility and added ‘construction’ challenge of working with plain old buttercream icing]
Eventually I will also share the L’Oven beet cake recipe, too! Promise.
An added bonus to avoiding artificial food dyes is less packaging, less garbage, less processed junk. And if you have extra puree left over, you can just add it to a soup, broth, sauce or stir fry. Waste-free.
No matter which whole foods you choose to use, no matter how wonky and hilarious your actual cake may look, it’s gotta be better than Allura red #40, Brilliant blue #1 or Tartrazine yellow #5!
Happy Healthy food colouring!!
Some articles on artificial food colourings:
Amounts of artificial food dyes and added sugars in foods and sweets commonly consumed by children. Stevens LJ, Burgess JR, Stochelski MA, Kuczek T. Clin Pediatr (Phila). 2015 Apr;54(4):309-21. doi: 10.1177/0009922814530803. Epub 2014 Apr 24.
Effects on DNA repair in human lymphocytes exposed to the food dye tartrazine yellow. Soares BM, Araújo TM, Ramos JA, Pinto LC, Khayat BM, De Oliveira Bahia M, Montenegro RC, Burbano RM, Khayat AS. Anticancer Res. 2015 Mar;35(3):1465-74.
Study on the interaction of artificial and natural food colorants with human serum albumin: A computational point of view. Masone D, Chanforan C.Comput Biol Chem. 2015 Jun;56:152-8. doi: 10.1016/j.compbiolchem.2015.04.006. Epub 2015 Apr 20.
Are there any remarkable effects of prenatal exposure to food colourings on neurobehaviour and learning process in rat offspring? Doguc DK, Aylak F, Ilhan I, Kulac E, Gultekin F. Nutr Neurosci. 2015 Jan;18(1):12-21. doi: 10.1179/1476830513Y.0000000095. Epub 2013 Nov 20.