my bake sale FAIL

The Christmas season is one in which to showcase the very best your baking skills have to offer, and after resolving last week to say yes to all things Christmas-y, no matter how too-busy I think I am, I reported to my son’s kindergarten class last Friday to help them decorate gingerbread cookies. The kids were still at lunch when I arrived, so the classroom was empty except for one mother hurrying to and fro getting everything ready. Skipping the chit-chat, she handed me a small box, a spoon, and a professional mixer.

OTHER MOM: Seven tablespoons of meringue powder. Thirteen to fourteen tablespoons of water. Then mix on high.

I did as I was told, but I’m thinking: meringue powder? Doesn’t she know about Betty Crocker?

Then I saw the unadorned gingerbread cookies laid out on the plates, and understood just what level we were playing at:

The smell of cloves and nutmeg warmed the air. Holy crap, the gingerbread girl had tiny strands of gingerbread HAIR. How did she do that?

We made pastry bags of three different color frostings (another first for me) and when the kids came in, helped them decorate their gingerbread people to their hearts’ content. Here’s what Seamus came up with:

which led to this conversation in our home that same evening:

CONNOR: Seamus, does your gingerbread lady have… bras?
SEAMUS: Mm hmm. Dose are her bras.
I had been afraid to ask.

Still, Seamus was so excited about his gingerbread girl and her bras that I decided to kick my own holiday baking up a notch. The school’s holiday party was two days away, so the next afternoon, Seamus and Maggie and I rolled up our sleeves and got to work making Magic Bars. “These were the hit of my bake sale!” one reviewer proclaimed, and since I ate about eight of the misshapen ones, I can aver that they are indeed magically delicious. So delicious I just went to the freezer to get another one.

What’s that you say? You thought I made them for my kids’ school holiday party? Why, I did. I walked in with my Tupperware container of Magic Bars, handed them in proudly, and was off to the face painting booth with Maggie.

About half an hour later, I came back to the bake sale booth, and saw hand-painted Christmas tree cookies, and bright green cornflake wreaths, and for sixty dollars, a three-tier confection that had a tiny Grinch attempting to steal Christmas on the top. I mean, this thing was Cake Boss good. But not my sweet, humble, single-pan Magic Bars. 

My friend behind the counter saw me looking around hopefully– perhaps they had sold already? Since they were *that* delicious? Then my friend sheepishly lifted the paper tablecloth. “I have them down here,” she said, sort of gritting her teeth apologetically. “Cause… they have NUTS.”

D’oh. I mean, yes they have nuts, but they’re right on top, and they’re magical, and anyone with a kid with a nut allergy is probably not buying random strangers’ baked goods, right?

They came back home with me. Bake sale FAIL.

When we got home, it was Maggie’s naptime- and time for me to focus on my next baked good adventure: a cake for Connor’s 8th birthday party the next day. We were having a LEGO themed party (more on that next post), and he wanted a LEGO cake. In a moment of insanity, I had decided that I would not outsource this request: I would make it myself. This was before I realized how much I sucked at baking things compared to, oh, every single other mother anywhere.

Here was the LEGO cake recipe I had decided to make, from Family Fun magazine. (Their name has “Fun” right in it! How could I go wrong?) Simply by baking a rectangular cake and eight upside-down cupcakes, then frosting them a bright LEGO color, my finished product was sure to look exactly like this!

After approximately eighteen hours of baking, cooling, digging out of pans, doing surgery with toothpicks, frosting, crying out to the gods, refrosting, taking deep cleansing breaths, and frosting some more, this is what I came up with:

Oh, that’s not… THAT bad, you say? Here’s a closeup:

And I mean, I worked HARD to make it look like that.
I revealed my handiwork to my family. My husband stifled a guffaw.
“It’s not really da color of a real Lego,” Seamus said, pointing out what was probably the 8th most glaring thing wrong with my cake.
Then Connor looked up at me and smiled.
“I love it,” he said.
And he did.

Last night when I tucked Connor in, he gave me an extra hug. “Thank you so much for my cake, Mom,” he said. “You worked so hard on it. And I really loved it.”

I’m no Cake Boss. But he appreciated that I tried. And I’ll never forget it. Next year I’m going to try to tackle this one:
Oh sure, this cake is pretty good. But I know how to make an anatomically correct ginger-girl, so… watch out.

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

tracy December 13, 2010 at 8:24 pm

I have to admit, your lego cake made me laugh out loud! I know how you feel. My sister is a baking goddess and I have decided from now on to NOT make decorated cakes for birthdays! Good luck next year.


Phoebe December 13, 2010 at 8:31 pm

Baking is my biggest shortcoming in the eyes of my children. In fact, on my 6 year old daughter's last Mother's Day project she was asked to answer a series of questions about me. When asked "My Mom likes to…, she filled in "cook but NOT bake". Her recent experiences with Kindergarten bake sales has only made my baking disability more apparent and more embarrassing to her. I applaud your confectionary efforts! That Lego cake totally rocked. I'm so inspired that I'm signing on for the next St. Clare's Bake Sale. I will not be the only Mom bringing in the white box full of cupcakes from the bakery! Put the Fire Dept on notice…


Mollie December 13, 2010 at 9:19 pm

Okay, first of all: you brought magic bars to the bake sale (points for participation) and then you got to take them all home and eat them yourself? I call that a bake sale WIN.

Second: the "Cake Boss" cakes look "good," but they don't look delicious. I would much rather eat your Lego cake. Fie on fondant icing.


Amy Wilson December 13, 2010 at 9:34 pm

Mollie: you're right, fondant is as awful-tasting as it is lovely. Not that my blue frosting was very good either. That's Duncan Hines with a whole thingy of blue food coloring in it. I couldn't bring myself to even taste it (unlike the magic bars).

Tracy: I hate your sister.

Phoebe: Magic Bars can be made without nuts, which would be both school bake-sale friendly and not that hard. I recommend giving that a shot.


Shannon W. December 13, 2010 at 9:50 pm

Great post!


Sharon December 14, 2010 at 1:14 am

Oh Amy!
I SO love your blog- and this post made my whole day….. this weekend we hosted a home party for our 5 year old's birthday party, and I made a Giraffe cake- which I will admit did turn out slightly better than your Lego cake….. but not much! And I slaved over that bad boy- "crumb coat" of icing and all- the whole cake looked like it was covered in chocolate chips after the first "crumb coat"…. and only after slathering on two more icing coats did it start to look decent. I literally spent hours on this.
The entertainment for our party was "Jungle Jim" who brings awesome live animals for the kids to feed and pet…. and wouldn't you know it- the damn dove flew out of Jungle Jim's hands- and landed smack-dab in the middle of my giraffe cake!
Sharon at


Jeanne's Daughter December 14, 2010 at 2:48 am

OK, I really love the LEGO cake. My question is how did you get roped into 48 hours of nonstop baking projects? Did not know that was humanly possible. My mom had her own bouts with Christmas cooking pressure, which I wrote on my latest blog. Take a look if you have a moment:


Sheila Baum December 14, 2010 at 2:51 am

I consider myself an above average baker and even I cannot do cakes. Your cake looks like the sorry effort I made for my daughter's birthday this year — and it was a mini cake! Point is we all do what we can. There is no shame in having a pro do a cake. In fact, my daughter will be getting a Disney Princess cake from a local Amish bakery next year. (It looks like a doll with cake for a body — wish I had a picture.)
Anyway, you'd be surprised how many of those super mom bakers are faking it. I do. You just haven't found them out yet. Either that or they are so overwhelmed by perfection they down a bottle of merlot every night after the kids are in bed! 🙂


Amy Wilson December 14, 2010 at 3:23 pm

Sharon, I see that you're conversant with the whole "crumb coat" frosting thing, which was also new to me. As you can see from my photos, I was not so successful, since my final product also had what can truthfully be called a coat of crumbs. I can't *believe* the dove dive-bombed the giraffe cake! That stinks.

Sheila, do you think?? They're all faking it? Do they have a secret line in to the Cake Boss I don't know about?


M. Stratton Norman December 14, 2010 at 3:45 pm

I'm giggling at this story. You sure took on a lot…Yes, you are insane! And your LEGO cake has TWO sets of bras – awesome feat! I occasionally bake, but I keep it simple, and since all three of my kids (who turned 4, 8 and 10) have birthdays the same week (the week after Thanksgiving) I always keep their birthday treats S-I-M-P-L-E. I've realized in the last few years that….(I'm with Molly)…It's great to bring in baked goods that others don't like so that I can take them home with me and eat them myself (oh yes, and share them with the family). Also, I am not good at cooking or at dressing myself up fashionably, and I am A-OK with that! (I try to get others to do both for me….)


Courtney December 14, 2010 at 4:44 pm

I don't do cakes. I consider myself an above-average cook, but a very mediocre baker, although I have chocolate chip cookies down pat. I just don't enjoy it. With cooking, you can mix in this and that, and however much of this you want, taste it, and fix it. With baking, if you get this one tiny measurement wrong, the whole cake collapses. Baking is for the birds. So, a wonderful try by you, and I think it's a marvelous cake!


Amy Wilson December 14, 2010 at 4:54 pm

Courtney, you have hit the nail on the head. Baking is not a good place for perfectionists. Or maybe it is, since if you don't bake perfectly, you bake wrong. But it is an unhealthy pastime for me, that's for sure.

Margy, I didn't notice that about the bras! No wonder Connor liked the cake so much…


Sheila Baum December 14, 2010 at 9:35 pm

Yes, they have to be faking it. Who in heaven's name with small kids has the time to perfect a cake like on tv? As for the cookies and brownies kinda thing, at least in my house, a lot of the recipes are as I call them, "through it into a bowl, mix and pour it into the pan." (I have a simple brownie recipe if you want it.) No hours of melting chocolate or weighing flour or some nonsense. Best baking is like our moms did and I can guarantee if you ask your mom, she will not say it took her 5 hours to make a pan of brownies.
As long as it tastes good and the kids like it, poop on the perfectionists!


Meredith L. December 14, 2010 at 10:21 pm

Ok, Amy, I'm here to help. I'm what you might consider a "baking goddess" in that I love it, and my treats come out looking pretty good, if I do say so myself. Here are two secrets:

1. New York Cake & Baking Supply (West 22nd Street between 5th and 6th in Manhattan;
They have a buttload of cake tins in a wide variety of shapes. Get some Betty Crocker cake mix, dump it into one of these, and voila – perfectly shaped cake.

2. Wilton gel colors. They are more highly concentrated than the water-based stuff you buy at supermarkets, so the colors come out much brighter and fuller. (You can buy boxes of colors, or individual gels, at NY Cake & Baking.)

Whenever I have to do something new I do a test-run first. Husband gets to eat bonus cake, and I get to do all my messing up before the real deal.

Please don't hate me. I'll give you some highly yummy cookies if you don't beat me up for posting this.


Courtney December 15, 2010 at 8:34 pm

Amy, you will be happy to know that my daughter will be enjoying red velvet cupcakes featuring the faces of her favorite Sesame Street characters. And they will be amazing. Because I ordered them from the best bakery in the city:)


Amy Wilson December 15, 2010 at 9:31 pm

Sheila, I'll take that brownie recipe, and I have one for you: Today I made "brickle" with my kids from a recipe in today's NYT. Ingredients: sugar, butter, choc chips, and saltines. Bake, freeze, break into chunks. Now that's my kind of recipe.

Meredith, I do appreciate your tips, if only because I can now tell myself my cake sucked merely because I didn't have correct tools at my disposal. I'll try one of those pans next time.

Courtney- sounds like a plan! Send me a pic…


Sheila Baum December 21, 2010 at 2:16 am

Amy, the "brickle" recipe sounds great — especially to a pregnant woman who has been devouring Christmas cookies. 🙂
Here is the brownie recipe:
Mom's Bad Day Brownies
3/4 cup baking cocoa; 2/3 cup and 3 tbsp. oil (vegetable or canola); 2 cups granulated sugar; 4 eggs; 2 tsp. vanilla extract; 1 1/4 cup all purpose flour; 1 tsp. baking powder; 1 cup chopped nuts (optional)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix all ingredients in a large bowl until just combined. Pour into a greased 13 x 9 inch baking pan and bake for 30 minutes or until brownies start to pull away from the edge of the pan. Cool and cut into bars.
Alternative cream cheese brownies: make recipe as listed above. In a separate bowl combine one 8 oz. block of cream cheese (softened), 1/2 cup granulated sugar, 2 tbsp. all purpose flour, 1 egg white, 1 tsp vanilla extract. Pour cream cheese mixture onto brownie mixture in the pan. Take a butter knife and swirl into batter. Bake as you would regular recipe.
Good luck! And remember, even the failures eventually will come in handy some day when little Maggie is a mom and needs to hear she's not the only mom that isn't Martha Stewart perfect!


The Bargain Babe January 27, 2012 at 3:42 am

I do not care that I am like a decade late finding this post.  It is HILARIOUS.

Gotta love the bras on the gingerbread girl.  

Then the Lego cake.  MMhmm.  I also tried to make my son a Lego cake for his birthday, at which time I was a mere 2 weeks post C-section with our 3rd child.  Crumb coat my butt.  The only thing I won with that cake was that it was the right color, bright lego green.  The whole “oh just put a few cupcakes on top of a regular cake and presto!” line that craft catalogs and other bloggers feed us is pure horse crap.  🙂


Anonymous January 27, 2012 at 9:51 pm

Thanks Bargain Babe! I thought it was just me with the crumb coat. Apparently it’s a bright shining lie. Glad to hear I’m not the only one whose cakes don’t look like the magazines.


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