Cabbage and Spinach Frosting…yum, yum.

P.’s got a birthday coming up.  (For that matter, so have I…he and I share our special day, which usually means that I just about forget it’s my birthday altogether until somebody reminds me, because I’m so busy focusing on him.)  He’s turning the big 2, and although we’re not really having a party — we’re the type of people who figured out pretty quickly with Kid #1 that major bashes for little people are generally ill-conceived affairs culminating in a surefire meltdown — we will have a small family get-together with a few gifts and a special cake.

I love making my kids’ birthday cakes.  Predictably, I geek out over the whole process; it’s baking, which is one of my favorite activities, and it’s also relatively artistic, which feeds my creative side.  Plus, I love the looks on their little faces when they see the fun cake I’ve made just for them.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m no Duff Goldman, but I usually manage to make something passably recognizable as whatever fun thing we’ve dreamed up together.  This year, P. is absolutely raving mad about the Thomas Trains (I hear all the other parents’ heads nodding vigorously out there — what IS it about those darned engines?).   Still, I wasn’t 100 percent sure that was going to be the cake theme, until this conversation happened:
Me: “What kind of cake should we do for P. this year?  Backyardigans?”
J: *Shrug* “I dunno.  Maybe basketball?”
Me: “That would be fun.”
P., wandering over: “No no no.”
Me: “Dogs, maybe?  Or giraffes?  He likes giraffes.  P., you like giraffes, right?”
P: “No no no.”
J: “Airplanes?”
Me: “Ooohhh, airplanes.  Airplane cake, P.”
P: “No no no.”
J: “Trains?”
P: “YEAH.”
Me: “Thomas the train?”
P: “No.  Pee-cee.  Pee-cee tain.”  And to illustrate his point, he went to fetch his Percy the train and shoved it in my face for inspection.
He’s a relatively definite child, my P.  So with his order for a Percy cake firmly delivered, I had to start thinking.  He’s since expanded his request to BOTH Percy and Thomas, making my job just a bit more difficult; but I figured I was up to the challenge.  The problem isn’t a lack of ideas; it’s a mixture of my ineptitude with execution, and my hesitation about all the stinking food dye that will be required to pull off the vibrant colors of Thomas and Percy.
For the record: I usually do not bat an eye when it comes to birthday cake decorations; I’m blessed to have two boys who, although their exposure has been limited, appear to have absolutely no discernible reaction to food coloring.  And believe me, I’d know — for L.’s first birthday, back when I was relatively ignorant of a lot of the food politics issues I now study for “fun,” I made an Elmo cake so laden with red dye that in the pictures, it actually looks as though L. had killed the little red Muppet and devoured him.  Seriously, my sister D. and I jokingly refer to the images of that birthday as the “crime scene.”  Nowadays, I cringe thinking of all that food coloring going into a 1-year-old; but still, I’ll say right up front that beyond the initial moment of pause, I’d probably still make the stupid cake if I thought that Elmo was the design that’d make him happiest.
See, as with all other things, I tend to think of the once-a-year food coloring festival that is birthday cake decorating as a probably harmless, and generally cheery, rite of childhood.  And yes, I’m aware that my kids are ingesting food dyes at other little people’s birthdays and at school celebrations and all those other sneaky sugarfests that make up childhood in this country.  But still, in the grand scheme of things, their exposure to the stuff is much more limited than most other kids’.  So I don’t give it a huge amount of thought, though I do try to think of creative ways to deliver the type of cake they want with as minimal an amount of dye as possible.
After the 1st birthday, L.’s cakes have been pretty low on food coloring, actually.  His 2nd cake was a pirate ship — chocolate icing for the hull, vanilla for the sails — and I used only small amounts of decorator icing to pipe the details before sticking some Backyardigans figurines in the top.  For his 3rd, we made a chocolate-peanut butter horse, which meant built-in coloring for a brown horse with tan mane.  And for his 4th, we made cupcakes that looked like the cows from the “Click, Clack, Moo” books — which meant using just a little bit of black decorator gel to pipe the faces and a few spots onto the whipped-cream icing.
P.’s first birthday cake was remarkably sane in terms of dye as well; to achieve a “Hippos Go Berserk” theme with minimal effort, I bought some colored fondant and cut a few little hippos and balloons out of it to stick all over the top of the vanilla-iced cake.  But now I’m back to musing on food coloring, as Thomas and Percy loom before me in all their technicolor glory, and I’m trying to decide if I can really, in good conscience, do all that dye.  I mean, I’m the RRG Mom…if there’s a natural way, shouldn’t I try it?
I did some research, and discovered that the natural food dyes on the market are a) expensive; and b) notorious for their mutedness, especially green — which is the kiss of death for a kelly-green Percy the engine.  A little more time spent with Google convinced me that I should at least experiment with making my own vegetable-based dyes for the icing before giving up.  (For the record…I have in the back of my mind a contingency plan for his cake, which will allow me to make a basically dye-free cake featuring his favorite trains even if I totally crash and burn on the natural dye thing.)
The photo above shows the results of an hour’s worth of experimenting.  The colors aren’t standout vibrant, but they’re not bad — particularly the blue, which is a pretty decent match for the Thomas engine I kept holding up next to the bowl as I worked.  Will I use them, though?  Ehhhhh…
Here’s the thing: to achieve the blue, I had to play super Mad Scientist (which was fun; I won’t lie) and boil up half a head of red cabbage until it turned a shade of sickly green — an effect I didn’t even know was POSSIBLE with a red cabbage.  Then I had to strain the liquid off and let it cool; mix it into icing; and temper it, bit by bit, with baking soda, creating a chemical reaction that turned the intense purple coloring into the smurfy blue you see above.  Think about this, folks: not only was it a relatively large chunk of effort, but it meant that the icing was CABBAGE and BAKING SODA flavored.  Oh, it wasn’t gross in the end — surprisingly edible, in fact — but I had to put so much sugar, and eventually, honey (which was the only thing that killed the vegetable-y taste) into it that, as my father put it when I described the process to him on the phone: “You’ll end up making the kid diabetic before you kill him with food coloring.”  My mom was even less tactful.  “Honey,” she said bluntly, reminding me of my own chemical dye-laced childhood, “You’ve got issues.”
Worse was the green, which can only be achieved in that vibrancy by boiling and then pureeing spinach leaves, then enhancing the color with — what else? — more baking soda.  I love spinach, but spinach and icing are not good friends.  Even more honey, more sugar, an extra dash of vanilla extract, and a whole bunch of butter…and I still couldn’t totally kill the lingering aftertaste.  Plus, the color, while pretty, isn’t quite up to the task of making a believable Percy.
I was going to make red, as well (using beet juice, which doesn’t scare me as I’ve used beets in baking before), but after mucking around with the blue and green I decided I’d rather eat the darned things than boil them and use them for food dye experiments.  The upshot?  I’m sure if I devoted more time and energy to this pursuit, I could make a pretty decent-tasting cake frosting that would look all right, color-wise; but I’m not frankly invested enough to do it.  If you have a child with documented food dye sensitivity, by all means, go nuts with this; it’s a lot cheaper than the stuff you can buy in the store, and it’s not SO difficult.  I’ll even be happy to share whatever tips I can to help you be successful.  But for me, and my kids, I think I’m throwing up my hands and wimping out with more traditional, and less healthy, birthday cake methods.  Sorry, folks, but issues or not, cabbage and baking-soda icing just isn’t going into my recipe file, or into P.’s tummy on his big day.