I knew I wanted to make a novelty cake for my husband’s fiftieth. I’ve made each of the kids a special cake — a snake, a snowboarder mountain, a chicken, and three shining dragon eggs — so it was my husband’s turn. But what to make? Everything I could think of was either too simple (a hammer, saws, ladders) or too complex (a pickup, a house) or too generic (a hat, work boots).
About a month or so before his birthday, I mentioned my cake dilemma to my mom. “And I don’t know what to get for him, either,” I said. “The things he really wants, like to get his barn finished, are too expensive.”
And then my mom said, “Oh, we’re gonna be giving an early inheritance to each of you kids. Let me check with your dad and see if we could do that now.”
Long story short: without telling my husband, I made an executive decision to put our early inheritance toward a barn, and once that decision was made, I knew exactly what the cake needed to be.
But first! To fully understand this cake, you need to know the backstory.
About thirteen years ago, my husband started building a new barn inside the existing structure.
He poured a concrete floor and framed up the walls. He built stairs leading to a second story, installed windows and doors, and sided the outside, all within the old structure, like a Russian nesting doll. And then we ran out of money.
The main thing that remains to be done is tear down the original barn’s ratty aluminum siding, tear off the old roof, raise the second story, and slap a roof on the whole thing.
So obviously, I needed to build him a cake of his new barn emerging from the old one.
And then I hatched an idea for the third part of his present: plans to actually get the barn done via a work day birthday celebration. I contacted the organizer for the carpenter’s guild my husband’s been a member of for years — a group of carpenters that volunteers one day a month to do projects for each other as well, as community individuals and nonprofits — and asked if it might be possible to schedule a barn raising. Great idea, the coordinator said, so I emailed him an invitation to include in his email to the guild which, at my request, would be scheduled to be sent out at 7:00pm on Sunday night, the night we’d be celebrating my husband’s birthday.
What most stressed me about the cake was that I didn’t know what I was doing.
I had hoped to find a detailed template or tutorial that I could use as a guide, but nope. I couldn’t find any cakes that were barns or construction projects or just buildings in general (aside from gingerbread houses and kids’ cartoon-ish barns). I did find some tutorials on making fondant aluminum siding and wood, but that was it. I tried to think of everything I might need and sketch it out as well as I could, but I knew I’d be figuring things out in the moment, adapting and changing and creating as I went.
I baked three sheet carrot cakes and ordered silver luster dust, edible glaze spray, and brown matte powder. My older son took the barn’s measurements and texted them to me. I made a double batch of fondant and a batch of Italian meringue buttercream and a double batch of cream cheese frosting. I found a gingerbread recipe that was touted for being sufficiently sturdy for construction projects (more on this later) and made a couple batches. I found instructions for using sugar caramel as glue, and last minute I made a batch of piping gel for adhering fondant to fondant. I ran calculations, called my dad to have him check my numbers, made templates, baked the gingerbread, discovered mistakes, and then made a whole new set of templates (and gingerbread) all over again.
And then it was time, ready or not, to start construction. Saturday morning, I kicked my husband out of the house and worked straight through until evening, barely pausing to eat (and we wouldn’t have had supper if it hadn’t been for my younger daughter stepping in and fixing a pot of spaghetti).
photo credit: my younger daughter
the sliding door entrance to the garage section
Sunday, I worked on the cake some more, finishing up the wooden siding and adding more torn aluminum, and photographing the final cake while there was daylight.
The birthday evening was a highly choreographed affair. Once all the kids had arrived, I released my husband from his upstairs bedroom chamber banishment and the party started.
“Your present’s in the truck,” the kids told him. They’d gone together to get my husband a second-hand bed slide for his truck, my older son fixed it up, and then Sunday afternoon he’d borrowed the truck (under the pretext of needing to haul something) and he and my older daughter had installed it. My husband opened the truck and there, at the very back, was a bag of pistachios. Oh, and the sliding bed to pull them out on, ha!
My parents joined us halfway through our meal of Costco pizza, veggies, and rootbeer, and then my brother’s family showed up on the doorstep, caroling their happy birthday greetings. And then at 6:45pm . . . drumroll . . . the cake!
photo credit: my older daughter
After much oohing and aahing and photographing and discussing, I began pouring the coffee, but I didn’t want to cut into the cake just yet — there was more cake-related fun to be had and I wanted to savor my creation for a wee bit longer — so I told everyone to hang on just a minute.
At about five minutes before seven, I handed him his gift: a big box with the inheritance check inside. When my husband saw it, he had to sit down. Literally. We all waited quietly as he collected himself, slowly pieced things together, and then collected himself again.
“One more thing,” I said. “You have email on your phone, right? Pull it up.”
“Nothing’s here,” he said, utterly bewildered.
“It’s 6:59,” the kids pointed out, so we had a countdown, but at 7:00, still no email. “If the email went out at 7:00,” my dad said, “it might take a minute to arrive.” So my husband began serving up slides of barn while my older son obsessively hit refresh on his phone.
Seconds later, the email arrived. My husband read it, once again turning speechless and teary while we all waited quietly. And then he handed the phone to me and I, also unable to read it, handed it to my older son read it out loud.
photo credit: my younger son
photo credit: my younger son
That evening after everyone left, we sat together on the couch — me giddy with relief and my husband still shell-shocked and stunned — and I gave him the rundown of all the goings-on of the last few weeks. I showed him the burn on my finger from the hot caramel. I expounded on the many difficulties of building a barn from cake: I built knee walls! I even sided the back of the barn that isn’t visible! Measuring is hard! I told him about all the sent-and-then-quickly-deleted emails so he wouldn’t be able to find them, and I showed him the text our older son had written with disappearing ink.
He was full of wonderment and questions. When did you know…? How long ago…? Who did…?
“I had no idea,” he said, shaking his head. “No idea at all.”
photo credit: my younger daughter
This same time, years previous: the quotidian (10.10.22), mushroom salt, Belper Knolle, fig walnut biscotti, khachapuri, if you ask a puerto rican to make a pincho, the quotidian (10.10.17), happy birthday, sweetie!, the boarder, contradictions and cream, clouds.