Kitchen Tips

Pamela Clark and the origin of the Australian Women's Weekly Birthday Cake Book

With decades of experience at the helm of the Australian Women's Weekly Test Kitchen, Pamela Clark has been a invaluable source of talent, wisdom and recipes. In her new book, she shares the story behind the The Australian Women's Weekly Birthday Cake Book, which has been a staple cookbook on the shelves of countless Australian homes since it was released in 1980.

The book with the train on the cover

Little did we realise what a powerful impact this book would have on our culture when it was released in 1980. We already knew that kids' party cakes were popular with our readers. The book evolved over a few years. This is how it came about: if one of the team had been asked to make a birthday cake for a neighbour or family member, they'd bring in a photo, then, if we liked it, one of us would make the cake again to be photographed, usually changing the idea again, for no good reason other than 'we could'. This way we built up a collection of recipes without too much strain on the Test Kitchen's resources.
When the idea for the book came up, we stirred ourselves into action, brainstormed ideas and the result is this amazing collection of over 100 appealing birthday cakes.
One day, just for fun, I counted the cakes I made for this book – 60 of them are mine, but not the famous train cake on the cover. However, I can claim fame for the swimming pool, the Dolly Varden cake with the pink and white marshmallows and another 58 cakes therein. Over the years of the development of this book there were many staff changes in the Test Kitchen, many people have had a hand in the book's unprecedented success.
I'm sure the success of the book is due to the messy look of the cakes – they don't look difficult or in any way threatening. The truth is, the cakes were made directly onto the laminated benches in the Test Kitchen, sometimes, the back of the cakes weren't even decorated. Whoever was making the cake, just fitted the cake in amongst other things she/he was doing that day.
There wasn't any food styling involved – as if you couldn't see that – Mrs S would have a quick look at the cake, then would say, "let's shoot it little darling" (we were all her 'little darlings'). A photographer would be called in with lights and a camera, four 5" x 4" transparencies would be taken, each with half a stop between them. We typed up our own recipes on copy paper with a carbon copy, using a manual typewriter. Mrs S would check the recipes, then they'd be checked again by a sub editor. That's it.
Then a major reality check hit us – the book wasn't selling. We reasoned that most people wouldn't buy the book until a family birthday came up. It took quite a few years before that book was reprinted. Now, people can't get enough of it and we keep it in print to touch yet another generation – must be the third by now!
This article is an extract from The Australia Women's Weekly Memories & Recipes from the Test Kitchen by Pamela Clark. RRP: $49.99 HARDBACK. Available where all good books are sold and

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