An “alternative” birthday cake

Life has gotten in the way of blogging recently, and one of the things that took  time was planning a big family dinner to celebrate my husband’s birthday earlier this month.

He told me in advance that he didn’t want an unhealthy birthday cake with overly sweet icing. I took it as an interesting challenge, and headed online to search “healthy birthday cakes.”

The ones I liked best weren’t actually cakes – they were fruit, usually watermelon.

This is what I ended up making – Ta-da!

watermelon cakeIt got a lot of oohs and ahs, and nobody was disappointed that it wasn’t a “real” birthday cake. We had one of those too, for my sister, as well as a couple of other baked desserts.

Before attempting a (literal) fruitcake, I studied online images and directions. My two main sources were this blog post on (I thought her cake was stunning), and this YouTube video, which shows how to cut the watermelon. I cut mine freehand, so my circles weren’t perfect like the one in the video.

There are a few things I learned along the way. See below.

How to Make a Watermelon Cake

1. Choose a good watermelon. This is harder than you might expect, especially in winter. Not all supermarkets carry whole watermelon. A friend suggested I try Coppa’s Fresh Market on Dufferin Street, which not only had a big selection but also a very helpful and friendly produce guy who told me which one to buy. Actually, there were two helpful and friendly produce guys. The first one referred me to the “real” melon expert. I told them what I wanted the melon for, and I think they found it an interesting challenge too. We looked at the sizes and shapes of the watermelons to figure out which ones would work best. The watermelon I took home was slightly narrower at the top, and “Mr. Melon” told me to use the wider end for the large drum-shaped base of the cake. He estimated that the melon I bought weighed about 15 lbs. It was enough for three tiers, with leftovers.

2. Try to ensure that your melon doesn’t roll around in your trunk like mine did. A box would have been a good idea. No harm done, but I did wonder if the melon would end up too bruised to use.

3. “Mr. Melon” said to cut the watermelon a few hours before serving, to prevent the juice from draining out. I didn’t listen to him, because if I ran into a problem, I wanted time to buy another melon. Instead, I cut the watermelon a day ahead of time, but wrapped each layer in paper towels to absorb moisture. I wrapped the largest one with plastic wrap, and slipped the smaller layers into Ziploc bags. It worked out fine.

3. When I put the pieces together the day of the party, I used a couple of child-sized chopsticks to connect and stabilize the layers of the cake. Online instructions suggested skewers. I decorated the “cake” with blueberries, cape gooseberries, sliced kiwi, and starfruit.

4. I was hesitant to use toothpicks to attach the fruit that I was using to decorate the cake, because I didn’t like the idea of someone possibly ingesting one. I used a few, and I think it’s hard to miss them, especially if you leave them whole, so I don’t think I’d worry about that if I was making the cake again.

5. As an alternative to toothpicks, I used whipped cream as “glue” for some of the fruit. It was fun and tasty, but toothpicks alone would have resulted in a cleaner, more professional-looking cake. In the picture, you can see the cream oozing out the edges at the base of each tier. Also, you need very little whipped cream if you want to use it the way I did. The leftover cream was a decadent accompaniment to the healthiest cake I can imagine. I can’t remember the last time I had real whipped cream! I made it myself, using whipping cream, icing sugar and vanilla, and I remembered to chill both the beaters and the bowl first. It was delicious!

6. I also hollowed out circles on the sides of the cake with a small melon baller, thinking that I could fit the gooseberries in the indentations without needing to use toothpicks. It worked for some of the gooseberries, but not others.

7. The entire cake was very heavy, and I thought it wiser to not carry it with lit candles!

My ten-year-old niece told me that dessert exceeded her standards. I couldn’t ask for higher praise!




An evening with Jodi Picoult

Last week, my son and I went to hear Jodi Picoult talk about her latest novel, Leaving Time, at the St. Lawrence Centre in Toronto.

It was a delightful evening – quality mother-son time, fun with family friends who also attended, and a talk that resonated for me as a writer. Not to mention that admission to the Canadian Living “VIP” event included a signed copy of Jodi’s book, a lovely dessert spread, and a giveaway bag.


From left, Ryan, me, Jodi, and our friends Laurie and Susan at the signing table.

As a writer and freelance journalist, I left feeling inspired. A few months ago, I tried my hand at writing a short children’s story, and the experience made me think that maybe I do have the imagination to attempt fiction – even adult fiction! I certainly enjoy reading it.

I loved hearing how Jodi came up with the idea for Leaving Time, the story of a 13-year-old girl who enlists the help of a psychic and a detective to find her mother, an elephant researcher who disappeared years before.

It started with an article she read about elephant mothers and daughters who stay together their entire lives. The article piqued her curiosity at a time when she was dealing with her own feelings about her daughter leaving the nest for college.

The back story captured my imagination. To research something purely out of interest, and spin it into a novel – an entire fictional world – is an enticing idea.

Research for a novel would draw on my journalistic skills, and now that I’ve had a taste of using real life as a starting point for fiction in my children’s story, I see new possibilities.

Not that I’m unhappy writing non-fiction. On the contrary, it makes me very happy. And I do want to finish my memoir on the year I lost my dad, which I’m about half-way through.

Jodi Picoult has written 22 books, approximately one a year (the same number of years that I worked as a full-time reporter!). On working days, she said, she edits what she’s written, then continues writing, fuelled by coffee until she stops in the late afternoon. Repeat often enough… and you have a book!

I told my son, who is one of Jodi’s biggest fans, that – with luck and longevity – I can write 22 books too. Maybe I should start drinking more coffee.