Artist's Palette Cake (Paint-Your-Own-Pottery Party)
In addition to family dinner, I'm a big proponent of the family birthday. The family birthday is a home-made style birthday with a homemade cake vs. the "industrial" birthday that can be so popular with competitive, yet time-strapped parents. I do understand the appeal of handing over the party to a commercial party space-- lack of time, small apartments, fear of children running amok in your house are all valid concerns. But really, what makes a party special is not the amount you spend on it, but how much it reflects what the birthday kid likes. I've found that if you listen to what your kids like and engage them in the planning, you can come up with something fun and personal without breaking the bank.
We occasionally host the party in a party space; we did a "paint-your-own pottery" one (cake shown above) and ice-skating at the local park for my daughter's winter birthdays. But even if you outsource the party space, you often have to supply your own cake. Use this an an opportunity to shun the standard grocery-store cake and make a special themed cake for your kid.
For me, the most important part of the birthday party is the cake. If you can come up with a cake that ties into your birthday theme, you are golden. All the kids, especially your own, will be so excited over the simplest cake, as long as it "relates" to whatever cool birthday theme you have. That's what my kids remember from each party, not the presents, the cake.
Don't get me wrong; I am not a professional decorator by any means. My cakes are home-made and look it. I almost always use a store-bought mix and ready-made icing. (Though homemade icing is so much better, I am resolved to try it by our next family party.) For me, it's all about the shape of the cake. Sometimes I have to bake two boxes of cake mix so that I have enough to make the shapes or layers I need. (The guitar below required a lot of cake!) But you're still talking about less than $10 for cake, which will beat almost any bakery. Pre-made mix notwithstanding, I get raves about the cakes. Honestly.
Guitar Cake for "music" themed birthday
My personal best, IMO, was the "Thomas the train" cake I made for my son's third birthday. (Sadly, the pictures are pre-digital.) Draw out a basic picture of a train or any shape you want, then make it in cake. For the train, it was a 9x 12 sheet cake plus a round cake. I cut the round cake in half to make the nose of the engine, and trimmed the sheet cake to the right train body size. I used extra cake to cut out a steam stack and three engine wheels. Then I iced it in white icing and used colored sprinkles, raisins and tube icing to decorate the features. It's easy to change the color of vanilla icing with food coloring, if you'd rather have a true blue icing for Thomas.
My son, though, best remembers the "soccer cake" which was a plain round cake (poured extra full, so it was round and puffy in the center) and iced with white frosting and green sprinkles in the pattern of a soccer ball. Yes that's right, a round cake was the favorite of all.
My older daughter has recently had an ice skating pond, a snowgirl cake, and an Olympic Rings cake, shown below. All were tied into the party theme of the year.
S-Olympics Cake (Winter-themed Sports Party), inside has different colored layer cakes.
Now that my daughter is older, and a huge the Food Network's Ace of Cakes fan, her cake-style quotient has been raising higher and higher. (Charm City Cakes in Baltimore start at $500 and boy do they look it. You can browse their cool catalogue of cakes here.) We've starting using fondant which is like molding clay made of sugar to make special designs. The Artist's Palette cake is just a plain cake with a palette made of fondant and dabbed with colored icing. A brush and tube of paint were also made of fondant. The Olympic Rings were fondant-covered cupcakes, painted with food color. I was also inspired, if not daunted, by the cake challenge posted by the Daring Bakers on Party Cakes. These are made from scratch cakes with homemade icing that are on a whole other level. Simply Anne's were the best cakes I saw in the challenge--simply amazing creations. Great ideas for the next family birthday, which happens to be mine. Maybe I'll ask my daughter to make one together with me!