That cake – the train one with the popcorn

Iconic train cake from 80s recipe book

It was practically impossible to refer to Ali without Kate and Kate without Ali. It was always Ali&Kate (joined by ampersand forevermore)—Ali first in breath because he was older by a couple of weeks. They were a package—dashing down the road on their plastic black bikes (you know the ones), legs pumping and wheels spinning the delighted duo into glorious speed wobbles that typically sent them careening into the pavement body first. They shared giggles, friends and birthday parties. And also, the most sublime train cake of all time. It came from a cake book that Patty had—The Australian Women’s Weekly Children’s Birthday Cake Book, which was surely beamed down to suburban South Africa from some sort of 80s party goddess.

We used to pour over it, living our best birthday lives. The four of us playing a game that we called “booking”—a version of snap; the aim of the game was to slap your hand down as quickly as possible on your favourite cake before anyone else. Then it was yours. We’d gather around our beloved totem, hands tingling in anticipation. There were all sorts of shenanigans involved—like making sure you were sitting on the side of the book that your favourite cake was on or situating your hand a mere millimetre from the page you needed to slap, and as the page was turned you could distract your opponent with some sort of ridiculous noise or a version of “Hey look! There’s a chocolate on the floor!” and slam your hand down amidst the confusion—booking your cake. It was serious stuff and ended in some all-out fist fights—over whose cake was whose; as if the fight-inducing cake was actually baked and not just baked but also the last cake on the planet plus there was no more eggs, flour, icing or jelly tots (crucial!) to ever make another.

There was this jelly filled swimming pool, a yellow duck with popcorn hair and chips for a beak as well as themed numbers, bugs, a cricket pitch and a pink and white marshmallow Barbie skirt with the plastic princess herself planted at the top for overall effect. Many of the cakes were adorned with plastic toys and dolls with retro faces (the ones where the eyes all look to the side)—as if a bunch of moms had gone scrounging around in their kids’ bedrooms and upon discovering a plastic chicken, miniature tea set or dolly comb, had decided that it would look good on a cake. We all had our favourites but mine were: the sweet shop—page 94, the white-iced fairytale castle with a Hansel & Gretel vibe—page 91, the cake of meringue hearts—page 102, and the clock on page 7 (although the prune for a mouse was a slight downer on an otherwise excellent cake!). But it was Ali&Kate who had the privilege of a real-life Women’s Weekly experience; the iconic train on the front cover of the book.

The summer sun blasted its rays through the front window of our lounge, embellishing the magnificent kitsch of the glorious coloured train with its chocolate wheels and smartie-decorated carriages on a merry popcorn-hauling journey across birthday-dom. A gaggle of excited pre-schoolers piled on and around our dining room table to “Hurrah!” Ali&Kate on their special day, and to ogle the cake. It was perfection. A moment of purest birthday bliss.


Author & Storyteller: Andrea Zanin

Andrea is a writer, wife, mother and dreamer; also the author of this website. She moved to London in 2006 to earn £s, travel, see bands and buy 24-up Dr Martens—which she did, and then ended up staying. Andrea lives in North London with her husband (also a Saffa) and five children. She loves this grand old city but misses her home and wishes her children could say “lekker” (like a South African) and knew what a “khoki” is.


  1. Quite possibly the best rendition of the most intense debates of my youth! That glorious book is still as busy as it used to be 30 years ago, as grandchildren now marvel over it; less savagely, they lack of Huntingfords, but still a book of wonder. Thank you Anj for transporting me back in time

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