Thursday, June 2, 2011

Party Particulars

I had so much fun putting Alice's first birthday party together, I just wanted to share some of the details and preparations!

I’ve been seeing so many fabulous parties on the blogs lately (see: Amy Atlas, TomKat Studio, My Party at Ohdeedoh) I thought I’d try my hand at doing something super fun for Alice’s big number one. I wanted to incorporate the giraffe theme into the party and thought a loose circus interpretation would be cool. I just might have to throw another circus party when Alice is a little older, because I thought of tons of fun ideas I didn’t get to use this time!

Right off the bat, I knew the palette and menu had to include orange circus peanuts and pink & white circus animal cookies - too perfect! I loved seeing those same elements at Prudent Baby’s party a few weeks back, too!

I love all the fun cupcake toppers and printables and whatnot going around, I thought surely I could whip up something suitable in Illustrator. I used my trusty giraffe spot template and made some fun striped and spotted circus-inspired menu cards. A few days before the party, I realized I didn’t have anything to hold the menu cards, but I did have plenty of circus peanuts! Cue the circus peanut card holder – cute, no??

We rounded up the best circus food that Trader Joe’s and Smart & Final had to offer. Corndogs, soft pretzels, TJ’s pulled BBQ chicken and homemade coleslaw made for a deliciously authentic menu and pretty easy prep! I originally planned to make David Lebovtiz’s Wasabi Coleslaw, but went with The Kitchn’s recipe for Classic Southern Coleslaw instead because I was running out of time and money to shop. I’ll tell you what, I wasn’t sorry. I haven’t made a lot of coleslaw, but I won’t have to look any further for a go-to recipe. I still want to make that wasabi variety, but The Kitchn's recipe is a perfect version of the quintessential cool, creamy, crunchy side.

I also tried a new recipe for White Peach Sangria, but I used raspberries and strawberries with the peaches, since they are plenty delicious and were more color-coordinated than grapes. I alerted guests to enjoy responsibly as it was a very strong “adult” beverage – people always fall for the sweet, sweet siren song of sugary wine-soaked fruit… I still prefer my favorite red sangria recipe, but this white version was pretty amazing when mixed with a little sparkling lemonade!

I tried a few new recipes for the desserts as well. I thought these buttered popcorn cupcakes with salted caramel buttercream (from Little Ivy Cakes) sounded fantastic -  and they were!! I didn't splurge for the Amish popcorn flour, I'd love to see if that noticeably boosts the popcorn flavor. With regular flour and the popcorn-infused milk, they made a nice, buttery base, perfect for the sweet and salty buttercream. Little Ivy used David Lebovitz's salted caramel sauce in her frosting, so I was immediately on board. David Lebovitz has two recipes for making caramel (wet and dry). I sort of went with a synthesis of the recipe in his book, "The Perfect Scoop," and the dry method, since he says that's easier to control and less waste if you burn it, which I did. It was only my first time! Per David, caramel isn't hard to make and doesn't require a thermometer (which is good because ours just broke), but does take practice. So I burned my first batch of sugar, and then knew the stages and could follow my nose through under-done, complex, and beyond repair. I think I might use a little less salt and a little less cream next time, so I get a slightly thicker sauce that I can use a bit more liberally.

I knew the birthday cake had to be a pink ruffle cake and thought it was a great time to try out Dorie Greenspan's "Perfect Party Cake." It's a wonderful white cake recipe, sturdy enough to layer and hold up to frosting, but not dense or chewy. I skipped the lemon zest and went with a straight vanilla cake, and didn't assemble with jam or coconut because Jon does not care for either. I made the frosting - an Italian meringue buttercream - as directed. I'd never tried a meringue frosting before, but it was truly magical. I watched the mixer after the butter was all incorporated, unconvinced that I'd be able to frost a cake with that slippery puddle. But after a few minutes, it fluffed up into a glorious cloud of glossy, smooth perfection. How could I have doubted Dorie even for a moment?? The frosting was fabulous to decorate with. I'd never done a ruffle cake before, but it was SO easy and so satisfying. There are a bunch of great tutorials online for piping a ruffle cake, like this one from I Am Baker. I am confident that even a novice could do it as long as they had the right tools, though a little experience might come in handy. It only took me 10-15 minutes and even I was impressed with the results. I think there might be many more ruffle cakes at our future celebrations!

I didn't want to feed Alice a ton of sugar, so left the ruffle cake for the big kids and made her a baby cake of her very own. I adapted this recipe from Cannelle et Vanille and used things Alice is already eating. I used goat milk yogurt instead of cow's milk, rice flour instead of hazelnut, and egg substitute. I didn't get a clean toothpick after 25 minutes, so I kept resetting the timer for 5 more minutes. After the 4th timer reset, I decided to just take it out. There weren't any raw ingredients, so I might as well call it done. After cooling for a few minutes, the cake had completely compacted from a springy cake-sized treat to a dense, brownie-like brick. I don't own a kitchen scale, so my grams to ounces/cups/teaspoons may have been a bit off. No matter though, it was good enough for what I needed. 

I had baked it in a brownie pan and cut it into quarters to make a four-layer cake. I used a tiny bit of plain, white buttercream to write "Happy Birthday Alice" on top and pipe along the sides of the layers to look like filling spilling out. I was pretty sure she wouldn't eat any of the cake since she hates touching anything even remotely moist or sticky. Sure enough, not one bite made it in her mouth - she even spit out the bite I cut and fed her. She did enjoy wiping off the frosting and licking it off her fingers. And that was cute enough for me. I didn't get photos or videos of my mother-in-law's yellow lab swiping the entire top layer with his tongue. I think he definitely enjoyed it more than Alice! Classic. Cake time was pretty much over after that!

Leading up to the party, Jon and I were talking about how to best use our patio and back yard space and how to make it more attractive and inviting. We haven't had the time, money, or energy to tackle the back yard yet and without sprinklers, we just have a field of weeds and a giant cement slab. The yard faces south and there isn't any shade, save the pergola we bought during our first summer in the house, so it gets awfully hot back there.

Jon joked that our barren field of a yard looked ready for the circus tents. And then he suggested getting some bales of hay for seating and ambience. I thought it was a great idea and some quick googling told us that hay bales can range from $2-8. A feed store by the equestrian center quoted Jon $8 per bale over the phone. We wanted 4-6 bales, but $30-50 was kind of out of our budget. Jon kept googling and checking Craig's List and twenty minutes after having the idea, he'd stumbled on a day-old post for six free bales in an alley behind an apartment building less than a mile from our house. I swung by after work and was thrilled to see six pristine bales! I stuffed four of them in my trusty 4Runner with the help of a nice, older gentlemen. He must have thought I looked silly wearing a nice skirt, heaving bales of hay into my car by myself. Anyway, I brought those 4 home and Jon went back for the other 2. Less than an hour after Jon's inspired idea, we were the new proud owners of $50 worth of free hay (or straw, as the feed store corrected us). They were a really fun AND functional addition to the yard and the party!

stripey straws from Shop Sweet Lulu
Jon had also wanted to put balloons on the porch for a festive, "the party is here!" vibe. I vetoed, just to be on the safe side. But then I had to confess that while I was buying darling stripey straws from Shop Sweet Lulu, I couldn't resist throwing in an awesome 36" balloon to justify the shipping on $4 straws. There isn't anything cuter than a tiny girl and a giant balloon. Unfortunately, it was too windy to play with it outside before it deflated so I couldn't get a photo of the entire balloon and child at the same time. Alas. Still super cute. 

The popcorn boxes were one of my favorite little details. I knew I wanted popcorn and caramel corn, and there are lots of more standard boxes available online. But I'd seen these used in an awesome "UP" themed party and had to have them. I finally broke down and emailed that gracious host and she clued me in to Hobby Lobby. There is only ONE Hobby Lobby store in the middle of California, so there's no way I would have found that on my own. Luckily, you can shop Hobby Lobby online and I ordered plenty for this party and for future movie nights!

Oh, and I almost forgot! You can't see very well in the photo above, but I also made my own baker's twineI just didn't have an extra $15+shipping in my party budget, and didn't need an entire roll. I'd seen this tutorial from The Frugal Crafter and thought it sounded like the answer to many of my prayers. I bought a skein of crochet cotton ($2) and a permanent, non-toxic fabric marker ($3) and made a bit of my own. I did one ruler's worth her way, with the cotton wrapped vertically around the short width of the ruler and drew diagonal lines. The results were pretty good, but it was hard to get the color on the back side of the cotton that was touching the ruler so there seemed to be blank spots in the twine once it was stretched out.

I experimented and wrapped the cotton horizontally along the length of the ruler and did straight marker columns. It was easier to roll the threads around to  expose and color all sides evenly. I was much happier with this result. Unfortunately my pen ran out and I only got through two of the long-ways rulers. It was enough for what I needed, but I don't know if the time and effort was worth the cost savings. It's a great method if you only need a little bit of twine, or want a particular color but I think I might invest in a proper spool of twine next time I need some!

Anyway, I had lots of fun planning and preparing and playing with all these new elements. I'm already thinking about next year's party! 


  1. Whoa. So many awesome resources! Thanks for sharing and making the wonder of this party a little more within reach for those of us viewing from afar. Also, I ADORE that picture of Alice and the balloon. Holy moly. Just beautiful.

  2. sorry, i just noticed you did post the sangria recipe! i was so excited looking through the pics, i missed it!

  3. The party was absolutely adorable! I was curious if you made Alice's birthday dress and if so, if you knew where I could find a pattern like it. Thanks!

  4. Thanks, Marianne! I just posted some details about making Alice's dress with some info that I think might help you out!


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