Hi all, and happy Friday! This post comes specifically at the request of a number of my Twitter followers, who asked me to write all about this awesome cake I made for my now-10 year old sons birthday party.
I’ve written before about some tips for having frugal, fun kids parties, and I put several of those tips into action at this party. I don’t just talk the frugal talk – I walk the frugal walk (although I wouldn’t call this particular cake frugal per se. More like less expensive than store bought).
Today I’m going to talk all about my cake decorating hobby, a cost-benefit analysis of making vs. buying the cake, some thoughts on whether this would make sense as a side hustle (I want your opinion!!) and as a bonus I’ll include an awesome cake and frosting recipe you can use – including a dairy and egg free variation! So be sure to share this with any vegans or folks with food allergies, or bookmark this article for later when you want to make a cake yourself.
How It All Started
You see, making my kids birthday cakes from scratch is a hobby that started out of necessity. Back when my oldest son was born (almost 14 years ago now), I was just a few months out of college, getting started in my career, and making about $35k per year. Translation: I was pretty broke. And then I found out that he had food allergies – no dairy, eggs, or nuts for him.
When his first birthday rolled around I needed to make his cake myself, because buying a vegan or dairy/egg/nut free cake would have cost more than I could afford. My mother found a recipe for “war cake”, which was cake made during World War 2 when dairy and eggs were rationed. The cake was tasty, you couldn’t tell it was dairy free, and although the decorations weren’t too fancy it got me started.
My friend Zero Day Finance recently posted about how writing instructions on making a peanut butter sandwich changed his life. Similarly, how I handled my oldest son’t first birthday party shaped what I still do today – although I didn’t know it at the time.
The Minecraft TNT Birthday Cake
So for the last thirteen years, I’ve been experimenting with making different kinds of cakes. I eventually settled on a chocolate cake and homemade frosting recipe that I could make without dairy and eggs, and once my son outgrew his allergies at age 5 I was able to put the eggs and dairy back in. Over the years, we had two more kids, and I just kept making cakes and experimenting with different decorations.
Until this year, I always just used buttercream frosting to make my cakes. But I had always admired those really nice looking cakes I would see on Ace of Cakes, Cake Boss and How to Cake It, where the cake looked amazing, and almost exactly like something else entirely. This was pretty much universally achieved through the use of fondant, Yes, cake shows are one of the few things I will watch on TV/YouTube.
My middle son asked for a TNT cake this year, and I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to give fondant a try. I was a bit nervous about it – I had seen people working with fondant hundreds of times but never did it myself, and I was worried about messing it up. Luckily I happened to find a video on YouTube specifically for making a TNT cake out of fondant.
So I went to Michaels to pick up some red, white, and black fondant. Protip – Michaels, JoAnns, Hobby Lobby, AC Moore, and all those craft stores have tons of coupons. I actually downloaded the Michaels app while in the store and got coupons for 50% off any regularly priced item, and 20% off my purchase. Despite this, I was surprised at how expensive fondant is. I can make frosting for about $1 or $2 for enough to frost three cakes. I also picked up some black luster dust for the dark parts between the dynamite sticks.
I also had to go to Homegoods and pick up three square cake tins. I have rectangular cake tins, and circles, but I hadn’t had squares. Luckily I had a gift card I had received for my birthday, so the cake tins were free to me.
Instead of the cake and frosting recipe that was in the YouTube video, I used my usual cake and frosting recipes. I’ll give you those at the end, in case you want them. They’re both delicious, and they can be very easily made dairy and egg free for vegans or those with food allergies.
The actual process of making the cake wasn’t as difficult as I feared – it was just time consuming. First I had to make the cakes. It takes about 15 minutes to make the batter, and 25 minutes to cook, then an hour or so to cool. After making three square cakes, I made a batch of frosting, and stacked them on top of one another. That’s when I realized that three cakes wasn’t quite enough to make an actual cube – instead it was a short rectangle.
Darn it. So I made another half batch of cake, which was enough for another square of cake, which is what I needed to get the cake to approximate cube-shape. This took more time, because I had to make the batter, cook it, and let it cool again before I could frost the cake. I put on an initial layer of frosting (called the crumb coat), put it in the fridge for half an hour, then frosted the cake into a cube with sharp corners. Then after the entire cube was frosted it had to go into the fridge for an hour to get rock hard.
After that, it was just a matter of following the instructions in the video. I found the fondant to be interesting to work with – it was almost like Play-Doh. It did rip easily, and I was worried about what the patched areas would look like. It was also harder to stick fondant pieces onto the cake than I thought it would be. But in the end, it came out looking amazing. My 10 year old son loved it so much, he kept opening the fridge to look at it all day, over and over again. He just couldn’t believe how much the cake looked like a block of TNT. I was pretty proud of my first fondant project, and thought it came out looking good.
Is It Cheaper To Make Your Own Birthday Cake? A Cost-Benefit Analysis
Just like I did in my analysis of homemade vs. store-bought cookies and pizza, I’m going to bring you the cost of making this cake vs. buying a similar one. For fun I’ll also include the cost of buying a much more “standard” birthday cake, like one from a grocery store/warehouse club. If you want a more in-depth look at the process to calculate the cost of a homemade food, the cost of cookies article has a detailed breakdown.
Note that I get almost all my ingredients from BJ’s, so the cost per unit is typically lower than a grocery store. There are certain ingredients I can’t get there, though, like almond extract/cake flour/buttermilk. Prices for you might be higher or lower than for me.
At first glance you might think, ouch – $33 for a birthday cake!!! You can get a cake at BJ’s, Costco, or the grocery store for $10-$20. But there’s a few things you need to consider when comparing the cost of this cake to other cakes:
- This cake feeds 30-40 people – easily. We had 25 people at the party and the cake was a bit more than half gone. Of course, some people didn’t have cake, so that’s why there was leftovers (which of course got eaten!) Next time I would make one half the size, unless I had 40 people here.
- Half the cost is the fondant and luster dust. The luster dust I can use again, I only used half the package. I also could have done better on the cost of the fondant – it could be purchased for less on Amazon. I could have gotten white and colored it red and black, which would have been considerably less expensive. I could also have made my own. I wasn’t confident in my ability to do that this time around, but next time I’ll give it a try!
- The cost to make just the cake and frosting, which would feed 40 people, is $14. You can shave money off that cost if you used “sour milk” instead of buttermilk (just add some vinegar to milk), and regular flour instead of cake flour. Making those changes would bring the cost down to about $10.
How much would a cake like this sell for, if I were to try to buy a similar cake from a cake shop? This would be for a 3D cake, covered in fondant, to feed 30-40 people. From what I can tell from some internet searching, fondant cakes cost around $6 or $7 per slice. If I take the low end of my numbers – $6 per slice, 30 people – the cake would sell for a whopping $180.
So, depending on how you look at it, I either spent an extra $10 to get an amazing cake – or I saved almost $150 by making the cake myself.
Side Hustle Hobbies – To Bake or Not To Bake?
After I posted this cake on Twitter and Instagram, I got a lot of comments that I should turn this hobby into a side hustle. I’ve thought about it before – after all, I get a ton of compliments from family and friends about my cakes, and I find it fun to think of 3D cake ideas and decorate them in crazy ways. And from my cost-benefit analysis above, it looks like I could probably pretty easily make a large profit on the cakes.
- I’m obviously a hobby baker. What if I’m not good enough to sell these cakes? I feel like I would need more practice. Right now I just make the cakes four times a year, for everyone’s birthdays. I’d want to get much more practice.
- Should I do more than just cakes? Start out with cakes? Do cupcakes and cookies too?
- Right now I mostly bake a few flavors (vanilla and chocolate), with a few flavors of frosting (vanilla and chocolate, again). If I were to sell the cakes, I’d want to develop new flavors to offer. This would involve a lot of research and test baking.
- What would the startup costs be? I definitely don’t have the equipment I’d need to start this as a business. I would also have to get a license and insurance, and a website (although that would probably be easy). I’d also have to advertise. I’d probably need at least a few hundred dollars to start this up legitimately.
- Would I come to hate baking? I’ve heard from some people once they turn their hobbies into a business, they come to dread it.
What are your thoughts, CMO readers? Is this something that would make sense to start as a side hustle? Or should I keep it as a hobby? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.
The Recipe Card – Including Vegan/Food Allergy Friendly Variation
Just as promised, here’s the recipe card, including just how you can make this cake dairy/egg free. This recipe makes three 9-inch round pans of cake.
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