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Safe birthday cakes worth the candles 

My daughter, Talia, turns 4 this month. It's an occasion that should be marked by giggling and family, topped off with a sinfully delicious, heavy-on-the-icing hunk of decadent birthday cake. And pink. Lots of pink.

I'd love to order her a three-tiered pink princess cake from the local bakery. But Talia's allergies to wheat, dairy, eggs and nuts prove so daunting that few bakeries are willing to tackle it.

Even those companies that might attempt the feat can't assuage my Mama Bear concerns about cross-contamination issues. So what's a desperate mom to do?

Make her own. Oh, boy.

I've been down this road before, and it's a bumpy one. I typically spend the day before Talia's birthday assembling an array of expensive, odd-sounding flours, binders, oils and spices and getting so-so results. They look good. The icing tastes great. But the cupcakes are some variation of spongy, dense brick or moist, fall-apart crumb.

I knew there had to be a better way, so I put out a plea for help. Moms with the North Carolina Food Allergic Children Excelling Safely (NC FACES) group were eager to respond. (You can find recipes and pictures on the Indy's Big Bite blog.)

Cathleen Lemoine, of Cary, has been determined to make beautiful and tasty cakes for her son, Evan, since he was 2. He's allergic to nuts, eggs, chickpeas and sesame, so she uses Cherrybrook Kitchen cake mixes as her base. She signed up for cake-decorating classes at Michael's and was soon crafting professional-looking, two-tiered car-themed cakes, teacup cakes for her niece and Elmo and Grover cupcakes. When her son is invited to parties, she calls ahead to inquire about the party's theme and makes an appropriately decorated cupcake for Evan to take along. He doesn't feel left out and is proud to have a delicious treat of his own.

Mechelle McClendon's son, Cameron, is allergic to nuts, barley, wheat and eggs. When he was 2, she surveyed her pantry and came up with a Rice Krispies Treat cake pressed into a mold. "I purchased a kit from the grocery store and also purchased some food coloring and icing for writing. You just follow the regular recipe and add a little creativity," she says. His older brother liked it so much that he wanted a "Krispy cake" so that his baby brother could enjoy eating at his party, too.

Cameron is now 7, and McClendon has created Krispy cakes in the shape of SpongeBob and Spider-Man, among other themes. McClendon is also a huge fan of the new gluten-free Betty Crocker chocolate and yellow cake mixes and recently decorated a "Mario" cake with it. She substitutes two 4-ounce containers of applesauce for eggs and a dairy-free butter such as Fleischmann's unsalted margarine.

I tried the gluten-free Devil's Food cake mix and was floored by the results. A box only makes a one-layer cake, and the batter doesn't rise as much as conventional cakes, but when it's frosted with Pillsbury dairy-free Creamy Supreme Chocolate Fudge icing, your guests will never know the difference. Talia almost knocked me over trying to get her crumb-covered palms on another piece.

Gloria Liles' favorite trick is to take a box of safe cake mix and mix it well with one 12-ounce can of soda, then bake until done. She uses 7UP if she wants the cake to keep its original flavor or flavored sodas to change it. Adding orange soda to yellow cake mix produces an orange-flavored cake, she says.

Jessica Siracusa shares that Harris Teeter sells cake topper decorations, even to those who don't buy a cake.

I'll end on a sweet note by sharing a recipe my friend Anne Woodman once made, called Cockeyed Cake. It's a Depression-era recipe that uses oil and vinegar in place of eggs and dairy. It is often referred to as a Wacky Cake. It tastes more like a brownie when gluten-free flour is used.

With these new ideas, I feel confident that Talia will have a great party and cake. Now that's a sweet ending.

Cockeyed Cake

1 1/2 cups sifted flour
3 tablespoons cocoa
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
5 tablespoons oil
1 tablespoon vinegar (apple cider vinegar is fine)
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup cold water

Stir flour, cocoa, baking soda, sugar and salt together. Gradually add oil, vinegar, vanilla and water and stir until smooth.

Pour mixture into a 9-by-9-inch or 8-by-8-inch pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.

Joyce Clark Hicks can be reached at

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