October 22, 2013

Pin the Eye on the Cyclops, and other fun

On Sunday in mid-October, we held a joint birthday party for Violet and Millie. Violet is turning 7, Millie is turning 5. It is a lot of work for us to do the party, and they share many of the same friends, so it makes sense to have a combined party. The weather was great, and everyone had fun.

A few months ago, the kids had the idea to have the party be built around the Greek myths, which they have read and enjoyed with Becky numerous times. In the ensuing discussion, we planned out variants on some standard party games for little kids. We have been working on getting the elements of the party together for about a month. Some of these are documented below, in the order they were done at the party. For each, Becky did a little narration about the myths pertinent to the activity.

Pin the Eye on the Cyclops
Mother Earth and Father Heaven had three monstrous sons, each one with 50 heads and 100 hands. Then she had three more sons, the Cyclops, each of them with one big eye in the center of their foreheads. Father Heaven despised these sons, so he locked them up in the pit of Tartarus under the earth.

Becky painted up two of these Cyclops on some cardboard boxes, and drew an eye for each of the kids who would be attending. Violet and Millie colored in the eyes.

For the game, each kid was blindfolded and had one chance to stick it on the forehead of the cyclops. 

Cronus eats his Children
Mother Earth was upset about her children being locked up in Tartarus, so she recruited one of her other sons Cronus to overthrow his father, with help from the Cyclops. However Cronus turned out no better than his father and cast the Cyclops back into Tartarus. 

Cronus knew that one of his own children would follow the same path he had and would eventually take over as ruler. To prevent this from transpiring, he swallowed his first five children shortly after they were born. His wife Rhea was none too happy about this, and substituted a rock wrapped in a blanket for her sixth son Zeus, secretly taking the real baby to be raised on the island of Crete.

Becky painted a Cronus on the side of a box I got from work, with a mouth hole in the right position to lean up against a sawhorse. Then she used fabric paint markers to make six little babies on a doubled up piece of muslin, each with the name of an Olympian god on it.

I sewed these up on the Wheeler & Wilson with some scraps of suitable quilt fabric on the back,

then stuffed them with rice.

We hand stitched up the openings and I gave the seams a final pressing.

They turned out really cute. We had a moment of thinking of making 19 more and giving them as party favors, but then rationality regained its hold (this was like 2 hrs before the party).

Each kid had the chance to throw six babies into the mouth of Cronus.

This was a very popular game; the kids just kept getting in the back of the line to have another go for quite a long time!

Thunderbolts of Zeus
After Zeus grew up and was engaged in battle with the Titans, he released the Cyclops from their prison, and they provided him with the power to command thunderbolts.

Our game involved a styrene ring from the craft store, wrapped in poly quilt batting to better resemble a cloud.

Becky and the girls made up some thunderbolts from thick paperboard wrapped in gold duct tape.

These did not fly all that well, so we had to put the throwing line about a meter away from the cloud ring. Even with the frustratingly random flight path of the thunderbolts, this was a popular game.

Orpheus and Euridice escape from the underworld
Orpheus was a famously gifted musician and singer, and when his wife Euridice died he traveled to the underworld to try to convince Hades to let her return to the living. His music was so beautiful and moving that Hades agreed to let Euridice go, but on the condition that neither of them look back until they were in the world above. Orpheus reached the exit first and turned to look for Euridice, only to see her disappear for good.

We raced in groups of three, with two kids per team. I tied their legs together while Becky prepared the next activity. I don't know what I was thinking, but I ended up tying their shins together instead of their ankles. There were a few sore legs afterwards, and I'm pretty sure this wasn't anyone's favorite game. Oops!

Hero's quest
Becky wrote out a bunch of clues and hid them around our yard and out into the neighborhood. The kids over 5 years of age went with me, while Becky accompanied the younger group. The big kids were really into this scavenger hunt, though they had a tendency to tear off in a random direction even before we finished reading the next clue.

In fact, they managed to all run to the back yard and uncover the treasure intended for the little kids while we were reading the last clue. But some quick swapping of clues allowed us to then direct the little kids' group to find the treasure for the big kids under the leaves in the front garden.

Violet later said this was her favorite element of the party.


Millie requested chocolate, Violet wanted lemon. Becky and I felt that we should have a change from the dense and rich butter cakes with buttercream frosting I've made for the last few years' parties.

So for Millie's cake I made a chocolate oil cake from Smitten Kitchen, which I had done before a few times with good results. The batter went into one 175mm pan and two 225mm pans, which later formed the three layers of the cake.

Actually I did end up making a batch of swiss meringue vanilla buttercream for filling and crumb coat on the chocolate cake, since I had extra egg whites. The layers were baked, frozen, trimmed, assembled with buttercream, then carved into a more mountain like shape.

Last summer I made a chinese-bakery-like chiffon cake a few times, and I though it would make a nice, light lemon cake. After looking up the original Betty Crocker recipe, I baked exactly the same cake as in the post linked above, but with the zest of two lemons added in.

Unfortunately, I didn't bake the cake quite long enough, so it was gloopy near the top surface. So the first one went into the freezer for later consumption, and I made another one for the party, this time baking some of the batter in a 225mm round pan along with the majority of the batter in the tube pan. In fact the fail cake came in handy, since Violet's cake was lower than Millie's, so I used a slice of the botched chiffon cake (which after all was 80% fine) to boost the height of Violet's party cake. After this addition, the lemon cake had 4 layers.

I made up a batch of lemon curd from Rose Levy Berenbaum's Pie and Pastry Bible with 8 egg yolks and 8 lemons. This was used to fill the chiffon cake to further up the lemon content. It may have been slightly too much lemon curd, but it was good when taken with plenty of whipped cream frosting.

Frosting for both cakes was gelatin stabilized whipped cream, with 1L of heavy cream going to each cake. I mostly followed the directions found in Rose's Heavenly Cakes. In the past, I've almost always had problems making gelatin stabilized whipped cream. I end up having chunks of solidified gelatin distributed in the cream, which is a bit yucky and also doesn't do much to stabilize the cream. Since this was for frosting on cakes that would sit for a few hours before eating, I did feel the need to stabilize. After scouring the internet, I tried the gelatin again with some refinements to my procedure. I used two packs of Knox gelatin per liter of cream. What I did was:

  • mix gelatin with 1/2 cup cream in pan, let sit for 5 minutes. Probably should have been more like a cup.
  • heat just until gelatin is dissolved, let cool on counter until other cream is whipped
  • whip up the rest of the cream with powdered sugar and vanilla, just until beater marks are showing
  • transfer gelatin mix (still pretty warm at this point) to a vessel which allows a thin stream to be poured, like a pyrex measuring cup
  • with mixer going, gradually pour in gelatin mixture
  • whip up to desired level; my cream was pretty much done by the time all the gelatin was added
For one of the cakes, I didn't have any lumps. On the other, I had a few but it was much better than usual. A couple hours before the party, I frosted the cakes on my very fine heavy duty cake turntable, then piped on some features at the edges of the top which were supposed to look like clouds. 

The figures are all made of marshmallow fondant, made according the these directions. I made two recipes worth of fondant, but only ended up using 1.5. Of course very little of it gets eaten, but I still like making cake decorations out of something that in theory is edible. And the fondant is a pleasure to work with. Colors are achieved by working in gel food colors a few drops at a time.

I made the big Zeus figure first, but it took like 2 hours, so it was clear that wasn't going to work to make another 11 Olympian gods.

Becky did an Aphrodite in like 15 minutes. The kids did a little bit on the figures, 

then Becky and I stayed up until 2 am making the others. I tried to simplify my methods. 

Millie insisted on having Zeus too, but didn't want my big Zeus. Violet did want the big Zeus, so we obliged them by making a mini-Zeus for Millie's cake even though it doesn't make any sense in the scheme we were trying to follow.

The big Zeus has cake for a body, wrapped in his fondant robe, with a skewer up the middle to stiffen everything. 

This construction proved too soft though, so we just used all fondant for the other gods. My large gods were each equipped with a central skewer to help them keep their heads held up.

Below left is Poseidon, with a trident made from a piece of bamboo skewer and some chunks of aluminum TIG welding filler rod, formed, filed, and glued together. Center is the Athena Violet made, which Becky tricked out with an owl and a longer robe. On the right is Ares.

In the front row below, from left to right, we have Dionysus, Hera, Hermes, Artemis, and Apollo. Back row is Aphrodite in her sea shell.

Hermes' wand is also welding rod filler, as is Artemis' bow. Her bowstring is a piece of silk thread, while the arrow shaft is a sliver of red cedar. The arrow head is filed from a little chunk of welding rod, then lashed to the shaft with silk thread. The fletching is paper, notched and glued to the shaft.

On the left below is the baby Persephone Millie made, next to Demeter. On the right is Hephaestus, with his hammer.

These cakes were supposed to be like Olympus, so Hades is not present since he is in the underworld at the moment.

The cakes had 20+ man hours of work into them by the time they hit the serving table. They did turn out nicely and were enjoyed by the guests, both visually and gastronomically.


One of the elements at last year's party the kids enjoyed most was the pinatas Becky made with them. This year they came up with the idea of doing Medusa's head. They started as usual with paper mache over an inflated balloon. The paste is made from equal volumes flour and water, used to coat scraps of newsprint type paper.

Violet got a tube knitter at the craft store and a big bundle of green yarn. She knitted most of the snakes on the Medusa head. Becky did the painting and knitted up the coiled hair. The tongues of the snakes were painted red, and some little black eyes were painted on each one. For a select few snakes, we slipped aluminum TIG filler rods inside, bent them to shape, then hot glued them to the head shell.

Instead of doing two medusas, at the last minute we decided to do a minotaur for pinata #2. I made a steer style mouth mass and some horns out of a pasta box and covered them with paper mache.

Becky thought it looked more canine than bovine, but she had the clever idea to add a nose ring, which lent more of a steer look to the assembly. The brown hair and paint job are obviously crucial too.

We hung these from a rope on the swing set in the backyard. To handicap the big kids' group, we used blindfolds. Combined with some judicious choices of battering sticks and some quick rope manipulation on my part, both pinatas lasted long enough for each kid to have a couple turns at it. Its crazy how much more attractive candy seems to them when it comes bursting out of a cow head than it would be if it were just sitting on the table.


Ken Mitton said...

"It is a lot of work for us to do the party": You're not joking. This looks stellar.

mssewcrazy said...

Oh my that was some party. I enjoyed seeing all the work that went into it,the figurines and the pinatas. Very educational fun event! Happy birthday,girls! I'm sure it was very special for you both. Mom and Dad -nice work.