Kay Martin decided early on that she wanted special celebrations for her children's birthdays. For her, that meant homemade, hand-decorated cakes.
"I bought a cake-decorating book before my first kid was even born,'' said Martin of Plain City, Ohio. She wowed guests at her daughter's first birthday with a three-dimensional cake shaped like alphabet blocks. "It got rave reviews,'' she said.
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.Since then, she has created cakes resembling a country cottage, Legos and Noah's ark for her two daughters.
For a growing number of parents, making creative, even over-the-top birthday cakes has become a treasured family tradition. A survey by the Craft and Hobby Association said the number of U.S. households decorating cakes rose from 9.5 million in 2008 to 11.3 million in 2009.
Amy Dunn figures she has saved hundreds of dollars over the years by making her own cakes. The mother of three also enjoys the challenge of finding the right cake to fit the theme of the child's party.
Dunn doesn't like to use decorating tools, so she usually relies on cookies, candies and ingenuity to bring her cakes to life. She once used Twinkies and cookies to create a cake depicting six girls in bed for a sleepover party.
"I don't make any claim to professional-looking cakes,'' said Dunn, of Apex, N.C. "The cakes look homemade. That's part of the charm. They're made with love.''
Every year, Dunn also makes Caroline a doll cake using the same figurine and pattern that her own mother used for her birthdays when she was growing up.
First birthdays often prompt moms or dads to try cake decorating, said Nancy Siler, a spokeswoman for Wilton Food Crafts, an Illinois-based company that specializes in cake-making products. Many even take cake-decorating classes to prepare for the big event, she said.
"It's an opportunity to show family and friends that you love your child and that you're a good mother,'' she said. "It is an expression of love. It is your creativity coming out.''