Gift Ideas: Birthdays

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If you love to bake — or just love to eat — you don't think too much about the presents, balloons and streamers when planning or attending a birthday party. You know it's the cake that puts an exclamation point on the festivities, and thanks to fresh dessert trends, when you are the baker you've now got options far beyond vanilla or chocolate, square or round.

Pies, tarts, petits fours and cupcakes, the hottest trend of all, are adding variety to old birthday traditions, giving bakers a chance to let their imaginations run wild and plant candles in almost any deliciously sweet surface they can concoct. Traditional cakes offer the chance to mix flavors and fillings into shapes and colors limited only by your imagination, while single-serving desserts combine finger-food convenience and with the flexibility of whipping up varieties to suit every guest's taste.

Whatever delicious path you choose, follow these tips to create a cake table that gives your dessert creation the stage it deserves and helps it become the centerpiece of your birthday decor:

  • Pick the cake table location wisely: Your dessert table is best placed against a wall, where it is accessible but not so close to the main traffic flow that you risk desserts being knocked into — you don't want your beautifully decorated cake to collapse any more than your guest wants icing on her sleeve. Additionally, a location against a wall allows you to use the wall as a backdrop that can be decorated in your party theme or simply draped in a solid color that offsets the color of your dessert.

  • Choose your base layer: If your party has a color theme, it makes sense to incorporate this into the cake table cloth, or play the color of the icing against the color of the cloth. As a special treat for the honoree in a more casual setting, use white or brown butcher's paper and set out a basket of markers so that guests can scrawl well wishes on the "table cloth." After the party, this paper can saved as a keepsake.

  • Use attractive serving pieces: Leave the baking dishes in the kitchen. Simple, elegant cake stands or cupcake holders will complement your creations and give you and guests maximum functionality both in displaying and serving desserts. A cupcake stand allow beautifully decorated cupcakes to be arranged in eye-catching, colorful patterns, while a tiered buffet stand allows for layers of differently decorated cookies or petits fours.

  • Vary heights: Add visual interest and avoid the bake-sale look by displaying dishes at varying heights. A cupcake stand towering in the center of the table can be flanked by cakes or cookie platters on stands of differing heights. If your stands are all the same, set them on top of boxes of varying sizes to create the staggered look. Hide the boxes under the table cloth or, for a more finished look, wrap or drape them in matching fabric. Even a stack or two of dessert plates can help add to the visual dynamic.

  • Think color: If using a frosted dessert like cakes or cookies, keep those in mind as you arrange the table and place single-serving desserts on tiered buffet stands or cupcake holders. Color groupings offset by a contrasting table cloth add drama, while mixed colors help set a festive atmosphere.

  • Easy on the accents: You desserts should be the centerpiece, with any table accents, such as flowers or paper decorations serving to complement the food, not distract from it. The more intricately your desserts are decorated, the simpler the accents can be. A few hydrangea blooms are sufficient for a multi-layer cake, while a table heavy with a variety of desserts may be its own decoration and need no more than a table cloth to set it off.

  • Remember the necessities: Provide dessert plates for cakes, pies and the like, as well as forks and napkins, even with single-serving desserts. An attractive basket or silverware caddy allows you to keep them conveniently at guest's fingertips without detracting from the overall tablescape.