For me, a birthday’s always been about the cake. Since I started planning birthday celebrations when Teen Spirit was still Doodlebug, the cake has been the centerpiece. For his first birthday, I could barely wait to give my short fat little angel a short fat devil's food cupcake. He obliged by wearing most of it, smearing a fudgy goatee and mustache that eventually crept up onto his ears and head like a sticky wig. He smacked with loud yummy noises. I was hooked. For his second birthday, I attempted a three-dimensional train. How to transform flour, butter and eggs into a vehicle? I knew with enough loaf pans, I could create something special. Eventually all the mismatched wedges and hunks made sense: M&M headlights, cookie wheels and a peanut butter cup smokestack.
At three years old, he was especially devoted to a computer-animated pastel puppy whose paw prints are her trademark, her clues. So, four cupcakes surrounded the top outer edge of a small round cake, all frosted just the right color of baby blue. At its unveiling, he squealed "It's a paw print! As we approached his fifth birthday, I could sense a shift – he chattered about his party and a theme -- dinosaurs. And his buddies needed to be there. Did I mention there had to be dinosaurs? This was different -- a real party with games and friends. But it all comes down to the cake, doesn't it? I came up with a sheet cake: a volcano on one end that had orange pudding "lava" spewing from the top. Little plastic palm trees lined a small lake, fashioned from sky-blue sugar. Mini plastic dinos scaled the volcano and hatched little speckled jelly bean "eggs."
But here’s the thing: my infatuation with presenting The. Cake. had obscured any sense of how my boy was transforming my birthday vision into his own. It was about having a crazy-fun day, chasing your friends around the yard. The grand appearance of Jurassic Cake silenced the chaos for just a moment. Doodlebug grinned broadly and yelled, "Look everyone -- my dinosaur cake!" when the hysteria started up again. I wondered if my run was ending. Maybe only babies had big, unwieldy,funny-colored cakes. Later that night Doodlebug tugged on my hand. "Mommy, that was a delicious cake -- it was the best ever."
So, I got a reprieve. Even though parties became a critical part of the celebration, the cake continued to hold its honored place at the table. Over the ensuing years, I whipped up cakes that looked like a basketball, bowling pin, Pokemon ball, and of course, The. Pikachu. Cake. I think Virginia declared a yellow food dye state of emergency because I used so much on that one. The last of the elaborate set-ups was BeyBlade -- modeled to resemble the anime rip-strip top. It was three layers built on a small lazy susan so it could rotate. I inserted hand-made cardboard silver and green blades between the layers. So when you gave it a whirl, the blades spun – add a sparkler and it was definitely enough to delight an 8-year-old boy.
In our house, the big friend birthday parties stop at age 10. We still create a special celebration, smaller dinner with friends or a short weekend trip. But the cake remained a constant. It wasn’t a birthday without a Mom-made cake that illustrated your favorite toy, hobby, sport or show.I tried creating the same ritual for La Principessa but she hated cake. Go figure – I couldn’t imagine anyone hating cake. I fashioned a very large head of Zoe the ballerina from Sesame Street – Zoe was her absolute favorite as a baby. She took that matted doll everywhere, even to the hospital. I thought it would be well worth dying cocoanut orange and pink and painting eyes on marshmallows. Carrying Zoe’s disembodied – and flaming – head to her on a platter was an epic misjudgment!
Teen Spirit is applying to college and ready to fly the nest. And here I am again wondering if I’ve come to the end of my run. When I started with the crazy cakes, it felt like I was beginning a new tradition, a life-long annual occasion, something I would do and love forever. It’s always felt like it wouldn’t be a real birthday without his cake, even if they’re no longer a convoluted spinning, fiery sculptures. Now, instead of spectacle, he’s looking for flavor. Every year he wants my Boston Cream Pie – which is not really a pie but an elaborate, custard-filled cake. I call it “The All Day Cake” because it usually takes me most of a day to pull it together. Scalding the cream to infuse vanilla, whisking egg yolks and sugar, and then slowly tempering them until they could blend without curdling, Straining and cooling the mixture. Sifting flour, creaming butter then slicing soft yellowy layers. The whole thing assembled and enrobed in a fudgy chocolate icing. So much care and effort in transforming simple items.The more things change the more they stay the same. For his recent 18th birthday, he got a Boston Cream Pie with a newer recipe I had been tweaking and perfecting. He and his girlfriend loved it. I've said it before and I'll say it again: I still need to bake for him even if it isn't really about the cake.
A way earlier version of this post appeared in a different lifetime, in the Style section of The Washington Post.