A Piece of Cake

February 28, 2011

For me, a birthday’s always been about the cake. Since I started planning birthday celebrations for my oldest child, the cake has been the centerpiece of the day.  We rolled through the years with outlandish cake after cake, each creation trying to capture the favorite toy, show, book or game of that moment. Consider the cake intended to mimic a zip strip spinning toy that came from an anime cartoon popular at the time. I cut cardboard into curved ninja blades and jammed them between the cake layers. Sparklers replaced candles and the whole contraption sat on a small Lazy Susan so it could whirl and crackle like the real thing.

We continued the tradition when La Principessa, came along several years later.  She adores a birthday party, anybody’s birthday party.  Trouble was, she’s not so interested in eating cake.  But I was bound and determined to continue the tradition, so I dared to bake her cake in the image of her favorite Muppet, Zoe the ballerina. Well, sculpturally, I could manage only the head of Zoe.  So I carved, tweaked and iced it, arranged some orange-tinted flaked coconut into Muppet fur, and painted marshmallows for eyes and a bulbous nose.  Unfortunately, from La Principessa’s perspective, the lights went out and Zoe, the Death Puppet, floated towards her, its flaming disembodied head lolling on a platter. She lurched forward and grabbed a marshmallow eye with each hand.  One landed across the room as she slapped Zoe’s nose off her coconutty face.  La Principessa was screaming now, pausing long enough to shove the other marshmallow --- and the still burning candle --- deep inside the cake.  Ever sensitive to my child’s subtle signals, I took the hint and escorted the Oedipus cake back to the kitchen.

Within a few minutes she was calm and enjoying ice cream instead.  I was more deflated than the squashed marshmallow smeared on the far wall.  But it was a helpful reminder that when it comes to the kids I need to keep my ego and personal ambitions in check.  Take, for instance, Jurassic Cake: an allosaurus scaled a chocolate volcano that had golden-red pudding "lava" spewing forth. A mini T-rex hatched tiny speckled jelly bean "eggs" near plastic palm trees and a blue-sugar lake.  I had hoped it would render my then five year old son speechless. He did love it but here’s the thing: the weight of tradition and the anticipation of making each cake better than the last had obscured any sense of how my son was transforming my birthday vision into his own. We had reached the time when his birthday was more about having a crazy-fun day with games and friends.  He’s now a teenager and though he no longer needs cakes that spin and shoot flames, he still wants HIS Cake, taking weeks to choose the flavor  --- or other special baked treat.  La Principessa loves the idea of a birthday cake far more than actually eating it. She still gets one because she loves to blow out the candles.  But she’d rather munch a fistful of bacon. Which sometimes she gets for her celebration.

So as often happens, Mom or Dad set the scene and launch a grand tradition because for a short while you really do pull most of the strings. But not for that long.  I had lost sight of the fact that kids grow into themselves and have plenty to say about what’s important to them and what traditions will stick. If on their birthday they’d rather have my key lime pie or red velvet whoopie pies or, hmm, Mom’s experimental bacon caramel ice cream cake, then that’s what they’ll get. I still need to bake for them even if it isn't really about the cake.

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A Piece of Cake
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