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Awake at the Whisk: Birthday Cake Memories

Thursday, January 21, 2010


Birthday Cake Memories

When I was little, my mom said that I thought a “birthday” was a cake. I can understand why: my aunt, mom, and grandmas were all phenomenal bakers. My birthday cakes were never made from a box, and the frosting never came from a can. Furthermore, I can’t remember a cake that wasn’t a present in and of itself. I remember each cake fondly—even some of the flavor memories still remain.

7-Minute Frosting
My favorite surprise flavor was a deep chocolate layer cake hidden beneath a pillowy cloud of 7-minute marshmallow frosting. Dancing on top, like a scene from a snow globe, were tiny plastic ice skaters wearing fluffy red coats. I had never seen frosting that looked so much like the feathery snow outside my window. I didn’t even wait for the candles to be lit—I stuck my finger in for a taste. It plunged deeply!—this was silken frosting, light as air. And the taste: sweet vanilla melting softer than ice cream. This was like melting snow, quickly fading, leaving only sweet behind. To this day, 7-minute frosting remains my all-time favorite!

Cookie Monster
My second favorite cake resembled Cookie Monster, my favorite Sesame Street character. I’m not sure what sort of cake was inside, but I sure remember that fluffy coconut-died-blue fur, the round eyeballs, and the sandwich cookies sticking out of his mouth. That ingenious cake looked like my best pal—made just for me. No wonder I thought cakes were the birthdays themselves!

I also remember a cake shaped like a rainbow. In 3-D, it literally arched over the horizon of the cake plate in strips of red, orange, and yellow on both sides. No birthday was celebrated without a cake of artistic proportions, and this was no exception. Where the women of my family found time for such elaborate cakes, I’ll never know. But I’m sure glad they did!

The highly crafted cake tradition has continued in my own life. I collect fancy cake pans in all shapes and sizes. When I was in high school, I used to decorate them using only a butter knife. For my sister’s 21st birthday, I used a Burt & Ernie pan. That cake took me an entire afternoon to decorate with my butter knife. I placed it atop a giant box covered in black paper. Next, I taped photos of me and my sister over the years—just like Burt & Ernie. After all, I believe cakes are about more than just being pretty. Like birthdays, they have their own stories to tell.

West Coast or Bust
When I finished grad school, my boyfriend, best friend, and I threw a joint party. I was in charge of baking the cake. Across the giant sheet cake, I painted (with frosting) the outline of the United States of America. I made photo stick cutouts resembling paper dolls for each of us. My boyfriend’s paper-doll-self was placed firmly in California: he had vowed only to apply for jobs on the West Coast. His doll had a thought bubble that read, “West Coast or Bust!”

My best friend’s doll was placed in DC. She was hoping to move there and find an internship. Her thought bubble read, “DC or Bust!”

My paper doll was placed in Illinois, where we were all living at the time. I had not yet decided where I wanted to go, or what I wanted to do after graduation. My photo showed me with shoulders raised in a questioning manner. My thought bubble read, “Just Don’t Bust!”

On another occasion, I was in charge of baking a cake to celebrate the departure of two co-workers. Because I believe in interactive cakes, I created fortunes that were tucked neatly between the cake layers. Each was tied with twirly ribbon, creating a frill and swirl of color to help decorate the dessert. These were not just any fortunes. Because both colleagues were moving on to new jobs, each fortune was a spoof on the workplace taken from the website The typically dismal office farewell party was transformed into a gut-busting, whooping good time. Even the President couldn’t help but laugh.

Cake as Entertainment
As I’ve advanced in my career and my day job becomes more demanding, my cakes become more like the pretty ones I see in bakery display cases: white frosting dotted with nuts, chocolate frosting sprinkled with candy, or whipped frosting mounded high with the back of a spatula. They’re lovely. But you can’t play with them. I feel guilty when I prepare a birthday cake for a friend using a flower mold, and then cover it with a mere chocolate ganache. My friends get excited. They like my pretty cakes. They don’t know any better, because they have never experienced my cakes of yore. I long for the days when I had time to spend a half day doing nothing but decorating a cake, turning it into an edible form of entertainment. But hey, the eating is still the best part!—and that will always remain.

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