The Truth about Birthdays

My son’s January birthday kicks off three months of birthday celebrations here, and almost immediately after he came home for winter break, I began reminding him to let me know what he wanted for his special dinner, what he wanted for his party cake.

“I’ll think about it,” he answered.

I hadn’t expected his indecision. Both of my children have always had a ready answer to this question – groups of friends, themes, costumes, scavenger hunts, painting pottery, bowling, favorite foods for dinner, and a cake, years and years of cakes, each one a heart’s desire – and I’ve been more than happy to fulfill all the requests. Sure, the elaborate plans have been scaled down as they have gotten older but, the special meal and the cake have remained constants. Now this: I’ll think about it.

“Please do,” I urged.  “Birthdays are really important to me.”

Are they ever. My mother baked cakes when we were young, but never blew up a balloon or hung a streamer or invited over a passel of friends. She did as much as she felt comfortable doing, I’ve come to terms with that, and yet I’ve made up for it every year of my children’s lives, giving them what I never had but always longed after. Tradition, I thought. The feeling of being special. Had my efforts been pointless?

I had to wonder. With my son this year, Christmas came and passed without birthday plans. So did New Year’s day. He accompanied two friends to their birthday celebrations, and seemed eager to mark his friends’ occasions with gifts and dinners. When pressed about his own, though, he continued to hem and haw. January 16th loomed and he was “still thinking about it.”

Relentless, I kept pushing until finally he gave in.  ” Okay, butter cake.  With chocolate frosting.”  And dinner? I nudged. “All right. A couple of friends. Let’s go to the barbecue place. That’s it.”

And that was it.

And then, just before he returned to school for the second semester my boy told me he hadn’t wanted any fuss at all this year, hadn’t wanted anything. Not a meal, not a cake, not a thing. And I’ll tell you, those parting words pierced my thin maternal skin, called into question every gesture I’ve made and every tradition I’ve tried to establish. Have my efforts, I asked myself, come to nothing at all?

Thankfully, January held other lessons and I’m left thinking maybe I shouldn’t write off my desire to celebrate birthdays as a frivolous self-indulgence just yet. I was invited to a grown up’s sophisticated birthday party complete with cocktail bar and piano player, and also to a local book group’s meeting, where the host served a cake her mother used to make for birthdays. With these in mind, I turned to the friends involved in these events, and then a few more friends, and asked if they might share some birthday memories of their own.

In all I asked five women – daughters, mothers, wives – and all of the five wrote about someone doing something special for another person; four of the five wrote about their mothers. What has it all meant, what has all my effort meant, I wondered, and now I have an answer. I’ll share these women’s stories with you and let you arrive at your own.

Best friends Jill Rose and Kristen Nyberg grew up together, now live only a few houses away from each other, and partnered together a few years ago in order to write the successful restaurant review blog, North Shore Dish. When Kristen recently threw herself a piano bar birthday party, Jill was right there to bake the birthday cake. And what a cake it was: Rosie’s Desert Island Butter Cake layers filled and frosted with classic chocolate and chocolate-espresso buttercream. Jill decided to add a sweet-salty cornflake crunch layer to one of the buttercream fillings after falling in love with the Momofuko Milk Bar cookbook and pastry chef Christina Tosi’s knack for doing the unexpected. Jill’s dream is to own a coffee shop where she can bake cakes like this for other people. I say, I hope her dream comes true.

At the party we talked about her dream of making cakes and later, by email, she shared her method for making a miniature version of Kristen’s birthday cake, using 3-inch cake rings.  Whether full size or miniature, make a classic buttercream, use the butter layers I posted last year, follow Jill’s tips below, and you’ll have a cake special enough for any occasion. If you want a recipe for the crunch, you’ll have to find Tosi’s Momofuku Milk Bar in the library or at your nearest book store.  Here’s the friendship cake in Jill’s own words:

My cake rings are 3″ in diameter and 3″ high. I put 1 cup of batter in each ring and bake them for 25 minutes. Mine don’t have bottoms, so a little bit of batter sneaks out the bottom (treat for the cook!). Note that you should butter and flour instead of using non-stick spray. The cakes need a little something on the sides to hang onto, I’ve found. They freeze beautifully. I move them from the freezer to the fridge to make the defrosting as gentle as possible, then slice them in half while chilled. They make the most adorable layer cakes you have ever seen!

When ready, I brushed each layer with coffee simple syrup for Kristen’s cake.  The frosting was buttercream–the kind you make with sugar boiled to 165 degrees. It’s not the easiest thing to make, but it’s so silky and holds perfectly for days at room temp. It uses a scary amount of butter, of course. I flavored 1/3 with espresso powder dissolved in a bit of water and the other 2/3rd with just under 6 oz. of melted bittersweet chocolate.

I only put the crunch in one layer, but if I made it again, I’d put it in two layers. I really liked the salty contrast.

My friend Anne Verret Speck hosted the January meeting of her book club, where they discussed my book, The Mosaic Artist.  After the book discussion wrapped, Anne served up pieces of angel food cake topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and drenched in a delicious “Amber Sauce” – a brown sugar-based caramel sauce studded with chopped pecans. She generously shared the history of her cake and the Amber Sauce recipe, hailing from the Betty Crocker Picture Cook Book (©1950) with her own twists added.  More generously, she has allowed me to share all this with you.

My birthday is just before Christmas so, perhaps, the reason my mother made angel food cake with ice cream and “amber sauce” for me each year was because it was so easy.  Of course, it may also have been because it was my favorite dessert.  For whatever reason, this was “my” special birthday cake and, ever since, has evoked memories of my mother.  I inherited my grandmother’s Betty Crocker Picture Cook Book of 1950 and my original recipe for “amber sauce” comes almost exactly from there.  I usually substitute fat-free evaporated milk for heavy cream.  The somewhat caramelized flavor of evaporated milk actually fits perfectly with the brown sugar, and there’s plenty of fat in the butter, so using fat-free milk doesn’t reduce the richness appreciably and, of course, it’s much easier to keep canned milk on hand.

Our first trip to New Orleans introduced me to chocolate bread pudding with praline sauce.  I find that, by adding a few tablespoons of bourbon and about 1/2 cup of chopped pecans to amber sauce, I can approximate what I remember of that praline sauce and still evoke memories of birthdays and Mom.

Amber Sauce

  • 1 dark cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup corn syrup
  • 1/4 cup butter
  • 1/2 cup cream (or evaporated milk)
  • 1/2 cup chopped pecans (optional)
  • 2 T. bourbon (optional)

Cook first four ingredients over low heat, stirring to blend well.  If adding the pecans and/or bourbon, do it after the the sauce is blended and continue to cook just long enough to heat. Serve warm over angel food cake with vanilla ice cream to celebrate my birthday or over chocolate bread pudding, just to celebrate!

My good friend and fellow blogger Judith Ross responded to my request for a story with a memory of her childhood.  She had intended to tell the story of baking a cake for the young son of her long time friend, but, as so often happens, the story that longed to be told spoke up loud and clear instead.

I was going to write about my Laurie Colwin cake. I just made it for Martha’s son Nicholas, who prefers things plain. It’s an unfrosted chocolate cake made with cocoa powder and buttermilk. In this case, I made a stencil for the number 10 and sprinkled powder sugar over the top.

But, when I sat down to write about cake, this is what I ended up with:

My father was born on February 13. Every year on that day, my mother would pull out her heart-shaped cake pans, purchased just for that occasion. Being the 1960s, we opened a box of Duncan Hines cake mix, added an egg and water, poured the batter into the pans, and put them in the oven. The frosting was always pink.

My dad has been gone for more than a decade now. He was not an easy guy to live with. Some days his anger and sorrow filled the house. But remembering those pink, heart-shaped birthday cakes — and the way they delighted him year after year — I am reminded that there was love there too.

Friend and fellow north shore blogger Sarah Kelley (aka The Roving Home) is in the thick of this motherhood thing, balancing the raising of two very young boys with marriage, work, and writing. She manages to do all with humor and a good hard look at herself and the world around her. I love her writing and memoir so much that I find myself wishing I’d grown up with her in Ohio. Here’s a glimpse into that childhood.

At some point in the 1970s, during my earliest years, the geniuses who work behind closed doors in food product-related manufacturing came out with a brand-new concept: the cake pan in the shape of a cartoon character. Suddenly every pause in Saturday morning kids’ programming was inundated with commercials depicting beaming children in party hats, gathered around a table festooned with balloons and streamers while an attractive mother ceremoniously presented the birthday boy or girl with a cake decorated to look like Bugs Bunny, or Holly Hobbie, or Spiderman, or a dozen other highly marketable fantasy figures. The kids in the commercials cheered to see such a beautiful sight. It was a cake! It was a cartoon character! It was both!

I was troubled by the contrast these television cakes made with the cakes that emerged from my mother’s kitchen. Yes, our birthday parties included balloons, even streamers on a good year, but the cakes themselves were usually flat affairs, spread out in a discolored metal 9 x 13” pan, with store-bought chocolate icing lumpily arranged over a canary yellow cake of indeterminate flavor. In fairness, I should point out that in spite of my secret disappointment, my hope that, one of these years, a cake in the shape of Cinderella would magically appear on the table, her skirt a miracle of pointillist icing in colors of silvery blue and white, that no one – not myself nor one of my five siblings – ever turned down a piece.

Now I have my own children, two young boys, and their birthdays seem to roll around with alarming regularity. A singular truth about my character has come to light through these annual events: I am not a planner. Each birthday eve, while my child is babbling in feverish anticipation, it suddenly occurs to me that I need to make a cake. And then it occurs to me that I don’t have sugar. Or flour. Or birthday candles. At which point I recall my own childhood, and the abilities of my mother, who managed to make six cakes every year, one for each of us, without muttering a word in complaint – at least within earshot – or indicating that putting together a birthday dinner, hanging up balloons, and finding the time to let the yellow cake cool long enough to be able to spread icing without it melting into pools of processed chocolate was too much of a burden. And she always looked plenty attractive to us, the table-full of her offspring, as she presented that slab of a yellow birthday cake to the lucky, lucky recipient.

Children’s book author and illustrator Tasha Tudor was born in Boston shortly after the turn of the 20th century. In later years she lived in Vermont with her children, and this home life sometimes featured, fictionalized, in her books.

My friend Heather Atwood writes of her own brush with one of Tudor’s experiments – the floating birthday cake – that showed up in the story, Becky’s Birthday. Affected by Tasha Tudor’s work, Heather’s mother tried to recreate this scene many times in Heather’s childhood, and even into her adulthood. The attempts impressed Heather so deeply that even now a simple question about birthdays will call up for her the words mother, birthday cake and water, will conjure up the pictures of her mother trying to float one cake after another in so many bodies of water, and probably always will.

Heather lost her mother very suddenly, just a matter of weeks ago. Every memory for her is very vivid, still just yesterday. I’ll leave you with this story she shared. And the advice to never stop trying to care for those you love. It matters. It will always matter, in ways expected and unexpected, forever and ever.

I have an impossible birthday vision initiated by my mother channeling Tasha Tudor:  A birthday cake floats down a woodland stream to the surprised delighted birthday girl.  This is an image ripped from the pages of “Becky’s Birthday.”  For years I studied this illustration, dreaming of that family picnic in the darkened forest, the central glow of the birthday-candled-cake reflecting in the waters and on the faces of the awed children as it arrives with perfect timing at the end of the meal.  My mother, right there with me in the fantasy department, was willing to what she could to recreate it.

One year my birthday cake, candles blazing, floated, lights off, in our bathtub,   Another year, we all went outside to see the layered triumph afloat in a galvanized bucket.   The bucket idea prevailed for a while, until, I swear, I was thirty and my mother was still trying.  My brother had moved to Vermont and, lo and behold, he lived beside a stream.

How the hell Tasha ever got the cake to float at all, let alone travel, is just ridiculous.  (The premise was that she really did this for her daughter.)  Between finding the proper buoyant cutting board, carrying the cake down the semi-steep banks of small river, maneuvering rocks, and steering gateau where one would like it to go (not stuck on the opposite bank, lodged in a low branch), the mission was absurd, if not impossible.

Still, I haven’t quit.  I realized, writing this, that I have the PERFECT floating birthday cake situation now.  Out the kitchen door of my new home is a small quarry.  Still water, easily maneuvered, no long trips down a river bank, ten easy steps to the kitchen table.  My daughter’s birthday is May 2nd.  I’ll be out there floating the cake.  It makes me very sad that my mother can’t see it, as, in her whacky way, a beautiful scene of a birthday cake and candles reflecting in a wooded pool truly, honestly mattered in my childhood.

©2012  Jane A. Ward