Sunday, May 3, 2009

Let Them Eat Cake

I made a cake today for my son's sixth birthday party. It's a yearly chocolate-buttermilk tradition, this sweet indulgence topped with fluffy buttercream. The cake was made to resemble a tennis court (I admit to green food coloring in the frosting), with a net and two players that I found at a cake and baking supply shop on West 22nd Street. Tall, skinny, brightly colored candles lined one side of the court. The tennis was an appropriate theme, since the gift from my husband and I this year was a flashy red and black "Agassi" Head racket. We sent guests home with canisters of tennis balls, too. Last year, the cake was a giant baseball with the traditional red stitching; one gift, thanks to grandparents, was a set of tickets to a Bridgeport Bluefish ball game. Going back from there, I recall a racetrack cake, a Curious George cake (illustrated with royal icing) . . . But today's memory spans more than the past half-dozen years—it covers another generation and a tradition of special birthday cakes that bring youth and excitement flooding back. There is a magical buzz (not just the sugar) about a whimsical fantasy cake, and I remember that my parents went out of their way to come up with fabulous ones each September. Or anyway, each September between the ages of eight and thirteen. Before then, I'm not sure what the cakes were: did we have Baskin Robbins' ice cream cakes, or cakes from a local baker? I have to admit, cakes before and after this time period pale in comparison. I am sure they were good and appreciated, and it's possible that at least some were homemade, but I don't recall them (and feel somewhat guilty about the fact). Actually, there was this: the cake for my thirtieth birthday was homemade, and a fabulous flop. Rich in flavor, if seriously lacking structure. That year, one of my gifts was a Jean-Georges cookbook, which I still have. In the book is a recipe for his famous warm, soft chocolate cake with the liquid center (the undercooked cake copied by countless pastry chefs across the country). My mom made this, but decided to make one big cake, instead of the individual-sized gâteaux the book called for. Turned out, the small molds did more than control portion size: they stabilized the recipe, which when made in a large format, became an oozing chocolate puddle with a crust too thin to contain it. But this remains one of my favorite cakes of all time, actually, because although it was flat and flowing, its taste was nevertheless tall, rich, deep. And there was beauty in the way the chocolate lake reflected the glow of the lit candles (thirty of them)—an effect I've not seen on any "normal" cake anywhere. Still on topic, this is, however, a digression. I was talking about kids' cakes: my own kid, myself as a kid . . . and particularly those cakes I had at ages eight to thirteen. It may have been my father who found the bakery in Chicago (I don't know the name) that started this family tradition. Anyway, someone discovered it, and my idea of birthday cake was never the same again. The first year, the cake was a carousel cake. It was so beautiful that I almost hated to have it cut. The cake itself was a fairly simple, round layer cake. But the top was decorated with animals and straw "poles" holding up a peaked top of metallic green card stock. The next year was even better. I remember the anticipation building, knowing that the day of my party (which we always had at home, a fact I love), a big box containing the mystery cake would appear in our kitchen. I knew it came from the same bakery, and I couldn't wait for it to be unveiled. For my nine-year-old party, the cake was in the shape of a bright pink pig—imagine a sweet, Wilber-like character. The cake elicited squeals from all us girls, giggles and guffaws. Ten was a numeral "10" like having two cakes in one, decorated with pastel yellow frosting and delicate decorations that were, I think, largely floral. Eleven and twelve actually blur in my mind, but thirteen I remember had a telephone theme, because what thirteen-year-old girl did not talk incessantly on the family's one land line? After that, I was away in boarding school on birthdays, then in college, though parents and friends always found a way to help me celebrate properly (cake, with candles). My own cakes, when I have them, are now more sophisticated, or—with the exception of my thirtieth birthday—maybe I should say more adult and therefore somewhat boring, despite the usually excellent taste. Sometimes, there is no cake at all but rather a dessert in a restaurant, though the candle is still there for wishing. For several years, following the rise (and, in my opinion, fall) of Magnolia Bakery, I have cultivated a cupcake tradition with some girlfriends. But the fantasy theme cakes, the cakes that provoke "ooohs" and "ahhhs" and smiles and laughs: the right to those cakes I have transferred to the next generation, to my son for whom I will stay up late and wake up early to whip cup upon cup of butter, beat in too much sugar, and set to work on decorations. I enjoy the baking because that way, in a way, his cakes are my cakes, too. I live a second childhood through him, for which I'm grateful, because in childless years it was all too easy to forget the giddy anticipation of birthdays, too easy to say that cake was not important (and, heaven forbid, not good for teeth or waistline). Now, however, on behalf of all kids big and little, I say: let them eat cake! And let the cake be frivolous, fabulous fun.

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