Why Baking Homemade Birthday Cakes Is Important To Me

by Emily Todd
Originally Published: 

When my mother turned 40, I baked her eight buttermilk cakes to serve at a backyard birthday party. I was 13 and in charge of the cake baking. I knew we were setting up eight round tables for our guests, and I had pictured that my sisters and friends would bring a cake to each table. My mom would get the biggest cake, decorated with lit candles.

I spent all day baking these eight cakes, using flour from the sifter in our old Hoosier cabinet and a handheld mixer. Once one cake went in the oven, I started on the next, and when they were all cool, I frosted and stacked them, two by two. I remember hours of baking, baking until it hurt to stand, and the feeling midway through that maybe eight cakes would be too many.

© Courtesy Emily Todd

It was. We had eight cakes half eaten by the end of the party.

This is the cake-baking day that stands out in my memory when I reflect on my history as a birthday-cake baker. But I am now 47, and I have made many cakes since those eight for my mother. When my sister Maisie turned 10, we made a cake that we floated down a river, inspired by Tasha Tudor’s Becky’s Birthday. For my college friend Sue, I made a tiered (and toppling) chocolate birthday cake. When my father turned 60, and we celebrated in Ireland, I made a cake without measuring cups, without a cookbook and without any sense of the temperature in the AGA oven in our rented house. For my children, I have made treasure chest cakes and soccer ball cakes and fire truck cakes. For my husband’s 50th, I made a huge cake with lemon frosting and fresh raspberries, and when we lit the cake with all those candles, the table seemed to be on fire.

© Courtesy Emily Todd

It is a season of stock-taking in my life: mid-career, 17 years into marriage, halfway to when both our boys will leave home. I think a lot about what I have done and have not done and might never do. Whenever I find myself thinking, “This year it is too much to bake a cake. This year I will buy one,” I catch myself. I have made homemade birthday cakes my whole life.

And so I take out my splattered cake recipes for each birthday. I cream the butter and sugar, separate the eggs and then slide the yolks into the bowl. I add the buttermilk and flour, first some of one and then some of the other, before folding in soft-peaked egg whites. I make the cake that seems to fit the occasion, even though for my 13-year-old a plain cake will now suffice—long gone are the days of making excavator or pyramid cakes to honor a toddler’s or an elementary school child’s passions.

© Courtesy Emily Todd

I bake people birthday cakes. I have baked them consistently for the people I love, and the cakes have tasted good.

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