Why Baking Homemade Birthday Cakes Is Important To Me
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.
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.
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.
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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