81 birthday cakes

Amid the many tears accompanying the departure of our daughter Michaela to Japan recently was my usual dry-eyed self.

As Michaela (or ‘Kaylie’ as many know here) has been prepping to make this move over the last six months, we’ve had plenty of time to process it, enjoy her waning time here with us and fete her on the way out the door. Part of that came on the Sunday before she left when, at the tail-end of a going-away open house party, I put the finishing touches on her birthday cake.

That’s when it hit me, as I placed the “2” and the “3” atop the cream-cheese frosted carrot cake, that this may be the last cake I make for our younger daughter. Sometimes it takes a little thing like that to penetrate my practical and only vaguely emotional heart.

Later, I thought about how many birthday cakes I’ve been in charge of over the years. There were a few times when some of them preferred store-bought ice-cream cakes, but for the most part, I baked the rest of approximately 81 cakes dating back to the mid 1990s.

As traditions go, Americans don’t have nearly as much as people in other countries and cultures. But one thing we’ve clung to is the birthday-cake-with-candles-and-song thing (which doesn’t have a proper name, if you think about it). As such, I always enjoy being the cake bearer and server while Jen has managed the equally important job of capturing it on film.

That moment, frozen on film, captures the various ages of us all and is, for the most part, a happy one. When the cake is set in front of you, candles aflame, family and/or friends a-singin’, it’s hard not to feel special and that, no matter whatever else is going on in your life, you’ve got this one simple happy snapshot that marks another trip around the sun. And surely this next year will be better than the last.

It’s also one time when our own preferences trump all others: If red velvet or carrot or pineapple upside-down or kale & pinto bean is your favorite cake than, dammit, that’s what you’ll get. And some are harder to make or procure than others.

One of my favorite birthday cake acquisition stories comes from my friend Anthony, who wanted to snag a Carvel ice cream cake for his girlfriend (now wife) for her birthday back in 1989. He enlisted my help for the task and we set off without a clear idea that we’d be able to pull it off.

The place: Manhattan

The temperature: 100 degrees (or so it seemed)

Humidity: 100%

# of Carvel ice cream stores in Manhattan at the time: 1

Location: Chinatown, way downtown!

Our location: Upper West Side, way uptown!

The quest, of course, was to get a nice, cold Carvel ice cream cake — the finest in the land — from Chinatown to 111th Street before it could melt. This was back when all subway cars were not air-conditioned, and it was compounded by the fact that we’d have to transfer trains a couple of times to make it happen. Every time the train slowed or, at one point, stopped completely, Anthony and I would peer helplessly through the cellophane on the box, assessing the cake for meltage. He went kinda bonkers a few times, while I offered platitudes along the lines of “it’ll be fine.”

Ultimately, we got to our destination with the cake largely intact, although some portion of the outer ice cream façade had indeed sloughed off onto the box. But there was enough left to mount candles and, as all agreed, it tasted just as good as if it had been intact. The heroic effort to get the cake against all odds counted far more in Diana’s book than the fact that it was a little worse for wear.

Most cakes contain far less drama. Generally, I try to keep the cake from view of the recipient as long as possible, and there’s a tacit agreement on their part to make no remark if they happen to come upon me, say, frosting it. The idea is for it to emerge from some magical ether of birthday cakes, like a Christmas gift that appears in the night, and both maker and recipient are charged with supporting that illusion.

I do hope that the day comes when I can bake another birthday cake for Kaylie, but for now I’m secure in the knowledge that, by jiminy, when she was under our roof, she always got the cake she wanted, delivered with flaming numbers matching her age and an out-of-tune warbling of that famous, copyright-protected song, sung by people who love her very much.

And when she was far over the Pacific and on to Japan in the following days, her brothers and I honored that cake by snarfing the rest of it all down. For, though the birthday boy or girl has full rights to any leftovers, the rules as we understand them clearly state that any unclaimed cake must be consumed within three days – or else it’s bad luck, or something.



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