Friday, June 20, 2008

Birthday cakes and memories

There's a food message board I try to keep up with from England, run through the BBC. A recent post asked about favorite cakes, and that brought to mind the first cake I ever truly made up totally from scratch. Here's the column (and recipe) that ran in 2002. (Geez, that seems like such a long time ago.....)

Dining In: Joys of Boys and Birthday Cakes

Many decades ago, in the damp chill of a Memphis December, The Birthday Cake was born.
It was strawberry, that being the favorite flavor of the little fella the cake was intended for. There were strawberries in the batter, strawberries in the icing. For a boy, the dusky pink cake was a bold step, but strawberry it had to be, so strawberry it was.

Years down the road, this particular recipe would vex a well-meaning young wife who, every December about a week before Christmas, would pull out the stained recipe card and try once again to duplicate Mother's result. It was - and likely this year again will be - a humbling experience, an annual quest to reach the mountaintop only to find you've somehow stalled on the slope far shy of the summit.

There's something about boys and their mama's cakes. Cooking classes, multiple midnight attempts - even watching said cake being made one year - all fail in the category of aids to mimic The Birthday Cake.

Maybe it's the connection brought about by washing skinned knees, explaining thunderstorms or putting just enough jelly on the peanut butter sandwich, but once a mama has made the cake, none other can compare in her boy's eyes. That's how it should be.

Its creation is magic, something the two of you made in a time long before your boy makes the eventual discovery that his mommy really isn't the smartest, the prettiest or the funniest one in the land. It's a talisman you can revisit when, as a teen-ager, he's decided you need to drop him off at the end of the block instead of the front door at school. The annual ritual of making his cake can sweep you back to when he couldn't wait to point you out to all of his preschool friends - every day of the week.

Having seen how the emotional value of a special cake only deepens with time, I decided my present for my own little fella this year would be his personal cake. About three months ago, our Saturday tinkering in the kitchen came around to the subject of cakes, what kind he liked (any) and what kind he loved (practically any).

Not wanting to hear about it until late July, I didn't mention the "b" word, but I did start asking some questions about favorite cakes. Keeping in mind that a 2-year-old's tastes change as swiftly as the wind's direction, I have a list of flavors that kept popping up on his screen.


Nuts. Bananas.

Oranges. Nuts. Bananas. Carrots.


Flavors he eliminated - for very specific 2-year-old reasons - included chocolate, which for some reason he thought should be the cake for Oscar, our black dachshund, and therefore he couldn't have that flavor. Others rejected included lemon (he thought Oscar's brother Mayer would like lemon, and, having had a recent altercation with Mayer, Nicholas certainly didn't want to share a lemon cake) and red velvet ("I no like red cake.")

Not so many Saturdays ago, the final version of his cake was set. Laced with orange juice, vanilla and a little almond flavoring, it's an easy, custom-made recipe that will become his birthday signature.

When we make it this weekend, he'll lick the beaters and supervise from a chair as I pour it into the pans. He'll camp out in front of the oven, an arm wrapped around each dog, to watch his cake rise, turn golden brown and fill the kitchen with a delicate scent he'll - I hope - always associate with birthdays, happiness and home.

So often I don't write recipes down, but this one will have its own card, one that will weather batter splatters, egg whites and many trips to the grocery. It will be in his mama's handwriting, and it will be his forever.

Birthday Cake
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
4 eggs
1 cup vegetable oil
3/4 cup orange juice
2 teaspoons vanilla
1/4 teaspoon almond extract

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and grease and flour a 9-by-13-inch baking dish.

Mix dry ingredients in a large bowl, then add remaining ingredients. Mix well, then pour into prepared pan. Bake about 45 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Flip onto a wire rack and cool completely.

Frost and decorate as you like.

A general topping comes by melting a stick of butter, adding a small box of confectioner's sugar, ½ to 3/4 cup orange juice, then glazing the cake. For fancy birthday purposes, though, a good royal or buttercream icing will go well.