On the importance of birthday cakes

Madison's first birthday was the day before Thanksgiving and we had six houseguests, so I whipped up a quick chocolate layer cake with whipped cream for the frosting. I topped it with roses because her middle name is Rose.

I love birthday cakes. Growing up, birthday cakes were not a big part of our birthday celebrations, probably because my mom, who is an amazing cook, is not really a huge fan of baking. She also had a full-time career to manage along with her family, so birthday desserts tended to be something fairly simple like strawberry shortcake (my mom makes the best, with huge homemade lightly sweetened biscuits and fresh whipped cream) or, if I was lucky, I got to pick up a Pepperidge Farm cake out of the freezer aisle, preferably Devil’s Food or Coconut Layer.

A classic Devil's Food cake with a rich marshmallow-like frosting.

I happen to really enjoy baking, however, and I have always made it a point to make birthday cakes for my daughter’s birthdays. It helps that her birthday is in late November, a time of year when I enjoy warming up the kitchen anyway — she might be out of luck had she been born in August. Because her birthday often falls on or near Thanksgiving, I have made a concerted effort to not just stick a candle in a pumpkin pie, although I have occasionally been tempted.

Ah, the 5th birthday cake — it was a Clifford the Big Red Dog party, so I used a 16" x 16" pan to make a chocolate pound cake (much sturdier when you want to cut a shape), then I drew out a template and carved it out. A lot of work but totally worth it.

For family birthday dinners, I have generally made a classic Devil’s Food cake — not because it was Madison’s favorite, but because, as you probably guessed, it is one of mine. In recent years, she sometimes flips through my cookbooks and makes a different request; when my niece Kelsey was visiting just before her own birthday one year, she chose two different varieties of cupcakes from “Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World” by Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero — they were amazing cupcakes and you really would never have known they were vegan at all. For birthday parties, I sometimes went over the top and created enormous creations swathed in colored frosting that left Madison and her friends smeared in food coloring for days.

My most recent foray into birthday cakes was for my husband Rick, who just celebrated his 50th birthday. We gathered our friends and family at the Biergarten Haus, a new German-style beer garden on H Street here in DC, not far from our house. Rick is a first-generation American whose parents, who are of German descent, grew up in Eastern Europe and Germany, settling in the United States in the early 1950s. So, it seemed appropriate to celebrate at a place that would remind him of that heritage, and we had a great time dancing the polka and drinking way too many litres of schwarzbier.

Because there were a lot of things going on at the time — final exams and term papers for Madison, work commitments for both me and Rick, and an onslaught of houseguests — I confess that I first looked into just ordering a birthday cake, rather than making one myself. But here’s the thing: I’m picky about cake, and a decent cake from a good bakery is not inexpensive, and I simply could not bring myself to spend a minimum of $150 on the type of cake I wanted.

One of the things I really wanted for the cake was to include an edible image of Rick when he was 3 years old dressed in his lederhosen. It seemed like a must-have, and a quick search on Google yielded that it was pretty easy to order custom cake toppers printed on edible sugar paper. I chose to order from Icing Images and a perfectly-sized image arrived in the mail just 24 hours later, at a cost of about $20.

We celebrated my husband's 50th in style with a personalized Sunshine Cake, complete with edible lederhosen. It was a hit, and he was inordinately touched by the custom beer can candles — although that may have just been a result of a few litres of good German beer.

Since it was June, I wanted to make a cake that wouldn’t seem overly heavy, so I went for a cake recipe that is quite popular in Florida, where I spent much of my youth; it’s citrus-based, of course, and is generally known as a Sunshine Cake. I wanted to do a Grand Marnier buttercream, so imagine my joy when a jaunt through epicurious.com not only provided me with a Gourmet Magazine recipe for Sunshine Cake with Citrus Butter Cream, but the buttercream recipe actually included Grand Marnier. Some things were just meant to be.

I made two 9 x 12 layers and changed up the Gourmet recipe slightly by spreading the bottom layer with orange marmalade (something you’ll find in a lot of the older Sunshine Cake recipes) before adding the first layer of buttercream. It was quite easy to add the edible photo, which I just had to trim down to fit so that I could add beer can candles (which I customized with tiny labels of Winged Lion Lager, the amber beer that Rick brews for St. Mark’s Episcopal Church on Capitol Hill).

So, the next time you’re faced with the prospect of a birthday cake, I am hoping that you’ll be inspired to make something original for that special birthday boy or girl. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the store-bought variety — I crave those Pepperidge Farm cakes every time I walk past them in the supermarket — but there’s a certain sense of accomplishment you’ll get out of the ooh’s and ahh’s that come with “You made that yourself?”

Here’s the recipe I used as the basis for Rick’s birthday cake:

Sunshine Cake with Citrus Butter Cream

If you’re looking for more cake inspiration, check out my friend Kim’s blog, Sweetly Savory. She makes very cool fancy cakes with fondant and other fun stuff.

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