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Birthday Cake


My mom has been baking birthday cakes from scratch since I turned one. During an intense spurt of house-cleaning last summer we found my baby book–the one where my height and weight were recorded each month, the date of my first steps, my first words. Tucked in the back of the pastel notebook were loose pages from a legal pad of journal entries my mom wrote during that first year of my life. One of those yellow pages was smudged with flour and dated a few days before my first birthday. It tells of my mom’s frustrations baking and icing a cake from scratch for a child who didn’t even know what a birthday was. But, she wrote, it was all worth it when the cake was placed before me and I looked up and said, “For me?” From that point on she swore to always make us our birthday cakes. As a kid I sometimes found her a little too true to her promise. My cousin used to get these gorgeous Barbie cakes for her birthday from a local bakery–the kind with an actual Barbie doll whose dress was made of cake and icing. I was never one for playing with barbies but I really wanted one of those cakes. One year we tried to make our own–it was a valiant but futile effort. Hard to compare to Servatii‘s.

Today is my grandpa’s 80th birthday and I was tasked with baking his birthday cake. I feel like the cake should measure up to the occasion which should measure up to the honoree and the life he has lived. I chose my mother’s white birthday cake recipe given to her by a friend. It’s a hassle because it involves about six bowls and every baking utensil available, but it is so good. It’s a dense vanilla cake, stacked in three layers, and topped with rich butter-cream icing. I was so nervous about making this cake. It was humid out, and as my friend Hilary will tell you, you just can’t make a meringue when it’s raining, about to rain, just rained, or is going to rain any time in the next week. The oven shelf was apparently slanted because all three layers came out with the same malformations. And then my frosting wasn’t doing what I wanted it to, which caused the cake to look a bit lumpier than I would have liked. Luckily I managed to repair that later on. I was pretty paranoid about the final product.

As it turned out, the cake was a big success. Everyone loved it. Even my grandpa. But it didn’t really matter. Even if it had been inedible there was still a monstrous amount of food. And even if there hadn’t been tons of tasty things to eat, that room was so full of a very powerful love for my grandpa that none of us actually needed a meal as an excuse to be there. For the first time in a long time my grandparents were in the same room with all four of their sons and daughters-in-law, all fifteen of their grandchildren, plus some siblings and cousins and friends on the side. In the twenty+ years that I have known him, my grandpa has always been a solid and inspirational fixture in my life and in the lives of my cousins. His smile is radiant and I know it has touched so many others. My grandpa has always been so proud of his family and I am always so proud to be his granddaughter.

Being on the other side of the birthday-cake-from-scratch baking process, I understand why it was so important to my mom to pour so much energy into that cake for my first birthday. Even if he hadn’t eaten a bite (for the record, he ate his entire slice), that cake was just my way of showing him my love in a deliciously edible form.

4 egg whites
1/2 cup sugar
1 cup sour cream
1/2 cup milk
1 tsp vanilla
3/4 cup butter
1 cup sugar
2 3/4 cups flour
3 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
3/4 tsp salt

Bowl 1: using 4 egg whites and 1/2 cup sugar, beat with an electric mixer to make meringue.

Bowl 2: mix sour cream, milk, and vanilla.

Bowl 3: combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.

Bowl 4 (large): cream butter and 1 cup sugar. Add to this by alternating the flour mixture and sour cream mixture. Fold in the meringue.

Pour batter into three 9″ round cake pans. Bake 25 minutes in a 350° oven.

Butter-cream Frosting
From Birthday Cakes for Kids

6 cups powdered sugar, sifted and divided
3/4 cup butter or margarine, softened
1/4 cup shortening
6 to 8 tablespoons milk, divided
1 tsp vanilla

Combine 3 cups powdered sugar, butter, shortening, 4 tablespoons milk, and vanilla in a large bowl. Beat with an electric mixer until smooth. Add remaining powdered sugar; beat until light and fluffy, adding more milk, one tablespoon at a time, as needed for good spreading consistency. Makes about 3 1/2 cups.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Nikki Fisher permalink
    05/28/2010 12:34 AM

    Jess, as you likely know there are many things I try to do or want to do…you and I are just ambitious in that same way. So obviously I want to read your lengthy emails from Ecuador and your cooking blog etc. but I don’t generally get around to it sadly…I read this one though and I just want you to know that this was beautiful and special and I hate vanilla cake but I loved this recipe and how food becomes a living metaphor of the things represented in each dish you create. I love you big sis 🙂

  2. 06/11/2010 11:20 PM

    Thank you for all the great posts! This one is explicit. I look forward to reading more interesting topics.

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