Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Birthday Cakes

Photo: A Martha-Stewart inspired cake for my mother

I love birthdays, especially other people’s birthdays. One of my earliest memories involves my grandmother’s birthday. My parents had decided to throw a surprise party for her, and they felt to make it a true surprise, they had to act as if they had forgotten her birthday altogether. To my innocent sensibilities, their plot bordered on cruel and unusual punishment, certainly not deserved by my grandmother who lived with us, cared for us, and always, always, always remembered everyone else’s birthday. So, with the craftiness of the very young, I got up as soon as I heard my grandmother in the bathroom, knocked at the door with feigned urgency, and spilled the beans. I can still remember sitting on the edge of the commode, swinging my restless little legs,  telling her that she shouldn’t worry, we didn’t forget her birthday, we were going to have a party, and the cake was hiding in the dining room in the china closet.

Even that young, I knew the essence of a good birthday was a wonderful cake, a fantasy of frosting and filling. One year, my mother made a pound cake completely covered in butter cream flowers. She set the bar for the birthday cakes I wanted to make. They had to be beautifully crafted. They had to have a theme, a theme that matched the birthday boy or girl. And, most of all, they had to be delicious.

I soon took on the challenge of baking birthday cakes myself. My mother made everyone else’s cake, and it seemed inherently unfair that her cakes should come from a bakery. It didn't matter that I was only thirteen. It was well past time that my mother should get a home-made cake. So, with secrecy in mind, I asked my father to take my mother shopping while I baked for my mother. She always made chocolate cakes, but she herself preferred vanilla, so I decided to make a vanilla concoction with a lemon filling. I called my mother’s Aunt Jean to get her famous recipe for butter cake. I combed through my mother’s worn cookbook for a recipe for a lemon filling. I was ready.

The cake itself wasn’t that hard to make, even if I used every bowl in the kitchen. While I waited for it to cool, I started on the filling. The recipe said to "cook until thickened, about five minutes." With very little experience in what a “thick” filling looked like, I stirred for over an hour without it achieving the desired consistency. I put the cake together carefully, frosted the cake with white icing, wrote “Happy Birthday Mom” crookedly on its face with Wilton’s decorator’s icing from a tube, and waited for the applause when dessert was finally served.

The applause never came. The filling had hardened to a cement-like consistency, and only one of my five brothers was even willing to taste this excuse for a birthday cake. Not only was this a cake with a shape only a mother could love, it tasted terrible.  It was bad in every sense of the word. Did that stop me? No! I kept baking, and with experience and cake-decorating classes, I'm the official family cake maker, especially for my mother's birthday.

To this day, the most popular birthday choice is my mother's famous devil's food cake. Here's the recipe:

Mom's Devil's Food Cake 
3 cups flour 
2 cups sugar 
1 cup cocoa 
2 teaspoons baking soda 
1 teaspoon salt 
1 ¼ cup vegetable shortening 
1 cup boiling water 
1 cup buttermilk 
2 large eggs 
1 teaspoon vanilla   

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour two 9-inch cake pans. Sift the dry ingredients into a large bowl. In a smaller bowl, pour the boiling water over the shortening and allow the shortening to melt and the mixture to cool slightly before adding it to the dry ingredients. Add water and shortening and remaining ingredients to the dry ingredients. Mix until thoroughly blended (2 minutes with a hand mixer). Pour an equal amount of batter into each of the prepared pans. Bake for 25 minutes, or until the cake begins to pull away from the sides of the pans and a toothpick comes out clean. Frost with your favorite icing. The cake can also be baked in a 9x13 inch pan, increasing the baking time to about 45 minutes.


  1. this cake looks fantastic, with a professional photographer it could easily have been in a martha book ;) have you ever looked at her book Baking Handbook, she has her signature birthday cake in there that has little spiked meringues all over it, here it is online http://www.marthastewart.com/recipe/marthas-birthday-cake?autonomy_kw=marthas%20birthday%20cake&rsc=header_2

    love your blog,

  2. Oh Linda, isn't it wonderful that you had the love and passion to want to please your wonderful mom and at the same time the determination to pursue the art of baking? I think all your friends and the poker night crew will applaud your cooking delights.
    I enjoyed the memoir and I could actually see that cake! Keep going , girl!