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