The first one had to be perfect. Even the recipe said so. Three made from scratch layers sandwiching mounds of freshly whipped filling and covered in frosting hand whisked over ice, it required seventeen different ingredients, an intimidating array of kitchen appliances, and, as the recipe title—Perfect Chocolate Cake--indicated, a flawless result.
It wasn’t a cake a rookie ever should have attempted, but it was my daughter’s first birthday, and I thought that a big culinary win somehow upped my stock as a competent, nurturing, talented mother. Substandard results somehow seemed to indicate other deficiencies, as well.
In a tactical error, I had decided to do the baking in my grandfather’s kitchen, as we were in the middle of a move and I didn’t have any of the aforementioned fancy gadgets, anyway. The trouble started while layers one, two, and three were in the cooling stages and I began to whip the filling. It was a warm day, and the cream was a bit touchy. I managed to curdle the first two attempts, and I believe that the third carton of heavy cream that the corner market sold me was probably their last.
My grandfather, an accomplished baker, desperately wanted to get involved. I desperately wanted to do it myself. My grandfather dissolved into a stream of rapid-fire Italian. I muddled on, wondering how Perfect Chocolate Cake had gone so horribly wrong.
It’s hard to pin down exactly how it happened. It may have had something to do with the cream, but I think more likely it was the icing. A miscalculated gesture brought the entire process to a screeching halt as one of the cooling layers tumbled from the counter and on top of my daughter’s head.
I don’t remember her subsequent birthday cakes quite so vividly. In fact, there are some I can’t recall at all. The one thing about which I’m confident is that not a single one was anywhere near perfect in the culinary sense.
There was the pair of round cakes that I fashioned into “medals” for her Olympic-themed sixth birthday party, the one on which she woke up sick and I had to call her rather expansive guest list to postpone. I fretted over the fate of the cakes, which turned out fairly well, considering my demonstrated lack of skill with the icing medium. I wrapped them up and popped them in the freezer, worried about serving up week old frozen cake when The Games resumed. But my husband encouraged me to shelve my perfectionism alongside the cake, promising it would turn out just fine. And it did, almost perfectly, in fact. The guests appeared, the cake was served, and if anyone could tell it was a week old, it certainly wasn’t me. Perfect Frozen Cake was exactly right for birthday number six.
Then there was the party with the 70s theme, likely birthday number nine. The cakes that year were shaped like little punch bug cars, and they existed only because of a big cake mistake a few weeks earlier when my traditional Easter bunny cakes went traditionally ,wrong and my friend Kathy said they looked like punch bugs. So I made Kathy a pair of vintage vehicles for her birthday, a couple weeks later, and then for my daughter, a month after that. They were slightly lumpy, and I suspect the gel icing on the Flower Power paint job may have ran a bit, but it didn’t matter. Perfectly Repurposed Cake was the hit of the party.
I recall a handful of Perfect Cake re-dos, mostly in the single digit years, when I still felt some sort of pressure for the ordeal to become a time-honored tradition. I tried a reprise the year she turned 13, but by then she was able to explain to me that chocolate isn’t her favorite anyway. About that time she heard a story about a favorite birthday confection my friend Kathy, of punch buggy fame, enjoyed for some years. Dubbed “Icebox Cake,” the dessert wasn’t much more than layered graham crackers and pudding that hung out all afternoon in the freezer. Turned out that for birthday number 13, no cake at all was just Perfect.
Of other cakes, I remember less: I seem to recall a fish at five, and a poorly rendered music note for her fifteenth birthday. There was a disaster last year when her best friend got involved and a recreation of a recalled cake from another party was served, and turned out like a chunk of pure sugar. As if in unison, the assembled guests took a bite and immediately stampeded to the veggie tray. I have never seen anything like that at any party I have attended, ever, nor do I ever recall quite so much laughter at a birthday party. Chunk-O-Sugar Cake? Perfect.
Today, my baby turns 19. 1-9. I’m painfully aware that my era of making her birthday cakes may be drawing to a close. Although I hope and plan to be making her a cake every June 4th until she’s at least 70, I know life doesn’t always work that way. So much of our future is unclear from here. For now, she lives here, with me, in the home in which she’s grown, learned, loved, and been loved. But next year? And the next? It scares me to say I just don’t know.
What I do know is that no matter how cake 19 turns out, it is destined to be perfect. Not only because I’ve learned that fancy and complicated aren’t always the recipe for perfection, or because I’ve learned to find beauty in imperfection, or even because I've learned that good parenting has nothing to do with bakery-quality cakes—although all are true. Today’s cake will be perfect because at the time when I’m feeling so nostalgic, and scared, and uncertain about life with a grown up daughter, she asked me to make a cake that lets me hold on to her child-like side for at least another year. What my daughter wants most today is a Toy Story cake.
And all I can say is that idea most definitely has a friend in me. Perfect Pixar Cake—here we come!
Happy birthday, Allison. I love you!