An Ode to Birthday Cake for my 21st Birthday


No matter how much I love cookies, when it’s my birthday, I want cake.  Preferrably several layers and decked out in frosting.  While cake is not a dessert I normally crave — besides the oversized, over-frosted specimens from Crumbs, I never did understand the cupcake trend — it is a non-negotiable for a celebration.

Unfortunately, cakes are far from simple.  Whether multi-layered, baked in an usual sized-pan or frosted with a tricky-textured icing, making a cake seems like a roadmap to pitfalls.  There’s a reason that cake balls and cake pops are popular; it’s too easy to ruin a cake.  Trust me, I’ve made a few too-many batches of were-going-to-be-a-layer cake cake balls.  Don’t worry, those are good.  They might not be what you want for your birthday, but they will no doubt satisfy your little-kid sweet tooth.

People make layer cakes seem so easy, don’t they?  You see them on every blog, perfectly frosted.  You see layer cakes lining the shelves at average bakeries, gracing the cover of many a magazine and perfectly turned out on cooking shows.  When I began my baking journey, I thought making a cake had to be easy.  After all, didn’t every mother make a gorgeous layer cake like this for their child’s birthday?  I know my mother certainly rose to the challenge of giving me dream-worthy cakes, but as I began baking more and more, I realized that there was a great misconception surrounding the world of cake-crafting.

Baking the cake might not be hard.  Crafting a layer cakes is one of the hardest things you are going to do in the world of American baking.  Harder than making feather-light biscuits.  Harder than making a perfect pie crust and most definitely harder than making a crave-worthy chocolate chip cookies.

So, how do you do it?  Is it possible for everyone to make a beautiful birthday cake?  Yes, it most certainly is.  You may have to adjust your expectations a little bit, but no matter what your baking skill, you can make a beautiful birthday cake for someone you love.  Gobs of frosting including.

Cakes, like cookies, have different cultural manifestations, but the basic formula remains remarkably similar.  Yellow cakes can be made in different heights, with different sweetnesses but if you’re looking for a homey unfrosted variety, you’ll find one no matter where you search.  You could try this cute American cake, or perhaps you’re more interested in a icing-sugar dusted British tea-cake.  There are elegant French cakes for le gouter and unbelievably sweet varieties in Italy.  Frosting may not be present — and if it is, it may be as hard as a rock like with an English cake — but the body of the treat is the same.

Just like I grew up with American cookies, I grew up with American cakes and want the mile-high varities when I crave a slice.  There are unbelievably rich death-by-chocolate or devil food’s cake varieties that remind me of some of my more chocolate-obsessed friends.  Then there are those funfetti ones that I saw in cupcake form when kids brought them for their birthdays at school (rememeber in those days when you were still allowed to bring cake to school before everyone was gluten-free/afraid of sugar/watching their child’s weight?) or the boxed cakes that I got on my birthday when I became old enough to ask for it.  I dream of crafting cakes as involved as this one and I am slowly baking my way through the Momofuku Milk Bar cookbook.

Cakes, for me, are about celebration.  Their looks may impress, but it’s the excitement they elicit that stays with you.  I think so many bakers are eager to make their own cakes because the process involved in crafting a cake is more entertaining than the actual cake eating.

I might not be able to bake myself a cake for my birthday on, or even around the day (when I do make myself a birthday cake, I will be making this one), but I won’t be searching for a substitute.  My birthday cake and frosting isn’t about flavor, but about taking part in a tradition, in a celebration.

Oh, and, another surprising celebration.  This post, my 500th post (how did we get here, can someone please explain?), happens to be my first post as a 21-year-old.  I know, I’m pinching myself as well.  More about the weekend’s celebrations to come!

Do you like cake?  What’s your favorite celebration dessert?


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