The birthday ‘cake’ is irrelevant. The birthday resides in the frosting. It lives in those artful swirls of decadent, nearly too-sweet butter and sugar, which nestle number candles. Cake without frosting is a muffin. When frosting appears, the bacchanal begins, spinning your thoughts away from another year of inexorably unfolding routines.
Now, let’s make something clear: a good birthday cake does not have icing. Icing is hard and brittle, akin to plasticky fondant without that amusing gummy texture. Icing coats pre-packaged character cakes. Frosting is soft and slightly spongy with the supple creaminess of fluffy soft-serve ice cream. Frosting graces grocery store sheet cakes as extraordinary coloured roses. Unlike hard, assertive icing, frosting spreads a veneer of sugared agreeability over the birthday procession.
Frosting and icing hide identical cakes, a reminder that the birthday is an ordinary day, wrapped up in fancy paper. The white cake, the yellow one or the chocolate one — they’re all the same under a blanket of pudding-like frosting. The podcast Spilled Milk agrees: box the cake, but give us margarine-free frosting to coat our birthdays in positivity. If a breakfast muffin is a non-frosted cupcake, then it’s the job of buttercream, ganache, and cream cheese frosting to elevate the birthday from the quotidian.
Despite its importance, quality frosting is rare. The balance between sweet, fat and flavour should permit each component to speak, but prevent any single element from dominating. Too much butter and you’re eating cake topped with a taste-less oil slick. Too much sugar and you’ll drain the milk carton during dessert. Too much flavouring — lemon, let’s say — and you might as well have made pie. If cake tempers the angst of aging, frosting maintains the birthday equilibrium, reminding the newly older self of joyous birthdays past.
When birthday time rolls around, the question isn’t what kind of cake you want, but how to eat your frosting. The cake is inevitable — an excuse to celebrate — but the frosting imbues the party with giddy nostalgia. Aging happens on a rolling daily basis, punctuated by the birthday and all its sentimental practices. Finding balance, choosing quality, savouring the indulgence: this creates the difference.