Every year for my birthday my mom made me the exact same thing: simple yellow cake with chocolate icing. She’d make double deckers so there was always a layer of fudgy frosting in the middle. I’d eat a piece with breakfast, lunch, dinner, and for dessert–always accompanied with a tall glass of milk.
I’m on the left (I wasn’t kidding when I said I have had this cake my entire life), my mom is on the right. Uncanny resemblance, huh?
She is a firm believer in the you-can-add-anything-to-a-boxed-recipe-and-make-it-special mentality, which I completely support. Making things from scratch is a very recent development for me and–while I really enjoy it–I’d say I fall into that same category of bakers. I love the novelty of strange recipes that you can only make by taking individual ingredients and mixing them together in a very specific way, but I’ve realized that this process is for me, the maker, more than it is for the eaters. Did the big boys I lived with senior year notice that the cakes I made them came from boxes (with a few extra ingredients added)? They certainly didn’t care–judging by the mumbly mouth-fulls of ‘thank you’ and ‘this is the best cake I’ve ever had’–and there are a few things I’d like to say to the people who would care (namely, get over yourself and give me back my cake).
Then I went away to school and experienced my first birthday where I wasn’t surrounded by the faces I’ve known my whole life. My parents sent me a box with candy and a new dress for spring. My freshman year roommate (who would become my every-year-of-college roommate and my best friend in the whole world) wrote me the best birthday song (I should probably ask her permission before I post that bad boy on here), made sure to tell everyone we passed on campus that it was my birthday, and tricked me into coming to the student center where there was cake and smiling friends waiting for me. Needless to say, it was a wonderful day.
Without any kind of formal agreement, my group of friends in college faithfully rallied together to make a cake for every single one of our birthdays. They weren’t fancy, slaving-away-with-a-mixer-getting-flour-in-your-hair affairs. Just a group of girls who liked to tell their friends that they loved them. And that really, really liked to eat cake.
It wasn’t yellow cake with chocolate frosting at my circular kitchen table, but it was 7 girls eating funfetti on the floor straight from the pan. It was everyone gathering in my tiny dorm room to surprise me with better-than-sex cake (good lord) on my 20th birthday and miraculously having enough for breakfast the next morning. And it was perfect.
I haven’t always loved birthdays this much and I have never been a baker, but college instilled in me the firm belief that people need two things on their birthday: to know that they are special and baked goods.
Birthdays are getting stranger now though. When you’re little, every year is a triumph and just one step closer to getting to that elusive point of ‘God I wish I could just be this age because then I would be taller and my life would be so much cooler because I can hang out with boys/watch R rated movies/drive/drink/whatever magical clarity and awesomeness you thought being older had’.
But now we are getting ‘older’ and when this happens birthdays become something to be feared. Several of my friends are reaching the ‘quarter of a century old’ age and are teetering on the balance of wanting to ‘live it up while you’re still young’ and accepting the fact that what they really want is to go to bed early and not be hungover. It seems like everywhere I turn there are lists of ’20 things you learn in 20s’ or ’30 reasons why being in your 30s is actually better than being in your 20s’. I understand why people are so obsessed with and somewhat fearful of ageing. It means endings, changes, and being faced with the reality that times just moves far too quickly.
In exactly one month I turn 23. On the one hand, it is really strange that I’m not a child anymore. Nor am I an adolescent. But am I really an adult when the thing I’m most sad about this birthday is that I won’t be able to sing Taylor Swift’s “22” anymore with the same conviction?
A devilishly charming Scottish man once told me that there was nothing more lovely than a 28 year old American woman–presumably because she has a grace about her that balances youth with wisdom, restlessness and contentedness, ambition and acceptance. I’m not sure where the American part plays in, but I am holding onto that image with an iron grip. Mostly because it comforts me to remember that the increments of five–25, 30, 35–are not the only years that matter. They are ones we think about because who fantasizes (or has nightmares) about being 28? That is just an in-between year where you are basically 30. But then I think about how quickly life throws changes at you, how drastically people can grow in such a short time, and just how much can happen in a year.
And, in the end, a birthday means just that: another year. Some years are disproportionately filled with heartbreak, some are ‘transition’ years, some are uneventful, and some are life changing. But every year is an accumulation of memories, skills, laughs, and moments. 365 days of being alive–that is something to celebrate. And I will never stop celebrating the day that the people I love came into the world and another year of them being in my life. No matter how many candles are on the cake, you are never too old to feel special.
And so why baking, you ask? Aside from the social custom of a birthday cake, I think food is special because it warms you from the inside and also makes people gather, which is the best way to ensure that the birthday girl or boy is surrounded by people who love them (or at least want a slice of cake). Making people food is already somewhat thoughtful because it requires time and more money than you always think it will, but I also like to think about what particular cupcake would make the birthday recipient’s mouth water the most. What recipe do you hear and think ‘Oh! Yes! They would love this!’.
Wyatt was the first one my D.C. friends to get really drunk around the rest of us (don’t worry–we’ve taken turns being the drunkest girl at the party, but he was the first). He loves Gin and Tonics, but I was told that G&T cakes are temperamental and can easily become gross if not made just so. I also heard that baking with guinness is the key to dense, heavenly cakes and know that Wyatt shares my love for rumchata. So was born:
Guinness Cupcakes with Rumchata Frosting
The verdict? I am never making any chocolate baked good without guinness again and rumchata should be in everything. The recipe was slightly adapted from these Irish car bomb cupcakes. I nixed the whiskey ganache because I’m not that fancy yet and made the frosting with half as much butter and powdered sugar and twice as much cream liquor. It was boozy and wonderful.
A week later I had to make something where the recipe (or even the baking theme) was not so obvious. I want people to feel like their life is cherished regardless of how long I’ve known them and I had only met this particular birthday girl once (as it goes with your boyfriend’s roommate’s significant other). But she is a sweetheart and invited me to her birthday wine tasting that was to be followed by said roommate’s sister’s baby shower. So I knew I needed something that a lot of people could partake in–which meant lots of portions and a taste that was relatively generic. A certain cookie recipe had been on my to-make list for a while and, turns out, it worked perfectly.
These little dudes are versatile and easy as can be. I did bake them for too long–I never learn with cookies–so one of the batches was a little burnt. I also added toffee bits to give them a little something extra. Since they are so small, I also had the idea to dress up a few for the birthday girl. I’m not one of those people who thinks a of craft, whips out the markers and twine and produces something effortlessly cute on command so I was REALLY excited when this turned out the way I wanted it too. Just a quick pit-stop to World Market for some wrapping paper, twine, and an inexpensive mug makes for a better-than-average cookie carrier. In my opinion.
Since I’ve made the majority of my work friends’ birthday baked goods (Kate is my cooking comrade and has made most of them with me and taken over when I haven’t been able to bake) they keep joking that when my birthday finally rolls around, I am going to have a buffet of baked goods to choose from. All I really want to do for my birthday is see the new X-Men movie, but being surrounded by friends and a smorgasbord of desserts also sounds like a dream. It won’t be yellow cake with chocolate frosting, but I’m sure it will be just as sweet.