Constancy of Cake

the Cake (ca. 2012)

“What kind of cake do you want for your birthday?”

It’s a rhetorical question, really; they all choose the same cake – every year. It’s a family tradition, after all. And while the cake changes just a little every year, I’m not sure they really know.

I used to use a cake mix. It was how we made cake growing up, and everyone in my family knew that the directions on the red box of Devil’s Food cake mix were more like suggestions, and were clearly wrong. In my family, we made cake without oil and with only one egg, the water taking the place of the rest of the oil in the recipe. So this is what I did when I was first married and found out that there is a specific birthday cake – one that include four layers and whipping cream and M&Ms. I used cool whip, because in my family I didn’t know the difference – I’m still not convinced anyone else knew the difference when we first started making this, either.

Over the years, I added in the oil, followed the directions, and found out that whipped cream is SO different than cool whip, and adds so much to this cake. While I found the oil made the cake more moist, my family was right, it wasn’t totally necessary for the cakes to be good.

More years, and a couple of kids, and I discovered Greek yogurt as an addition to cake mixes. Simultaneously making the cakes moist, and healthy (because clearly anything with Greek yogurt in it is more healthy – more like a muffin, really, and absolutely passes as breakfast. This change did make the cakes harder to layer, however, and so was short-lived in the birthday cake making.

Three kids, and older now – a shiny-eyed mom wanting to not only make things more healthy, but make them from scratch because than I would know exactly what was in the cake, and isn’t that what mom’s are supposed to do? I turned my back on cake mixes and discovered the world of test-kitchens and baking blogs: best pans, best butters, whole flours, bake times, temperatures, cooling racks…

And so the years have gone – recreating a cake that Scott ate as a child, and then that becoming THE birthday cake for four of us (mine has espresso and chocolate ganache…) Always the same cake, even if altered a bit each year.

Between birthday cakes, our life is chaos and we often wonder how it is exactly we’ve ended up the people living these lives we didn’t plan or expect – these days that never do end up how we thought they should – and in the end, are probably exactly what they need to be.

The answer: “Mom (with a bit of an eye roll, here) I want the cake” or, “Mom, duh (it’s still weird kids still say this, by the way – thought maybe that was a generational thing)”, or “If it’s okay….”

That answer is a lovely break from the chaos. A reminder that, whatever life unfolds, some of these traditions – silly, or no – stay constant. Some of these traditions provide a constancy to the lives we lead.

This year’s cake is made from scratch: Boiling hot water, dark chocolate, butter and brown sugar – flour and sour cream. Sometimes a cake mix is all I need to make sure this cake happens, but this year I wanted to enjoy the process of putting all the parts together – of watching them blend into the consistency of whipped pudding before baking.

I followed a recipe. Actually followed it. If you know me, you know this isn’t my M.O.:

I buttered the pans and dusted them with a thin layer of cocoa powder (this for chocolate cake, flour for white cake – it’s something I picked up on one of those baking blogs, years ago)

The cakes are beautiful so far. Cooling on the racks. waiting to be layered. The house smells lovely.

The whipping cream waits in the refrigerator – waits to be whipped – and the M&Ms are on the counter – so far unopened, but the day is young and it’s likely there will be less of them before they adorn the cake.

Today I’m thankful for all of these years; For each little change to the recipe. I’m thankful too, for each day in between the cakes – filled with chaos, and questions, doubt and uncertainty, but also filled with love and little moments that make each of us want to continue to stubbornly keep traditions, stubbornly keep adding to and diminishing the chaos, keep asking the questions, keep trying to alleviate the doubts and uncertainties.

So, of course I’ll make the cake. It’s tradition, after all.

Happy Birthday to the youngest, my Adrianna, now 14.

You are amazingly, exactly, who you are meant to be, and I love you every day.