Growing up I almost always celebrated my birthday twice – such is the life of the child in the modern (divorced) family. I didn’t mind, it stretched the day out and made for double party, double gifts and 2 cakes, leaving very little to complain about.
I had the sort of parents, both when they were together and even long after they were apart, who didn’t believe in treating children much differently than adults. I led a relatively independent and self-regulating childhood – no bedtimes, no particular discipline, and a lot of interaction with adults who spoke to me like I was a person, not just a kid. As a result I wasn’t particularly rebellious because there was little to rebel against. I was quiet, studious and creative and if I dare say so myself, fairly well behaved. It’s funny, but when I think back to being little, I almost don’t remember being a ‘kid’ in the way that I remember other children. I was horrified by kids who had tantrums or
who whined and made scenes. I was shocked by kids who talked back to their parents and were always skirting a spanking. I didn’t relate to my friends’ families when children were seen and not heard. In essence, I was raised as a small adult because the usual concessions for children weren’t made for me. One lack of concession that sticks out in my mind relates to cooking. I didn’t receive a less spicy version of dinner, or anything less odd or adult than what anyone else was eating. If I didn’t care for what was made for dinner I didn’t have to eat it, but when I was hungry later, I was welcome to finish my rejected dinner. This was in part, I’m sure, because we were not a wealthy bunch, so what was made for you was what you had, but the point is, there was no peanut butter and jam sandwich coming my way if I didn’t want to eat what everyone else had. I was intrigued to learn that at my friend’s houses they would get macaroni and cheese or microwaved pizza at the mere suggestion that they didn’t want fish, or curry, or whatever else might be on the menu. Likewise I always took an odd lunch in comparison to my peers; no fruit rolls ups and white bread sandwiches for me – my lunch kit boasted a greater variety of things from kimchee to kedgeree to leftover pastas filled with capers and garlic and other ‘kid unfriendly’ foods. In retrospect, I appreciate the diversity and the sense of reality that not being catered to gave me. Not only did I cultivate a palate that belied my tender age, it gave me a sense of being included – how sad it would have been to receive that peanut butter and jam sandwich while the grownups tucked into more interesting fare. How insulting it would have been to have my tastes and preferences presumed simply because I was young. I appreciate that I never heard the words “You won’t like it …” and instead heard “Try this!”.
My dad almost always made me one kind of cake for my birthday: a tall, delicately crumbed, lemon scented poppy seed chiffon cake. It was a simple beauty, carefully crafted in a straight sided angel food pan, lofty and golden with a freckled poppy seed interior that he’d frost in pale yellow, tart-sweet lemon butter cream. I recall how unpopular it was with my peers – the average child’s palate being more tuned to vanilla or chocolate, even the ubiquitous ‘yellow’ cake of so many childhood birthday parties. There was always a high percentage wasted, but I loved it and he faithfully made it, knowing that most of it would be scraped into the garbage, virtually untouched by other kids at the party. It is the kind of cake that is impressive in its stature, but humble in its flavour and texture. It has an old world charm to it and it is worth separating 8 eggs and hand whisking the whites. Thinking of it, I still consider that cake a labor of love.
My mother’s go-to cake was a world away from my father’s. It was a dark, chocolaty double layer cake from an old spiral bound recipe book that was filled with recipes to be made in a blender. To this day, that book is tattered and splattered, and the pages that hold that chocolate cake recipe are tinged with cocoa and have received many a smattering of the smooth, dark batter. Not overly sweet, that particular cake was moist and chocolaty and she always filled it with raspberry jam and frosted it with chocolate icing. Not the sort of cook or baker interested in tedious perfection, the icing was always simply swirled with the back of a spoon and rarely decorated with anything more than small birthday candles.
As an adult, I treat my birthday fairly simply: maybe dinner with some friends, or a bottle of something bubbly. Maybe I’m just getting old, but this year, I’m simply not fussed over my birthday. The one thing that I think I will make a point to do is bake a cake. You might be thinking that if it’s my birthday, I should take it easy, order the cake and be done with it, but I love baking and birthday cakes are always fun to make. I haven’t decided on just what kind it will be this year, but I will share with you here a fancier version of my mom’s birthday cake, a chocolate and raspberry confection that makes a statement and feeds a crowd – excellent if you’re in need of a relatively easy but impressive cake. As for that poppy chiffon, I recently came across the recipe, so stay tuned for that in the future.
Chocolate Birthday Cake
preheat the oven to 350°
¾ C vegetable oil
1 C plain yogurt
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 ½ C milk
2 Tbsp vanilla extract
2 ¼ C flour
2 ½ C sugar
1 C cocoa
2 tsp baking soda
pinch of salt
Grease and cocoa 2 8×2 inch cake pans. Set aside.
Whisk together the oil and eggs in a large bowl. Whisk until they are completely combined and emulsified (like making a salad dressing). Add the yogurt whisking to fully combine. Set aside.
In a measuring cup or small bowl, measure the milk and add the vanilla. Set aside.
Whisk together the dry ingredients. Once mixed, add ½ the dry mixture to the large bowl with the yogurt, oil and eggs. Stir to combine, adding ½ the milk mixture. Repeat with remaining dry and milk until the full batter is incorporated. Try not to over mix.
Divide the batter into your prepared pans and bake for 45 minutes at 350° or until a cake tester in the center comes out clean.
Cool in the pans on a wire rack for 5 minutes, invert and release cakes. Allow to cool completely before splitting, filling and frosting.
White Chocolate Raspberry Buttercream
2 cups of room temperature butter
4 cups icing sugar
¾ cup melted but slightly cooled white chocolate
2 Tbsp raspberry jam (strain out the seeds!) or use raspberry jelly
In a mixer, beat the butter for 6-8 mins until its really pale and fluffy. Add the sugar a cup at a time, beating for 2-3 mins after each addition. Add the jam, whip it up. Pour in the melted but not HOT white chocolate, beat until very fluffy and cool.
Wait until the cakes are COMPLETELY cool before splitting them with a long serrated knife. If the cakes have domed or gotten pointy at all, shave off the points so they are nice and even.
Lay out the 4 rounds of cake (2 bottoms, 2 tops), cut sides up. Spread 2 Tbsp raspberry jam on each cut side (the inside of each layer).
Take a bottom piece, jam side up and set it on the serving plate. Anchor it with a tsp of frosting so it doesn’t slide on the plate. Add a layer of frosting. Cap it with a cake “top”, jam side down.
Now your cake is half way built and it should be stacked like this:
Add jam to the top, then frosting, then the remaining cake TOP, jam side down.
Now it will be:
Add jam to the top, then frosting the remaining cake bottom, jam side down against the frosting. THIS SHOULD LEAVE YOU WITH A NICE, LEVEL, CLEAN TOP (because its actually the bottom of the bottom) Confused yet?
If the cake is slippery or the layer seem to slide apart, chill the cake and push some long bamboo skewers into it for support (trim the ends as needed)
Frost the entire cake with a thin layer of frosting (crumb coat) and chill for 30 mins.
Pipe, swirl or smear on the final layer of frosting! Ta da! Now get back to blowing up baloons!