What do you do when your oldest friend in the world hits a milestone birthday? For that matter, what do you do when anyone you really care about has a birthday?
You bake them a cake, that's what.
Presents are wonderful, of course: diamonds, ponies, Eastern European babies, and whatnot. Whatever your choice, the recipient of these gifts will be pleased that you took the time out of your busy schedule to honor them.
But a cake? I think cakes are much, much nicer, thank you. Not a store-bought cake, though they can be very good, but one you make yourself. Baking a cake requires planning, it requires effort, it requires the surrender of personal time and energy. And, best of all, it demands focus-- at least, it does for me. You just can't multitask when there's a cake in the oven depending on you. Of course, I'm sitting here at my desk writing about making birthday cakes while the cake is baking away, but I've got my timer on. Since I'm doing nothing but think about this cake as I type, I think it is entirely allowable.
When Squid's husband told me he was having a small get together for her birthday, my first thought was about the cake. "Do you already have something in mind for the cake?" I asked. When he said no, not yet, I asked if I could make it. So here I am, fretting away about a bunch of flour, sugar, and butter.
I had such grand plans for the thing. Two tiers, 35 years of inside jokes together manifested in marzipan, butterscotch, and chocolate. I had everything planned to the last detail. Or so I thought.
Things don't always go as planned when a person like me, who isn't in the practice of baking giant cakes, decides to do so on a whim. When there is math involved, my ideas tend to take a major hit or two. Butterscotch frosting? Oh, just double the given recipe. That should be enough. And it was, except for the fact that I needed about a half cup more powdered sugar than I had on hand. Ransacking one's pantry while the stand mixer is whirring away is not always the best idea. Fortunately, there was vanilla protein powder on hand, so the frosting is now enriched with iron, phosphorous, and good old fashioned soy protein to support the bone and cardiovascular health of those who will ingest it. God bless the ability to improvise.
Baking a big cake? Super, but I can now tell you that merely doubling the recipe for 9" round layer cake doesn't cut it for a 14" square one. Unless you just want one, perfect little layer, without filling. So I will run back to the store early tomorrow morning for more flour, butter, eggs, and vanilla. It serves me right.
But I don't mind one bit. I happen to enjoy making mistakes. Especially tasty ones. So what if I have to bake another layer for the cake tomorrow? There is much to be said for the satisfaction I feel when a tender, vanilla-perfumed cake is first pulled from the oven. When cooling on its baking rack, I see it as a yellowish canvas-- not quite blank, but mildly blistered and neutral, upon which I can go to town, as it were, in terms of creativity.
Protein-infused Butterscotch frosting studded with bits of brutalized toffee slathered in the middle of two layers of cake baked a day apart. I wonder if anyone will know which layer is newer? Hopefully, everyone will be too drunk on beer and sidecars to notice. A thin layer of the icing outside covered in a perfectly smooth coating of chocolate. At least I hope it will be perfectly smooth. Do wish me luck.
The decoration of the thing will be the trickiest part of all. My piping skills aren't what they used to be. My plan was to have a giant squid looking as if it were startled into squirting out the Birthday message in its ink. Trickier than I imagined, believe me.
Instead, I ended up with a squid that looks only mildly bothered. Perhaps I shall have more luck with the starfish.
What started out as an exercise in what I hoped to be flawless, quirky perfection has turned into an exercise in pinpointing my own, personal foibles and fortes (read: therapy). I had hoped to execute something beyond my own particular baking and sculpting abilities and have, so far, not done a terribly bad job at it, though it won't be the image of the perfect (for Squid) birthday cake I had in mind.
And I think that's just fine. In fact, I think she'll think that's just fine, too. Who turns down birthday cake? A birthday cake isn't always about perfection. Like I said earlier, it's about time and the offering of mental space and physical effort. And it's about love, if you hadn't gathered that already.
As I stood over the stand mixer, kicking myself for having to resort to adding protein powder in order to save the frosting, I had a Like Water for Chocolate moment. Was I about to add my own frustration into that frosting? Were my fellow party-goers going to take on my angst as well as a boost of muscle-building protein? I stepped back and thought about what I wanted that cake to say to Squid besides "Happy Birthday."
I took a moment to re-arrange my thoughts and then started speaking into the bowl of the stand mixer, saying things like:
Thank you for being my friend for thirty-five years. I'm glad you had good enough sense to marry my college roommate. Thanks for the wonderful, surprising godchildren. Thank you for correcting me when I call things "retarded" by telling me how "gay" that sounds. I'm sorry I punched you in the face in the 5th grade. Thank you for out-reading, out-writing, and out-drawing me. Thank you for letting me be a part of your family.
Just, well, thanks.
And I hope you love the cake, however it turns out.
Butterscotch Protein Frosting:
Frosts on 9" x 9" round layer cake. Double the amount for a 14" square cake. You do the math, since I can't.
1 cup unsalted butter
2 cups light brown sugar
8 tablespoons whole milk
3 1/2 cups powdered sugar
1/2 cup soy protein powder
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
a heavy pinch of salt
1. In a heavy-bottomed, medium-sized pan, melt the butter over low heat. Add brown sugar to the butter and bring to a bubbling boil, stirring constantly. Add milk and return to a boil, all the while stirring. About 2 to 3 minutes, or until the sugar has melted and the consistency is smooth.
2. Remove from heat and pour molten mixture into the bowl of a stand mixer with whisk attachment. Add vanilla and let cool to luke warm.
3. On the lowest speed, gradually add powdered sugar until all of your stash has been exhausted.
5. Rifle through pantry. Locate protein powder.
6. Hastily measure out powder and add to frosting.