October 13, 2010

Birthdays, Fairy tales, and Family

My nephew turned nineteen last week. Can you believe it? He and his mother have lived with me since he was five years old. That means it’s fair to say, “Mickey has two mommies.” Imagine two strong women joining households and you'll have a general sense of the challenges we face creating family. We’re aware of each other’s personal space yet just like marriage, we tread on one another’s toes before noticing they were barefoot and we were wearing boots.

This time, the problem-to-be-resolved was Mickey’s birthday cake. I assumed it was my responsibility to make the cake since my sister doesn’t bake. She buys. She assumed it was her responsibility to buy the cake because who cared if it was homemade or not? Once our assumptions were in the open, we discussed the taste of bought cakes, the limited availability, the banality of bought cakes, why homemade cake is better than bought cake, and chapter two in Cloud and Townsend’s pivotal book on Boundaries.

After dialoging about giving respect and dignity to bought cakes and bought cake buyers, we meandered down memory lane, recalling the special times we had as a family, when making the cake was more fulfilling than eating it. Most of the time, we couldn't remember what the cake looked like when it was finished. We only remembered the process and how we laughed and cried and got mad at each other and ran to the store for an emergency bag of powdered sugar to fill up the center of a sagging cake. After reminiscing about everything that happens in the family kitchen on a birthday, we finally made a decision. I would make the cake. Why?

1) I have the most experience (Seniority rules)

2) I laugh at my failures (less anxiety and stress)

3) I love working with people (so I can blame them, ha!)

4) Homemade cake is cheaper than bought cake (winning argument)

5) The meaning is in the process

For every birthday celebration since my children were born and that goes back thirty-plus years now, my cake-making skills have been put to the test. Whatever the kids wanted, their wishes were my command. They might not have an expensive gift in fancy paper but they had a fancy cake on the table.

The birthday cake was often held together with skewers and toothpicks, the worst side being hidden from the child basking in the glow of colorful candles dripping wax on icing. What's to worry about? Frosting marbled with wax never concerned me much. The kid blowing germs and cooties all over the icing was a bigger health risk than wax would ever be.

This year, my nephew wanted a chocolate cake with chocolate icing and chocolate-dipped strawberries arranged on top. He wanted fresh fat strawberries like the ones he says guys give girls on Valentine’s Day. The kinds of chocolate covered strawberries guys give girls when a guy needs to apologize for saying something stupid.

Kids are definitely more gourmet than they were a couple of decades ago. Back then, a request for strawberries meant sculpting sugary marzipan to ‘look’ like real fruit. (Which leads me to a clever idea. If you can’t get your kids to eat their peas and cauliflower, buy some marzipan. Then you can tell your narcissistic mother how much YOUR kids love eating YOUR homemade vegetables. They love fruit and vegetables soooooooo much in fact, they eat them on top of birthday cakes.)

I have made Barbie dolls in cake skirts, Teddy Bears sitting upright, plastic clowns lifting a second layer of cherry cake, and castles with entry doors made of chocolate bars. Whatever the child wanted, my job was to make their wish come true! I took a college course in cake decorating back in the 1970’s and who could have predicted Fancy Cakes would be as popular as they are today? I shoulda opened a cake bake shop but on second thought, my kids might have gone cakeless if this cliché is true: the baker’s kids have no cakes. What a sad story that would be if this cake baker's children had no cakes.

Once upon a time.......there was an old woman who made cakes for kings but never made even one lousy cupcake for her own children. One day, while scurrying to the bakeshop (her bakeshop was built in an old shoe a giant had left behind in his haste climbings beanstalks), she realized how foolish she had been. She ran back to her kitchen as fast as she could and grabbed her largest mixing bowl. The one with purple stripes painted on the outside and yellow daisies encircling the rim. She made a cake. Her finest cake with raisins and cinnamon and only the best of ingredients reserved for royalty. When it came out of the oven, she called to her children of which there were many, including tiny Tim and the Matchbook Girl; but nobody came. All the old women’s children had run away with the Gingerbread boy and were eaten up by a sneaky fox promising to carry them across the river to a franchised bakeshop in a building, not a shoe.

When I told this story to my sister, she offered to warm the oven and crack open the eggs. Just kidding! My sister didn't really offer to warm the oven or crack the eggs.

She ordered and bought the pizza though.

A great time was had by all,



  1. Happy Birthday to your nephew.

    Two favourite birthday cake stories -- one, my father who loved to bake, baked me a cake and the dog licked the icing off one whole side but no one noticed until after I blew out hte candles and the lights went up.

    the other, my sister bought me a cake and had the baker inscribe it with happy Birthday Louise.

    Except, Louise was misspelt and when I blew out the candles and turned on the lights, I noticed -- Happy Birthday Lousie.

    uh huh.

    And I'm sure she didn't do it on purpose :)


  2. Hello CZ,
    Love the story & Homemade cakes definitely Rock! I enjoy the challenge of creating something more grand than the year before. I love learning and applying a new skill that I previously did not have before to each new cake design. The cakes have progressed from flat horizontal to three layer vertical (a layer for each year of D's life). This year I was thinking of using four different layers w/four different flavors for D's requested Strawberry Shortcake theme. I was actually entertaining the thought of making four different cakes w/four different flavors & colors to go along with the different Flavor Friends of Strawberry Shortcake. I enjoy planning ahead, purchasing the tools & supplies and drawing out the design of the cake. I am getting excited about all the possibilities, and wouldn't you know. . . . . . . . . . . .
    D tells me recently, "Mommy I would like Strawberry Shortcake Cupcakes" Yikes! I thought there goes all my special plans, until. . . . . . . . . . .
    I realized that I can do the cupcakes for D's pre-K class and Sunday School classes and a cake or cakes for her actual b-day party w/friends & family. My H & I recently had a conversation like you and your Sis about store bought vs homemade cupcakes, so far homemade cupcakes are winning out--maybe as the day gets closer I might change my mind! Another opt. is to do a variation of what my Sis does which is to buy a store bought cake and add her own directions. I might do this w/the cupcakes for D's Sunday School class where there is 30 kids in the class. D loves to bake & decorate and even has her own little apron and chef's hat. It is our special Mama & D moments & memories that make the homemade cake/cupcake/cookie creations priceless.

  3. Oh CZ,
    What a wonderful story! Thank you.

    I remember fancy cakes and Christmas fudge, and like the baker's children we witnessed many a cake. Oh, we did get a PIECE, but the rest sat high on top of the fridge, where the switches lay, daring us to do more than gaze upon it.

    I met an old Indian when I was 15. I told her about the cakes and fudge. She made me an entire tub of fudge, put it in her basement, and told me to have at it. She had also let me stand there and eat the hot chocolate as she cooked it. It was all mine. Eat child, she said, eat chocolate 'til you can't eat anymore. (So I did)

    For nearly three days, I'd go down those stairs and eat the most wonderful fudge in the world. The other kids in that house said Ma, why does she get to go down there? They knew the shelves held apple butter and pear butter, but they didn't know about the large pans of fudge.
    Leave her alone she told them. That child has been deprived!

    My belly swelled high and oh I was sick, but I've never forgotten, how special I felt to have that fudge at my fingertips.

    The old lady said to me -- now you will never indulge in sweets child, because you have had your fill.

    Happy Birthday to your nephew!

    I believe he is a very lucky young man.

  4. How fun to talk about Birthday Cakes anf fairytales and dogs. Two true blue dog lovers on this list and LettingGo might be a dog lover, too!

    You must love dogs if they can lick the icing off your cake and not get shot. Hey, i grew up on a farm. Life can be cruel. ;(

    Maybe I'll post the recipe for this cake. It was fabulous. And best of all, it tasted even better a day later so you can make it up to two days ahead and it's still delicious! I love 'make ahead' recipes.

    I took a picture of it with my iphone so it could be posted on my blog. It's not a great picture so no need to worry about someone stealing the image, ROFL. I'll get that done in a couple of days!

    Thanks for commenting! We had such a great time on his birthday, it's so lovely to SHARE the good times (since i'm more than willing to share the 'bad'. )


  5. Dear Dogkisses,

    I had to comment specifically on your all-you-can-eat-fudge story because it touched my heart so!

    Descending to the basement for large pans of free chocolate was such a beautiful metaphor. Thank you...

    My nephew is very lucky, this is true. Not many kids end up in a home that is willing to suffer growing pains along with the child. He doesn't intend on leaving anytime soon, either. Must be all that free sugary chocolate stacked on basement pantry shelves.

    'We' are very lucky, too. Lucky he came into our lives and opened our hearts in ways we might never have experienced without him.


  6. Yes, I am a dog lover too. When we had to euthanize my little dog, due to vets rec. My H & I agonized over the decision, because ending her pain meant beginning ours. She was the closest thing to a child for us. We were very devastated and I can not imagine the pain parents go through at the death of their child.

    I love Dogkisses story and how the Kind Elder Woman said, "now you will never indulge in sweets child, because you have had your fill." There is much truth to that. When you escape the KoN you realize that you can indulge in the LOL rather than in sweets -- still working on that one!

    CZ I would love to see the pic and have the recipe. If I can get started on the CupCakes two days earlier that would be awesome!

  7. Hi CZ,

    I hope your nephew is enjoying his last year of being a teenager. You are so loving to acknowledge what he has brought into your life.

    I'm glad you liked the story. I liked sharing it. It's a fond memory I have. The woman later became my Ma-in-law.

    Thanks for the place to share too.

    ruff ruff...


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