Love floats up from the sifted flour, clings to the raw sugar, pierces through the sharp scent of pure vanilla extract. Affection oozes out of every egg, dropping from cracked shells, wobbling and waiting. There is a deep abiding love in the softened butter, the kind that comes from grass fed cows grazing on verdant hills. It gleams in the quick whip and whir of the beaters, spinning fast and faster until the batter smoothes out. Love smears itself across their sweet faces, ranging from little girl to almost grown, tongues lapping molded plastic spatulas, fingers leaving tracks inside the scraped out bowl.
My mom made my birthday cakes until I was five. That year it was a vanilla double-decker, frosted pale pink and decorated with pastel-colored chocolate Smarties. There is a photo of me with my long hair pulled back in a half-pony tail wearing a full-length, floral, sleeveless dress. I’m clutching my hands over the to-be-lit candles in delight, my eyes bright and cheeky, like I might just dig in right there. The next year I had my birthday party at McDonald’s in a package deal that included the cake. By my next birthday, we’d moved to a different country, then another within the year. Birthday parties blur together – swimming one year, an outing to see Ice Castles another, a sleepover complete with ghost stories and Ouija board. Tasty sheet cakes came in cardboard boxes or in frozen layers from Carvel.
Above our childish heads, tension swirled. My dad did not like his boss. My mom traveled into the city to take classes and wasn’t at home as much. Meals were more simple and quick and didn’t always include all four of us at once.
Now, with three girls of my own, I know how hard it is to pursue self in the midst of motherhood. My mom persevered, and I often think of her courage and effort with wonder.
Mine is a different kind of effort. Every year I take birthday cake requests from each of my three daughters, whatever they want: flavor, shape, decorations, number of layers, frosting or glaze, individual or to share. I always make them from scratch and there is no challenge I will not tackle. Last week I baked an orange-almond three-layer cake for my middle daughter. It took most of the afternoon, grating the navel oranges, grinding the almonds, melting the chocolate for the icing into a saucepan gurgling with heavy whipped cream and butter.
I did not go back to work after my second daughter arrived, opting to stay home full-time. A few months in, ambivalence settled over me, and hangs there still: was this the right decision? I stir the pot patiently, knowing I still straddle that line between home and the world, between living in the permeable skin of motherhood and the tighter, more intimate skin of the woman I am beyond my children and also because of them.
I am a writer and reader, hiker and thinker, sister and friend, but without my girls, I might never have become the Birthday Cake Baker. I sift and mix, combine and stir. My love for my girls sits faithfully in the measuring cups, rises up in the oven, cools quietly on the metal rack. When they come home from school and see the cake, their eyes go wide with glee. The candles are lit, the songs sung, the wish made. The birthday girl cuts the first slice. I watch them eat with abandon, cake crumbing up the table and now the floor, frosting kissing their lips.
My love is sweet and sticky, a sugar bomb, an edible endearment. They joke and jockey for seconds and I am both startled and grateful that they are mine. Behind my smile is a twinge of sadness, too: they are growing up and away from me, leaving behind a space I am learning to fill with myself. Still, I know I will always make room to bake them each a birthday cake year after year for as long as they like.
Orange-Almond Cake with Chocolate Icing Recipe
via Bon Appétit
3 large oranges
2 cups plus 2 tablespoons all purpose flour
1 cup whole almonds
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups plus generous 1 tablespoon sugar
1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
4 large eggs
1 cup whole milk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
1 1/2 cups fresh orange juice
Additional whole almonds
Small orange-slice triangles
Fresh mint leaves
1 3/4 cups whipping cream
3/4 cup unsalted butter
6 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
4 1/2 tablespoons light corn syrup
16 ounces bittersweet (not unsweetened) or semisweet chocolate, chopped
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon (scant) almond extract
Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter three 9-inch-diameter cake pans with 1 1/2-inch-high sides. Dust with flour; tap out excess. Using vegetable peeler, remove peel (orange part only) in strips from oranges. Coarsely chop enough peel to measure 1/2 cup. Combine flour, 1 cup almonds, baking powder and salt in processor; blend until finely ground. Transfer to medium bowl. Place 2 cups sugar and orange peel in processor; blend until peel is finely minced.
Using electric mixer, beat butter in large bowl until blended. Add sugar mixture and beat until fluffy. Beat in eggs 1 at a time. Mix milk and both extracts in small bowl. On low speed, beat flour mixture into egg mixture alternately with milk mixture in 3 additions each. Divide batter among prepared pans.
Bake cakes until tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 25 minutes. Cool cakes in pans on racks 5 minutes. Turn cakes out onto racks and cool completely. Boil 1 1/2 cups fresh orange juice and remaining generous 1 tablespoon sugar in small saucepan until reduced to 1/2 cup, about 8 minutes. Brush warm juice mixture over tops of cooled cakes.
To prepare the icing, whisk whipping cream, butter, cocoa powder and corn syrup in medium saucepan over medium heat until butter melts and mixture comes to simmer. Remove saucepan from heat. Add chocolate and both extracts. Whisk until chocolate is melted and smooth. Refrigerate frosting until slightly thickened but still spreadable, stirring occasionally, about 45 minutes.
When cakes have cooled, place one cake layer, orange syrup side up, on cake platter. Spread one cup Chocolate Icing over the top. Top with second cake layer, then one cup icing. Top with third cake layer, syrup side up. Spread remaining icing over top and sides of cake. (Can be prepared one day ahead. Cover with cake dome and store at room temperature.) Arrange additional almonds, orange triangles and mint leaves around top edge of cake. Slice cake and serve.