- Brandi Bradley
Extra birthday cake
The reason I don’t make weight loss or food-related New Year’s Resolutions is that we have too many birthdays in January. Everywhere we turn, someone else is having a birthday. It’s a parade of cakes and pizza.
For W.’s birthday, I have a tendency to test new types of birthday cakes. He never asks for anything complicated; I usually feel the need to kick it up a notch.
As I once queried Hubs, “This is how I’m extra, isn’t it?”
“Yeah. It is.”
In the past, we've purchased cakes from Walmart and Kroger, with cartoon action figures on the top. I asked a friend to make his first birthday cake, a Mickey Mouse-shaped head with a fondant strip of movie film across it because we asked everyone to bring a DVD of their favorite Disney movie as the theme. But usually, I like to be the one to make his cakes.
Probably because my grandmother always made my birthday cakes for me and they were somewhat extravagant for the 1980s and 1990s. She was a woman who took a class in cake decorating and turned it into a side hustle. She did the same thing with flowers and became a self-made wedding planner. Many Friday nights I would sit next to her and watch her twirl frosting into little roses that I was not about to eat under threat of death. By watching her, I knew how to separate eggs, load pastry bags, and dip a knife in water to make a smooth frosting top. But she would never let me help because a bride was not going to find my first attempts cute on her special day.
One year, W. asked for a cookie cake from the store. I said, “How about a layered cookie cake?” and showed him a photo I’d seen on Pinterest when I entered “cookie cake”. I made it. It looked gorgeous. It tasted good. Impossible to slice. I hadn’t considered that. I hacked through it and served his friends all three layers of cookies and frosting and these sweet kids couldn’t even finish it.
One year, I asked what kind of cake he wanted, and he didn’t know. I handed him my phone, loaded up Pinterest, and told him it might inspire him. It did. He picked out a French Silk cake with drip ganache over the top. It required me to purchase a springform pan, search for gelatin sheets, and use my food processor. It was a two-day affair and I was terrified that it wouldn’t be set up. It was so freaking good.
This year he asked for a chocolate cake. A simple chocolate cake. But, of course, I had to kick it up a notch. I suggested an espresso chocolate cake in honor of his love of coffee. He loved that idea. Off I go to the Internet. I found a blogger who had replicated a chocolate espresso layer cake with two different styles of fillings, chocolate buttercream, and another ganache drip top. I was excited to do it and make it. It was going to take two days at least. But the day got closer and closer and I realized that I was being ridiculous. I was going to make a cake for eight for a family of four, one of whom doesn’t like coffee and has cut back on sugar. I changed course.
I made Martha Stewart’s One Bowl Chocolate Cake. I swapped the hot water for stovetop espresso.
Behr wanted to help decorate. We rimmed the edge with chocolate-covered espresso beans and planned to write Happy Birthday in red decorator’s frosting, but the little tube we purchased was red gel frosting. We tested it and didn’t like how the gel looked on the chocolate backdrop. Instead, we loaded up the top of the cake with more beans and Hershey’s kisses.
Behr’s telling me, “It’s too much!” and I tell him, “It’s never too much!”
It was too much.
Not that it wasn’t a good cake, but after we ate it, I picked it apart like I was a judge on The Great British Bake Off. Your sponge was tough. I liked the flavors. It was style over substance. Maybe I had a few regrets that I hadn't made the two-day fancy cake with the multiple layers to keep it moist.
Behr was a harsher critic. While we were eating cake and watching The Goonies, he whispered to me, “I don’t know a nice way to say this… it’s … I can’t eat it.”
I told him he didn’t have to, and he instead ate all the candy from his piece and my piece. Later I told him the polite way to tell someone you don’t want to eat their masterpiece is simply to say, It’s great, but I’m so full.
W. who is not my worst critic was still eating on it the next day and said, “I now know I don’t like chocolate-covered espresso beans.”
“Well, we all learned something.”
And I am also fighting the urge to replicate the cake. Make it stronger, better. I could use the Barefoot Contessa recipe, cut the time from 30 minutes to 28 minutes, poke holes in the cake and soak it in espresso. But you don’t get redos of birthdays and they don’t have to be perfect. I’ll take notes on this one and recall the chocolate cakes of birthdays past.
I doubt I will stop being extra.