I realize that given the sheer number of two and three-layered, springform-bound and buttercream-shellacked celebration cakes I keep in the archives, you’d imagine that I had some pretty spectacular birthday cakes growing up. You’d be correct, but they were almost never homemade, not because I was suffering from cake-neglect, but because the only one I requested every year for my birthday was an ice cream cake, preferably from Carvel. Okay, insistently from Carvel, you know, the one in the strip mall at the end of the main road. The Carvel ice cream cake was, to me, as perfect as a June birthday cake could be — a layer each of chocolate and vanilla ice creams, separated by a smattering of Oreo-ish cookie rubble, coated with a suspiciously unbuttery buttercream and scattered with colored sprinkles. It was perfect. I loved it. I saw no reason anything should ever change.
Celebration Cakes Archive
Nobody could mistake me for a person who moves quickly. I “run” at a treadmill speed that would never catch a thief, and barely these days, a preschooler on the loose. It took us 3.5 years, until two weeks ago, in fact, to finally put the kid’s toys away. We’ve been “redecorating” the living room for the better part of a year — we’ll probably put the pictures back up in a week or six; please, don’t rush us. Thus, it should surprise nobody that it’s taken me nearly four years to conquer the cake you see here, which sounds even worse if you consider that it was a special request from my own mother, as this was her favorite growing up.
When it comes to large family gatherings, no matter how much I humble-brag about my brisket, roasted vegetable sides or the way I know my way around a salad, I am always instead nominated to bring desserts. So, like a certain Phoebe on cup-and-ice duty that I will date myself by referencing, I take things very seriously, in part because I have a lot of rules for Passover desserts. The first is that that whatever dessert I make cannot include even a speck of matzo meal. I’m sorry, I realize this is a sensitive topic and I should tread more carefully, but I find the taste of matzo meal just awful in anything but matzo ball soup. My difficult palate aside, I also figure if I’m going to go through the effort to come up with something new (and hopefully better) in the flourless department, it would be of more use to more people were it also gluten-free, so that’s the second rule. The final rule is that I want the dessert to be good enough that I’d choose it any other day of year. It can’t just be good for a Passover dessert. It can’t just be good for something gluten-free. It has to be objectively good. Really, shouldn’t everything be?
Yesterday, our little bear turned three which, you know, is impossible since we are unequivocally certain that we just brought him home from the hospital yesterday. Seriously, right here, through the door to my right and we put the carrier that he was sleeping deeply within on the table. It looked strange there [Also, we were hungry and unsure of the logistics — is it rude to eat lunch while your newborn is on the table? Isn’t it worse to place him on the floor?] Sure, there were one or two hundred fewer fire engine parts, stuffed hedgehogs and train tracks scattered across the living room carpet, and maybe we looked a little younger and better-rested; I probably didn’t have my iPhone wedged between sofa cushions the way I do right now so that my talking-walking-doing things mini-human couldn’t co-opt it to watch Elmo videos again (how does he find them?), but otherwise, nothing has changed. Nothing! Don’t say it. Didn’t your mother teach you to never argue with crazy people?
Last week, when it was ninety million degrees in New York City and all the sane people were cracking open fire hydrants, grilling on their roof decks and/or sticking their faces in their wheezing air conditioner units, I looked around my shoebox kitchen, with its half-counter and miniature oven, considered the sheer volume of items left on my to-do that I’d never get done and said, “Clearly, this is the day for me to make an 11-layer dobos torte.” Because my birthday was two days away and that seemed as good as any to sever what frayed tethers I had left to my sanity. [Plus, I already had cleaning help!]
I’m pretty serious about birthday cakes. When I think of someone being presented with some shortening spackled quarter sheet cake from a discount grocery chain on their birthday — a day they only get to celebrate once a year! Which is like forever if you’re a kid or perhaps the sort of grownup who didn’t get the memo that at the age of 34, birthdays are really not supposed to be a big deal anymore — it makes me sad. Not judgmental-sad, because lord knows I could barely eke out this cake on Saturday, and it’s supposed to be, like, my calling, but empathetic-sad because I totally blame lousy, intimidating recipes for making the two-layer + frosting task seem not worth it to go it at home. I hope to make it as easy as possible for everyone to get the fluffy, towering, butter-laden imperfectly frosted, slightly crooked homemade cake they deserve for making it through another year. Or, perhaps, one’s entire life to date, for the first birthday set.
New Yorkers have a reputation for being pushy and over-the-top — these are things you learn when you leave the city for a weekend, and a ticketing agent at the airport in Tulsa, for example, informs you that you’re so much more polite than she thought a New Yorker would be. We apparently like things bolder and taller and shinier and more intense and while I’m not sure if this really applies to your average straphanger commuting from walk-up to cubicle and back again everyday, I am absolutely certain that it applies to our cheesecakes.