My son’s first birthday cake was a banana cake with fudge frosting and it was shaped like a monkey with a mini-monkey smash cake. Because he loved them so much, his second birthday cake had to involve graham crackers, but in my carried-away hands it turned into a s’more layer cake (in the book) with a milk chocolate filling and a marshmallow frosting that was toasted because really, how could I not? His third birthday cake was a celebration of fall and trains — apples, applesauce, pie spices and a subway map on top because he was then and still is subway-obsessed. And I had already started plotting his fourth birthday cake — something involving massive pillows brown sugar-broiled peaches and sour cream, with the faintest trace of nutmeg, all late summery and perfect — when I had the strangest idea, something that hadn’t once occurred to me before: I asked him what kind of cake he wanted, and do you know what he said?
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.
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?
Three weeks ago, we together rolled our eyes because it seemed like everyone was either celebrating spring (pea tendrils! meyer lemons!) or on vacation without us, cluttering our social media feeds with shiny, happy scenes on distant beaches. We had a brief but unequivocally necessary pity party because while we were stuck here, shivering, with a fresh layer of sleet accumulating outside. We consoled ourselves with blood orange margaritas.
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 year, I brought a flag cake to a 4th of July rooftop barbecue. Earlier in the week, I’d harbored fantasies about making an elaborate ice cream cake or layered berry yogurt popsicles or salads teetering on the edge of food safety standards but New York City, as it always seems to be in the first week of July, was at the crest of a week-plus of ever-increasing temperatures and stickiness, a summit where it tends to linger for a few even more airless days before finally releasing the thunder and lightening, sinking the mercury back to a brief day or two of something resembling temperate before it starts the climb again. What, me? No fan of NYC summers? Where would you get such an idea?