This birthday cake was assigned to the side of the family whose dessert preferences can be roughly summarized as chocolate + anything else, but if that “else” were cheesecake, coffee, peanut butter or raspberries, all the better, thank you very much. Non-chocolate desserts are regarded politely, like curiosities at a zoo; perhaps something another family might enjoy? Their dessert formula can be thanked for all sorts of archive wonders, such as the Chocolate-Caramel Cheesecake, Double Chocolate Layer Cake, Espresso Chiffon Cake with Fudge Frosting, Brownie Mosaic Cheesecake, Double-Chocolate Torte, Chocolate Peanut Butter Cake and Cappuccino-Fudge Cheesecake.
I’m sorry. These are really, really cute. Borderline twee. And it gets worse, too. You see, there was a parent event at my son’s preschool this week that included a cookie swap and I hadn’t much considered what I would bring until my apparent reputation preceded me and the other parents started to ask with a tone that suggested they expected something grand. Oops. And so I enlisted what I’ve decided will be my strategy for all future cooking indecisions: What Would Alex Eat?*
We all know that muffins teeter precariously on a razor-thin line that divides the food categories of “Acceptable for Breakfast” and “Nope, This Is Dessert” and one must maintain firm boundaries during the breakfast hours lest the day that follows devolve into a full-on bacchanal of Resolution decompensation that ends with one passed out amid scatters of Cheetos, ketchup packets and French fry grease with a side of cronut.
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?
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?
A couple months ago, someone requested that I try my hand at caramel brownies. Amazingly, this person was not my husband, but he endorsed this idea so wholeheartedly that I suspect he might have paid this person off. Then again, in most people’s minds, who doesn’t want to make caramel brownies? What kind of strange person considers what would happen when sea salt-flecked deeply copper-colored homemade caramel meets a chewy, rich homemade brownie and then shrugs it off, “Eh, I’ll pass.” Guys, it’s me. It’s not that I didn’t think that a salted caramel brownie could be delicious, it’s just that I imagine it’s well-trodden territory, which to me translates as “people who want to make this already know how to” and then I figure my time would be better spent making other things, like weird egg salads and silky hummus.
Although I would hardly say that having a kid has made me wiser — there have been just too many incidents like the one this morning, when not a single of the following clues piqued my concern: 3 year-old going into bathroom to bring his step-stool into another room; the sound of a cabinet opening, a fridge opening followed by a banging sound on the counter, until it was too late and a once-clean child in a once-clean kitchen was making “skwambled” eggs — I can’t help but have come to a few salient conclusions about children/life itself over the last few years that I find infinitely applicable. One, there are few things wrong that a good night’s sleep cannot fix. Two, sometimes you really just need to scream and yell and have a great big noisy fuss for a few minutes and get it all out — pounding your tiny, dimpled fists on the carpet is optional, but this is no time to hold back feeling all the feelings, you know? — so that you can resume being sweet and awesome for the remaining minutes of the day. Finally, there’s not a single person in this universe who does not need a cookie at 4 p.m. each day, like clockwork. Nobody. Not even you. Even in the month of Resolutions.