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Love and Cake

It all started with the ladybug cake. I was a fresh new mom with My Moon about to turn one. She needed a special cake to mark the occasion and I wanted to be the one to make that cake. We used to call her our little ladybug, so the design seemed self-evident. I reveled in the process, from deciding how I would form the cake to picking out the candies to top it.

Little did I know the cycle into which I was stepping … nay, leaping.

From then on, each birthday cake has been a surprise, not only to the birthday girl or boy but to everyone other than its creator … me. And, there is always palpable anticipation at the reveal. In all honesty, this is for mostly selfish reasons. If they don’t know what the idea is, they won’t know if I changed it because I discovered I got in over my head. Not that that’s happened … much.

Over the years, through trial and error, I have established rules about the birthday cake tradition. Rule #1: it’s about the kid we are celebrating, not about the cake. So, the year that I decided to veer and make a “cake” out of Rice Crispy treats, only to see the disappointment in My Moon’s eyes, I set my pride aside and looked for the reason.

It wasn’t a case of her acting spoiled. She was hesitant to admit her disappointment, and I had to tease out the why. It wasn’t a real cake, so to her, it felt like I had broken with a tradition she loved. It taught me something important about My Moon: she cares deeply about tradition and family rituals.

How to pick the theme… It’s not an easy task, especially as the kids grow older, and their likes and wishes less cartoony. This leads me to my Rule #2: the cake absolutely does not have to happen on the actual day of the birthday. I want the cake to be a special gift from me to them. My final idea on what to make doesn’t like to solidify on cue, and I don’t want to rush it. I tried that. It didn’t work.

Also, let’s face it, life doesn’t always clear the schedule when you need it to do so. That said, I try to at least hit the birthday month, and have occasionally been able to do the cake on the actual day. But, there was one year when My Sun, who was born in June, ended up with a cake in October. What can I say? It was a busy summer. Besides, given the proximity to Halloween, I made something I never would have in June: a pumpkin cake that she could turn into a jack-o-lantern. She loved it.

That brings me to the famous fossil cake and Rule #3: less is often more. There was a time when I thought that the best cakes had to be the most complicated and ornate. If it was too easy, too simple, it might appear that I didn’t put as much thought or effort into their cake as I did for the others. That idea ended up biting me in the behind a few times.

There was the year I constructed a beautiful and complicated swan cake for My Sun, only to realize that thanks to a barely functioning air-conditioner and a late June birthday, the neck was about to melt and collapse. We ended up waking her up late at night so she could see it and blow out the candles before the whole cake fell apart.

Another time, I constructed a volcano cake to erupt soda out and over the top, only to hear a shocked LM break into tears because his cake was “ruined.” (I am still proud of that one. I simply made it for the wrong kid, the one who is least fond of sudden change. The other two loved it…)

I’m not saying that I lowered my expectations of what I wanted their cakes to be. What I discovered was that sometimes the simplest ideas were the most appreciated in the end. When the cake truly matched the kid, it didn’t matter how many layers or moving parts it had, nor how long it took to make.

I recently asked LM which of his birthday cakes was his all-time favorite. He named two, and guess what? They were the easiest to make: the turtle cake and the fossil cake. The turtle cake looks like it took much more effort than it actually did, proving that sometimes the simplest ideas can look the most impressive. Yes, the turtles can retract their heads, but all I had to do was make thin chocolate “shells” by brushing melted chocolate onto tinfoil molds I made using actual plastic turtle toys LM had, and stab shish kabob sticks through the cake, under the shells, and into tootsie rolls adorned with strips of starbursts and molded into turtle heads. Then, I simply pushed and pulled the sticks, and, voila! Besides, the kid LOVES turtles, so the fact that the heads moved was just frosting.

And, speaking of frosting … the fossil cake. When I was thinking of what LM’s cake might be that year, I almost scrapped the fossil idea because I couldn’t think of how to incorporate frosting. Birthday cakes should have frosting, right? In the back of my mind lurked the failure of the non-traditional Rice Crispy cake Besides, the idea just seemed so easy, too easy, like cheating.

Enter Rules #1 and #3. #1: the cake is about the kid. LM doesn’t even really like frosting. Problem solved. #3: in the end it did not matter how simple the idea was or that it was super easy to pull off. He absolutely loved it (see rule #1).

Perhaps these are simply the musings of a mother who can see the empty nest approaching at seemingly lightening speed. In limbo while My Sun makes final decisions on where to begin post-nest life. Once young fledgling number two hops out, there will be only one.

The farther they move away and the busier they are, the more important rule#1 will be for me and the less flexible rule #2 will become. As for how long I plan to keep my cake connection with the kids going?

For as long as I can mix and create, there will be cake.

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