The Greatest Cake of All

It’s my birthday soon. I know, I’m excited too. My birthday is right around Thanksgiving. That sounds like it should be awesome—get some time off, automatic freebie weekend to celebrate—but in fact, it sucks. I’ll spare you my full-on pity party, but let’s just say having a birthday around a major holiday season during which many people travel is a big bummer. I never traveled as a kid, but all my friends in school did. This meant that people were probably not around if my birthday was before Thanksgiving, and there was no school over the long weekend, of course. I think in my whole school career I had a class sing “Happy Birthday” to me exactly once. Boo hoo, poor me, I know, at least I didn’t have polio or something. But still.

The other thing about my birthday that was always something of a letdown was that my mom bought me bakery cakes. Don’t ask me why that was a disappointment to me. I’m sure there were tons of kids who hated the homemade, amaturely decorated cakes that their moms made, but for me it was the opposite.

Add to that the fact that those cakes were always just kind of lumped in with the Thanksgiving dinner desserts (did I mention that Thanksgiving dinner was always my “birthday dinner”? No? How would you like to have turkey for your “birthday dinner” for eleven years in a row? I don’t even like turkey that much) and no one wants a bunch of birthday cake after Thanksgiving dinner. They want pumpkin or pecan pie. My birthday cake went uneaten, except for one sad, depressing slice, cut for me, the Birthday Girl. A birthday cake with only one slice of out of it is what emotional devastation looks like.

My first year of college I wasn’t able to go home for Thanksgiving. We only got Thursday and Friday off, and I was more than half way across the country from my home. Fortunately the university I attended was in the town where my grandparents lived. I was able to go their house and stay with them for the weekend. My grandmother was familiar with my lifelong bakery birthday cake disappointment saga, and said that she’d even bake me a cake. Huzzah!

She took great care, making the cake the afternoon of the day before Thanksgiving—I was still in town at my dorm. We were at an elevation (fine, we were in Fort Collins, Colorado) so she used a chocolate cake recipe from a high altitude cookbook she had. She carefully poured the batter into two springform pans that I think were handed down from her ancestors who settled the Hudson River Valley in the 1600s. She closed the oven, and sat down in the adjacent family room to read.

After about 15 minutes, she noticed a very strong, very bad smell. Something was burning in the oven. Alarmed, she jumped up to check on the cakes. When she opened the oven there issued forth a billow of smoke worthy of a Tom & Jerry cartoon. Sure enough, the batter had leaked out around the seam in the springform pans. She was mystified—she had been using these pans for decades. My grandmother is a child of the Depression, and never throws anything out (including ancient springform pans, clearly). She once bought an $8 repair kit to fix a $14 nylon strap-aluminum frame lawn chair, rather than toss it. There was a little batter left in those pans, so she decided to just go with what she had. It would be a very compact cake.

She finished baking it, cooled it, and iced it. It wasn’t pretty, but it was homemade.

After dinner, she brought it out with candles, and she and my grandfather sang to me. She cut the cake, and we started to eat.

After about two bites, we all started laughing. In addition to being the ugliest, most compact cake ever, it was also like eating frosted lead. Being in that oven with all that smoke had caused it to fall.  We ate about one more bite, and then she did throw it out.

You might think I would be disappointed that my first homemade birthday cake in 17 years was a flop. Even secretly disappointed, because what kind of a jerkwad would say something to someone who tried to do something that nice for them. I was not in the least. That was the best birthday cake I ever had, leaden texture and all. It was flavored with love, and frosted with a genuine desire to please.

My grandmother is 101 years old. I don’t really know how much longer she’ll last. She’s still pretty independent, living in an apartment in a retirement facility. She’s not in a wheelchair, or on oxygen. She occasionally uses a cane to steady herself. Her mind is sharper than mine and she’s more than twice my age (perfect example of what a blerg I am: I had to open the calculator on my computer to figure that out, and I opened Paint and tried to do the calculation with the Rectangular Selection tool). But whatever happens, however much longer she has, that will always be the most delicious birthday cake I ever had.

Excuse me, I think I have something in my eye.

Is your birthday around a major holiday? Has anyone ever made you a super-special birthday cake? Have you ever ruined a baked good to the point that it was hilariously inedible?



22 comments:

Abby said...

When grandma makes a cake, you pretend to eat the cake. ;)

As for my cake wrecks, I can distinctly recall on Thanksgiving in which the crazy-ass aunt of a boyfriend made a rum cake SO soaked with rum that there were literally inches of it pooled up around the bottom of the container. When she took off the lid, our eyes burned, and only his dad ate a piece of the thing (he would eat chocolate covered cat crap if offered to him.)

Tracy said...

She even agreed it was awful :)

That's hilarious about the rum cake. And the chocolate covered cat crap.

Cassandra said...

I love it! As usual, I can relate. My birthday is the week before Christmas and my mother never made me a cake my entire life. When I was 16, and in the middle of finals, my best friend drove all the way across town to deliver a birthday cake that she had made for me. I actually cried. I have no memory of what the cake was or how it tasted, but I can say that I have never had a better cake before or since.

grassmonkey said...

What a great post! Go gram! And from now on, I'm carrying a card in my wallet that says "You don't have polio (yet)" to remind myself how good I have it.

grassmonkey said...

By the way, this is Jeff from Jeff + Jill went up the hill. I have no idea why I am grassmonkey here.

donofalltrades.com said...

101?? Holy fucking Jesus, that's awesome!! My birthday is two days before my dad's and he liked store bough cakes with fruit in them. I never cared that my cake wasn't homemade because I recognized early that my mom was not domestic in the least bit, but every year she'd buy dad's favorite fruit filled cake instead of the chocolate cake with chocolate icing that I longed for. "Well the cake is chocolate, just eat around the fruit" she'd say...GGRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR!!!!

Anyway, I'm mostly over it now that I'm an adult and can make my own damn cake or promise my wife that if she'll make me one, I won't ask her for sex for my birthday. My wife has become a really good cake baker. She uses boxed cake mix, but does something with them that makes them amazing. The kids love them and they're always fruit free, so there's that.

Tracy said...

Clearly separated at birth!

Tracy said...

I think you can even leave off the "yet" because unless you were born and lived the first decade of your life in a third world country, you've been vaccinated against polio. But I'm glad you liked the post. :)

Tracy said...

Why the hell not?

Tracy said...

Fruit in chocolate cake should be punishable by death. I've heard about ways to pep up box mixes, and that they work. Never tried it, but that's not to say I won't!

rockygrace said...

Oh, I hear ya - my birthday is a few days after Thanksgiving. Having a birthday during the holidays sucked big time as a kid. THANKS, MOM. Ha.

Tracy said...

RIGHT? Everyone I know with a Thanksgiving birthday thinks it's a drag. I don't care so much as an adult, but as a kid, it bites.

My mom would argue that it was my own fault because I was late--like 18 days late, which would never happen today because they would have induced her almost two weeks before my actual birthday. But still!

grassmonkey said...

I think you underestimate my determination to contract polio.

Tracy said...

Then by all means, include the "yet" on the note in your pocket. Also, you can say, "And I don't drink Bud Light Lime (even though I do drink PSLs)."

Carrie said...

I think I love your grandmother. That is just the sweetest thing ever, even if the cake was a hockey puck.

Tracy said...

Ponygirl - It pretty much was, but yeah, my grandmother is a freakin' saint. Part of my book will be a chapter on how much I love her, how awesome she is, and how human she is, in spite of it all. Actually, that could be a whole book in itself! She's pretty awesome, though. Like, she got a pilot's license in the 1930s awesome. That kind of awesome.

Margot said...

Yeah, my brother's birthday is December 26th and he's always hated it. My son was born January 2nd, 2001 at 12:47 a.m., missing out on having the birthday 01/01/01 by 48 minutes. So he got one of those day after birthdays without the consolation of at least having a cool date.

I have to say after reading this post and so many of these comments, that I feel really good now about the fact that I make everyone in my family birthday cakes from scratch. They all love it and would be super disappointed if I bought one from the store or made one from a mix. They may not be as pretty, but they taste so much better. I think everyone deserves a homemade cake for their birthday!

I know you're teasing yourself about complaining, but it honestly does sound like it was hard. Not polio-hard of course, but still disappointing and non special. And you were an only child, too! There's no excuse! What do you do for your own birthday cake now that you're an adult?

That's a lovely story about your grandmother. I can see why you love her so much. Can't wait to read your chapter about her, or even to hear more about this book for that matter.

Tracy said...

Thank you, Margot! Yes, my son is 11/11 and he actually loves that because there's no school, but he's 11/11/02, which doesn't bother him but always throws me--I want to make him a year older than he is :)

I make my kids a cake for their actual b-day and buy a store cake for their party, so they get both.

For myself I kind of go with whatever I feel like--sometimes I'll make myself a salted caramel cheesecake (it's the recipe in the blog header picture), or sometimes I'll make a cake because my kids like to help. Occasionally I'll buy one because I confess I do get a craving for that vile cheap frosting that grocery stores use :)

I have a million stories about her, which is why I'm actually thinking a book might work. We shall see. For the time being I at least have one more I can share in a week or so :)

Darcy Perdu said...

That is awesome! One time I sent my family out with a visiting teen relative to go shopping so I could make a birthday cake as a surprise. They came back way too early, so I had to frost the still hot from the oven cake. While we were singing Happy Birthday, the cake literally had an EARTHQUAKE and split wide open, frosting oozing everywhere like volcano lava! It was hilarious AND delicious!

Tracy said...

Did you tell them it was a live-action molten chocolate lava cake? I'd pay more for that than for one that just oozed chocolate when I cut into it. It's not ever day you see a cake erupt! :)

Lizzy said...

My birthday is two weeks before Christmas, which shouldn't be too bad, but it totally was.
All growing up, other than gifts from my immediate family, gifts were always wrapped in Christmas paper. No one could come to a party, and even if they could my mom was too stressed to ever throw one. And I HATED the "combo" presents. You know your friends give everyone the exact same thing for Christmas, but when they give it to you it's "here this is a combo birthday/Christmas gift". Ticked me off so bad.
When I was in college my birthday happened to fall on a study day before finals. I decided to go home for the long weekend. But it was just me and my mom, and she decided we didn't need cake for just the two of us. I was heart broken. Next day I went and bought an oversized slice of cake from the grocery store, my mom called me selfish for not sharing it with her and her friend that came by.
It's not so bad as an adult. My husband always does my cake, and makes sure it is a remembered day.
But I worry about 3 of my 4 kids. One is an early December birthday, and the other two are in the week between Christmas and New Years. My DH thinks I'm funny that the two that are a day apart that I never do a shared cake. But I just tell him a birthday is special enough for your own cake, and if I have to freeze leftovers, so be it.

Tracy said...

Lizzy - the Christmas birthday has to be the WORST. I have a friend whose birthday is Dec 28 and she always had that problem. My biggest birthday-related problem is that I have twins. I make them each whatever cake they want (one year one wanted a "police officer"--he got a badge--and the other wanted "underpants." He got underpants, which are surprisingly not hard to do if you stick to briefs and use a round cake pan :) ). But I think it's important to make every kid feel special, no matter how much extra work it is for mom. Good for you for giving them all their own individual day! We know how much it means looking back!