Every January I take a day off work to decorate cakes.
And it doesn’t matter that it’s hard for me to disengage from the relentless pulse of news pounding in my ears. It doesn’t matter that we’re in the middle of a legislative session and I’m tracking a dozen crime stories.
This day is for decorating cakes – not writing news.
Even if Bigfoot burst from the Yellowstone wilds riding a unicorn through a lava flow and forced Governor Gordon to abdicate, it would not be enough to drive me from this kitchen and back into my office where the news lives.
So I dump my worries into some chocolate goo with the eggs, pour the whole thing into a cake pan and pop it in the oven.
And sure, as any news junkie knows, it does feel like a free-fall into the abyss of irrelevancy. Like someone slit your tendons so you couldn’t grip reality.
But the fragrance of a cake solidifying in the oven is its own climate. It’s an airborne vacation.
All my children since their first birthday have understood that I will bake and decorate custom cakes for them every year. It’s automatic.
That’s a promise I carried down from my own mom, who was a cake decorator throughout my childhood and taught the skill to her five children. She double-dog dared us to order the cakes of our wildest dreams, and she always made them.
One year my brother decided to test that promise by ordering an amusement park.
Mom cinched up her apron, strode into the kitchen and remained there until 3 a.m. She later greeted the birthday boy with an amusement park so perfect, so complete, that little candy men with confection-ink faces grimaced at the top of the roller coaster.
I haven’t surpassed my mom in skill or tenacity, but I’ve made that same promise to my children and they, too, like to test it.
It’s the twins’ birthday. This year they took it easy on me by ordering a chess board and a Minecraft grass block.
There’s a sculpting phase of mashing cakes into the right shape using edible glue. I like raspberry jelly for chocolate cakes, marzipan for fruity flavors, and cream cheese frosting to glue together lemon cakes. The pairings are infinite; pick your glue.
The time spent poring over these cakes is sacred: it lets me reflect on the years I’ve enjoyed with my birthday children.
The twins are 9. The little, feisty twin still has the slight Bronx accent of early childhood. The big, sweet twin still raises his eyebrows when he promises, swears, that he’s not exaggerating the facts. They were born 14 minutes apart but refuse to be characterized as “older” and “younger.”
“We’re the same age, I’ve just been exposed to the air longer,” says Big-Sweet, when people ask.
And yes, I realize 14 minutes makes me a much slower birthing machine than a cow, but some things are worth waiting for.
Anyway. If you freeze your cakes, it’s easier to frost them. My mother-in-law taught me that a pinch of salt makes any frosting better, and she’s absolutely right.
I scrape a thin layer of buttercream frosting onto the cakes and put them back in the freezer.
At our house, the day before a kid’s birthday is a bigger deal than the actual day. We celebrate the Lasts.
“Ooooh, it’s your LAST 8-year-old breakfast,” I croon over the cereal bowls.
“Oh-KAY, I’m off for the LAST 8-year-old school day!” yells Big-Sweet over his shoulder as he stomps outside.
At night, they hunker into their blankets and ask for the last poem they’ll hear as 8-year-olds.
“Jabberwocky!” shouts Little-Feisty.
“Noooo I want ‘Cuddle Doon,’” argues Big-Sweet.
So we read them both.
A frozen and frosted cake is easier to decorate. You can choose frosting, fondant, or a combination of the two.
I realize not everyone has tasted fondant, so just imagine that a marshmallow and a lump of Play-Doh had a baby: that’s the exact flavor of it.
When my brothers and I were little, we’d press our noses to the kitchen counter edge and wait for my mom to slice fondant crescents off the base of a perfect wedding cake, crumple them in her hand and toss them into the “scrap” pile, which we tackled like hyenas.
I still love fondant.
“HOW can you eat that stuff?” asks The Husband, lugging in an armload of party snacks.
I don’t tell him that fondant is the only thing I’ve eaten today. There’s no shame on cake day.
The twins coo aloud when they see their cakes. Little-Feisty asks if he can play a real chess game on his cake and I say “Not a chance, buddy.”
But when it’s time to put candles in the cakes, Little-Feisty rides from his imaginary wilds on a unicorn and forces his chess-cake king to abdicate by surrounding him with nine candles and toppling him onto the fondant.
When we sing ‘happy birthday’ to the twins, their faces glow in the candlelight, and they look 9 years old for the very first time, on this cake day.