It's My Party
So I’ll bake if I want to. Is there a batter way to celebrate my fabulousness?
By Leslie Bilderback 02/01/2010
Welcome to my favorite month. February is packed with all sorts of fun, probably in an attempt to overcompensate for its lack of days. Mardi Gras, Valentine’s, Presidents and Groundhogs are all rolled into one gorgeous month when the air is crisp and clear, there’s snow on Mt. Baldy and, from the top of the San Gabriels, you can catch a glimpse of Catalina.
And best of all, it’s my birthday.
Yes, February is my month and, while most women my age fear the dreaded birthday, I embrace it. That’s because with each passing year, I grow more and more powerful. Like the mighty redwood, my trunk has plenty of rings, but I am much stronger now than I was 20 rings ago (although not necessarily more mature).
My birthday is awesome on many levels. For starters, the day revolves around me, which rules. And I know I will get great presents, because I learned long ago that it pays to hand over a list. There is none of this “You should know what I want” nonsense. Some say 20 years of marriage should be enough to learn a person’s likes and dislikes. But I can’t expect him to be paying any closer attention to me than I do to him. If we relied on that logic, our home would consist of nothing but Star Trek action figures and cookbooks. With a list, I get what I want and he knows it will make me happy. It’s win-win. (We let the kids make lists too, but it’s just to give them a false sense of empowerment. They usually just get socks and underwear.)
By royal decree, my birthday is a chore-free day (although this does not necessarily mean someone else does my chores for me — they just pile up for the next day), and I also get to eat whatever and wherever I want, which usually means I drag everyone to some weird restaurant that serves offal, or an oddly exotic cuisine. (More for me.)
Yes, there are many fun ways to celebrate me, but my favorite by far is the cake. I love cake. I love making it, decorating it and eating it. I love it big or small, plain or fancy, made from scratch or out of a box, from a frou-frou bakery or Albertson’s.
It was not until I became a chef that I truly appreciated the glory of cake. Cake baking is not hard, but it takes a small amount of forethought, an understanding of basic kitchen chemistry and the ability to follow a recipe. (That last one is the ingredient most frequently lacking.) It is certainly easier to make a cake now than it was in the olden days. Imagine the bakers who worked without electricity or baking powder. The only thing they had to leaven their cake was an arm strong enough to beat in 500 strokes of air. We could start that trend again, only we’ll call it The Baker’s Workout, “guaranteed to reduce underarm flab,” and sell it on QVC for $19.99.
The historically arduous task of cake-baking turned the baker into the most exalted of cooks. During the French Revolution, the parents of Marie-Antoine Carême dumped him on a kitchen doorstep (keep this in mind, kids), where he worked his way up to become the “Chef of Kings.” His cakes were known for their elaborate rococo towers of sugar, marzipan and pastry and are still considered the ultimate symbol of decadent cuisine.
Towers of fondant, layers of royal icing and filigree piping are impressive to look at, but I prefer to eat more down-to-earth cakes. And the more arcane and archaic, the more I love them. Take the red velvet cake, for instance. This old thing has had a resurgence of popularity, probably due to me. (I was making it before it was cool, which I claim about a lot of things, but in this case it’s true.) Cheap red food coloring and cocoa powder give it the dark red, Scarlett O’Hara color. And because the recipe predates mass-produced baking powder, it is leavened with baking soda and vinegar. If it’s too bright and doesn’t have the faint aroma of a grade school science project, you know it’s not authentic.
I also love the Lady Baltimore Cake, which you’ll probably see around town as soon as this article is published. It is thought to have originated in a Southern romance novel at the turn of the 20th century. Readers went into a frenzy trying to find the recipe, which existed only in the author’s imagination. (I can relate.) In response, home cooks created something similar to the Queen Cake, the Lane Cake and the White Mountain Cake, all popular recipes of the day. It is a fussy old recipe, loaded with nuts, dried fruit and pretentiousness. Layers of egg white–leavened cake are filled and frosted with a billowy meringue. It is a towering white-on-white affair, mostly popular in states that still refer to the Civil War as the War of Northern Aggression. Lord Baltimore has a cake too, which is made from yolks instead of whites and is therefore somehow manlier.
Upside-down cakes were created by some brilliant baker who clearly wanted to please me. Their icing is miraculously self-generated from the fruit, butter and sugar trapped at the bottom of the pan. It is the lazy baker’s dream come true and an ancestor of the skillet cake, favored at the chuck wagon because it could be made over an open fire. The pineapple variation, with maraschino cherries nestled into the center of each perfect pineapple ring, gained popularity after World War I, when Dole embarked on a media blitz to popularize mechanically canned pineapple.
French cakes (often given the honorific gateaux) are a pleasant enough affair, but, like the French themselves, are completely different from their American counterparts. Thin and sophisticated, with names such as l’Opéra, Reine de Saba and Marjolaine, they are soaked in ethereal syrup and layered with haughty elements like crisp nutty meringue, buttercream and marzipan. There are no gaudy frosting roses or plastic pirates on these cakes. Just a simple gleaming glaze of chocolate, the luster of a caramelized hazelnut or the dainty swirl of piping from a single paper cone.
To amuse the rug rats, I have produced cakes shaped like nonfood items, such as Hello Kitty, a mermaid, a piano, a garden and a colossal Golden Snitch (that’s from Harry Potter, people). On his birthday, my husband prefers the cake his mother used to make him, which consists of 22 pancake-like layers glued together with currant jelly. This year I broke with tradition and surprised him with another recipe his mother claimed he loved as a child. (Note to self: Be sure to verify the item in question was actually loved by husband and not stealthily fed to the dog when mom wasn’t looking.) Happy Birthday, indeed.
Leslie Bilderback is a certified master chef and baker, a cookbook author and a former executive chef of Pasadena’s School of Culinary Arts. A South Pasadena resident, Bilderback teaches her techniques online at culinarymasterclass.com.