Baker of birthday cakes

If you ever want to get some good stories of my childhood out of my family, all you have to do is bring up my second birthday. I’ll never be able to live that one down, no matter how many years I accumulate.

All I truly remember are the helium balloons buoying around the kitchen, especially the larger-than-life-sized ice cream cone that reached my nose as I sat on the kitchen counter. The whole house was crawling with balloons both on the ceiling and weighed down to float on the floor, my clumsy 2-year old gang of friends and their parents, as well as my grandparents and one of their couple friends. It was quite the party, especially since my parents are not typical party-throwers, celebration havers, or go-out-ers.

Since this was a celebration of my birthday, that party was all about me. The presents were mine and no body could touch them. The balloons were mine and no body could  touch those either. The word “share” was not yet a word that I wanted to enact, so the demanding 2-year old (me) dominated the party in her frilly dress and hand-painted shoes. I’m pretty sure that my behavior at that party is the real reason that I have two younger sisters, the first of which cropped up about a year after this infamous birthday. (Who do they think they’re fooling?)

My Gram is the one who loves to recall the story of my second birthday. That and my birth, which she reenacts beautifully by sitting up straight and tall (almost as if levitating), holding her breath, and scrunching up her face into a rounded frown with eyes pinched shut. For me, Gram goes hand-in-hand with birthday celebrations because she has always been the baker of birthday cakes.

Every year since I can remember, Gram has been the one to bake and transport a beautiful layered cake to me for my birthday. Not cakes from a box or from a store with edible frosting messages, but home made cakes made from flour, butter, eggs, sugar, and patience. Cakes like hummingbird cake, strawberry jelly-roll, a gigantic german chocolate monster, lemon cake, and white chocolate macadamia. The cake stand she has in the kitchen is well worn, having rarely experienced a moment of emptiness, even when I come for a spur-of-the-moment visit. I’ll bet that even after cleaning, that glass cake stand has a butter stain from the many occupants it has seen, not unlike the naked and clean wall exposed from the underside of a painting being unhinged from a wall for the first time in years.

That’s Gram: sharing just how sweet life truly is through her kitchen.

I’ve come a long way since bumbling around with buckling knees and little chubby legs to snatch all the balloons and presents during my second birthday party. Now, I’d much rather spend the afternoon in the kitchen, gifting the final product to someone special.

This one is destined to my Gram, because even though today is my 24th birthday, I’m the one bringing her a cake. We’re calling it breakfast.
adapted from The California Heritage Cookbook: The Junior League of Pasadena

I happened upon this cookbook at an estate sale. It has a distinct antique smell to it and boasts recipes like orange and prune tea bread, salmon poached in champagne, and sautéed venison steaks with horseradish currant cream. I am falling.

grass-fed butter – 1/2 cup, softened
brown sugar – 1 cup
egg – 1
vanilla extract – 1 teaspoon

Cream the butter until pale. Add sugar and continue to cream until fluffy. Beat in the egg and vanilla until incorporated.

spelt flour – 2 cups
unrefined salt – 1/4 teaspoon
baking soda – 1 teaspoon
kefir – 1 cup

Sift together the dry ingredients. Add the flour mixture and kefir to the creamed mixture alternately, beginning and ending with the flour. I added the flour in three additions and the kefir in two.

fresh rhubarb – 2 cups, coarsely chopped
zest from 1 orange
zest from 1/2 lemon

Gently fold in the rhubarb and zests. Spread into a greased 9×13 pan.

pecans – 3/4 cup, roughly chopped
sugar – 1/2 cup
cinnamon – 1 teaspoon

Combine & sprinkle over the batter. Bake at 350 degrees until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 45 minutes. Cool at least 30 minutes before cutting. Serve with a dollop of yogurt and dusting of cinnamon.

Serves 6-10.


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