I know how cliche this sounds, but I really don’t know where the year went.
When my daughter turned one, I was thrilled. I marveled at her existence every single day, and each milestone was another chance to celebrate: she was learning, growing, turning more and more into this amazing little person I was so excited to get to know.
When I met other mothers who greeted their babies’ first birthdays with a little less enthusiasm, I was completely perplexed. Why mourn time passed, I wondered, when the present – and presumably the future – was brimming with wonderful things?
These days, I think I understand that ambivalence a little better.
My son’s birth was a harrowing experience, one from which I feel, in many ways, that I am still recovering. After he was born he spent days in the NICU, having his lungs and tiny belly filled by machine, while I was in another room on a morphine drip, feeling like I’d thrown a party to which the guest of honour hadn’t shown up.
After those first dire days came weeks, then months, of management: me learning to manage my pain, my guilt, my disappointment in myself and my inability to bounce back the way I’d have liked.
A series of difficulties, more and less agonizing, arose for me to manage that fall: my son had colic, my husband had to travel extensively for work. A beloved friend and crucial part of my day-to-day support was killed in a bizarre and tragic fashion.
We found out we had to move, and it took us six months of searching before we found a new place to live.
Somewhere in that period, I realized I had spent more than half of my baby’s life distracted by a haze of worry and grief and pain, and I found it utterly crushing to think that I would not get those first months of his life back, ever.
Eventually, as is always the case, we made our through that period of crisis. The big concerns were settled, and the idea of returning to some kind of balance began to seem not so far-fetched.
Throughout my high-wire act, my daughter continued to be the amazing little person I had taken all of the time in the world to get to know, and my son’s personality began to emerge – and he is awesome. Sweet like his sister, and adoring in the way that makes all mothers of boys secretly swoon. He’s smart and quick and daring, chubby and charming.
I am thrilled that he is one whole year old, that he is strong and healthy, that he is learning and growing so quickly. He and I are as thick as thieves, our relationship none the worse for all of my feelings of anguish and guilt.
But if I could, I would turn back the clock – I would stop time. I would go back and marvel at his existence, every single day, from the moment he was born.
Buttermilk Birthday Cake with Milk Chocolate Icing
(adapted from Nigella Lawson)
I know that it seems counter-intuitive to post such a recipe in these last, dog days of summer, but please, do us both a favour and take note of it for the next time you have a birthday cake to make. Trust me, you won’t regret it – and I promise I will be back tomorrow with something a little more seasonal!
For the cake:
1 2/3c all purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
3/4c plus 2 tbsp buttermilk, at room temperature
1 tbsp vanilla
1/2c very soft unsalted butter
3 large eggs, at room temperature
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter and line with parchment two 8- or 9-inch round cake pans.
Sift together flour, baking powder, and baking soda in a medium bowl and set aside.
Whisk together buttermilk and vanilla in a glass measuring cup (or other vessel with a spout) and set aside.
Combine butter and sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment and beat at medium speed until light and fluffy. Reduce speed slightly and add eggs, one at a time, beating 30 seconds between additions. Add flour mixture and buttermilk mixture in alternating increments, beating well between additions, until a smooth, pale golden batter forms.
(You may find, partway through or even towards the end of the mixing, that your batter looks slightly curdled. Please don’t be alarmed – this has happened to me without fail every time I have made this cake, and it doesn’t affect the end result whatsoever.)
Divide batter evenly between the two prepared pans and bake about 25 minutes, rotating pans halfway through cooking time. The cake is done when it is slightly burnished and beginning to pull away from the sides of the pan. Cool in pans 10 minutes on a rack, then turn cakes out onto the rack to cool completely.
For the icing:
250g milk chocolate, coarsely chopped (or use milk chocolate chips)
3/4c unsalted butter
6 1/2c icing sugar, sifted
1 tsp vanilla
1-2 tbsp milk, if needed
Melt chocolate and butter together in a saucepan over VERY low heat, or in a double boiler, or (although I have never tried this) in a microwave. Transfer to the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, and beat in icing sugar and vanilla at medium-low speed. If icing is too thick, thin with a little milk.
When cakes have cooled completely, trim of the domed top of each cake. Place one cake, cut side up, on a platter or cake stand. Scoop a generous amount if icing onto this bottom cake (there will be plenty of icing, so don’t be skimpy on the filling) and spread it out evenly with an offset spatula or table knife.
Invert second cake onto the iced bottom layer. Use remaining icing to generously frost the top and sides of the cake (there may be some icing leftover).
I didn’t love doing it, if I’m being totally honest – I was pretty anti-wedding at that point in my life, and I also felt very uncomfortable with the highly-charged emotional force-field that seemed to surround every bride I encountered.
I also found that when people asked for a special cake for an occasion, they tended to forget that the cake is also actually food, and not just an elaborate decorative extravaganza to be endlessly manipulated.
I often wound up feeling like an artist (remember, I was in my twenties) whose medium was not being respected.
Still, I kept at it for some time, partly for the money, but also because I got a secret thrill out of the look on the recipient’s face when they saw the finished creation.
Even though I didn’t often know them well (and on some occasions I didn’t even wish them well), it pleased me to play a small part in making their special day go a little better.
Once those wedding and specialty cake-baking days were safely behind me, though, I never looked back.
Until this weekend.
I have to tell you that I loved every minute of making this cake.
I made it for a dear friend’s daughter (who is also my daughter’s dear friend). She was turning four, and she is deeply embedded in her mermaid phase. Her mother, like me, is pretty ambivalent about the idea of little girls having barbies, but we both agreed that maybe a mermaid barbie wasn’t too too bad – and besides, the kitschy nature of this made it irresistible to both of us.
(And really, the idea of wrapping a barbie up in saran wrap and plunging her into the middle of an edible skirt? As my mother pointed out, there is probably an on-line community of people who fetishize that kind of thing!)
The birthday girl was thrilled, which would have made it all worthwhile even if it hadn’t been fun; and when one of the other mothers at the party asked me if I did this kind of cake-creation on a regular basis, I was happy to be able to answer that I only do it for people I know and love.
Mermaid Barbie Birthday Cake
Here’s what I did, and if anyone out there wants more specifics, please let me know:
I used my favourite layer cake recipe (one that makes two 8″-round cakes) and doubled it, twice. I divided the first doubled recipe between a 9″-round wedding cake pan and a medium-sized Pyrex bowl, both buttered and lined with parchment. The second doubled recipe went into two 8″-round layer cake pans, also buttered and parchment lined.
I baked the cakes two at a time in a 350-degree oven. They took between 30 and 45 minutes (the one in the Pyrex bowl took the longest).
Once the cakes were cooled, I used a champagne flute to make a barbie-sized hole in the middle of each layer.
Then I made a double batch of my favourite basic butter icing recipe, and coloured it with sky blue food colouring gel. I set half the icing aside for the final coat, and used half to fill the layers and cover the outside of the cake for a thin crumb coat.
Once the crumb coat was set, I wrapped the barbie in plastic wrap (I made a plastic turban for her hair) and plunged her into the centre of the cake, arms up.
Then I did the final coat of icing, reserving a bit to pipe onto barbie’s naked chest to create the appearance of a bodice for the dress.
I decorated the cake in keeping with the undersea theme, and once all of the icing was set I took barbie’s hair out of its plastic-wrap turban.
Et voila! Mermaid cake for 20!