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Susan Vollenweider column: Hoping to create nostalgic magic with cake and frosting

She was 6 months old when I started to think about her first birthday.

“A picture,” I thought, “I want a picture of her wearing a party hat and shoving cake in her smiling face.”

The September date long-circled on a wall calendar with a happy face and quickly drawn balloons came quicker than I had imagined. I knew that my daughter couldn’t have cared less that two of my best friends, her “Aunties,” made a four-hour drive to come see her, or that one set of grandparents was able to kiss her happy birthday.

But I made that cake.

She wouldn’t know the difference but I thought that personally making the cake — the measuring, baking, mixing and frosting — was a good way to show my love. I had some (perhaps fairy tale) vision that my love for her would make the cake taste better.

It tasted like chocolate cake, and maybe a little dry at that. By the time we got to the cake portion of her birthday celebration she was full of supper and ready for a nap.

But if you put a glowing candle stuck in a small cake in front of even the most tired toddler you will get some action.

And a mess. I hadn’t thought that through in my fantasy. Maybe chocolate wasn’t the way to go but I got my picture. She wasn’t smiling, she looked weary and, if memory serves, she filled that highchair tray with used supper shortly after the picture was taken.

As the years went by she was joined by two brothers who got the same Mom-made birthday cake and photo op treatment. I will admit, it was partially self-serving. I liked it, not just for the souvenir photograph and the permanently chocolate stained clothes (I never did wise up), but for the feeling that I contributed something that no one else could. Symbolically it made me think of my role in their lives: that I add a bit of sweetness and that I will step out of my ordinary day-to-day routine to make time for them.

And, as selfish as this is, I wanted them think of me with a warm glow of nostalgia every time they are presented with a birthday cake. I wanted to be remembered.

“Mom made the best birthday cakes.”

To that end, every year, every birthday I made them a cake. Each year I would ask what flavor and shape they wanted. Some years they told me to surprise them, some that they wanted cookies or brownies but every year they got exactly what they wanted, made by me and presented on a pretty cake stand aflame with birthday candles.

As with anything you do many times, my baking got better. I learned how to not bake a dry cake and how to make really good frosting; I learned to make ganache. I learned what to do when the cake sticks in the pan and what to do if the kitchen is so hot that the frosting slides off.

Some years there were big parties with friends and extended family, some years there were small gatherings of five. At some point they all began to tell me how they wanted to spend their birthday and I got out of kid party planning duties.

But there was always a cake.

Sometimes square, sometimes round, one time shaped like a star and once a cake made entirely of cookies and mass-produced snack cakes.

And always a picture for when they are grown and gone and someone else is making their birthday cake.

And always … always … made with love.

Susan Vollenweider lives, and bakes her kids’ cakes, in Smithville. For more of her writing go to thehistorychicks.com.

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