What five year old doesn’t like cake?After a couple of years of unsuccessful birthday offerings, I discovered that Firstborn Daughter was not a fan of cake. She didn’t like sweet frosting and thought cake was bland. Looking back now on her favorite meals, it should have been clear that her palate was partial to rich, spicy, and savory. She was eating pate and brie at age two, spicy mexican salsa and chile rellenos by three, and she now devours escargot and loves bone marrow. Cake just isn’t her thing.
But how could I celebrate my child’s birthday without cake? Our family is BIG on celebrations so I wasn’t giving up that easy. I started pondering solutions after her fifth birthday when I discovered that making the cake beautiful definitely was not the solution. I brought out a gooey, drippy, triple-layer, pink creation at her Pink Princess Party and she blew out the candles with delight. But then, much to the dismay of all her little friends, she did not want to cut and serve it. She did however, think it was really pretty. Her friends waited anxiously while I convinced her that she couldn’t keep the cake in her room to look at or the ants would just eat it all up. I learned my lesson, no more pretty cakes covered in pink frosting.
The following year, I decided I needed a cake that would be a bit more savory and less sweet. I was never a fan of carrot cake, finding them dry and too “meaty” to feel like dessert, but I thought maybe it would be more to the liking of Firstborn Daughter. As I looked through my collection of cookbooks, I discovered that most carrot cake recipes contain raisins and nuts, both of which Firstborn Daughter disliked. Some also contained coconut, which I thought would dry the cake even more, but I liked the idea of pineapple. I combined a few recipes from community cookbooks, using carrots and pineapple as the primary flavors, adding plenty of both to make it moist and sweet while still having a strong carrot taste. Since I couldn’t help myself, I also added a frosting made of cream cheese, lemon and powdered sugar, but not too sweet. I baked it like a traditional cake in 9” round pans and covered it in lemon cream cheese frosting.
Firstborn Daughter loved it. She even liked the frosting, but not that much and ate around most of it, leaving it on the plate. The simple carrot cake became her birthday tradition and I baked it every year since birthday number six. Since she lives across the country now, we aren’t always together on her actual birthday anymore. But the carrot cake always comes out at some point during the year, whenever we are together, as a symbolic birthday cake. The cake progressed over her childhood years to an even more simple version, scaled down to an every day cake, baked in a bundt pan and “frosted” with sifted powdered sugar to suit her ever-growing sophisticated taste for the savory things in life.
For her 21st birthday, a group of family members traveled to New York to celebrate with Firstborn Daughter but we had one uninvited guest that nearly spoiled the festivities. Hurricane Irene decided to shut down the city for the 24 hours leading up to the birthday. Literally, shut down the city. The caterer cancelled, the cake was cancelled, and the subways shut down.
Hubby and I rushed over to the one open grocery store and he waited in the very long line while I grabbed everything I could think of to pull together dinner for 20. We weren’t sure who would make it to dinner but we knew that all the roommates and friends who lived nearby plus the visiting family would need to eat.
We happened to have a lunch reservation at a favorite restaurant, Balthazar, which was also the only restaurant open in Greenwich Village that day. There were people lined up out the door, hungry and angry that they couldn’t get in and the staff were harried and anxious, trying their best to please people. We felt very lucky that they saved our table and showed our appreciation to the distraught manager.
Unfortunately, we had also ordered a few tarts from the bakery for the birthday soiree and the manager felt terrible when he told us that the tarts were no where to be found. Not a problem, we were all still happy to be there and told him not to worry. We finished our lunch and were heading out to start our preparations for the improvised birthday party when he came over to the table with a big pink pastry box and a smile on his face. He said, “Thank you for being so nice to me. I hope this cake will be okay for the birthday celebration.” Inside was a gorgeous, triple layer, carrot cake! They even inscribed it!
As my sister-in-law later said to me, “That weekend in New York was magical.” There was something so special about the way people come together to make the best of difficult situations. Firstborn Daughter was not going to let a little hurricane ruin her celebration. Her roommates were so thankful for the provisions we provided and the neighboring friends were happy to have a place to go, some wondering if their apartments near the water would still be habitable the next morning. The love in the room was palpable and the atmosphere was joyous beyond belief.
A few of the roommates, in a plan of sheer genius, had decided to make light of the situation and while we were at lunch they went looking for a blowup doll to dress up as “Irene” to bring to the party. With most of the city shut down, they had to make do. As we sat down to dinner, they had someone knock at the door and in came the “surprise guest”. Irene was an enormous, much-larger-than-lifesize, inflated penis. Standing six feet tall, Irene had been dressed from head to balls in Firstborn Daughters clothes and jewelry and a face had been painted on complete with bright red lips. She had on a wig and a nametag that said, “Hello, my name is Irene.” Moments like that only come once in a lifetime.
I already said it was magical. But somehow that doesn’t even do justice to the love in the room that night. It was silly. It was fun. It was impromptu. And it was unforgettable. Sometimes the best moments in life happen by default. All that really mattered was the people who were there wanted to be there and wanted to be part of a celebration of life. Austin’s carrot pineapple cake was not served on the 21st birthday, but the Balthazar replacement was a worthy stand-in for the magical night. And every time we serve up Austin’s Carrot Pineapple Cake, we feel joy in the magic of celebrations.
"The more you praise and celebrate your life, the more there is in life to celebrate." - Oprah Winfrey
Austin’s Carrot Pineapple Birthday Cake
1 1/2 cups flour 1 cup sugar 1 tsp baking powder 1 tsp baking soda 1 heaping tsp cinnamon 1/2 tsp salt 2/3 cup cooking oil 2 eggs, beaten 1 1/4 cup grated carrots 3/4 cup crushed pineapple in juice 1 tsp vanilla To Garnish: Powdered sugar and fresh mint sprigs. To Serve: Vanilla Ice Cream and fresh raspberries
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Whisk together flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon and salt. Mixing after each ingredient, add oil, eggs, carrots, pineapple and vanilla. Mix well. Pour batter into a greased and floured bundt pan. Bake for 40 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean when tested. Cool completely in pan and turn onto serving plate. Sprinkle with powdered sugar.
To see my vegan version of Austin's Carrot Pineapple Birthday Cake, go to The Silver Pen.
For my gluten-free version, stay tuned!