Awhile back, I received an invitation to my friend Erica’s birthday dinner. Since it was her New Year’s Resolution to learn more about her heritage, she’s planning a Swedish-themed party. Naturally, I replied to the email like I do any party invitation: “How fabulous! I’ll be there and can’t wait. Is there anything I can bring?” It’s proper etiquette to offer to bring something to a party, but many people offer with the hope of never having to bring anything more than a bottle of wine. I am not one of those people. I am always eager to show off my expertise as home cook. And if it’s a birthday party, I jump at the chance to make the birthday dessert.
You see, I love birthdays. I love them more than anyone I know. My favorite birthday is, obviously, my own. There’s something so exciting about planning a party and thinking about menus, desserts, and decorations. Plus, it’s the one day of the year where almost everyone (well everyone who matters, at least) contacts you just to tell you something nice and wish you a happy birthday. Honestly, I don’t get how you could not enjoy your own birthday. Thus, my narcissistic love for my birthday wells over into a love for everyone’s birthdays! I used to think there was nothing wrong with this, but it’s turned into a strange addiction to making birthday cakes. I agreed to make Erica a birthday cake, but not just any birthday cake, a Princess cake, a traditional Swedish cake that’s insanely delicious to eat and quite complicated to put together. My desire to make this cake has got me wondering (Why do I volunteer to make birthday cakes?!) and worrying (How the hell am I going to make a Princess cake?!).
It’s easy to come up with reasons, or rather, excuses, on why I agree to making elaborate layer cakes for friends. I make birthday cakes because I have to cook for my job. I make them because it’s fun to browse Food & Wine, Epicurious, and Martha Stewart searching for the perfect recipe. I make them because it’s my little way of enjoying birthday parties year round. I make them because it’s a challenge and a test to see if I can actually layer four slabs of cake with thick filling and cover the whole thing in pillowy frosting. But deep down, I know the real reason I make birthday cakes is the same reason an actor takes the stage. For the recognition. The standing ovation at the end of the night. The shining moment when everyone is applauding your genius, creativity, and skill.
“You made this? From scratch?!”
“This is the best cake I’ve ever tasted.”
“Oh my god! This is so good.”
“What is in this? How did you make it?”
The praises that come along with a memorable and delectable birthday cake are like no other admiration. It’s pure and basic approval. It has nothing to do with your personality, your looks, what you’re wearing, or anything that you said. It, quite simply, has everything to do with the way the cake tastes. I don’t know why I crave, need, and seek out this appreciation, but I do know that I want to receive it at Erica’s birthday dinner.
I first tasted a Princess cake at my aunt Meg’s birthday five years ago. Since then, I’ve always wanted to make one. But the complicated process — six components (genoise, pastry cream, simple syrup, jam, whipped cream, and marzipan) must be made before the cake can be assembled — has always intimidated me. And, when baking a birthday cake, there’s always a great chance of failure. There are so many elements that can go wrong. However, the risk of failure means the success will be that much sweeter. It’s the hardest cake I’ll have made thus far, but the possibility of it being the best dessert ever (can you imagine years from now at Erica’s birthday, my friends reminiscing about the unforgettably scrumptious Princess cake I made for her 25th birthday?!) means I have to do it! I feel bad about wanting my cake to take the spotlight away from the honoree (it’s horribly selfish, I know), but now that I know it’s recognition I seek, I can clearly focus on the task at hand. I’ve got to make a Princess cake. If it ends up being a failure, no one has to know. I’ve heard that there’s a place on Fillmore Street that makes the best Princess cakes in the city.