My 60th birthday was on June 23. I didn’t want a big party or lots of attention. My view is that 60 is a gateway year. Several weeks before “the day,” thoughts about life past, present and most of all, future were filling my head. For the first time in my life, I had clear awareness that the time remaining will be of shorter duration than time passed.
As an antidote to sobering thoughts, I chose to focus on birthday cake.
I love birthday cakes and have definite preferences. For years, I insisted upon the Caramel Three-Layer Cake baked in the kitchens of the Woman’s Athletic Club of Chicago. The cake symbolized my birthday celebration and I’d think about it with happy anticipation. Sadly, I have no photos of this perfect cake. I believe that the original baker of the cake, Hattie, is no longer alive. Hattie’s cakes were fine-textured, not crumbly, almost pound-cake like in richness and structure. Each layer was about 1 1/2 inches high. The caramel frosting was the color of cafe au lait, with emphasis on the “lait.” But there’s a golden, caramel-y, butterscotch-y tone — enriching the cafe au lait color. The frosting was generously applied between layers and on the top and sides, sealing in the cake’s moisture and giving the entire thing a proud and welcoming personality on the cake plate.
I live in California now. Hattie’s cakes can only be dreamed about every year, and I can still taste Caramel Cake in my memory.
Birthday week arrived. My family and best friends knew I wanted to low-key the event. They were warned not to mess with the cake. I left it at that, and actively repressed anxiety about how the day was going to turn out.
On June 22, I received a a call from Guillaume Bienaime, the chef of Marche Restaurant in Menlo Park. The pastry chef, Adrienne, baked a carrot cake for an advertising shoot. Guillaume knows I am a big fan of Adrienne’s carrot cake and offered it to me. He was not aware that it was my birthday. Wow! One of my fave cakes just fell into my hands. The cake was two layers, at least 12″ in diameter, dense and moist and without big chunks of nuts or large identifiable nuggets of fruits and veggies. The cream cheese frosting was fluffy and light, not too sweet. The top was covered in Hershey Kiss-shaped peaks of frosting. I think it weighed about 5 pounds before sharing. I forgot to get a picture before we consumed most of it. Here’s what was left when I took out my Blackberry.
On birthday-day, June 23, I went to my volunteer job at Stanford Cancer Center. Hilda, one of my pals among the concierge staff, presented me with this, an intense, dense, almost solidly fudgey dark chocolate ganache cake from the Palo Alto Baking Company. (We still had a slice or two of the carrot cake at home, but dark chocolate ganache? Say yes! to variety.)
That evening, I fell victim to the perfect surprise party at the home of dear friend and person extraordinaire, Nancy Z. I faced cake #3, our default celebration cake, the incomparable Chocolate Rum 2-layer cake with cream cheese and dark chocolate frosting from the Prolific Oven in Palo Alto.
Why birthday cakes matter: