You can’t have a birthday without a cake! Though no one knows for sure, there is some consensus among food historians about how our current tradition of celebrating birthdays with a candle topped cake evolved through the millennia.
It all began with the Ancient Egyptians who believed that a pharaoh’s coronation marked his “birth” as a god, and he should be honored as such. The Ancient Greeks continued the tradition of honoring gods and goddesses, offering moon shaped cakes glowing with candles to Artemis, the goddess of the moon. The burning candles symbolized the luminosity of both the moon and Artemis’ beauty. The Ancient Romans joined the party when they decided that mere mortals should also be honored, as long as the mortals were male. Friends’ and family members’ birthdays were acknowledged, while the government even created holidays to commemorate its most famous citizens’ birthdays. By the 18th century, Germans were celebrating Kinderfest, a birthday party for children. A cake would be topped with one candle for each year of life, plus one more for the next year. The candles were lit, a wish made and the candles blown out. Perhaps the smoke carried the guest of honor’s wish or prayer to Heaven? This German tradition of observing children’s birthdays made it to America by the late 1890s, with the “icing on the cake” arriving around 1910 in the form of a song still sung today, “Happy Birthday to You…”
Flash forward to the 1970s and birthdays in my childhood home. The oldest of four, my youngest sibling was born when I was 6yrs old. My parents had 4 children in 6 years- needless to say, life was busy! Birthdays were always celebrated with parties. As an infant or toddler, it meant just family, but by nursery school it meant having friends to our house for cake and party games… think BINGO, Pin the Tail on the Donkey, and Hide and Seek. Mom did it all, but usually outsourced the cake. For my sister and me, a buttercream frosted confection covered with pink flowers was ordered from an Italian bakery. For my brothers, a Carvel ice cream cake was arranged. Carvel could turn Fudgie the Whale into anything, Santa, a leprechaun, or for my youngest brother, a very memorable “Jaws” cake.
One bakery cake that often graced our table was an absolute stunner! Its only downfall, the sides coated in sliced almonds. Not exactly standard party fare for the elementary school set that was more accustomed to Duncan Hines cake with coordinating Duncan Hines frosting. It wasn’t until well into adulthood that I confessed to my mom that I had never really liked the almond covered cake, and instead had dreamed of boxed cake mix and frosting from a tub. That is until one year when I actually did a not so scientific side-by-side comparison- boxed vs homemade and in a blind taste test, everyone (including me) chose homemade.
Today, birthdays mean getting together with family and friends, as well as the honoree deciding the birthday dinner and dessert. Everyone has his or her favorites… ice cream pie to ice cream cake to traditional cake, even cheesecake. Whatever the birthday person wants, I will happily make. Recently in our house, we celebrated a 13th birthday. My son went back and forth planning the perfect menu for himself, finally deciding on take out from our favorite Mexican place followed by Chocolate Cake with Marshmallow Frosting for dessert. This chocolate cake has been a hit for years! Sometimes slathered in cream cheese frosting, but more often than not, swoopy fluffy Marshmallow Frosting is the request. The chocolate cake is moist, tender, and deep flavored. The frosting isn’t really made from marshmallows, it’s actually a Seven Minute Frosting, but the taste and look is so reminiscent of a marshmallow that’s what my kids have named it. And don’t just save this cake for birthdays- it is excellent any time!
Devil’s Food Cake
*adapted from Kathleen’s Bake Shop by Kathleen King
2 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
2 ¼ cups firmly packed dark-brown sugar
3 squares (3 ounces) unsweetened chocolate, melted
½ cup buttermilk
1 cup boiling water
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 350°. Grease and flour two 9-inch pans or three 8-inch round pans.
In a large bowl, sift together flour, baking soda, and salt.
In another large bowl, cream butter and sugar with an electric mixer. Add eggs one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Stir in melted chocolate.
Beginning and ending with the dry ingredients, add flour mixture and buttermilk alternately to the butter mixture in three stages. Add boiling water and vanilla. Mix well, but don’t overmix. The batter will be very thin and soupy at this point; don’t be alarmed!
Pour batter into prepared pans and bake for 30 minutes, or until a cake tester (toothpick or bamboo skewer) inserted in center comes out clean. Remove pans to wire rack. Cool 5 to 10 minutes before removing cake from pans; finish cooling on rack.
Frost or dust with confectioners sugar and serve with ice-cream.
Makes one 9-inch, 2 layer cake or one 8-inch, 3-layer cake.
*adapted from The Martha Stewart Cookbook by Martha Stewart
3 egg whites
1 ¾ cups of sugar
5 Tablespoons cold water
¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Place egg whites, sugar, water, and cream of tartar in the top of a double boiler over but not touching rapidly boiling water.
Beat with an electric hand mixer for 7 minutes. Remove from heat, add the vanilla, and continue beating until fluffy and glossy.
Spread the frosting between the layers and over the exterior of the cake with an off set spatula or knife.
This frosting is best served the day it is made.