This is how Kat’s first birthday party started: a pretty new dress, a tranquil, clean, angelic looking baby, a clean table and lots of smiles all around.
This is how it ended: a nearly naked baby, a grinning, filthy goblin of a child, a sticky table, and giggling and laughter all around.
And it is all the fault of one thing, and one thing only.
A wicked, sinful, sugary confection made with lots of butter, flour, eggs and other such ingredients of dubious nutritive value. It is called a “birthday cake.”
I did not make Kat’s first birthday cake, and I know that for all those Martha Stewart worshippers out there, that is a grievous sin indeed. But hell, while I am perfectly capable of baking a beautiful and tasty genoise, filled with French, Swiss or Italian buttercream, or lemon curd or what have you, and topped with poured or rolled fondant or ganache, then decorated with gilt flowers and fruit, or icing swirls of intricate complexity, I don’t like doing it. That sort of baking gives me a headache, probably because I am a natural born cook, not a natural born baker. I prefer improvisation and the excitement of cooking “a la minute” as the French say–the thrill of a hot wok and a roaring flame and split second timing–to the extended planning, careful patience and diligence that an excellent baker must exhibit.
Instead, I made three different types of Chinese noodle dishes for the supper portion of the party (we called it the “oodles of noodles party–and if you are wondering, I made ja jiang mein, Hunan cold spicy noodles, and cold sesame peanut noodles) and ordered two cakes from The Village Bakery, which sits at the bottom of our hill, where they use fresh, local ingredients and actually make cakes with actual ingredients like real butter and organic wheat flour, maple syrup, raw sugar, fresh fruits and the like. The folks down at the bakery are awesome, and their food is something I do not mind letting Kat eat–whereas the typical bakery products made of hydrogenated vegetable oil and preservatives are not ever on my list of foods for a baby to eat.
But why two cakes?
My family is one of those who allow babies to experience their first taste of a sweet by completely and utterly destroying their first birthday cake.
Some families do not do this, and some people are offended by this practice, but I think it is a fun way to allow a kid to have a first culinary indulgence. I guess folks are offended by the waste of the cake–but, well, in Kat’s case, she only really got half of the smaller cake–we rescued and served the other half, along with the other whole cake which was meant for the guests and family of the birthday child. (I can understand the waste of food issue, but I cannot help but have fun with a kid tasting something sweet for the first time, and really getting into it–literally. It is too much fun to begrudge the little one a cake.)
As you can see–Kat wasn’t sure of what to do with the cake. Morganna had to take matters in hand and help her out with a first little taste.
Some might wonder why I spent so much money for a really good cake if Kat was going to mash it up.
My reasoning is this: she is going to eat a good amount of the cake, and I would rather that the fat and sugar calories she ingests by eating cake come from real honest to god ingredients that are at least partially good for her rather than nasty fake stuff that is in no way shape or form anything but bad.
And I was not about to make her a “healthy” first birthday cake, either–I read some of those recipes online and they seemed gross. No, for me, cake is not cake unless it is an indulgence–it should be fattening and sweet and oh so delicious–not healthy! It isn’t like Kat or anyone else is going to be eating birthday cake every day, so why try and make it healthy?
In other words, birthday cake should be good, and while not necessarily good for you, it should at least be made from good ingredients, not crap.
And in the case of a first birthday cake–it should be smashing good.
Now we come to a real connoisseur of birthday cake: Grandma Tessa. Here you see her coaxing Kat along with a taste of icing and encouraging words.
Tessa loves birthday cake, and generally, she likes the kind of inexpensive cake that comes from grocery store bakeries which I eschew. She likes the hydrogenated vegetable oil shortening and sugar icing, and can eat inordinate amounts of it. I think she has a pancreas of iron, and she is really funny to watch after eating it, because she has the metabolism of a hummingbird and will fly around the room afterwards on the power of all that sugar. If you give her coffee, too, whoa. You really have to watch out. Cake and coffee are rocket fuel for Tessa.
So, be warned that if you come to my house sometime, and you hear a vibratory hum and feel a wind whoosh past you and see a vaguely red-headed blur out of the corner of your eye–don’t worry–it isn’t a giant mutant hummingbird or a new species of Mothman. It is probably just Tessa flitting past after powering up on cake and coffee. You won’t have to worry about her running you down, though–she is way too nice for that. The worst that will happen is that she will hug you and show you her new shoes. (Tessa is also well known for her love of shoes in addition to cake and coffee.)
Kat finally got into it, after some coaxing, and started picking out bites for herself, though the first ones were relatively demure and not very messy. Kat is a remarkably neat eater for such a wee baby, so at first, she mostly got cake into her mouth where it belonged. She liked both the icing and the cake, and she was particularly fond of the raspberry preserve filling. I noticed a lot of lip smacking when she dug into that.
I was told by my mother and grandmother that I was similarly shy with my first birthday cake, and would only touch one finger to it at first. However, once I got a good fingerful of icing, I apparently lost all reserve and control and simply leaped face forward into the cake, and ended up with cake in my ears, in my hair, my socks, shoes, down my shirt and everywhere else it was possible for it to get. Mom just dunked me clothes and all in Gram’s big bathtub and bathed me and washed clothes at the same time. Not a bad idea, really.
Like mother, like daughter–here Kat prepares for an open-mouthed-face-dive into the cake. This would be after Morganna started painting icing “war paint” onto Kat’s nose and cheekbones. Once we all encouraged her, she really got into it and started a full-body assault on the cake. Meanwhile, I cut and served the other cake–lemon cake with lemon curd filling and lemon icing–and passed it around to our friends and family. All of us just sat around and watched Kat give herself over to an orgy of cake desecration. She even ended up making a throne out of part of the cake and sitting on it.
Not satisfied with her own cake to destroy, Kat wriggled over to where I was minding my own business, eating my piece of the lemon cake. Before I caught her intention with my psychic mother senses, she reached out and swiped my piece from my plate and hugged it to her belly as if trying to push it into herself via some mystic osmotic process. I had to admit that the Force was with Kat and her kung fu was greater than mine amid the gales of laughter as Kat beamed her best mischievous goblin grin at me, a new jag of tooth barely showing in her bottom gum.
She ended up with cake in her hair, which Morganna could not resist using as a styling product so as to make a “baby mohawk” do for her little sister. It looked good on Kat, and it was wonderful fun watching the two sisters feed each other cake with sticky fingers, laughing and giggling like a pair of insane pixies. They were enjoying each other and taking pleasure in not only eating food, but glorying in it.
I think that is why I like the tradition of letting babies smash up their first birthday cakes.
It is refreshing to see someone explore food so wholeheartedly, without shame or fear or guilt. Americans have so many food hangups and weirdnesses that it is amazing to see a child explore something like a cake for the first time, not just in the socially prescribed, proper ways, but in every way possible. Kat not only tasted the cake, and rolled it around on her tongue, mashing it against the roof of her mouth and swallowed it. She -lived- the cake. She was free to squish the icing between her fingers and explore the differing textures of icing and cake and filling. She had the sensual pleasure of rubbing vanilla scented buttercream all over her skin (and boy was her skin soft, even after her bath–and she still smelled of butter and vanilla, too, btw–yummy baby!), and she even got her toes into the act, as she used her feet to grab at the cake, icing squishing between her toes.
Seeing that innocent, unfettered joy, that gustatory and sensual delight in food was not a waste of anything–not time, not money and not a cake.
It was a treasure.
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