As far as my children’s birthday parties were concerned, I used to be perfectly content making brownies from a box for classroom celebrations and buying jumbo-size sheet cakes from the nearest Costco for birthday parties. Such pre-packaged goodies were tasty, cheap, and – of the utmost importance in my chaotic life – QUICK. But now? Now there is PRESSURE.
I blame Pinterest.
Also Instagram. And the Food Channel. And even cookbooks.
But mostly, I blame all those (indecently) savvy food bloggers out there, toiling away at creating such pinnably delicious recipes, and all those (obnoxiously) talented friends of mine (you know who you are – and really, how can you call yourself my friend and torture me so?!) who happen to be (offensively) ingenious bakers; especially those (annoyingly) gifted bloggers and friends who upload beautiful mega-pixel photos – nay, photographs – of their drool-worthy sugary confections and mouth-watering baked ooey-gooey goodness on all the social networking sites I can’t keep myself from haunting on a daily (okay, hourly) basis.
So when my youngest child’s 2nd birthday rolled around last week (2nd birthday?! How did that even HAPPEN??), I knew in my heart of hearts that I could not, COULD NOT, buy a store-bought cake this year for his birthday party. I felt compelled to bow to the pressure of all those Kitchen Gods and Goddesses and make something from the HEART with my very own HANDS.
But here’s the thing. I’m a terrible baker. Baking is a science (which is SO not my subject; I’m a language arts kinda gal…) where even a pinch too much baking soda or folding in the wrong size eggs (really – until recently I thought all eggs were the same size… who knew?!) can relegate an entire batch of butterscotch chip cookies straight to the compost bin. I’m way better suited to the world of COOKING, where an extra dash of salt or some spilled tarragon won’t ruin the dinner I’ve just spent an hour making (which my children won’t eat, anyway, but that’s another matter altogether).
So, I’m taking baby steps in the baking arena. Thanks to Pinterest (I fully acknowledge my addiction to this site; someone should probably stage an intervention), I discovered a yummy (even if I do say so myself) cupcake recipe that modifies a boxed cake mix. Yes, yes, a box is pre-packaged, and that’s BAD, but I give myself credit for going “homemade” – even if not fully from scratch – because the recipe still takes FOREVER to make.
Which brings us to the night before the party (you obviously know that nothing in my life goes smoothly… so here’s the fun bit…). I tucked the youngest two kids into bed (Bill had taken the oldest to roller derby practice), and poured the cake mix (the kind with pudding in it – did I say yummy?), into a mixing bowl. Just as I was about to add the other ingredients, I remembered the sage advice of the expert-level food blogger who provided the recipe, and set out the buttermilk and eggs (two large eggs, if you were wondering) to warm to room temperature before starting. Baking is so NOT a quick process… So, I poured some wine (just my first glass, I swear!), and sat at my computer to work (finding my dream wardrobe on Pinterest) for the duration.
After a few minutes (and some really adorable striped dresses pinned to my style board – I’m way into stripes these days), I heard this odd, repetitive sound… it was like a lick-lick-lick sound, but not “wet” (no sloshing or slurping) if that makes sense… not quite like sandpaper, but (Ooh, that’s cute… every dress should have pockets…) – what WAS it? It’s not outside… it’s in the house… I pinned another dress (or maybe it was a fedora – but am I really brave enough to sport a fedora?), and got up to solve the mystery of the dry lick-lick-lick sound that wasn’t stopping. I wandered into the kitchen…
AND FOUND MY DOG WITH HIS NOSE IN THE CAKE MIX!!!!!!
I almost had KITTENS, I swear. I’ve never heard my body make the kind of noise that burst out of my mouth. The stream of curse words I used should’ve woken the children (and scarred them for life), I was so loud. My 80-pound dog lifted his huge head out of the mixing bowl, his big brown nose smeared with white powder (like a canine version of Al Pacino pulling his mug out of a giant pile of cocaine in Scarface…), saw me (in crazy lady mode) coming toward him (I do crazy lady a little too well I fear), and, dropping to all fours, couldn’t follow my directions to “Get out, get OUT, GET OUT!!!!” fast enough, scurrying past me on his way to the back door, cowering, his large body somehow now the size of a tea-cup Chihuahua…
It was 8:00pm. Bill couldn’t run to the store for me, and wouldn’t be home from Paisley’s practice until 10:30pm. Also, he had the car. Even if I DID have the car, I couldn’t GO anywhere, because it’s not like I could leave the boys home alone (not that I didn’t think about it! I know… bad bad bad mama!). I needed to make two batches of cupcakes (for 48 total cupcakes) before I went to bed, giving the cupcakes plenty of time to cool before frosting them in the morning (turns out, frosting is very good at melting into, and sliding – yes, sliding – right off the top of, any cake product that has even a touch of warmth left from the oven… a lesson, if you were curious, I did indeed learn the hard way), before taking the birthday boy to the zoo after his nap. And the dog had just eaten, in essence, half the cupcakes…
THE DOG HAD EATEN THE TODDLER’S BIRTHDAY CUPCAKES!!!
So there I was, hyperventilating into a brown paper lunch sack (okay, not really; I was just guzzling my wine, which looks way more pulled-together than the paper sack thing…) when my best friend from high school, who was visiting us for the weekend with her daughter (quick aside: it was SO nice to see them, and not just because of the service they were about to render), came home from touring some of the local sites. They kindly offered to stay at the house while I walked to the grocery store a few blocks away. Phew! Maybe I could pull this fancy-schmancy cupcake thing off as planned!
I got to the store (luckily the perpetual rain had finally stopped, so I wasn’t soaked to the bone in the process), and guess who didn’t have the cake mix I needed? Naturally…
So I walked across the street to the big chain drugstore, hoping that just maybe they had the cake mix with the pudding in it… No luck – they only had the chocolate version, which my tricked out recipe didn’t call for…
Okay, all of you (outrageously) overly-accomplished bakers out there, I know what you’re thinking: I should’ve just made the cupcakes from scratch!! First: baby steps, remember? Second: Hindsight is 20/20. I didn’t have time to scour the blogosphere for a new recipe! And what if the new recipe called for some elaborate pantry item that I didn’t have, like fresh lemon zest or vanilla extract imported from Madagascar or strawberry preserves that I had canned myself from last summer’s bountiful harvest (and I don’t even grow strawberries!)?? I needed that cake mix, I needed the cupcakes made, and I needed them NOW.
At this point, my lovely friend, seeing that I was totally about to crack, or perhaps just worried about the health of my liver if I kept guzzling wine, offered to drive to another grocery store to find me the elusive cake mix with pudding. And now you know why she’s been one of my dearest friends for more than two decades: the gal who memorized Lita Ford & Depeche Mode lyrics with me in high school (her hair was even bigger than mine – she rocked!), who survived a firetrap of a roach motel in Amsterdam with me during college (honestly, one of the scariest nights I’ve ever experienced – I still get shivers down my spine thinking of that place), who sent me a “mama care package” that included a fashion magazine and Skittles (my faves; she knows me so well!) in addition to her handmade baby gift on the arrival of the soon-to-be birthday boy (yeah, she’s one of those exasperatingly talented friends I mentioned; she bakes, too… sigh), was now helping me indulge my (completely irrational, if hopefully endearing) need to make not-quite-homemade, but-totally-from-the-heart cupcakes for my son.
The best part? She’s vegan; she couldn’t even eat the (I did mention yummy, right?) white cupcakes with (insanely decadent) white chocolate buttercream frosting I spent the rest of the night making and the next morning frosting. She was just willing to help out an old friend, and celebrate the life of my child.
Which is what it’s all really about, isn’t it? I mean, yummy food and decadent desserts are wonderful and all, but birthdays (and baby showers, and anniversaries, and graduations, and holidays, and all those other festivities that call for an abundance of goodies and treats) aren’t about food and desserts – about how gourmet the pizza was (or not, as the case may be – look, I used up any kitchen skills I had with the cupcakes, okay?!) or how “from scratch” the cupcakes were – such special occasions are about families and friends coming together, about celebrating togetherness, about honoring the milestones and accomplishments of those people we want to be together with…
For a few minutes there (okay, a few hours, but who’s counting?), I lost sight of the important stuff: the day wasn’t about how scrumptious or photo-worthy my cupcakes were or weren’t; the day was about how joyful we were that Broder came into our lives TWO fantastically fun-filled years ago and how grateful we were to celebrate his birthday together with beloved family and friends.
The cupcakes (somehow and rather shockingly, I know, given my utter ineptitude when it comes to the science of baking) came out just like I wanted – yummy, pretty, plentiful (I was forced to hide the cupcakes in the oven to keep them away from the still-opportunistic pets; and in case you were worried, my dog suffers from no Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or any other ill consequence engendered from my little crazy-lady outburst: his big brown nose, licked clean of all white cake powder, was in the compost bin only an hour later…), and even photo-worthy (even if I do say so myself!).
But as delicious and photogenic as the cupcakes were, it’s Broder’s smile, his happy face, his giggles of appreciation and delight that make the photo… and the day. The enjoyment he took in seeing the penguins and jaguars and elephants on our trip to the zoo, the pleasure he expressed in playing with all the friends who came over to our house to share the occasion with him, the awe in his face as he stared at the two lit candles atop his cupcake, were the real icing on the cake…
In less than four weeks, Liam will be celebrating his 6th birthday (6th birthday?! How did that even HAPPEN??), and I know that I will once again feel the PRESSURE (and as much as I’d like to blame Pinterest and Instagram and the Food Channel and cookbooks and all those indecently, obnoxiously, offensively, annoyingly, outrageously, and exasperatingly savvy, talented, ingenious, gifted, overly-accomplished Kitchen Gods and Goddesses – bloggers and friends alike – that fill my life and computer screen with drool-worthy and mouth-watering culinary images and recipes, I know I, and I alone, am responsible for my own freakish, obssessive, borderline-OCD ways…) to avoid the pre-packaged, store-bought, and QUICK dessert options.
And really… How hard can it be to be to make those handmade, from scratch, definitely not store bought, chocolate chip cookie ice cream sandwiches (with the ice cream edges rolled in mini-chocolate chips – so decadent!), the recipe for which I just strategically pinned to my Pinterest board?
But this time? This time I think I’ll ask the birthday boy to make those ice cream sandwiches with me. I’ll even let him eat a few of the chocolate chips. And maybe a chocolate chip cookie or two (hey, I might be new to this whole baking thing, but I still know I need to make sure everything tastes good, right?!). Just as long as we’re enjoying the process… and having fun… Together…
(The dogs, however, can wait outside…)