Sunday, February 17, 2008

U's Fourth Birthday, Part III

After opening one big box -- the medical kit -- Ulysses was content to leave the rest of his presents alone. That was a relief, as Don went back to having a bit of alone time before the house filled up for the afternoon and evening, and I turned to my big project: the cake!

I tried again to interest Ulysses in the cake. Now that he had the experience of opening a birthday present, he should be more in the mood, I reasoned.

"Ulysses, what color birthday cake do you want?"


"We're having a party today! Our friends are coming over for your birthday!"


So much for that.

The KitchenAid whirred, creaming butter and sugar together as I got out the sifter and cake flour.

"Mombie!" Ulysses called from his computer workstation. "Quiet! I'm busy!"

Ever since Ulysses discovered zombies -- he loves them -- I've become "Mombie."


By and by, party time arrived. The cakes were out of the oven and people were coming over at any moment. Ulysses still wasn't on board for the celebration. I decided to try a new tactic. I went into the bedroom and changed into a velvet blouse, and flowing, hippieish skirt and vest. Even put on earrings. Why I don't bother putting on this sort of thing more often, I'm not sure, because it's my favorite way to dress. At any rate, I went over to Ulysses and somehow distracted him from the video game he was playing on the site.

"Look at me, Ulysses!"

He looked. "Mama!" he said.

"I'm dressed up for your party! And here's what you're wearing." I put some clothes by him, on the spot on the couch where we dress him.

"Party!" he said. "Party! Beep, beep! We're going ride in the green car? To party?"

"No!" I said. "We're having the party right here! People are coming to us!"

"Party, party!" he said, and jumped on the couch, sticking out his ankles for me to dress him.


A moment later, U was dressed and in the kitchen, pointing to the cakes cooling on the rack. "Cake! Candles?" I showed him the box of candles. "Candles!" he said, happily.

"What color do you want your birthday cake to be?" I said, jumping on my opportunity.

Silence. Uh-oh.

Just then, Don walked through the room, and said, into the silence, "Red!"

"Red!" echoed Ulysses. "Red cake!"

"Would you like a red cake for your birthday, Ulysses?" I asked.

"Red!" U exclaimed. "Red cake! Red cake. Red, red, red. Red birthday cake. Red, red, yellow. Yellow cake."

That threw me. I backed up. "What color birthday cake would you like?" I asked.

"Yellow cake. Yellow birthday cake." He rummaged through the little bottles of decorator coloring on the dining table. He'd seen them once before, last summer, when we made dough ornaments with Donald's mother out in the yard during her visit from Georgia. He picked out the one with a yellow sticker on top.

Holing the bottle of yellow coloring, he walked over to our freestanding dishwasher and picked up the clear, plastic container of white frosting that I'd pulled out of the refrigerator a little while earlier -- I had made it the day before, figuring I'd color it when Ulysses put in a request, but he hadn't seen it before that moment. Right next to it was the container of white decorator icing. That he passed over.

He brought these two items to me -- exactly the two items needed to frost a cake yellow -- and placed them on the kitchen counter in front of me.

"Here, Mombie. Here yellow. Yellow birthday cake. Yellow!"


I turned the frosting into a mixing bowl and added a little yellow coloring. As I was stirring it in, Ulysses exclaimed, "You're baking, Mama! You're baking!"

"How is this?" I asked. "Is this yellow enough? Or do you want it more yellow?"

"More yellow!"

More yellow he got.

U brought over the coloring jar labeled leaf green. "Green, Mama! Green!" I broke off a lump of the decorating icing I'd mixed the day before and stirred it together in a bowl with a bit of green coloring. "How's that? Is it green enough? Or do you want more green?"

"More green!" he answered. "Birthday cake!"


Our friend Jennifer showed up and began helping with the cake project. She stirred up some bright red icing. Actually, it looked more magenta than anything, even though the jar was labeled "Christmas red." Good thing no one was requesting a red cake.


Our friends Sigurd and Gloria came over with their kids, Nico and Vicky. I had just finished covering the cake with frosting and was starting to fill decorating tubes with icing for piping flowers and whatnot. "What kind of cake is it?" Vicky asked.

"Yellow," I answered.

"I can see that," she replied.

Oops. Right. This cake was blindingly yellow. Spongebob yellow. In fact, Sigurd had already asked whether it was a sponge cake. Ha, ha. I explained that I meant it was golden on the inside.


The recipe came from Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything. The same recipe I used to make Don's birthday cake a couple of months ago -- the only difference was that I'd stirred coconut flakes into the frosting of his cake, and topped it with toasted coconut besides.

Last year, I read about cake baking and decorating for weeks in advance of U's third b-day. I practiced piping Crisco into flowers and borders and garlands for days. And then I followed recipes from Rose Levy Berenbaum's esteemed The Cake Bible to end up with a delicious, but complicated to make, buttercream frosting that never set up, even after I doubled the amount of powdered sugar in it, runny decorating icing that made its way to the base of the cake minutes after it was applied, and a dryish cake.

This year, I went with Bittman. For Donald's cake, I had used royal icing, which, it turns out, becomes rock hard shortly after application. This time, I used the 1974 Joy of Cooking's Decorative Icing, substituting organic palm oil for vegetable shortening. Perfect results, but a bit stiff.


For the writing, I mixed up some brown coloring with a lump of icing. I added some peanut oil to thin it sufficiently for handwriting.

It occured to me, as I mixed this, that it looked exactly like rich, luscious chocolate. Somehow I hadn't seen that coming. I thought it would be unpleasant and confusing to the palate to encounter something that looked this much like chocolate, but didn't taste chocolate, so I poured in some cocoa powder, enough to match in flavor the intense dark color of the icing. Plenty of cocoa powder.

Then it struck me that I could've skipped the brown coloring altogether.


1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing all that--I feel like I was there! Happy birthday Ulysses!