A January Letter from the Editor: The Best Birthday Cake for a New Year
Happy January! I took an extra week off from this space, starting the year off slow and easy. Last Sunday was my birthday, the middle of a birthday cluster in my family. My daughter turned 4 on New Year’s Eve, and my other daughter turns 6 this Monday. So for me, the taste of the new year is the taste of birthday cake.
In this space, I am an absolute traditionalist. The only right and true birthday cake is fluffy-yet-moist yellow cake with dark chocolate buttercream. You know, the classic that tastes like a boxed cake but better — sprinkles not optional. But it’s weirdly difficult to find a good version at bakeries. My husband has made the rounds of bakeries both fancy and plain, and there’s always a problem (the cake is coarse like cornbread, the frosting is anemic and barely chocolate-flavored, or — in one memorable year — the cake has ganache (!!) instead of proper chocolate buttercream). Lest I sound like a horribly entitled over-40 Goldilocks, I will add that I am always happy to have cake, no matter whether it lives up to my specific standards.
I do think that a certain nostalgic birthday cake is just never quite attainable from a professional bakery. The lumpy, slumpy layer cakes I make myself, slapped with frosting before little fingers swipe the bowl, are the ones I remember best. So far the best yellow cake I’ve made is Stella Parks’ from her cookbook BraveTart, which calls for a tablespoon of potato starch for fluffiness. I’m loyal to this old-fashioned chocolate frosting that whips up creamy and soft but gently hardens on the edges like boiled fudge.
But I have taken a break from baking birthday cakes this year. Like many parents I feel a lot of pressure to make the magic happen, from the holidays straight through to mid-January. The problem with the strenuous making of magic is sometimes you don’t get to enjoy the magic too. So this year I gave myself an out on birthday cakes — especially since my girls wanted those glorious gaudy rainbow cakes, where every layer is a different color. (Praise the Lord for mail-order birthday magic.)
So this new year has not yet had the taste of the birthday cake I’m looking for. Which feels poetically appropriate in this already VERY HARD winter of Omicron, shutdowns, school closures, frustration, and déjà vu. It’s a new year, but so much feels the same. I’m raging against the fact that my 4-year-old still can’t be vaccinated, and the feeling of abandonment, even in my own privileged circumstances, that so many parents feel in our society.
All I can do is go deep and take it slow, committing to truly putting on my own oxygen mask first. That worn-out phrase is still one that does a lot of work for me. For me it means mail-ordered birthday cakes, holding on for dear life to a teeny-tiny workout routine at least a few times a week, and being extra-quick to say (to others and myself) “Let’s not worry about that right now.”
I am finding so much joy in our team here at Kitchn, too, as we enter a new year with some new folks coming on board and some quiet-but-promising fresh energy for recipes that feel like home. There are so many things this January that I’m proud of already, like this fantastic deep-dive into how grocery shopping is changing this year, a showdown of life-changing minestrone soups, and this piece on how to get your engine restarted for cooking in 2022. We have more to come, like our playful picks for the hot new viral recipes of the year (potatoes! Always potatoes!) and the most moving and beautiful package of recipes and essays for Tết. We have so many ideas about how to make cooking more fun and more satisfying this year; I can hardly wait to share them with you.
I am still holding out for a big and yummy new year birthday cake — but when the time feels right. When this year truly feels new I’m promising myself a huge sloppy homemade yellow cake with chocolate frosting and an eye-popping dash of sprinkles. When will that be? Maybe when spring hits and I see the crocuses come up. Maybe when case rates plummet and vaccine rates rise. Most likely it will be when my 4-year-old finally gets vaccinated! So here’s to birthday cake (the right kind!) and finding our footing together in the kitchen in this new year.