Today was my niece Lilli’s 5th Birthday (Happy Birthday Lilli. I’m so glad you were born) so it only seems natural that I write about cake.
When we were kids we never got fancy store-bought birthday cakes. Instead we got Linda Lewis Specials made with love. I’m always amazed when I see the fancy birthday cakes my friends make for their 1 and 2 year olds. My mom’s an artist for crying out loud, but her cakes… For the most part her cakes tasted fine. Cake is cake after all. When you’re a kid, however, the true joy of a birthday cake has nothing to do with the taste. It’s all about presentation; that moment when you’re crowded around a table with your closest friends, Mom comes from the kitchen carrying your birthday cake blazing with candles, sets it on the table, and everyone has to gasp because your birthday cake looks so magical.
In the beginning, we had some pretty cool cakes. My favorite cake was my Little Orphan Annie cake. Mom used big orange gum drops for her hair and it was pretty amazing. Later that same year, Mom made my brother a Cabbage Patch Kid cake. That cake was not amazing. She forgot to let the cake cool before frosting it. My brother ended up with a birthday cake that resembled a Cabbage Patch Kid looking directly into the Arc of the Covenant and the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. But at least it tasted good.
Another time mom took a cake pan, turned it upside down, frosted it, and presented it to my brother as his cake. She gave him a knife and while trying to stifle her giggles, told him to go ahead and cut it. Already cautious of mom’s cakes, he hesitantly tried to slice it with the knife. When he noticed the cake was not cutting, he looked a little confused. Mom, however, thought it was hysterical and had to flee the room for fear she’d pee her pants from laughing so hard.
The most memorable Mom cake, however, was not a birthday cake at all. The year was 1998, the event was Easter and, for dessert, Mom made a cake. I discovered the cake in the fridge during the process of cleaning up after dinner. I’m not sure what caught my eye first. The shredded coconut on top? The pastel green frosting that coated the loaf in strange globs? Or the two chopsticks sticking out of it?
Pulling the plate out of the fridge:
Me: “Hey mom, what’s going on here?”
Mom: “I made an Easter cake.”
Everyone: exchanges skeptical looks
Mom: “Oh you’ll like it. It’s a jello cake.”
This does not look like any jello cake I have ever seen before.
Me: “What are these?”
Mom: “Well, it has two layers and I started to frost it before it cooled” (yep sounds right so far) “and when I put the second layer on top it kept sliding off so I stuck the chop sticks in it to hold it together.”
By now everyone has gathered back around the table out of sheer curiosity over this cake.
My sister-in-law, Ann: “So Linda, what kind of jello did you use?”
Mom: “Well, I mixed 2 packets of raspberry jello into the cake , and I mixed a packet of lime into the frosting for color.”
1) 3 packets of jello in one cake? Sweet Lord! So NOT how you make a jello cake.
2) Raspberry AND Lime? Gross. There’s no way this cake could get any more disgusting.
Mom: “I know it looks a little weird, but I’m sure it’s fine.”
*WARNING to even the most daring of cake eaters: When a giant butcher knife cannot cut through a cake because it literally sticks to the cake itself, it’s probably best to pass on a slice.
Me: “What’s that brown stuff in the middle?”
Mom: (holding a slice out for Dad) “Oh. I put a layer of mint-chocolate wafer cookies in the middle.”
3) And there it is.
Dad: (silently declines)
Ann: “Where did you say you got the idea for this… jello cake?”
Mom: “Oh you know. I’ve always heard people talk about how much they love jello cake, and I’ve never made one so…”
My brother Michael: “Is this marshmallow frosting? It’s really sticky.”
Mom: (who at this point is becoming a bit skeptical herself) “No. I just mixed the lime jello into a tub of Cool Whip.”
Guess what. When you mix a whole package of jello into a tub of Cool Whip, it congeals into a really… really tart paste.
By now we are all sitting around the table gently prodding our dessert not sure what to do. Finally my brother, after scraping off all of the coconut (he hated coconut in 1978, and surprise, he still hated it in 1998) steps up and takes a bite.
Mom: (has pulled a discarded jello box from the trash and is now reading the back)
Michael: “It’s not too bad. It’s just a little tart.”
Little nibbles are taken around the table, forks are set aside, and plates of cake are covered with napkins and pushed towards the center of the table.
Michael: (taking a more daring-sized bite) “If you scrape out the cookie filling, it’s really not that bad….This frosting is really tart though… and sticks to your teeth… and kind of stings… Oh man. This jello frosting is pretty strong. Yep it stings. And burns. Ah…my gums. My gums are burning…”
I begin collecting plates while Michael makes his way to the sink and begins brushing his teeth with his finger.
Mom: “Oooooh. I think I made this cake all wrong.”
That’s okay mom. We all survived, and Michael still has most of his adult teeth. What really matters is that, just like this blog post, your cakes were always made with love… and a way too much jello.