This week, my older daughter will turn 4. In previous years, she’s either been oblivious to the whole birthday-festivity thing, or just confused by it. But this year she gets it — especially the cake-and-presents part. So, for the first time, we’re making a relatively big deal out of it.
She has requested a cake flavor — chocolate, her favorite — and wants to help make cupcakes to take to her preschool on her birthday. In the interest of transportation ease, we are going to make Black Bottom Cupcakes, which hit both the required chocolaty (the cake) and creamy (the cream-cheese filling) notes. (The chocolate chips dotting the filling are a bonus.) And then, on the weekend, we will do another variation of the whole cake-baking thing for a family party — probably Texas Sheet Cake.
All this cake-and-birthday planning reminds me of my own days of school birthday parties. The heyday for these roughly corresponds with the heyday for birthday parties in general: kindergarten through fifth grade. You bring enough cupcakes for everybody in your class to school on your birthday, and at some point the teacher sets aside time for everyone to sing “Happy Birthday” and snarf cupcakes.
Well, at least that was how it worked in my public elementary schools in Seattle. My husband, who attended East Coast public schools with a decidedly more hippie bent, was shocked to find out that cupcake parties were a regular thing.
“We weren’t allowed to bring anything to school on our birthdays,” he said. “It wasn’t fair to the kids who had summer birthdays.”
“But the summer-birthday kids got to have outdoor parties!” I protested. “Us winter kids were always stuck inside for our parties. I think it was a fair trade-off.”
Of course, given that the school cupcake standard in my day was Duncan Hines, and the cupcake standard these days seems to be the equally chemical variety that comes boxed up in plastic clamshells from the supermarket, I’m not sure that my husband’s set-up isn’t an improvement.
But I still think that bringing birthday treats to school is a nice tradition, especially if you can swing the homemade variety and make them with an enthusiastic birthday kid the night before. And someday I might actually manage the gold standard from my childhood: the cheesecake cupcake.
Now, I’m not a cheesecake person. In fact, I don’t find the typical heavy, dense, chalky American cheesecake at all appealing. But the cheesecake cupcake I was privileged to enjoy as a kid was a different dessert entirely. Light, delicate, soft, creamy, with a nice contrasting gentle crunch of graham-cracker crust, the cupcakes were tangy as well as sweet, and just the right size in cupcake form.
They were a once-a-year treat, because only one kid brought them to school. I can’t think of those cupcakes now without a twinge of guilt and regret, because despite their vast superiority to the typical school cupcake, they were different. And being different, of course, is risky business in school.
Granted, I was in the “gifted” class, the class crammed with all the early readers who talked too much and all the math whizzes who didn’t really know when to talk at all. But the Cheesecake Cupcake kid stood out even in this company for his discomfort with his peers, his inability to make small talk, his difference. And so the class bullies picked on him, and the rest of us cowards stayed mum.
I think his parents must have fought, all along, for his right to be different. They had saddled him from the get-go with an unusual Biblical name — not a traditionally popular moniker, like Jacob or Michael, and not a trendy one, like today’s Ezra or Luke, but one of those truly esoteric labels along the lines of Ichabod or Jephthah. And every year, this kid showed up on his birthday with those cheesecake cupcakes.
I mean, they weren’t even cake! And they didn’t have frosting on top! And they had shiny silver wrappers instead of regular paper. And they were always plain white vanilla, nothing interesting like chocolate or even colored sprinkles. Weird, weird, weird! What were his parents thinking?
I never had the guts to tell the oddball kid how much I looked forward to his wacky birthday cakes. Sure, I liked the Duncan Hines just fine. But the cheesecakes were special. They weren’t just different and clearly homemade; they were delicious. So delicious, in fact, that they are the only cheesecake I would be eager to try again, to get the recipe, to concoct for my own children.
So far, though, I have contented myself with Googling the cheesecake kid to find out what happened to him. True to form, he is now pursuing post-doctoral work at one of our nation’s more esteemed institutes of higher scientific learning.
I admit it would be cooler if he had continued to be wildly different, along the lines of, say, Hedy Lamarr or Danica McKellar — you know, nerds who pursue unusual life paths. But I’m OK with the standard brainiac success story. Eat that, classroom bullies!
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A father’s legacy
The vegetarian-cooking pioneer
Barbecue, tamales, cocktails, and more
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