Wednesday, August 19, 2009

A Week of Birthday Cakes, Part 2

People who don’t know me that well often think it’s strange that I make my own birthday cake, something I’ve done for the past sixteen years. What they might not realize is that I derive immense pleasure from creating outrageous desserts that make my friends swoon with dizzy delight. And what better excuse than a birthday party to make an extravagant cake to share with friends?

Here I am on my roof deck on Sunday night, modeling one of my birthday presents. (This apron was a most appropriate gift, I think!) It was a beautiful evening and not too uncomfortably warm for mid-August, at least not with a glass of chilled sparkling wine in hand. I was filled with much gratitude being surrounded by so many people I love as I celebrated my last night of being 35.

Not one but two cakes made a dramatic appearance at my birthday party this year. It’s not that my decadent streak is growing more pronounced as I get older, because Lord help me if that’s the case! But two cakes were absolutely necessary because I had the great joy of having Julie at my party this year. Julie, my incredible friend/culinary co-conspirator/French horn goddess, is also a fellow Leo as her birthday is just two days before mine. (I’ve always had a little twinge of culinary envy that Julie shares her August 15th birthday with both Julia Child and Tom Colicchio.) Since the party fell right in between our two birthdays, I was especially thrilled that she could be here to celebrate too. Two birthday girls = two birthday cakes.

Let me introduce you to the Passion Fruit Bavarian Cake in the foreground, the shaggy one covered in coconut shavings. Please also say hello to the Chocolate Raspberry Earl Grey Cake that’s lingering in the shadows. It may look a little shy, especially since I ran out of time to decorate the top of it with fresh raspberries. But don’t be fooled into thinking that this cake is a shrinking violet, for there is an unbelievable amount of chocolate intensity lurking beneath that demure whipped cream surface.

These two cakes were perfect foils for each other. The Passion Fruit Bavarian—airy chiffon cake layers filled with zingy passion fruit curd lightened with whipped cream—is a specialty at Tartine, the divine San Francisco bakery whose cookbook Julie gave me as a birthday present last year. It was the snowy white angel at the table, especially in comparison to that diabolical chocolate earl grey beauty. (Recipes to be posted at a future date.)

I wanted to get photos of the cake slices, but somehow photographic documentation plummeted down to the bottom of the priority list! In the excitement of it all, I didn’t even get around to putting candles on the cake. At least someone did take a picture of me with these two creations before the cake-cutting frenzy began. As midnight approached and I said goodbye to 35, I definitely felt ready to embrace my 36th year with great gusto.

By making two large multi-layered cakes, I thought I would have lots of leftovers to enjoy throughout the week, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Everyone came back for seconds and even thirds, including a friend who doesn’t even eat wheat but just couldn’t resist trying both cakes! As ever, I was delighted that both were devoured and thoroughly enjoyed.

When it came to my actual birthday the next day, I opted for something entirely different. After a soul-satisfying dinner at Lupa, Mario Batali’s Roman-style trattoria in the Village, I wasn’t really in the mood for anything cake-like, especially not after that chocolate earl grey powerhouse the night before. A black pepper-infused panna cotta captured my attention when I saw it on the menu, and it stole my heart after a single bite.

Delicate and trembling, this Italian custard was imbued with the most subtle hint of pepper, just enough to make you sit up and take notice. It was a silken marvel, served with a few grappa-plumped blueberries and a candle expertly balanced on the plate, and I felt so well-celebrated at the end of the day. It was the perfect finish to my birthday, especially coming in the context of 24+ hours of uplifting conversations with inspiring friends, not to mention some memorable food. My heart is still overflowing, and I thank you all.

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