Everyone seems to be marking the one year anniversary of the pandemic in that “where were you when the world stopped” sort of way. I was actually disappointed to scroll back in my phone and not find photos of us frolicking on an Indonesian beach, but actually at the same ice cream shop where I had taken James for a cone exactly a year prior. What can I say, the kid really digs aprés school ice cream.
So to answer the question: nothing and everything changed. We are right where we started, just with less teeth (the six year old in this scenario), and with more “fine lines” (his mom).
It is strange to mark the passage of time in a year like this. Life does carry on whether we like how things are going or not. Don’t worry, I am not about to launch into some Carpe Diem speech, but rather offering more of a shrug and deep exhale.
One thing I will muster some enthusiasm for is birthdays. I have always loved a homemade birthday party. My mom was the best at gathering a bunch of kids and turning on the sprinklers and slip and slide and letting my friends and me run wild in our underroos until we were ready for sheet cake that was so sweet it hurt my teeth. I vowed when I became a mother to create some of that homemade magic that makes you feel special in the simplest of ways. No horse drawn carriages for my snowflake, sorry.
The biggest birthday around here is that of my eldest stepdaughter, Zoe. She just turned EIGHTEEN!
Being a stepmom is sort of an odd role. Before Stephane and I married, I read books and articles about step-parenting, and everyone had a different take. You had the stepmoms who were BFFS with their step kids. You had the ones who made it seem like the worst title ever. So basically, I stopped reading other peoples’ accounts and just decided to do my own thing. The way I saw it was that these girls already have a mom, so they don’t need another one. But as my Aunt Blanche said to me once, “no child has ever suffered from having too many people love them.” So voila, I would love them, but in unobtrusive way.
I slipped into a tradition with the girls of making a big deal out of their birthday cakes. Zoe and Olivia are both very enthusiastic about dessert, but especially cake. I learned to win them over with mounds of buttercream and sprinkles, and I think in some ways that tactic worked. None of my cakes were particularly award winning, but in the eyes of a little girl, clouds of frosting and rainbow food colored cake looked like love. I hope.
I have made vanilla cakes, chocolate cakes, rainbow cakes, coffee mocha cupcakes, banana cake, Nutella cake… it goes on. I have to say this cake for Zoe is some of my better work. I owe it mostly to this mashup of two recipes from the Smitten Kitchen: Double chocolate cake frosted with Swiss buttercream.
Double Chocolate Cake
recipe from the Smitten Kitchen
1 1/2 cups very hot brewed coffee
3 ounces semi-sweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
3 cups granulated sugar
1 1/4 teaspoons fine salt
3/4 cup vegetable oil
1 1/2 cups well-shaken buttermilk
3/4 teaspoon vanilla
3 large eggs
2 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 1/2 cups unsweetened cocoa powder (not Dutch process)
2 teaspoons baking soda
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
Preheat oven to 300 (yes, this is correct!) degrees and grease two 10″ round cake pans. Line the pans with parchment paper and grease the paper also.
Place chopped chocolate in a large bowl and pour hot coffee over it. Let sit together for 4-5 minutes, then whisk until smooth. Whisk in sugar, salt, oil, buttermilk, and vanilla until combined. Whisk in eggs one at a time.
Sift flour cocoa, baking soda, and baking powder in a second large bowl and pour over chocolate mixture. Whisk until smooth. Don’t worry if the batter seems a little lumpy, just whisk a little more.
Bake cake layers: Divide batter between the two pans. Bake cakes in the middle rack of the oven for 1 hour to 1 hour 10 minutes until a toothpick comes out clean. Let cake layers cool for 10 minutes, then run a knife around the edges of the pan and turn out on to a wire rack to cool completely.
Swiss Buttercream Frosting
a wonderfully fluffy and glossy icing
1 cup sugar
4 large egg whites
3 sticks butter plus 2 Tablespoons, softened to room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla
Whisk egg whites and sugar together in a metal bowl over a pot of simmering water. Whisk occasionally until you can’t feel the sugar granules when you rub the mixture between your fingers.
Transfer mixture into the mixing bowl of a stand mixer and whip until it turns white and about double in size. Add the vanilla. Finally, add the butter one stick at a time and whip, and whip, and whip some more. Deb from Smitten Kitchen gives the good advice to not panic if the icing takes a while to come together, just keep whipping and it will happen.
Now you are ready to ice your cake! Here are couple of very helpful tips that I have learned in cake decorating classes. (I know, nerd.)
This cake is very dense and mercifully comes out of the oven pretty “flat” in a good way. If your cakes dome in the oven, use a long serrated knife to even out the layers by trimming off the uneven top (snacks!) before icing. I find that wrapping the cakes in plastic wrap and freezing them for several minutes makes it easier to handle the cakes because they become firm and a little less delicate.
Another great tip is using strips of wax or parchment paper under your bottom cake layer. This way you can ice to your messy heart’s content and then just peel away the strips to reveal the perfectly clean cake plate. Cake rounds which are round pieces of cardboard cut to various cake sizes are also good tools that you can find at any baking supply shop. They are cheap and very helpful because you can ice the cake on the board and easily move to a cake plate, or just serve it on the round.
Lastly, and maybe the most important, is what is called a “crumb coat.” If you have ever painted walls, this is like painting a primer layer on the walls before you apply the paint color. Take an offset spatula and apply a thin layer of icing all over the cake. This acts like glue for the crumby cake. Pop the cake back in the freezer if you have time so the icing can firm up. Then you are ready to apply all of your icing without those pesky crumbs getting caught in the frosting.
Piping and decorating is actually really easy and lots of fun. Don’t worry about everything being perfect! Set aside some of your white icing in a bowl and then add food coloring of your choice and blend together. You can add this to a piping bag if you have it, but a large ziplock works great. You can add a decorating tip into the bag, or just cut a small hole at the corner of the bag if you just want to write (see “Olivia” cake above.) For Zoe’s 18 cake, I used a star tip to pipe around the edges of the cake and decorate.
In the end, the cake is deliciously imperfect. Voila.
As we all witnessed, not too many positive things came out during our last election process, but as a stepparent, I was thrilled to learn about Kamala Harris’s family. She brings so many firsts to the White House, and stepmom is one. I’m sure it was not quite as rosy as she paints the family transition, but exciting to see step families being mainstreamed in a positive light. Much better than this terrifying 1964 article about step parenting in the Times. It really is just better to jump in head first rather than reading the fine print sometimes.
Happy 18th Birthday Zoe! I hope your leap into adulthood is sweet, and you can always come home for homemade cake.
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