By Kris Woll
Several days before my daughter’s second birthday, we received an email from my mother-in-law—Subject: Kuchen Backen—with a photo attached. The photo featured a relative in Germany baking a cake with her granddaughter at her side. Flour floated in the air around them like fairy dust.
The photo made me feel a little sad. Those Kuchen bakers, in their matching aprons, live just steps away from each other. We, on the other hand, are among those modern families who do not live near family—a drive several hours one way, a flight several hours the other. We do not bake together without significant planning; no extended family would be at our home for cake-baking or even cake-eating this birthday.
I longed for the sweetness captured in that emailed picture.
So I decided to Backen our own Kuchen.
But unlike the relative in the picture, I am not known for my elaborate and delicious cakes. I’m more of a bakery counter sort of mom. And so I sought out the easiest recipe I could find. I avoided any version that required flour to be sifted and eggs separated. The recipe I selected—called “one-egg cake”—appears in the “Quick Cakes” section of my very worn The Joy of Cooking, a section that opens with a warning: “we all want a good cake in a big hurry … let’s not delude ourselves that shortcuts make for the best textures or flavors.” I chuckled at the disclaimer, doubting that it applied to this cake, to me, and assuming—as I so often do—that my want for it to be wonderful be enough to make it so.
I mixed and measured and added the one egg while the children played around me, and the cake looked nice enough when it came out of the warm oven. A little flat perhaps, but absolutely like a cake. It smelled very cake-like, too. Later that evening, our little family frosted it with “quick white icing” (from the “Quick Icings” section of the same cookbook), and added polka dots—aka M&Ms—on top. My husband and I meant to send a photo of our decorating efforts (Subject: Birthday Kuchen!) to family in Germany and New York, but our hands were too full—with kids, with frosting—to snap any pictures.
* * *
Rain pounded the windows the next morning, and the birthday girl coughed and sniffled. We called off the party we planned to have in a nearby park. Instead, we stayed in our little house for a quiet day. Presents were opened and played with and fought over and played with again. We ate lunch, we did laundry, we took naps. After dinner we pulled out the polka-dotted dessert. We sang the song and the birthday girl joined right in with glee, blowing out her two candles with gusto. She clapped as a big chunk of “one-egg cake” with “quick white icing” landed on her plate. My husband took a few pictures as I lit candles; at least we caught a few moments to share.
The children ate their cake from the top down—M&Ms, then frosting, then a few bites of cake—but I took no offense. The M&Ms were the best part. As warned, the cake I baked seemed to lack something. Maybe it needed more than one egg, or some sifting and separating, or more flour fairy dust. The kids didn’t seem to mind— and they would have started with the M&Ms regardless—but I noticed the difference.
And as I cleared dishes from the table, the big chunk of cake still sat in the middle of the table. Far more than my little family could eat.
So I called a friend who lives just a few blocks from our place and far from her own parents and aunts and uncles. She is the “in case of emergency” contact for my kids on school and camp forms, as I am for her.
“Can I bring you some very sweet, dense, sort of mediocre birthday cake?” A testament to the friendship, she said yes.
We loaded up the sniffling birthday girl and her older brother and drove the few blocks in the rainy fall night. Warm light filled the windows of her lovely home. Her children greeted us at the door, eager to play.
“Can you stay for a bit?” she asked, offering a glass of wine and a comfortable seat on the couch. The children disappeared in search of toys. The birthday cake rested, sticky and sweet on the table, still in the Tupperware. Though that cake didn’t quite turn out as I imagined (though I can’t say I wasn’t warned) it did brighten our dinner table, summon some singing and—this is the sweetest part—bring us into the company and comfort of our own extended family that night.
Kris Woll is Minneapolis-based writer.