It’s five in the morning and I tiptoe down the stairs that spill out into our kitchen. I start the coffee in the exquisitely rare citywide silence that only occurs on holiday weekends. Yesterday was Thanksgiving and today is my oldest son’s 25th birthday.
I carry one of the kitchen chairs over to the cupboard. Heaving myself up with achy morning knees, I check to see if I have the powdered sugar that I vaguely remember tucking away on the highest shelf where I put the seldom used items.
The flour, sugar, eggs, vegetable oil, and canned pumpkin are already on the counter. I collect the baking soda, vanilla, cinnamon, salt, and baking powder from the spice drawer under the stove and set the cream cheese and butter out to soften.
Our cat Ruby appears and sits by her bowl. She knows my early rising will result in two breakfasts and trusts that this quiet moment will be our secret. I’m always scolded by the veterinarian to put Ruby on a diet. I pretend to acquiesce but have no intention of making the effort anymore. Whenever we put her on a diet, she eats the dogs’ food and gains even more weight. Besides, her zeal for breakfast brings us both joy.
I return to the birthday cake altar and begin. My cooking is utilitarian. For the last ten years I have navigated meal preparation for two omnivores, one with a limited palate, and two vegetarians. Practicality and nutrition took precedence over creativity and flair.
My pumpkin spice cake is the only thing received with equal enthusiasm by every family member. It is my signature dish, if a baked good can qualify as such. Regardless of its merit, my pumpkin spice cake is my culinary legacy.
I discovered the recipe in a vegetarian cookbook displayed in the new arrivals section of the library around the time the twins committed to their meat-free dietary path a decade ago. Like many traditions, there’s not a clear account of how it became the go-to-birthday-cake for each of the kids, but we are all in agreement that it has been forever.
In total, our four kids have thus far accumulated seventy-eight birthdays. During the elementary school years I planned every themed celebration you can imagine. There were bowling, swimming, gymnastics, ice skating, capture-the-flag, and horse-back riding parties along with bouncy houses and backyard petting zoos. It all came to a screeching halt as each child reached middle school. I was set adrift by my sudden embarrassing status and fired as the party planner.
It’s at this middle school transition when the pumpkin spice cake takes on its true meaning and significance. Even after the eye-rolling and the stiff hugs become the norm of the teenager years, a birthday cake is the one offering of maternal love my kids can still wholeheartedly welcome.
The timer beeps and I take my son’s cake out of the oven. I look out the window and see that the sky has become a dark periwinkle. The dogs walk into the kitchen. I open the sliding glass door to let them out and stand in the coolness of the sunrise. I watch the horizon brighten and listen as the birds and the city awaken.
I think about my children and mull for a moment about the things I wish I could do over but then deliberately let feelings of gratitude replace the angst.
There are only perfect birthday cakes.
Pumpkin Spice Cake (preheat oven to 350)
In one bowl place 2 cups of flour, 2 tsps of baking powder, 1 tsp baking soda, 2 tsps of cinnamon, 1 tsp salt
In another bowl combine 1 1/2 cups sugar, 3/4 cup vegetable oil. Blend sugar and oil together with beater. Add 4 eggs one at a time, beating well before adding another. Then add one 15 oz can of pumpkin puree and beat well. Add wet mixture to the bowl containing the dry ingredients and beat well.
Cook at 350 for 30 – 35 minutes.
Cream Cheese Frosting
Combine 8oz of cream cheese, 1/2 cup (one stick) of softened butter, 1 or 2 tsps of vanilla, 2 cups powdered sugar (1/2 cup more if you like sweeter frosting) Beat well until smooth.