Most of the time, I am all about the shortest distance between grocery bag and plate.In my own twisted way, of course, because I often mean the quickest way to make something from scratch, hence eliminating Hamburger Helper and its ilk (I actually typed “ills” there first, but it was a typo, Doctor, I swear it) from the strategies I use in my vector-like trajectory (ha!) from stove to table.

But this thought process applies only 361 days of the year.On the birthdays for which I am responsible, I am all about fuss and trouble and the Heart’s Desire.A six-tiered, heart-shaped lemon cake with roses on it?OK, I’ll try.Robot cake?Cake shaped like a Boston Duck Tour boat, but with strawberries?I don’t promise to be entirely cheerful throughout the process, nor entirely successful in a Wilton Professional Cake Decorating Level 202/Martha Stewart Eat Your Heart Out way, but I’ll take a run at it.

In the studio of the mind, where the schematics for these things are drawn up, the frosting is always smooth, time is limitless and my wrists are as supple as the spatula’s acrobatics require.Furthermore, in the mental run-through, someone else will be washing the pastry bags.

Reality always intrudes, and brings with her the news that I have never actually gotten around to taking that cake decorating class and that I only have about 47 minutes in real time to assemble the thing.She often brings insufficient frosting, too, as well as crumbly cake and lost utensils and other impediments to the successful manifestation of what my mind’s eye has in its cross-hairs.She can be that way.

Inevitably, no matter what I have told myself in advance, I come down with the Birthday Sweats. What matters, of course, is not whether or not the mother of one of my children’s friends can make a scale reproduction in sugar and flour of Buckingham Palace, or whether my own reach has exceeded my grasp in ways obvious to any onlookers. What matters is how the birthday human receives it.

My son received his first birthday cake, a perfectly boring and plain disk of plain cake with plain pureed apricots on top, like it was the most shockingly beautiful thing he had seen in all his 12 months of life.

Our files are laced with shots of cakes, some passable, some respectable, some lumpy and leaning. The grinning birthday human is the nicest thing in each picture. A fuss has been made, for them and to their specifications, and this is all as it should be.

Today is a birthday in our house, the first of a celebration-laden month. Appetites for birthday treats are still fresh, and I am game for another season. The frosting was a bit stiff, the cupcake batter over-ran the cupcake papers, the little chocolate cups I ordered to go on top of them looked more like frying pans than coffee cups. Yadda, yadda, yadda.

Happy Birthday, sweet child of mine.

This was a component of the birthday proceedings, and it stands alone nicely.

caramel mousse

adapted from here

1 cup heavy whipping cream, divided

1/4 cup granulated sugar

1/4 cup firmly packed light brown sugar

2 T water

1/2 t vanilla

2 T unsalted butter, softened

Bring 1/3 cup of cream just to a boil in a small saucepan over medium heat, and remove from heat.

Meanwhile, heat the granulated sugar, brown sugar and water in a 2-quart heavy-duty saucepan over high heat, without stirring, until the mixture comes to a boil. Cook the mixture over medium heat, without stirring, until it turns deep amber-colored, about 6 minutes.

Lower the heat under the caramel to medium. Slowly add the hot cream to the caramel, stirring constantly with a long-handled, heat-resistant spatula or spoon. Beware, the cream will bubble and foam. Continue to stir until absolutely smooth. Remove from the heat and stir in the butter until it’s completely melted.

Transfer the caramel sauce to a 2-quart bowl and let cool to room temperature.

Whip the remaining 3/4 cup of cream with the vanilla until it holds soft peaks. Set aside 1/3 cup of the whipped cream and fold the remaining whipped cream into the caramel sauce in 3 stages.

Garnish with (if you happen to have it) crumbled chocolate cake, or mashed up chocolate or almond cookies, and the remaining whipped cream.Chill 2 hours if you have not already eaten it all testing to make sure it was tasty. If you haven't, and you portion it out sternly, you could make 6 modest desserts.