A hair over seventeen years ago at this time, I was enormously pregnant with my second baby and facing re-jiggered calculations on the part of those with the slide rules and calculators which indicated that the second baby might very likely be born on the fourth birthday of the first. This did not seem ideal to me, for numerous reasons, but I was reassured by science and experts that there was very little to be done about it at that point.
They underestimated me and the baby, in many respects. But we can get to that in a minute.
While we were still hypermentalating about the potentially shared (or near-shared) birthday notion, my husband gently raised the subject with the birthday’s sole proprietor at that time.
“You know,” he said, super casually, while we were driving and talk, as usual, centered around the upcoming celebration of being four, “Mama might be kind of busy on your birthday this year, so someone else may need to make your birthday cake."
I added that maybe we could even get a fancy bakery birthday cake.
I don’t recall the exact transcript of what emanated from the center of our universe in the back seat (where she sat in the center of the back seat, because it was the safest spot, and soon we would have two carseats, each containing a center of our universe, so WHERE WAS EVERYONE GOING TO SIT?? speaking of hypermentalating) but whatever she said, it was not expressed in a tone of assent and enthusiasm.
“Why would mama not be able to make my cake?” she said, equal parts scornful and mystified, once she had recollected herself to a degree.
“She might be busy pushing out the tummy baby,” muttered the person who had broached the tender topic, and was perhaps now questioning the wisdom of his choice.
“Then she can make it the next day,” said the person who was in no mood for nonsense or further conversation but willing to close on a note of moderate flexibility.
Here’s the thing: I grew up with sisters who had March birthdays that were only days apart. They themselves were only a year apart, so the dynamic was a little different. But it left an impression.
I had a talk with the tummy baby. Her sister had been something of a Gigantor as newborns go, and her arrival complicated as a result. I spoke to the baby about the various realities at play here, in terms that were clear and friendly, but frank.
“Come out early and you can get fat while I watch,” was the gist of the deal I hammered out.
I told everyone we had reached an agreement, and exactly not one person believed me. I was the size of a parade float, and they chalked this talk of early arrival up to wishful thinking on my part.
And so it came to be that on the 5th of March, well prior to the due date, I was undeniably in labor with the aforementioned tummy baby. The almost-four-year-old observed me waddling about, occasionally holding the edge of the counter to brace myself through a contraction. I told her the baby was coming, and her stake on March 23rd was secure.
“So today is going to be the baby’s birthday?” she asked. I told her yes.
She laughed. “That is so silly! It is SO SILLY for the tummy baby to be born on its birthday, because it is too little to eat birthday cake!” She shrugged with a kind of ‘suit yourself, you crazy baby’ shake of the head. Babies! They have no sense.
So of course I made a cake. A lemon-poppy seed cake, because that was the coin of the realm in her kindergarten.
Baking a cake while I was in labor made zero sense to anyone but me and the not-quite-four-year-old, but it made eminent sense to both of us so what of it. No one was going to argue with either one of us that day.
I made a cake (baking keeping me conveniently near the counter, for edge-gripping purposes), not an especially fancy one but still a cake, and then some hours later I pushed out the baby, a very well-baked and lovely baby, and then with ample time remaining to get back on my feet, on the 23rd I made a proper birthday cake for people with the good sense to be old enough to eat cake on their birthday.
I started thinking about making the cake that appears here a few days ago, not connecting it to anything other than having a lot of lemons around and needing a baked item to bring to someone as a thank-you. It began its tenure in my life as a recipe for a very French-seeming, buttery cake written for a very early (possibly made of stone) version of the Cuisinart food processor and once we discovered it, it quickly became my oldest sister’s go-to baked good.
Today would be that sister’s 57th birthday. It’s also a week past the anniversary of her death four years ago. Grief is a complicated landscape. There are many reasons to grip the edge of the counter, I've learned, which is still conveniently located in range for anyone who happens to be making a cake.
But you know how things go, in a person’s mind. On my way to the kitchen, I thought of the daughters, now tall and leggy and flying around the world on adventures, their birthday cakes deferred to some moment outside the month of March, when they alight here again. Cake and occasions and who is where. It’s all connected, and when we get quiet the pathways become illuminated, even if everything is not always clear.
This is a handy cake to know about so I hope you will take it as lightly as cake should be taken, and tuck it into your repertoire. I wrote it down as “Boo’s Lemon Cake” in the recipe journal someone gave me in high school. Over the years, I scribbled additions and modifications to it on a page that is now thoroughly marked with at least four different kinds of pen or pencil as well as plenty of butter and lemon juice. Poppy seeds were added around the time of the second baby, as noted above. Cream cheese entered the picture about ten years ago (the original had none) because it made for a slightly more substantial texture, and today when I took an additional leap and made a gluten-free version so I could eat it, the cream cheese was a good support to those grains in making the cake more cakey.
If you ever need cake in a hurry, here’s your guy. It makes good use of whatever citrus happens to be around for you, so switch that up as you like, and the poppyseeds are optional. For you guys, anyway. Not optional here, no matter who is around.
makes one full or two small loaves
for the cake:
- ½ c sugar
- one lemon
- one orange, lime or blood orange
- ½ c unsalted butter (8T)
- 2T cream cheese
- 2 eggs, room temperature
- ¾ c sweet rice flour
- ½ c oat flour
- 2T tapioca starch or flour
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 1T poppy seeds
for the glaze:
- ½ c confectioner’s sugar, sifted
- 2-3T lemon, lime or orange juice, or a mixture (just a heads-up that using blood orange juice here will give you a day-glo effect, as above)
- 1t vanilla, orange liqueur, brandy or mirin (my favorite)
- A scrape of citrus zest, if you like
Heat the oven to 350°. Line your pan(s) with parchment, or butter and flour them, whichever annoys you less. Definitely a toss-up for me, though using binder clips to secure the parchment until the pans are filled cuts down on the flowery language in my kitchen.
Use a carrot peeler to remove the zest (no pith) of the whole lemon and half the other fruit, in ribbony strips. Place the strips in the bowl of the food processor with the sugar, and pulse to combine, until the zest is very finely minced up, the sugar has gone all colorful and the scent near bowls you over.
Add the butter and cream cheese, and pulse a few times, then let the machine run until the mixture is smooth and creamy.
Add the eggs, one at a time, combining well after each.
Add the dry ingredients and pulse until they are fully incorporated, scraping down the sides between pulses.
Bake about 25-30 minutes, until the top is cracked and golden and the center tests clean.
While the cake is baking, put the powdered sugar in a small bowl and stir or whisk in the alcohol, and then a dribble at a time of the citrus juice, until you have a nice, smooth glaze.
Once you remove the cake from the oven, while it’s still hot, spoon the glaze generously over the top. You can do a second coat after the cakes cool a bit, if you like and there is extra glaze to contend with.
Thanks to the richness of the cake and the glaze on top, this keeps well and would not object to being mailed, I reckon. I’ve also frozen them in the past, as a stockpile against future cake needs.