When we were kids we selected what we wanted for our birthday dinner and which kind of cake we would have for dessert, decorated with candles and blessed wishes. Now, this was an especially satisfying practice because my mother is an amazing cook and she got many of her ethnic food specialties like Chicken Paprikash, and goulash from her mother, my Nana Sophia, who was born in Poland. Pierogis (similar to Italian ravioli but never served with a red sauce) were the most popular request, and I loved to watch Nana Sophia and mother take over the kitchen, pouring flour across the table to roll, stuff and seal each potato & cheese dumpling; however, any of the spaetzels, kluskis, soups, and crème puffs they beat from butter and flour surpassed anything you could order from a restaurant, no matter how authentic the menu. Still, my babsha and my mother must have crossed themselves and prayed for patience whenever October hit and my birthday rolled around because I was the toughest client.
In this scenario, I was the problem child because I was the reader in the family, the watcher of foreign films and so was forever asking for items I had only heard about in books or movies like the year I had asked for Baked Alaska. This was, of course, before a cosmopolitan era hit American cuisine, not to mention pre-internet—an indispensable tool where one can now easily access recipes and see complicated menus spelled out with pictures of each step in the process to lead a fledgling attempt along. My mother always somehow figured it out—and truthfully, other than the written word, what was my frame of reference to compare her finished products to? My adventuresome spirit was occasionally disappointed when experimenting with new foods went awry—for us all. Like the year I asked for “sponge cake, you know the puffy, spongy kind. . .”
Imagine my frustrated tears (not to mention my mother’s) when I saw the lime green sheet cake that appeared on my birthday that year, and if the lime green Jello (I still hate Jello as much as I hate paying taxes but back then lime was an old lady flavor to me, although I love a key lime pie now) had not been enough to ruin the experience for any child, then see what my mother made of my next comment. “That’s it? But, Mom, it is supposed to be a fluffy circle cake and this is a flat rectangle. And, where’s the hole in the middle of it?”
“You asked for sponge cake--that’s a sponge cake, no matter what shape pan I pour it into. But, I’ll cut a hole out of the middle of it if it’ll make you happy.”
It did not. I took one miserable bite of it because she had gone to all that trouble (everything was homemade; we did not go out to dinner or take a shortcut by ordering from the bakery). Several weeks later, in the grocery with my mom, helping load the cart, I spotted the cake that had made my mind’s eye water when I had asked for the sponge cake. “That’s it, there, Mom. That is the cake I was talking about.”
“That is an Angel Food cake, not a sponge cake.”
“Well, that’s what I meant. With strawberries and whipped cream on it like you do,” I said sullenly, and I confess, I decreased the distance I went out on to unknown food branches after that. You only had one night a year to be a birthday primadonna and I wasn’t going to waste any more turns on a mishap after that.