You’re not getting older, you’re just eating birthday cake

Daniel Neman
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Red velvet cake for a birthday on May 1, 2019, in St. Louis.

My father grew up during the Depression. His family was exceptionally poor, but even so they managed to celebrate special events.

A birthday meant a birthday cake from a bakery. But they couldn’t afford to special-order a cake, so they instead would buy a mistake, a cake that someone else had ordered but had never picked up. My father used to joke that his cakes always said “Happy Birthday Marianne” on them.

Many years later, my mother thought it would be funny on his birthday to give him a cake reading “Happy Birthday Marianne.” She asked a bakery to make one.

There are several ways to spell the name: Marianne, Maryann, Mary Ann, Mary Anne. The baker asked her how to spell it.

“Oh, it doesn’t matter,” said my mother. You can imagine the look on the baker’s face.

I mention this story because birthday cakes are inexplicably on my mind right now, and was especially to be on my mind on a recent Saturday (I wear a 17/35 shirt, in case you’re interested).

So even though I can’t figure out why I’ve been thinking about making them — and don’t tell me that age will do that to a person — I set out to make three birthday cakes.

One is a traditional cake, the very sort of cake that is most likely to say “Happy Birthday Marianne.” One is a red velvet cake. And one is a carrot cake.

Why a carrot cake? Because it is the best cake I know how to make. It is also the best cake I know how to eat. It is the best cake you will ever have. Everyone should try this carrot cake at least once in their lives.

It is, I can say with no fear of contradiction, the best carrot cake in the world. It was developed by the geniuses at the long-closed Commissary restaurant in Philadelphia; I have never understood how a restaurant that could make a carrot cake that good could ever close.

The secret ingredient, obviously, is calories. Even a relatively small piece has more than 1,000 calories — which is why you should only have it on your birthday or the birthday of a friend or the birthday of someone in the world, somewhere. Altogether, it contains 3 1/2 sticks of butter, a half-pound of cream cheese, a pound of powdered sugar, 3 1/2 cups of granulated sugar, a bunch of pecans and 1 1/4 cups of corn oil.

And no matter how many times you joke that it has carrots in it so it has to be healthy, that still doesn’t reduce the calorie count on each piece.

But that does not matter. This cake is worth the calories. If you love someone, make this cake for his birthday. If you like someone, make this cake for his birthday. If you don’t even know someone, but it’s his birthday, make this cake. Make it even if it isn’t his birthday.

(Best ever) carrot cake for a birthday on May 1, 2019, in St. Louis.

That said, a traditional birthday cake is nice, too. I’m talking here about a plain yellow cake with chocolate frosting. A white frosting is also good, but the chocolate frosting for this one is truly excellent.

It’s called Silky Chocolate Butter Frosting, which is an excellent description. It’s silky, it’s chocolaty and it’s buttery, and although it is rich, it is also quite light.

The frosting is the crowning glory on top of this traditional cake, which is as it should be. The cake itself is lovely, too, and not too sweet. It’s just a basic cake, and you can never go wrong with a classic, basic cake.

The recipes for both the cake and the frosting come from Good Housekeeping. That is what makes this the Platonic ideal of cakes; if you were to close your eyes right now and think of “cake,” this is the cake you would think of.

Of course, if you are a red-velvet cake lover (and who isn’t?), the cake you may think of might actually be deep red in color.

Red velvet cake has been around since the 1800s; it was popular because of the way cocoa powder gives it an exceptionally soft crumb. The distinctive red color originally came about because of the way the cocoa reacted to the acid in the buttermilk. That was later replaced by beet juice and then by red food coloring; the recipe was vigorously marketed by the Adams Extract company after World War II.

What a lot of people don’t realize is that, despite the fiercely red hue, the cake itself is mildly flavored. It is pleasant, not intense, with just a hint of cocoa and a couple of splashes of vanilla. As in the case with most cakes (that aren’t the carrot cake), the best part is the frosting.

I used a traditional ermine frosting, which was the original topping for red velvet. Ermine, which is also called boiled milk frosting, is light and fluffy and is an absolute dream to work with. On the other hand, it takes a few steps to make.

But it’s worth it. It’s so worth it. It brings the red velvet cake to life.

All you need to add are the candles.

(Best ever) carrot cake for a birthday on May 1, 2019, in St. Louis.



Yield: 16 servings

For pecan cream filling

1 1/2 cups granulated sugar

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

3/4 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 cups heavy cream

6 ounces (3/4 cup) unsalted butter

1 1/4 cups chopped pecans

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

For carrot cake

1 1/4 cups corn oil

2 cups granulated sugar

2 cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons cinnamon

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

4 eggs

4 cups grated carrots

1 cup raisins

1 cup chopped pecans

For cream cheese frosting

8 ounces soft unsalted butter

8 ounces soft cream cheese

1 pound powdered sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

For assembly

4 ounces (1 1/2 cups) shredded, sweetened coconut

1. Make the filling: In a heavy saucepan, blend well the sugar, flour and salt. Gradually stir in the cream. Add the butter. Cook and stir the mixture over low heat until the butter has melted, then let simmer 20 to 30 minutes until golden brown in color, stirring occasionally. Cool to lukewarm. Stir in the nuts and vanilla. Let cool completely and then refrigerate, preferably overnight. If too thick to spread, bring to room temperature before using.

2. Make the cake: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a 10-inch tube cake pan. In a large bowl, whisk together the corn oil and sugar. Sift together the flour, cinnamon, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Sift half the dry ingredients into the sugar-oil mixture and blend. Alternately sift in the rest of the dry ingredients while adding the eggs, one by one. Combine well. Add the carrots, raisins and pecans. Pour into the prepared tube pan and bake for exactly 70 minutes. Cool upright in the pan on a cooling rack. If you are not using the cake that day, it can be removed from the pan, wrapped well in plastic wrap and stored at room temperature.

3. Make the frosting: Cream the butter well. Add the cream cheese and beat until blended. Sift in the sugar and add the vanilla. If too soft to spread, chill a bit. Refrigerate if not using immediately, but bring to a spreadable temperature before using.

4. Assemble the cake: Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Spread the coconut on a baking sheet and bake for 10 to 15 minutes until it colors lightly. Toss the coconut occasionally while it is baking so that it browns evenly. Cool completely. Have the filling and frosting at a spreadable consistency. Loosen the cake in its pan and invert onto a serving plate. With a long serrated knife, carefully split the cake into 3 horizontal layers (keep the cake flat while doing this). Spread the filling between the layers. Spread the frosting over the top and sides. Pat the toasted coconut onto the sides of the cake. If desired, reserve 1/2 cup of the frosting and color half with green food coloring and half with orange. Then decorate the top of the cake with green and orange icing piped through a 1/16-inch wide, plain pastry tube to resemble little carrots. Serve the cake at room temperature.

Note: This cake is most easily made if you start it at least a day ahead, because the filling, for one thing, is best left to chill overnight. In fact, the different components can all be made even several days in advance and stored separately until you are ready to assemble the cake.

Per serving: 1,008 calories; 65 g fat; 27 g saturated fat; 145 mg cholesterol; 7 g protein; 104 g carbohydrate; 84 g sugar; 3.5 g fiber; 515 mg sodium; 85 mg calcium.

Recipe from “The Frog Commissary Cookbook,” by Steven Poses, Anne Clark and Becky Roller

Yellow cake for a birthday on May 1, 2019, in St. Louis.


Yield: 12 servings

2 cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup vegetable shortening, butter or margarine, softened

1 1/4 cups granulated sugar

3 large eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 cup milk

Silky Chocolate Frosting, recipe follows

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees for round cake or 325 degrees for square cake. Grease and flour two 8-inch round cake pans or one 9-inch square metal baking pan.

2. In a medium bowl, stir together flour, baking powder and salt.

3. In a large bowl or stand mixer, with mixer on medium speed, beat shortening and sugar until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each. Beat in vanilla. Reduce speed to low, add flour mixture alternately with milk, beginning and ending with flour mixture. Beat just until smooth, scraping bowl frequently with rubber spatula.

4. Spoon batter equally into prepared pans. Bake round layers about 30 minutes, or bake square cake 40 to 45 minutes; toothpick inserted into center of cake should come out clean. Cool in pans on wire racks 10 minutes. With small knife, loosen layers from sides of pans; invert onto wire racks to cool completely.

5. For layer cake, place 1 cake layer, rounded side down, on cake plate; spread with 2/3 cup frosting. Top with second layer, rounded side up. For both round and square cakes, frost sides and top of cake.

Per serving: 588 calories; 33 g fat; 20 g saturated fat; 121 mg cholesterol; 7 g protein; 68 g carbohydrate; 47 g sugar; 2 g fiber; 237 mg sodium; 114 mg calcium

Recipe from “The Baker’s Book of Essential Recipes,” by Good Housekeeping


Yield: 12 servings

3/4 cup granulated sugar

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa

1 cup milk

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

2 sticks butter or margarine (1 cup), softened

4 ounces semisweet chocolate, melted and cooled

1. In a 2-quart saucepan, stir together sugar, flour and cocoa until evenly combined. Gradually stir in milk until smooth. Cook over medium heat, stirring, until mixture thickens and boils. Reduce heat to low; cook 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Remove from heat; cool completely.

2. In large bowl or stand mixer, with mixer on medium speed, beat softened butter until creamy. Gradually beat in cooled milk mixture, vanilla and melted chocolate.

Per serving: 253 calories; 18 g fat; 11 g saturated fat; 41 mg cholesterol; 2 g protein; 23 g carbohydrate; 19 g sugar; 1 g fiber; 11 mg sodium; 32 mg calcium

Recipe by “The Baker’s Book of Essential Recipes,” by Good Housekeeping

Red velvet cake for a birthday on May 1, 2019, in St. Louis.


Yield: 12 servings

1/2 cup butter (1 stick) at room temperature, plus 2 tablespoons to prepare pans

3 tablespoons cocoa powder, divided

1 1/2 cups granulated sugar

2 eggs

2 teaspoons vanilla

2 tablespoons (1 ounce) red food coloring

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking soda

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 cup whole buttermilk

1 tablespoon vinegar

Ermine frosting (recipe follows) or other fluffy white frosting

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Prepare 3 (8-inch) or 2 (9-inch) cake pans by buttering lightly and sprinkling with 1 tablespoon of the cocoa powder, sifted, tapping pans to coat and discarding extra cocoa.

2. Cream butter and sugar together. Add eggs one at a time and beat vigorously until each is incorporated. Mix in vanilla.

3. In a separate bowl, make a paste of the remaining 2 tablespoons cocoa and the food coloring. Blend into butter mixture.

4. Sift together salt, baking soda and flour. Add half of these dry ingredients to the butter/sugar/eggs mixture, and mix thoroughly. Add half the buttermilk, and mix. Add the remaining dry ingredients, and mix. Add the vinegar to the remaining buttermilk, add this mixture to the bowl and mix until blended.

5. Divide batter among 3 pans (or 2 pans) and bake for about 20 to 25 minutes (if using 2 pans, it will take closer to 25 minutes). Cool completely in pan on a wire rack.

6. To assemble, remove one cake from its pan and place flat-side down on a serving platter. Spread about 1/4 of the frosting on the top of the cake (or ¹/³ of the frosting if using 2 pans). Remove the second cake from its pan and place flat-side down on top of the first layer. Spread 1/4 of the frosting on the top (or, if using two pans, spread the remaining frosting all over the cake). Remove the third cake from its pan, place flat-side down and spread the remaining frosting all over the cake.

Per serving (without frosting): 292 calories; 11 g fat; 7 g saturated fat; 28 mg cholesterol; 4 g protein; 47 g carbohydrate; 26 g sugar; no fiber; 323 mg sodium; 32 mg calcium

Nutrition analysis used unsalted butter. Recipe from The New York Times


Yield: Frosts a 2- or 3-layer cake (see note)

5 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 cup whole milk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Pinch of salt

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened

1 cup granulated sugar

Note: If making a 3-layer cake, the proportions are: 7 1/2 tablespoons flour, 1 1/2 cups whole milk, 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract, pinch of salt, 1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter and 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar.

1. Over medium heat, whisk flour and milk in a small saucepan and bring to a simmer, stirring frequently until it becomes very thick and almost like a pudding.

2. Remove from heat, whisk in vanilla and salt. Pour into a bowl to cool completely. Put plastic wrap on the surface to keep a skin from forming.

3. Use a mixer to cream together butter and sugar until light and fluffy, occasionally scraping the sides of the bowl, about 5 minutes. With mixer on medium, add the cooled flour mixture a little bit at a time. Continue to beat until mixture becomes light and fluffy and resembles whipped cream.

Per serving (based on 12): 212 calories; 16 g fat; 10 g saturated fat; 43 mg cholesterol; 1 g protein; 18 g carbohydrate; 18 g sugar; no fiber; 24 mg sodium; 28 mg calcium

Recipe from the New York Times