My birthday is today, Saturday, and for the past week I have outsourced all my hopes and dreams for a normal-ish celebration to middle-American baking bloggers. I am not a natural homemaker. I do not enjoy spending $80 on ingredients for a cake I will realistically demolish in 10 minutes. I don’t want to follow a recipe written by a woman who hasn’t eaten gluten since 2012 and refers to her readers as “mama.” But it’s a new, scary world out there, and I must be brave.
In an ideal world, I’d mark my birthday with a bacon egg and cheese from my favorite spot, the one I’ve been yearning for while stuck in isolation. But I can’t quite justify my preferred yum-yum as an “essential” food delivery. If I want to eat something special, I’ll just have to make it myself.
After some googling, I decided to make a “Depression Cake,” named after the era it became popular in and also the emotional state that encourages one to eat an entire dessert while standing alone in their kitchen. The sweet has enjoyed a resurgence of late as grocery shelves are bare and the recipe requires no perishables like milk, eggs, or butter.
In my neck of Brooklyn, those things are not hard to find. Rather, New York is facing a shortage of pantry staples like flour and yeast. Sales of baking powder are reportedly up 178 percent, according to Nielsen data, and it’s damn near impossible for me to find it anywhere. I hopped around my neighborhood in hopes of finding some and I never did.
This week I became an ad hoc chemist, consulting whatever baking blogs came up on the first page of Google to answer all my questions. I learned that baking powder can be substituted through mixing baking soda with a bit of molasses. (I still do not understand the difference between baking powder and soda, and I am not really interested in learning it. I'm bored right now, but not that bored.)
The blogs answered my most pressing questions: I only have almond flour, will that work in the same way the normal kind does? Is sunflower oil an appropriate substitute for the olive variety?
With those queries sorted, I worried about other things. Am I following the advice of a mommy blogger who is secretly anti-vax? If I bake anything, does that mean I’m buying into the forced domesticity of quarantine? Is it instead a radical act of feminism to just rip open a bag of Cheetos and call it a day? No, I decided, I want a birthday cake.
So I left my house for the first time in four days to trek to the grocery store. Parts of the baking aisle were bare. There was some flour left, but only the off-brand kind. It should be noted that there was no shortage of boxed cake mix. We all just want to make it from scratch, I guess?
I was so giddy when I scooped up the very last bottle of vanilla extract that I bobbed my head along to the Train song playing over the grocery store intercom. Patrick Monahan is the perfect soundtrack to our current dystopia; his husky singing is the vocal embodiment of the stained sweatpants I now live my life in.
I chose to make a chocolate cake with mocha buttercream. There was little art to the preparation. I mixed all the dry ingredients together, then poured in the wet stuff like vinegar and water, popped it into two trays and baked them in my oven. I then set to work on the frosting.
The recipe called for whipped butter, something even the most novice of cooks knows to do with an electric beater. I don’t own one of those, so I took it upon myself to smash into a hardened stick of butter with two forks. The process took around 20 minutes and may have left my wrists with lasting nerve damage, but damn did I make the butter fluffy.
I stirred in some melted chocolate, powdered sugar, and instant coffee. I snuck a taste, and it was good, delivering the sort of unmitigated joy not found easily in lockdown. As my cakes finished baking below, I left the frosting on a baking sheet sitting on my stove and walked away.
I came back to take my cakes out of the oven to discover the heat had traveled up to the top of my stove and melted my frosting down to a liquid state. This is probably no surprise to people who do this stuff often, but I took it as an absolute betrayal by my buttercream.
After pacing my kitchen, cursing myself, and wondering if I was going to have to stick a birthday candle into a single Cheeto after all, I had an idea. I put the frosting in my refrigerator to firm back up for an hour or so.
I’d like to say things all worked out in the end. That’s kind of true. I have a birthday cake that’s frosted. That’s really all I have, though. I won’t win any aesthetic awards with my dirt-brown cake that reads “HBD ME” on top in a thick, shaky font. You could say my cake sucks. But what doesn’t right about now?
On my birthday, my good friend and her girlfriend plan to stop by in their car, and I will stand on my stoop. We will share the cake from a distance. They are amateur chefs who made beef bourguignon this week, for fun. After I sent my friend a picture of my frosted monstrosity, she replied over text, “Yeah, I’m probably not going to eat that.”
But I will. Happy birthday, me.