The magic behind a birthday cake

Bastian, one of our nephews, celebrated his third birthday this weekend and I had the joy of baking him a cake.

We received the sweetest video of him enjoying it on Sunday morning, his mouth covered in ‘cocholate’ frosting, ‘sticks’ and ‘petit pois’.

I watch him stick his fingers in the cake, eat it, and smile. He thanks Tía Nena and Tío Maikel in Spanish, while reaching for his chocolate treasure again.

The pure bliss in his face is precisely the reason why I bake and cook. To show my love and affection for family and friends, one spoonful at a time.

Party like an Egyptian, Greek, Roman and German.

It’s hard to think about birthdays without cake. Truth be told, it’s harder to think of a world where birthdays are not celebrated.

It all started with the Egyptians, who started celebrating their pharaoh’s coronation with a big feast. A pharaoh was considered a god, and the transition from human into deity was an important milestone to celebrate: the birth of a god.

Yet, we need to thank the Greeks for starting the cakes and candle tradition. To honour Artemis, the lunar goddess, Greeks made moon-shaped cakes and lit them with candles to represent the brightness of the goddess, and its star.

birthday-cake
Bastian’s Third Birthday Cake. Photo by Maikel Popić

It was the Romans who started commemorating the birthdays of non-idolised men who reached important milestones, such as their 50th birthday. Women, on the other hand, would have to wait until the 12th century to celebrate they had lived through another year. 

According to this article, Romans are also responsible for introducing birthday cakes into the celebration. They baked a sweet bread made of flour, nuts and honey, which they also ate at weddings to celebrate the couple’s union.

However, children’s birthdays only started to be celebrated in 18th century Germany with Kinderfeste. It was a party with games, cakes and candles. One per year of life, and one extra for the year to come. Some sources argue that the children would blow out the candles, but Justine Sterling explains on Food and Wine that the candles were left to burn all day until it was time to eat it.

With the industrial revolution, birthday celebrations became more accessible. Since then, people have access to ingredients and tools to bake personalised cakes depending on taste, preference and budget.

Sing and be merry, for your own sake.

A birthday cake experience is not complete without singing and blowing out the candles. 

Sisters Mildred and Patty Hill wrote the melody of ‘Happy Birthday’ a century ago. The original lyrics were ‘Good morning’ and it welcomed children into classrooms at American primary schools for nearly 30 years.

It is unclear who wrote the ‘Happy Birthday’ lyrics, but it was first published in a songbook edited by Robert Coleman in 1924. The Hills sisters shared ownership of the rights to the song with Warner Music until 2015 when, as reported by The Telegraph, the song became royalty-free.

The tradition of blowing out the candles is also slightly controversial but in a different way. Out of all the theories I’ve read, my favourite is that the smoke that comes out of the candles carries away our wishes for higher powers to grant them.

birthday-cake
Bastian’s Third Birthday Cake. Photo by Maikel Popić

As for theories about the origins of birthday celebrations with people and noise, the strangest is a reference to an old pagan story that I found on Kiddle. It argues that in earlier days, people believed that evil spirits visited the birthday boy or girl. People would gather around them and make enough noise to push the spirits away.

I may not believe in any of that, but I am very thankful to have my loved ones around me every year. The only ‘evil spirit’ they push away when they sign Happy Birthday, even if through a screen, is sadness. I would like to say greed as well, but when there is cake involved, no one can resist.

Whether you embrace traditions or not, birthdays are important, at least they are to me. And I try my best for my loved ones have a wonderful time on theirs.

All about that birthday cake.

In my humble opinion, decorations can be skipped but birthday cake is sacred. Mainly because what I lack in arts and crafts, I make up for with an established bond with sugar, flour, butter and the help of a mixer.

When it comes to flavours, I’ve covered the basics: vanilla, chocolate, red velvet, dulce de leche, lemon, carrot. Frosting-wise, the list is even longer. Yet, there is one cake that will likely puzzle me for the rest of my life. And, of course, it’s my husband’s favourite.

I met Maik a few months before his 25th birthday. As the date drew closer, I asked him about what kind of flavours he liked. 

Chocolate. Followed by something along the lines of “and the best out there is La Gata Luciani’s which I always get for my birthday”. I later found out that he would share some of the cake with his guests and freeze the rest, which he would sliver throughout the year until it was time to blow the candles again.

Chocolate-cake
La Gata Luciani’s Chocolate Cake. Image source: El Universal

I felt like “the one” when he offered me a sliver of his frozen cake.

Since moving to London, Maik’s cakes have always been chocolate. Store-bought or baked at home, I know he has enjoyed them all. But in the spirit of doing my best, I’ve never stopped searching for that recipe. Last week, the Internet offered me a glimpse of hope.

The best-kept secret.

Carmen Elena Luciani is one of Venezuela’s hidden treasures. She found in baking a way to make a living and to support her five daughters all the way through University. Affectionately called ‘La Gata’ because of her green eyes, she has been making desserts for Restaurants, Social Clubs, and families for over 50 years.

According to this chronicle by Rosanna Di Turi (Spanish), La Gata’s soursop cake is considered blessed. Pope John Paul II requested for his second visit in 1996, after trying it for the first time during his first trip to Venezuela in 1985.

But it is her double-chocolate cake the one that has always been under the spotlight. Four thin soft pillows of chocolate sponge, layered with a soft, buttery, chocolate cream, and covered with a thick layer of the same creamy frosting. Even the thought of it is delicious. I have been searching for the recipe online for nearly eight years.

Luciani’s book. Photo by @saboresdeaca

In 1995, La Gata Luciani and Maribel Arocha de Chellini published a book called El divino placer de comer sabroso. The index includes a double-chocolate cake. I bought a copy from Sabores de Acá, an independent bookseller which specialises in gastronomy and cookery. They delivered the book to my parents on Friday and, within minutes, the recipe was in my hands.

Be warned, the recipe is likely not the one. I can tell by the instructions. Yet, the hope is still there and I will give it a try. Because the truth is, even if I were able to replicate that cake, like-for-like, it will not be the same. Like many of our memories, it belongs to wonderful birthdays past.

It takes a village.

My parents went above and beyond every year to make sure I had a good time on my birthday. I remember many of them. Some through photos, others just flashes of memories.

But when I think about my birthday parties, it’s the sense of community and collaboration behind them that I find is most special. As part of my research, I asked my parents about my birthday parties. Many members of my family were involved.

The original Tía Nena, my mum’s auntie, baked the cake almost every year. My Godmother (a.k.a. my other mum) would organise party games, decorations, and more. Other aunties and cousins prepared savoury and sweet nibbles. My uncles helped my dad with the Piñata, making sure it wouldn’t hit any child in the head.

It is true that it takes a village to raise a child, and I’m lucky to have had the best out there.

However, not having the chance to be there for all my nieces, nephews and cousins’ celebrations is heartbreaking. We all live in different parts of the world, and it isn’t always easy to travel as much as we would like.

Still, I had them all in mind as I baked Bastian’s cake. And I’m thankful to our friends, Luis and Marina (Basti’s parents), for letting us be part of his British-zuelan village.

What’s your most memorable birthday cake?

Let me know in the comments below! 🎂

Join the Conversation

  1. Michelle Ferreira Pechs says:

    In most of my firths birthdays, (until 10 or so) the always bought me a Selva Negra cake. Even today, that cake is for me the flavour that I mostly associate with my birthdays. Last year my husband bought me a little one as a surprise, and all the memories came back.

    1. That’s so sweet of him! Hopefully we can come visit you next year for your birthday, I’ll practice Selva Negra before then 😊

  2. Cada año por mi cumpleaños recibía de regalo una torta elaborada por una increíble repostera de mi pueblo(Puerto Cabello) cuyas manos batieron, hornearon y decoraron tortas de cumpleaños, bautizos, primeras comuniones y bodas. Aunque he probado unas cuantas mas, todas muy ricas, no se compraran con aquellas tortas que cada 6 de enero llegaron para mi como un regalo divino.

    1. ¡Qué linda, mami! Es verdad, las tortas de la infancia nunca se olvidan. Para mí, las de la Tía Nena y mi Tia Yvette siempre ocuparán ese espacio. Gracias a tí por organizar todos mis cumpleaños, las fotos demuestran que los disfrutamos al máximo ❤️

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