My friend Courtenay has convinced me that one’s birthday cake is a harbinger of the year to come. Whatever energy the cake embodies will be passed along to the birthday celebrant.
Example: My 25th birthday cake. We were anchored in Soper’s Hole at Tortola’s West End. My birthday was on a Saturday. My fellow crew, lacking baking skills, but brimming with desire to explore the island, decided to taxi around the island in search of a cake, stopping at as many beaches as they could along the way.
Adorably Caribbean, Tortola does not have the cosmopolitan, Euro vibe of St. Martin and St. Barths with their myriad boulangeries, patisseries, and supermarchés. Tortola is where you go for beaches and nothing but. Tortola is the birthplace of my personal rule of never seeking medical help in a place where chickens freely roam the streets.
For those of you whose yachting experience has only taken you to Miami or the Mediterranean, let me explain. Think of the most rural place you can possibly imagine. Make sure you picture steep, rugged mountains, nearly impassable dirt roads with giant holes and ruts, and make sure those roads and hillsides are dotted with chickens and goats. Also picture a rain-catching cistern next to every house, and roofs of corrugated tin or blue tarp. There aren’t a lot of garbage cans, but still plenty of trash. So, paint in little dots to represent Elephant beer cans and Styrofoam take-away boxes. Yes, magnificent sweeping sea views and white sand beaches are totally allowed in your vision, but they come with some pretty hostile rocks and shores.
Oh, and add lots of little dive bars to your vision of the island; but small, one-room wood or concrete shack-style bars. Lots of them are yellow and blue with Carib or Heineken logos.
Things that shouldn’t be in your vision of Tortola: big grocery stores, bakeries, and really, shops of any kind. Yes, people buy things there, but most stores are very small, with a very limited selection. And the food stores smell funny, like dried fish.
So, Saturday: sun-drenched, stewed in Carib beer, and flecked with beach sand, the stew and mate asked the taxi driver to take them to a bakery for my cake. Something we didn’t know about Tortola is that a large percentage of the population are Seventh-day Adventists, which means Saturday is their Sabbath. So most of the shops and businesses were closed, further limiting their already limited options.
“It’s cool,” the taxi driver told them. “My cousin owns a bakery, he can help.”
This is where I remind you that Tortola is a very small island — it’s only 12 miles long but can take two hours to get from one end to the other. About 24,000 people live there, and they are all related, somehow. So, everybody is a “cousin.”
The taxi driver’s “cousin’s” bakery was closed, but they drove around to his house. Another cousin directed them to yet another cousin’s place where Bakery Cousin was supposed to be hanging out. Repeat this process two more times.
The stew and the mate got a very different tour of the island than they expected, but they finally found the bakery cousin, who hopped in the taxi, went back to his house for the key, and then headed to the bakery. As he put the key in the lock, he admitted he didn’t think he had any cakes, but might have some day-old pastry he could write my name on.
But there, in his glass case, stood one cake, still uncollected from two days before, a wedding cake. Abandoned. He looked down at it, iced in white, the top decorated with two names surrounded by hearts. His gaze became almost wistful and reverent, which was more likely his math face, calculating how much he could charge for a cake that had already been paid for. He smiled and said, “How do you spell the birthday girl’s name? I can change this right now!”
The stew and the mate returned to the boat proudly brandishing my abandoned-wedding-cake-birthday-cake, with stories of a brilliant adventure. We devoured it, ignoring its dry layers and the greasy, sugary film the icing left in our mouths.
I didn’t know then the portent of the Birthday Cake but I learned it fast. This steadfast law of the universe sees a clear correlation between one’s birthday cake and the year that follows. The effects of this portent were nearly instantaneous. Not three days later, on Valentine’s Day, I went to a party with the man I’d been dating. We got separated. I found him a few hours later, naked on top of a middle-aged divorcee from the Midwest.
My romantic prospects didn’t improve over the course of the year. One guy threw up in my mouth while we were kissing. Another asked me to be his girlfriend, but it would be years before I heard from him again. My romantic life had the energy of an abandoned wedding cake.
Courtenay offered to make my next birthday cake. It was an adventurous delight of chocolate and cherries. She baked it listening to her favorite music, dancing and singing along. That year, my 26th, was an adventurous delight of a year, replete with creative joy. Lesson learned.
As someone who’s regularly in charge of guests’ birthday cakes, I take the power imbued in the task seriously. My goal with every birthday cake is to make it easy, fun, and full of joy. And I always keep a box mix on hand for that last-minute surprise birthday announcement.
Best, Easiest Frosting Ever
> 8 oz unsalted butter, at room temperature
> 16 oz packages cream cheese, at room temperature
> 2 cups confectioners’ sugar
> 2 Tbsp milk; more as needed
> 2 tsp vanilla extract or 1 tsp vanilla plus 1 tsp other flavored extract to match your cake
> Pinch of salt
Culinary truth: Frosting from a can is gross.
Culinary guilty secret: Your guests won’t know the difference between a box cake and a scratch one …if you pair it with a tangy, sweet, cream cheese frosting.
Culinary bonus: This frosting freezes well. Simply defrost in the fridge and bring it to room temp to re-beat before using. You will always be ready for any last-minute birthday surprise. Using an electric mixer, whip the butter. Add cream cheese in small chunks until the whole mass is light and fluffy. Beat in sugar, milk, and vanilla. If the frosting seems too thick to spread, add a little more milk.
This column originally ran in the May 2020 issue of Dockwalk.