I have the best chocolate cake recipe. Besides five squares of chocolate, it calls for brown sugar, sour cream and hot coffee. I have made it every year for my husband’s birthday and, once or twice I think, even for my own.
Happily forsaking natural ingredients, our children have always preferred birthday cakes that call for painstaking construction: a fire truck, Barbie, or the elaborate Enchanted Castle Cake from Betty Crocker’s 1957 Cookbook for Boys and Girls. My husband and I used to amend this cake depending on the child — sometimes it was home to Lego knights, other times to princesses. But it always included Hershey bars, upside-down sprinkled ice-cream cones with flags on top, gum drops, dyed blue coconut for the moat and toothpicks. It took half a day at least to make those cakes.
The children have grown up now and their tastes have changed: for our daughter’s 16th birthday recently, she asked me to make my famous chocolate sour cream fudge cake.
I love making this birthday cake because as I sift and mix and watch the batter blend from gold to tan to brown, I muse about life and also about my mother, since so many of my childhood memories are of making brownies and cakes with her — always from scratch. Once I was grown up, we would often keep each other company on the telephone as we simultaneously baked or cooked, each in our own kitchen. Neither of my teenaged daughters seems particularly interested in anything domestic, although they liked to help bake when they were little. Will they make birthday cakes for their children and think of me, or will they buy them from the supermarket?
My mother loved to bake birthday cakes because, whether due to her particular upbringing or the fact that she was a New Englander, she could not say the words “I love you” and this was how she said it. Every year she would separate the required dozen eggs to make me a special angel’s food cake with pink butter frosting — with the exception of when I turned two, and she deemed a devil’s food cake more appropriate.
Growing up outside Boston in the 1960s and 1970s, none of my friends’ parents said “I love you” either. We assumed they probably did, but we didn’t worry about it. I was stunned when I first heard my Californian husband’s family toss around “I love you’s” like a dusting of flour in a pan, and am amazed now at the breezy way my daughters sign off with an “I love you!” to their friends on the phone or even just getting out of the car. I suppose this is healthy, but I wonder if it demeans the sentiment. I distinctly remember the first time my college boyfriend told me he loved me: I was so overcome, I blew my final exams.
It took my youngest child’s determination, when she was 10, to get my mother to say it. She would call my mother and have her quiz her on homework or listen to her practice the piano. When it was time to hang up, she would raise her conspiring little eyebrows and say, “Achoo . . . ” (My son, when he was two, had nicknamed her “Achoo” because she sneezed so much.) “Achoo . . . I love you.”
For the first few months I could hear my mother blush awkwardly over the phone and reply, “You’re a good girl. Now you get all those words right on your spelling test tomorrow,” or “Don’t forget that F sharp anymore.”
My daughter would say sternly, “No, Achoo. You need to say ‘I love you’ back.”
I don’t remember how long this took, but it got to the point where my daughter would put the phone on speaker just so she could show off.
“Goodbye, Achoo,” she’d singsong, grinning at me across the kitchen. “I looo-vvve you.”
And my mother would giggle and say, “I looo-vvve you, too.”
My mother progressed so that she could say it easily to both of my daughters and occasionally to my son, but she could never say it to me and I am sure never to my brothers. I never really said it to her, either. Usually the best I could muster was something indirect, like, “Give my love to Daddy.”
But she always loved it when I’d make my chocolate sour cream fudge cake for her birthday. So I’m sure she knew.
Holly Hodder Eger lives in Rye, N.Y. and West Tisbury.