En español | No one wants fruit salad to celebrate a birthday. On that one day a year, of course you want cake. It may be the same cake your mother baked for every birthday or it may be something new, but it is probably frosted and has candles on top.
In her book, A Piece of Cake, Susan G. Purdy says it is thought the first birthday cake candles were used in Germany during the Middle Ages, an outgrowth of earlier religious votive candles. "The candle in the center of the cake," she writes, "was called the lebensclicht, or light of life." Today that's "one to grow on."
However the tradition started, it is firmly entrenched. Birthday cake rituals are established early and some people want the same cake as adults they enjoyed as a child. Every year for her son's birthday, my friend Gayle made her son an angel food cake with white, seven-minute frosting from the Joy of Cooking. He wanted — and got — that cake for his 30th birthday.
Some people pass carrot birthday cakes from generation to generation. Others cut children's cakes into animal shapes or numbers — a big hit for the single-digit crowd.
Personally, I go for simplicity. Sure, you could take a few days and make a multilayered cake with fondant icing and hand-painted circus animals for your 5-year-old grandson. But a bakery can probably do it better.
The only fancy birthday cake my son ever got was one I did order from a bakery. For his first birthday — a day he will never remember — he had a train cake with a colorful cake engine and caboose and cake cars carrying licorice logs. It was spectacular. For all subsequent childhood birthday parties, I made a Texas sheet cake, a fallback for many busy parents. It is a thin chocolate sheet cake made with sour cream and cocoa with fudgy chocolate frosting. It's simple and delicious.
Most people have a favorite cake — and that's what they like on their birthday. Without a cake, the anniversary of your birth is just another day.
Best Birthday Cake Recipes
This 19th-century classic cake, adapted from Susan G. Purdy's A Piece of Cake (Collier Books 1989), can provide a foundation for many variations.
For most of my son's childhood birthday parties, I made this simple chocolate sheet cake.
Joanne Chang calls this "the ultimate birthday cake combo" in her new book, Flour (Chronicle Books, 2010), from which this recipe is adapted.
The cake has nothing to do with Germany. A recipe for German's chocolate cake appeared in a 1957 Dallas newspaper. After the recipe was printed in the Dallas paper, there was such a run on German's baking chocolate that the recipe was printed on the wrapper.
My friend Marcie is from Blytheville, Ark., and doesn't think it's a birthday without a traditional Southern caramel cake.