Saturday, July 5, 2008

Reviving the birthday spirit

Marcie loved birthdays. If it was her own, she had a mixed view, loving the attention and the opportunity to celebrate but loathing the passage of years (despite her defiance of age). But in others', she took a great and pure joy.

Marcie was invigorated by the celebration of the birth of people she loved so much that I simply had to ask directly. She was humming to herself as she decorated a cake for her friend Kathleen at work.

"Honey?" I asked. "Can I ask you a question?"

She turned and looked at me with her half-open-mouth smile and wide eyes lit in the kitchen's indirect sunlight.

"Are you going to ask me what I put in the icing?" she asked excitedly.

Whether a work fellow, a close friend or a family member, Marcie could be counted on for a cake. Marcie did not make just any cake, though. Her recipes created cakes of unparalleled moistness, flavor and density.

She also improvised to suit particular preferences among her favored recipients, carefully considering the balance of flavors before assembling them. She was truly a maestro of tasteful baking and great confection-making.

I knew her question meant, "Ask what I want to answer first then I will answer what you want to ask." I complied.

"Oooh, yes," I said. "What did you put in Kathleen's cake?"

"Well," she said, turning to the counter and putting one hand on her hip. She enunciated each word. "Let me just tell you."

She held up the wreckage of a Scharffen Berger "Cacao Bittersweet" slab for me to inspect. "This is in the cake itself," she said. "Some I melted and added coconut."

She turned her nose up smugly and spun to the counter again, grabbing a container of half and half. "This you can use for your coffee, because I used it to replace the milk in the recipe."

She turned again and showed me some almonds, crushed in a small bowl. "These will be sprinkled on top of the frosting after I am done."

She smiled and I juggled the three to hold all at once. She turned and helpd up a little bag of Dove dark chocolate hearts.

"These will go around the outside of the cake and one in the middle," she said. "On top of the coconut and almonds."

"Wow," I said. "That is pretty deluxe."

I set the items aside and asked. "So you just love making birthday cakes, don't you?"

She wrinkled her nose. "Sometimes," she said. "Especially if it's for someone who I enjoy talking to. I like even more if they let me do what I want and make something of my own for them, or if it's something new."

"So what kind of cake is that?" I queried, nodding at it with my own half-smile.

"It's a deluxe dark chocolate cake with coconut and almonds that I used espresso for," she said. "It's delicious."

I nodded. She handed me a small bit from the center of the cake she had removed to make the final product sit flat. I took a bite.

I tasted the very moist cake first, then some bittersweet chocolate with a tinge of cocount. With no icing, it was already wonderful. The espresso was invisible in it.

"Wow," I said. "That is riiich!"

"I know," Marcie said. "Kathleen is going to love it. I made it to reflect what I think of her and her antics."

"So what you are saying is, 'Kathleen, you are a nutty, hyperactive woman with a sweet front, chunky middle and smooth exterior who goes down well with milk?" I watched her as she began her silent laugh.

She stop laughing as her breath came back, "Yes," she squeaked. "And I don't mind helping you get fatter, so have... a... cake..."

She took her breath in in deep, gasping breaths between chortles and cackles. she gave me a hug. "She totally lvoes my cakes and refuses to share them, which I completely understand."

"So you give her a cake you know she will eat all by herself?" I asked.

"No," Marcie said. "Oh, no no no. I give her a cake big enough to eat with [people at work and still have half left, which she tells everyone is for her family."

I nodded and she started cracking up. "Then she hides it and eats it all by herself until it's gone."

She took a few seconds then added,"Frank, I love her but she will eat ALL of it. I don't know how she can stand it, but she looooves my cake."

"So that is why you like her birthday so much?" I asked.

Marcie looked more pensive for a second. "I think I like to celebrate birthdays for people that have that lust for living. I like people whose appetites are as large as their personalities."

"I understand," I said.

"Kathleen can be annoying, but she's her own persona and I love that about her," she said. "So a cake for that kind of endless entertainment is nothing, let me tell you, honey."

She gave me a hug and looked up in my eyes. "Do you remember your first birthday with me? How you told me not to celebrate it?"

I certainly did.