In June, my nephew Sidd called from Seattle.
"Susie Auntie, can you make my birthday cake?" He was on the cusp of turning eight."
"Of course, Siddo. What kind of cake do you want?"
"I'd like it to be square."
"O.k., but what flavor should it be?" To me, this is the all-important question. "Chocolate, vanilla, strawberry?"
"Chocolate," Sidd replied firmly.
After years of baking, I've come to recognize the power of a homemade cake. Truth be told, I can't recall any of the gifts I received at Sidd's age, but I can still picture the butterfly birthday cake my mom set before me.
For the next several weeks, Sidd and I continued to chat about the cake.
"Susie Auntie, I know what I want on my birthday cake. It's something very old and something that you can use to buy things."
A riddle. I liked the challenge. Before I could respond, Sidd began again.
"Think about it, Susie Auntie. Do you need a clue?"
"Siddo, do you want it to have a dinosaur?"
"Yes!" he replied. "You're right Susie Auntie. Now try to guess the other thing."
"Could it be money, Sidd?"
"Yes, money!" In the last few years, Sidd has developed a fascination with cash that no one wants to claim.
Putting our imaginations together, we talked about frosting a sheet cake with green trim to resemble a dollar bill and replacing Jefferson's profile with the head shot of a dinosaur. But after more thought, Sidd asked if I could make a cake with a giganotosaurus counting money.
"What's a giganotosaurus?" I asked naively.
My oldest nephew Paul picked up the other phone
"Susie Auntie, it's one of the biggest dinosaurs ever!!!"
I would have to Google it. G-i-g-a-n-o-t-o-s-a-u-r-u-s.
In a few weeks, Paul, Sidd and I were in my parent's kitchen measuring out ingredients. Flour flew, milk splashed and sugar crystals scattered. I poured the glossy batter into floured pans and passed them the mixing bowl. Conversation slowed as they slid their fingers over its surface, creating an abstract silver pattern.
We stirred together a butter cream frosting and Paul and Sidd scooped out a spoonful before I started to trim the cake.
"Mmmm...that's so good!"
By the time we got to the dinosaur, they were fazed by all the kitchen work. They chased each other in and out of the room while I sculpted its body together.
In the end, the cake was a little lopsided, but it possessed layers of meaning like a handwritten note. Paul pronounced it the best birthday cake ever and Sidd said that he wouldn't sell the dinosaur even if he were offered a million dollars. Having interned at a fancy-smancy bakery, I could pick out all its imperfections. As an aunt, I knew we had crafted a cake that would be remembered for years.
I love to decorate cakes and cupcakes with modeling chocolate. It's easy to make and tastes like a high-end Tootsie roll. Just be sure good chocolate like Ghirardelli, Guittard or Lindt. If it's a really special occasion, splurge on Valrhona or Amedei. I use this recipe as a guide. If it's too hard to knead after you pull it out of the refrigerator, microwave it for a few seconds. Keep in mind that it hardens as it dries.