As I carry a decadent three-tiered birthday cake towards my sister, complete with 10 flaming candles on every layer, a niggling doubt enters my mind: is spectacular food more about the ego of the creator than the reaction of recipient?
To be precise, I was contemplating this doubt just before and after the cake ceremony. At the very moment I walked into a room full of my sister’s friends, carrying a tower of cake and candles – I felt nothing else but pure joy. I saw my sister’s face of sheer delight, heard her breathless squeals of excitement, and I knew that was why I had done it. I have never been moved to tears by a cake before, let alone cry over the same cake with someone else, yet those three tiers of sweetness said more than ‘happy birthday’, they said ‘I love you’, and ‘you mean the world to me’, and ‘I’ll spend days preparing a surprise for you, just to show it’.
I wanted to make a cake that my sister wouldn’t think of making herself. My sister bakes all the time (she is infamous for her banana loaf and biscuits amongst her friends), so I knew the cake needed to be special to make an impression on her. With so many people at the party, the obvious thing would have been to make a large rectangular cake, or perhaps one in the shape of ‘30’. But what about a cake that was big on the vertical scale rather than the horizontal? As soon as I’d thought of making a tiered cake, I could not resign myself to any other option. If I couldn’t make a wobbling pile of cake and icing and columns, what was the point?
I have never made a tiered cake before, so part of my enjoyment came from figuring out how to make it happen: visiting cake shops; sampling different cake tins; figuring which sponge would take the weight whilst still tasting good; finding columns online; transporting three separate cakes up the motorway; icing each one in secret… Each stage presented a different challenge to overcome until I stood with a fruit cake, a lemon cake and a chocolate cake towering before me, aglow with 30 birthday candles.
Baking for someone is a sign of dedication: of time, resources and imagination. Yet the laborious process I went through was completely my own doing; I suppose you could call this ’ego’, in the sense that I was satisfying my own curiosity and hunger for adventure in the kitchen. But once I saw my sister’s mouth drop open, her hand go to her heart in surprise, and I felt the emotion of having made something beautiful for a person I love – I knew that it was all about her.