Best Cook: Homemade Birthday Cakes
For her son Harold’s first birthday, Esther Foskett found a recipe in an old Farm Journal so that she could make him a birthday cake. “And then I made one for my daughter, and it’s been going ever since,” she explains. That’s 60-some-odd years of cakes. In her small, bright farmhouse kitchen in Woodstock, Connecticut, Esther is making one now, carefully greasing the circular pans, using a piece of waxed paper to spread the Crisco.
Esther’s kitchen is like a period piece from the 1950s, everything in its place: on the counter, an old set of platform scales; a covered cake dish; a cookie jar; and a bean pot holding her potato masher, whisks, and wooden spoons. She mixes the batter with an early-model standing mixer. “My daughter has one of those … what do you call them? Oh yes, one of those KitchenAids. Oh, I’d love to have one of those.” The bowl rotates, a slow pirouette, the batter turning yellow and silky. Mixes? “No,” Esther replies. “I’ve used them, but not often. You can tell the difference–yes, you can.” The recipe card on the counter is stained, the ink faded from all the hundreds of birthdays it has helped to celebrate.
Esther is 93 and has been a widow 30 or more years now. She grew up on a farm in Pomfret, so she was used to doing everything by hand. When the occasion calls for it, she makes traditional New England baked beans, a “mean” apple pie, and light-as-air baking-powder biscuits. Her two-layer birthday cake has become a family heirloom. Esther’s 32-year-old granddaughter, Valerie, makes it often, and has passed the recipe on to her close friends, bringing it to a new generation of children. “Grandma’s cake holds the flavor of childhood birthday parties,” Valerie says.
Esther has just one go-to cookbook: a worn copy of The Woman’s Home Companion Cookbook. The recipe for her legendary doughnuts came out of it. “I make them when I’m in the mood,” she says. “I take them down to my son’s shop. The boys love them.”
The good news is that there doesn’t have to be a birthday for Esther to make her famous cake. “I’ll do one anytime,” she says, “sometimes just for coffee hour at church.” She can get it baked and frosted in just a little over an hour. The cake, when it’s done, is light and golden. She uses various icings–no need for a recipe card. She whips one up, quick as a beam of light.
Today is no one’s birthday, so we take the cake to the porch where light breezes blow and traffic slides by. The cake is light and sweet, the icing irresistible. For real birthdays, the cake might be frosted in chocolate or vanilla, maybe lemon, and decorated with lemon-balm leaves or chrysanthemum blossoms. In season, fresh berries crown the top. But whatever’s on top, it’s the cake, the cake–from scratch, of course.