The Sweetness of Memory, or the Icing on the Cake by Charlotte Canellli

Read the published version of Library Director Charlotte Canelli’s column in the May 17, 2013 edition of the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin.

As my 61st birthday raced past me this year, I was reminded of the occasion of my 8th birthday. That spring, my mother planned a butterfly birthday for me. This special day, as all my birthdays were, included a handmade dress. Colorful butterflies adorned the yellow polished cotton. The dress had a sash that was tied crisply at the back of the waist and its short-sleeves were perfect the California weather in May. That day, I most certainly wore turned-down lace-trimmed socks and my black, patent-leather Mary Janes.

Living in the college town of Berkeley, California was one of my childhood’s treasured experiences. School friends from my local public elementary school were comprised from nationalities across the world. Some were daughters of graduate students or professors. Others had parents who were missionaries and scientists. More were from families like mine with fathers in blue-color jobs and mothers who stayed at home. In short, my friends that year were as varied as the multicolored butterflies on that birthday dress.In addition to my dress, there were gifts wrapped in butterfly paper, butterfly decorations and an unforgettable homemade birthday cake.

In 1959, General Mills published the “Baker’s Coconut Animal Cut-up Cake book.” All the cakes in it were baked from scratch in round, rectangular and square pans. The baked cakes were cut up and arranged in animal shapes (or, in my case, an insect). They were then frosted and decorated.

My fabulous butterfly cake was covered in yellow frosting and coconut tinted yellow to match. Licorice was cut in thin strips as antennae and gumdrops were added for the accents.

The cake was a wonder to behold. I don’t think I’ve ever marveled at my capable mother more. (Of course, she went on to perfect her cut-up cakes, making the elephant, the teddy bear, and the lion for my brothers’ subsequent birthdays. The well-used book lasted for decades.)

The library has many more recent books to check out for kids’ birthday celebrations. “Easy Cut-up Cakes for Kids” (2007) is by Melissa Barlow. Barlow also wrote “101 Things To Do With a Salad.” Go figure! Barlow’s book includes a creation that approximates the Dandy-Lion Cake in the General Mills book, without the coconut. She includes instructions for creating racing car, Christmas tree, and football cakes. Most of them use candy and other confections for decorations; I imagine that kids can have a lot of fun helping to finish them.

“Party Animal Cakes: 15 Fantastic Designs” (2006) by Lindy Smith might take a bit more patience and talent. There’s a bit of carving to do and some fancy frosting talent needed. However, if you like learning how to work with buttercream and texture, this book would be the challenge you need.

“Quick & Easy Kids’ Cakes: 50 Great Cakes for Children of All Ages” (2007) by Sara Lewis and “Quick & Easy Novelty Cakes: 35 Imaginative Cakes for All Occasions” (2012) by Carol Deacon include lots of ideas for novices. Professionals write most instructional cookbooks and let’s face it, the quick and easy is quicker and easier for some of us more than others. Given the months leading up to a birthday, a beginner might just master it by the time the party plans are being made.

“Birthday Cakes for Kids” (2012) by Annie Rigg includes ideas for decorating themed and shaped cakes using marshmallows (think fluffy sheep) and candy (think treasure chest.) “180 Party Cakes & Cookies for Kids: A Fabulous Selection of Recipes for Novelty Cakes, Cookies, Buns and Muffins for Children’s Parties, with Step-by-Step Instructions and over 200 Photographs” (2013) by Martha Day is a mouthful of a title and it could prove to be a mouthful of sweetness at your child’s party.

“Kids’ Cakes From the Whimsical Bakehouse and Other Treats for Colorful Celebrations” (2010) by Liv and Kate Hansen has creations for what the authors call busy days to those when you have a lot more patience, creativity, and time. The authors are mother and daughter; they bake, decorate and write together.

My favorite recipe from “The Birthday Cake Book: 75 Recipes for Candle-Worthy Creations” (2008) by Dede Wilson includes the Hairy Caterpillar Cupcake Cake using yellow cake mix. The paperless cupcakes are rolled in green buttercream frosting and coconut. Licorice strips are added as the caterpillar’s numerous legs.

For bakers who are looking for more challenge, “Birthday Cakes: Exciting Designs with Full Step-by-step Instructions” by Sylvia Coward includes some complex designs, particularly a cake with hand-molded ballet shoes. “Storybook Cakes: A Step-by-step Guide to Creating Enchanting Storybook Cakes” (2004) by Lindy Smith doesn’t seem to be for the faint of heart. Smith’s creations include dozens of molded animals in a Noah’s Ark.

The memory of the butterfly birthday cake is one that I have tucked close to my heart. Long-term recollections often sweeten my day. If you’d like to make your child a cake to celebrate, visit the library’s website and the link to the Minuteman Library Network to put one of these books on hold. You may also call 781-769-0200 and speak to a librarian who will place the request for you.

Another piece of advice from this librarian, and an excellent option for our patrons, is to check out one of the character cake pans in the children’s room. So far we have several dozen in our cake pan collection including a train, a rocking horse, a Care Bear and Winnie the Pooh. Each pan is accompanied by instructions and it can be checked out for several weeks. (The libraries in Dover, Millis, and Dedham also have cake pan collections.) All we ask is that you return the pan cleaned. And bring in a piece of sweetness or two. Just kidding, of course! Call our librarians for help with reserving a cake pan.

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