When the clock struck midnight and I turned 18 a few weeks ago, I got a room service brownie for my birthday. It was warm and gooey with caramel on top and two scoops of ice cream on the side, so there's no denying its deliciousness (thank you, Marlene!), but sitting in bed eating a brownie in a Sheraton in Dallas, Texas somehow didn't feel enough like a birthday celebration.
We left early that morning to return to Indiana. Finally achieving a win in minesweeper on the plane home was exhilarating, but not quite like a birthday party. Back at home, I avoided being alone. I went to IHOP with a friend's family for dinner (thank you, Furtners!) and Silver Dipper with some friends for dessert. Six mini scoops of different chocolate ice creams in one bowl? That was great. But my birthday passed without feeling absolutely real.
I diagnosed my uncertainty a few days ago. The reason I didn't believe that my birthday happened was quite simple: I didn't have any birthday cake. I had a brownie and chocolate ice cream, but no actual cake. Just as no relationship is real unless it's Facebook official, no one really ages unless they eat cake with icing.
I solved my problem by arranging a birthday picnic for myself and my friend Namita, whose birthday is coming up soon. The picnic was tons of fun. It was boiling hot in the park, but we ate watermelon and drank lemonade and hid in the shelter's shade. Coleslaw and potato salad made it an official picnic; lemon cupcakes with lemon cream cheese frosting made it an official birthday. I wanted a layer cake, but those don't hold up as well in the heat as cupcakes. Layers or no, there was frosting and cake. My birthday was real. I'm eighteen!
from a layer cake in Gourmet January 2001
makes about 30 cupcakes with leftover frosting
4 cups cake flour
1 1/2 t baking soda
1/2 t salt
1 c whole milk
5 T lemon juice
2 stick unsalted butter
2 c sugar
Preheat oven to 375. Set cupcake papers in your muffin tin.
Mix flour, baking soda, and salt. In a separate small bowl, stir together milk and lemon juice (mixture will curdle*.) In a large bowl, beat butter with an electric mixer until creamy. Gradually add sugar, beating until pale and fluffy. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Alternately add flour mixture and milk mixture in batches, beginning and ending with flour. Mix at low speed until just combined.
Fill cupcake papers in 2/3 to 3/4 of the way full.
Bake 15 minutes, or until a tester comes out clean. Cool cupcakes on rack.
When cool, frost with cream cheese frosting.
Lemon Cream Cheese Frosting
adapted from Bon Appetit, August 2001
2 8 oz packages of cream cheese, room temperature
3/4 c unsalted butter, room temperature
4 c powdered sugar
2 t lemon zest**
1 t vanilla extract
1 T lemon juice
yellow food coloring
Beat cream cheese and butter in a large bowl with an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Gradually beat in powdered sugar. Beat in zest, vanilla, and lemon juice. Taste, then add more zest if necessary. Tint with 3-6 drops of yellow food coloring if desired. Keep refrigerated so that it is firm enough to spread.
**Original recipe called for just 1 t of grated lemon peel and no juice. I prefer a more intense lemon flavor. For a lighter touch, use the original amount.