Want to know how shallow I can be? Well, when I should have been excited/relieved to find out I had Celiac Disease, the answer to my fatigue and frequent migraines, I was instead heartbroken. I admit one of my first thoughts was “oh no! What about my birthday cake?” All year, I looked so forward to the chocolate cake with chocolate frosting that Mom always made from scratch. My only exposure to gluten free products had been several years ago at my aunt’s house where I tried a gluten free muffin and it was pretty dense and dry, not what I wanted my birthday cakes to be for the rest of my life.
“Never fear!” said my mom. I was diagnosed in July and my birthday wasn’t until March, plenty of time to experiment in the kitchen with all kinds of flour substitutes and perfect a gluten free birthday cake. Well, Mom was right. I celebrated my birthday a couple days ago and it was a delicious success!
Before my birthday, my family celebrated three other birthdays with gluten free cake. Just to get her feet wet, about a month before Dad’s birthday, Mom made a basic single layer chocolate cake using a gluten free Betty Crocker cake mix. The gluten free brownie mix from Betty Crocker is so fudgy and spectacular you wouldn’t know it was gluten free unless I told you. But the cake? Not so much. It tasted good, but it was dense and dry as I feared. We all came to the consensus that maybe it just needed some kind of filling like custard or something to moisten it. So in a Betty Crocker cookbook, Mom found a recipe for a yellow cake with a lemon filling. My dad loves the flavor of lemon, especially the Glutino lemon cookies, so we thought this cake would be right up his alley for his birthday. We all agreed it was a recipe worth bookmarking because it was very moist and flavorful, but I’m not as crazy about lemon, so that cake wasn’t going to work for my birthday.
A few weeks later, we celebrated Mom’s birthday with another Betty Crocker recipe, this one a chocolate cake where you poke holes in the cake while it is still hot and pour a caramel sauce through these holes in to the inner layer of the cake. Unfortunately, the caramel didn’t infuse itself in to the whole cake like Mom had hoped. Some bites would have a wonderful caramel flavor, but others wouldn’t. In the future, Mom wants to try just cutting the cake in half and filling it with caramel rather than the hole method. Despite the uneven distribution of caramel, it was still a good cake, but I’m not as passionate about caramel either. For my birthday, I wanted pure, unaltered chocolate cake!
Shortly before Mom’s birthday, she had received in the mail a course catalog from a local technical college, in which she happened to spot a class on flourless baking! It was billed as a class to learn how to bake in a healthier way, but it occurred to us that it would be very useful for our newly gluten free household too, so Mom signed up. The class met for two Thursday night sessions and to my delight, after every session she was able to bring home samples of the items she and the other people in her class had baked. Some of the recipes have become family favorites and are now part of our repertoire. Just a couple weeks ago, Mom made another batch of muffins that include pineapple and coconut flour, and we recently made chocolate chip cookies using almond butter too. But my absolute favorite recipe that I have requested the most is this flourless bourbon chocolate cake topped with orange marmalade. Basically I think you just boil bittersweet baking chocolate, butter, sugar and just a tablespoon of bourbon and then bake it in a cake pan. Man, is it melt in your mouth delicious! I am not kidding! It was light and moist in the mouth and really hit the chocolate tooth because it is dark, rich chocolate. I didn’t think I would like the orange marmalade on top because I usually don’t like stuff like that, but it was the perfect flavor complement. Eating this cake, Mom and I realized that maybe the problem with traditional cakes is the idea of trying to modify something designed to be made with wheat flour, whereas this flourless bourbon cake was naturally gluten free.
Then about a week and a half before my birthday, we celebrated my brother’s birthday. Here I want to pause for a moment and complement my brother. He hasn’t been wild about any of our gluten free recipes, and adamantly refuses to get tested for Celiac Disease, so I told myself not to be surprised if he insisted on a gluten cake. I would have been fine with that. On your birthday, you should get to have what you like, so I would have been happy to just eat the ice cream or something if he wanted a gluten cake, but he said he would be willing to eat a gluten free cake! Like all brothers, he gives me a hard time sometimes, but in this act, I realized that he really does love me and empathize with me.
Mom couldn’t find any ideas for jazzing up white cake in our gluten free cook books. (I guess they were all written by chocohalics like me because all she could find were chocolate cake recipes. But she found a mix and just cut the cake in half and filled it with extra frosting to moisten it. It was pretty good, but still not up to the birthday cake standards of the old days, so after that party, I officially declared that for my birthday, I would have to go with the flourless bourbon chocolate cake. The only problem was that the way this cake is made, the consistency is really more like that of a thick cookie, which would have made birthday candles difficult if not unfeasible. But I decided I was willing to sacrifice this tradition for a better cake. I am no longer a little kid who needs to make a wish anymore, and besides, since I have always had a fear of bringing my face too close to the candles and catching my hair on fire or something, blowing out my candles in past years has been a comical endeavor that took forever it seemed. I think when I turned twenty, I was having such a hard time that the family started a tradition of assisting me and blowing out a few for me that I just couldn’t reach. So maybe I was getting too old to continue this tradition anyway, I reasoned. But deep down, I kind of still wanted to be a little kid and try to blow out candles again, and Mom hated to end this tradition too. So Sunday morning, she said, “Let’s sit down and look at cake recipes.” It actually didn’t take long to find the perfect recipe. Rather than a box mix, it called for three separate kinds of flour; rice flour, tapioca flour and potato starch. It was also different from our previous cakes because in addition to the typical cake batter ingredients like flour, oil, eggs and sugar, this recipe had you melt chocolate chips and milk on the stove and stir this mixture in to the batter. The introduction to the recipe said it would be moist, and any remaining apprehension about my first gluten free birthday cake melted away with the first bite. It was fantastic!
Two days after I was officially diagnosed with Celiac Disease, I had an appointment with a job coach and my Celiac Disease came up in conversation as I waited for Mom to pick me up. As is common unfortunately with a large segment of the public, she was ignorant about Celiac Disease, so I explained to her that it meant I had to follow a strict gluten free diet. Mom arrived just in time to hear the job coach say, “well, on your birthday, have all the cake you want.” What she didn’t realize was that on my birthday, I would, and did, have all the cake I wanted. It was just made with gluten free flour. It wasn’t healthy by any means, another misconception people have about gluten free food. In fact if anything, it was even more unhealthy than gluten cake because it called for more sugar than Mom’s old cake recipes. But with all that sugar, chocolate and milk to moisten the batter, I doubt the average person would have even realized it was gluten free. Even if we hadn’t found a cake that was just as fabulous as the old days, it would have been worth the sacrifice knowing that even if it wasn’t as good, at least it wouldn’t damage my insides and plague me with migraines and fatigue later. But in addition to everything else–the happy conversation with family, the gifts, the fantastic gluten free lasagna (with extra cheese and sauce to compensate for the heavier gluten free pasta),– the fact that we found such a fabulous cake, one that I asked Mom to mark as a keeper for my birthday next year, was the icing on the cake of an all-around happy birthday!