The Making of a Birthday Party

Party TableI love to cook, bake, make and serve food. I love to plan events. When I get to combine food making with event planning with celebrating someone I love, well, it makes me very, very happy.  This week, I had the pleasure and joy of planning and making my sister’s birthday dinner. Yay!

I have become quite skilled at utilizing mixes and ready made condiments and food accessories to make meals and desserts people really like. When I ate and baked with gluten, I made all kinds of things from scratch and people scratched their heads wondering how I made it all taste so good: pizza dough and pizza, bread, cakes, muffins, appetizers, you name it.

My Cherry Amaretto Pound Cake won second prize at the All Saints Episcopal Church Baking Contest (I lost to something chocolate. Nothing ever beats chocolate, even something with expensive liqueur in it). I soaked the dried tart cherries in the amaretto for an hour to make them juicy and boozy and then poured the soaking amaretto into the cake batter in place of water or milk. It’s a beautiful cake especially for Christmas.

Now that I’m strictly gluten free, I rely on mixes as my baking foundation. Baking gluten free from scratch just intimidates me. Recipes require one to have on hand and combine three different flours–rice, potato, corn, buckwheat, tapioca, amaranth to name a few–plus xanthan gum and/or tapioca starch (not flour) and/or potato starch (not flour) and/or guar gum (the “real” gluten free chefs consider this cheating or low-brow for reasons I don’t understand). The cookbooks stress the importance of combining the flours and starches just right and many measure the flours in ounces, rather than cups. There is some magic chant you have to repeat three times while turning counterclockwise (or is it clockwise?) before you add the liquid ingredients or else the muffin or cake turns gummy in the middle and never properly rises or sets, even though the crust burns. Imagine if the sun didn’t properly rise or set: you’d have a gummy midday bookened by a crisp morning and a toasted evening. Who wants that?

So, for my wonderful sister’s birthday last week, I decided to create tiers of GF birthday sweets. I made Pamela’s Chocolate Chunk Brownie mix, using 1/3 cup oil and 1/2 cup water instead of vice versa as the package directs. This produces a nicely chewy brownie that isn’t slimy and I secretly use extra light olive oil, which surprisingly compliments the chocolate. My nephew likes these brownies better than any other brownie, glutenous or GF. I bake them in a brownie pan so they achieve the right texture and rise.

Next, I started with Pamela’s Classic Vanilla Cake Mix and again used less oil and more water than the recipe calls for, plus I use almond extract (McCormick’s is GF) instead of vanilla extract to produce a nice exotic taste.

The real secret ingredientEgg beaters is the history and love incorporated into the batter with my grandmother’s hand-held egg beaters. I use this June Cleaver kitchen tool to combine the wet ingredients for most baked goods and I can crank the beaters fast enough to make the eggs nice and foamy. It gives me a nice little workout and I feel both virtuous and nostalgic.  Despite more than a half-century of service, the beaters are in great shape with not a speck of rust.

My gas convection oven bakes GF treats evenly and swiftly. These cupcakes achieved a lovely golden glow and fully cooked springy centers after only sixteen minutes. After cooling them on wire racks for an hour, I frosted half of them with Betty Crocker’s limited edition Caramel Apple frosting, which is gluten free. I think it also is food free: the list of mostly unpronounceable ingredients would make a chemist proud. Rest assured, no apples died to make this sweet slather.

I then turned the other half of the cupcakes into a childhood favorite.Tracy Cakes Like my mother used to do, I cut a divot from each cupcake and filled the resulting deep pocket with Comstock Cherry pie filling. I placed the divot on top of the cherries like a jaunty little hat and the result was both pretty and tasty! My mom used to make these for my sister for all kinds of holidays and she used either the cherry or the lemon filling. I can’t find the lemon filling anywhere, but the cherry remains a popular grocery store offering.

I put my smaller glass cake stand on top of the larger one and arranged the cupcakes and brownies on the tiers. Because I forgot to get birthday candles, I substituted a set of four little squirrels each holding a hollowed tree stump that serves as a tea light holder. These came from Victorian Trading Company several years ago.

I have to say, this birthday tower was a crowd pleaser! Everyone enjoyed at least one and even two or three different treats. The only downside is that gluten free cupcakes turn stale after 24 hours, even when kept in a plastic container with a tightly fitting lid. The brownies will stay fresh for about three days, but they never get that far because they get devoured. My nephew discovered the caramel apple frosting tastes pretty good on the brownies. Caramel Apple Frosted Yum!