‘For Every Atom Belonging to Me as Good Belongs to You’: Thoughts on a Mighty Girl’s Second Birthday

Hopeless romantics may rely on the “love at first sight” philosophy to explain what initiates true love, but I’ve always been suspicious of any philosophy that lets my eyes make a decision without much input from my brain. Still, after I learned I was pregnant in 2015, I did something even more bizarre than loving someone for his or her appearance; I started loving someone sight unseen. The object of my unrequited adoration? A blur on an ultrasound image, a slash of light against the darkness. I wondered then at the strangeness of loving something that seemed at the time more idea than substance.

Months later when my daughter lay against my chest after her birth, she seemed both alien and fully at home. Streaked with blood and slick with afterbirth, her fine hair dark rivulets against her small skull. Who are you? I wondered as she slept. Could this tiny creature possibly love me, too?

Memories of her first year of life are anchored by the photos and videos Cameron and I made through a haze of illness and lack of sleep, but I remember on her first birthday thinking she had taught me more about love in those 12 months than I had learned in my prior 36 years on Earth.

The education continues.

A couple of weeks ago, Alice turned two, and we celebrated the milestone with friends and family who have watched her grow and change so much since her birth. Three years earlier she was not here, and now the fact of her existence, her very substance, has impacted so many more people than her parents and herself.

Certainly there are daily frustrations. (She’s a toddler with a pitch-perfect howl and an incredible ability to sling food across a room during dinner tantrums. I tell myself she has a future in discus throwing track and field competitions as my eye involuntarily twitches.)

But there are also endless triumphs–her ever expanding vocabulary, her love of singing (both sweet and high and “monster voice” versions of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star are award-worthy), her impromptu Snowman dance (believe me when I say it’s a sight to behold), her plaintive request for a Mommy bedtime song (I make them up as I go along, but “Alice” always stars), the ease with which she climbs into my lap for story time, confident and trusting that we are in this thing together.

For a person who has always felt like an outsider, a friendly loner who doesn’t really fit, becoming someone’s parent has been a lesson in finding a home in another. I think about my mighty girl racing through the yard in her bathing suit or jumping into a pile of freshly raked leaves or lying in the grass beside me and looking up at the big, Colorado sky, and it’s a revelation that I’m on this planet and in this journey with her.

To a new year of challenges and triumphs, my dear Alice.

Below you’ll find the recipe for a traditional yellow butter cake with chocolate frosting, my all-time favorite celebration cake. I made the cake layers two weeks prior to Alice’s birthday party and then whipped up a chocolate buttercream frosting and assembled the cake the morning of the celebration. Partygoers enjoyed it as well, and I had to hide it after the party to prevent Alice from requesting cake for every meal.

Wild Animal-themed birthday cake. Image by author.

Yellow Butter Cake with Chocolate Buttercream
Makes One 3-layer 8-inch cake

For Cake:
– 4 cups cake flour, sifted
– 2 tsp baking powder
– 1 1/2 tsp baking soda
– 1 tsp kosher salt
– 1 cup unsalted butter, softened
– 2 cups granulated or fine sugar
– 2 tsp pure vanilla extract
– 4 large eggs, at room temperature
– 2 cups buttermilk, well-shaken (I used dried buttermilk reconstituted with water and shaken in a mason jar.)

For Frosting:
– 2 cups unsalted butter (4 sticks), softened and cut into smaller chunks
– 1 1/2 cups unsweetened cocoa
– 1/2 tsp salt
– 6 cups confectioner’s sugar (or more to taste)
– 1/2 to 2/3 cup milk
– 2 1/2 tsp vanilla extract

For Cake:
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Butter three 8-inch round cake pans, and line with circles of parchment paper. I also buttered the parchment to minimize the potential for cake sticking.

2. Sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl. In a large mixing bowl, beat butter and sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer (or stand mixer) at medium speed until pale and fluffy (2-3 minutes), then beat in vanilla. Add eggs 1 at a time, beating well and scraping down the bowl after each addition. At low speed, beat in buttermilk until just combined. Add flour mixture in three batches, mixing until each addition is just incorporated.

3. Spread batter evenly in cake pan and then thump the pans against the counter to break up any air bubbles in the batter. Bake until golden and a wooden pick inserted in center of cake comes out clean, 25 to 35 minutes. (I’d start checking at 25 minutes because some ovens run hot.) Cool in pans on a rack for 10 minutes. Then run a knife around edge of pan to loosen the cakes, and invert onto the rack. Remove the parchment from the bottom of the cakes, and then cool completely, about 1 hour.

(At this point, if you are planning to assemble the cake on a different day, wrap the cakes well in plastic wrap, place in gallon freezer bags, and store in the freezer until ready to use. I usually take the frozen cake layers from the freezer about a half hour before cake assembly. They will still be partially frozen, but this will make frosting the cake, crumb-free, much easier.)

For Frosting:
1. Add cocoa to a large stand mixer bowl. Break up any clumps. Add the softened butter, and cream together until well-combined.

2. Add sugar and milk to cocoa mixture by adding 1 cup of sugar followed by about a tablespoon of milk. After each addition has been combined, turn mixer onto a high speed for about a minute. Repeat until all sugar and milk have been added, and then add vanilla extract and combine until smooth. (If the frosting is not sweet enough for your tastes, add a little more sugar and milk each time until you have the sweetness level dialed in and have a smooth consistency. I prefer a balance of sweet and buttery and tend to be judicious with sugar additions.)

*I had about 1 1/2 cups of leftover frosting, so I placed it in a freezer-safe container and am storing in the freezer until I can use on a dessert for Thanksgiving.

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