Yesterday we celebrated my daughter Nicole’s fourth birthday. At our house. With a medium-size party. For the first time. And most likely… the last.

The night before, after a two-week marathon of spring cleaning (in October!); shopping around for party supplies; not finding them locally where they were supposed to be in large quantities and varied assortments; stressing out about where to turn to next; opting for the omni-carrying Amazon with a nerve-tickling risk of not getting the order delivered right and/or complete and/or on time (admittedly, the Amazon service has been recently great); decorating the house but not until after we crafted the decorations first (we were on a budget); making a birthday cake from scratch (baking time: 30 min, decorating time: 3+ hours, not to mention the time for prepping, preheating, cooling, messing something up, doing it all over again); praying (seemingly to no avail) for the unexpected rainy weather to pass so we could use a rented bounce house, the biggest star in our entertaining arsenal of things-to-do with kids stricken with cabin fever after two days of non-stop rain; frantically trying to come up with Plan B activities that would deter any temper attacks for when the kids were back at their homes; praising the Lord  for clearing up the weather just hours before the party started (the power of prayer!) which immediately sent us into brighter spirits and back to the store to return the costly Plan B merchandise, I felt pretty worked up, to put it very mildly. To gauge the real gamut of emotions becomes possible only when you stack up all of the above-mentioned on top of my everyday commitments, responsibilities, and chores.

The night before my daughter’s fourth birthday, I was showering myself with wishes. I figured, my role in the whole birthing drama was far from supporting; therefore, I felt entitled to wish for a few things. Wishing me some peace and quiet to enjoy a glass of Margarita and a Sunday evening hour of Desperate Housewives at the end of the big day. Wishing for the birthday girl to magically conk out in bed five minutes before the show after just one book, one sip of water, and one kiss. Wishing for Kevin to magically take the initiative to do the dishes and even more magically to put them away without asking where they went.

And whereas you can trick kids and manipulate husbands, you can never predict when the last guest might leave. It wasn’t until the next morning that I got the chance to catch some bits and pieces of my show (foreseeably, recorded) as I was getting ready for work, with Nicole clutching to my leg, whining for another party, more friends, and the leftover candy for breakfast.  Ha! So much for wishful thinking.

Though all I wished the night before was, frankly, for this party to be over before it even started, all I remember about it now, and all I will remember in the years to come are the little things that made the day so big. (They are so elusive that there’s no way to capture them other than your heart.) The way your eyes lit up with joy and excitement, my love, from having all of your friends at the same place at the same time…  Your happy, little, loud squeals from inside the bounce house where you were bouncing off the walls, the roof, and the floor, clearly from all the sugar in that cake…  The cake that had it all—all your favorite foods to eat—cookies, candy, and ice-cream… To keep the record straight, I did put some extra frosting on the gingerbread men to keep them from running away. Just as you asked me to, kitten…

Friends. Bounce house. Candy. Not a care in the world for gifts.

Innocent 4. One and only 4.

 

Winning Cake, adapted from the May 2011 issue of Parents:

2 boxes cake mixes (any flavor)

3 16-oz. cans vanilla frosting

Colorful fruit chews (such as Starburst and Jolly Rancher)

Twizzlers Pull’n’Peel red licorice

Gingerbread men

Colored Sprinkles

Gumdrops

Round peppermint candies

Jujubes

6 or 7 lollipops, varied sizes and colors

3 ice-cream cones

Red food coloring (optional)

Cocoa powder (optional)

 

1. Grease and flour one 9” and one 7” round cake pan. Prepare the first cake mix according to package directions and divide the batter between the pans, about 2/3 in the larger pan and the rest in the smaller pan. Bake according to the package directions and place on a rack to cool. Prepare the second cake mix and bake in the two pans the same way. Let the cakes layers cool completely. Holding a serrated knife parallel to the cakes, carefully level the tops until even.

2. Set one 9” round on a large platter or cake stand and cover with a thin layer of frosting (a “crumb coat” that will keep crumbs out of the final frosting layer). Position the second 9” round on top of the first and cover with a crumb coat. Using the remaining frosting from the first can, add a second coat of frosting over the two 9” cake layers. Repeat, setting the 7” layers on top of the 9” ones and using a second can of frosting.

3. To make the path, unwrap 3 or 4 fruit chews and microwave them for 5 seconds to soften. On a clean surface, roll each one flat with a rolling pin. Cut them into 1” squares. Press squares into the side of the cake to make a path that starts at the base and curls up to the top. Repeat the process until satisfied. Pull off a few strands of Twizzlers Pull’n’Peel and use to outline the sides of the path to finish it. Coil a strand into a bull’s-eye and place at the end of the path.

4. Outline the edges of the gingerbread-man cookies with frosting and dip in colored sprinkles. Press cookies into the base of the cake, then add the candy around the cake. Cluster a group of lollipops in one area of the top layer.

5. Crumble a few cookies into each ice-cream cone to fill the base. Spoon a dollop of frosting on top to look like ice cream. If you like, tint some of the frosting pink to look like strawberry ice cream and add cocoa to some to make it look like chocolate. Press the cones into the top of the cake at different heights. Scatter sprinkles over the “ice cream” for color.

Makes 24 servings.

Notes:

1. I, personally, used a 9” and a 6” round cake pans, without compromising the finished product.

2. For cake mix, I chose Pillsbury Moist Supreme premium cake mix in Classic Yellow and Devil’s Food.

3. Since the cakes will be removed from their pans, grease and flour the pans WELL. Use butter instead of a non-stick spray for greasing and cocoa powder instead of flour for dusting if you make a chocolate cake.

4. If you end up with the same size pans and the same cake mixes, the baking time for the 9” round pan would be 33-35 minutes and for the 6” one—22-24 minutes. But as ovens differ, so might the baking times. Please consult the directions on the package and use a wooden toothpick to check for doneness. The toothpick should come out clean if inserted near center.

5. As I assembled the cake, I alternated the flavors.

6. The most difficult and time-consuming part of decorating this cake was making the path out of fruit chews. The key to making them perfectly pliable without being sticky is to not OVERHEAT them in the microwave. It takes no more than 3 to 5 seconds for them to soften. Make sure you have plenty of these candies on hand for experimenting. Also, I made a cardboard stencil for cutting them into perfect 1” squares.

7. If you make this cake 1 or 2 days ahead, keep it in the fridge because peppermint candies have a tendency to run. Set it out minutes before you are ready to cut.

8. Since I couldn’t find Jujubes, I used Skittles.

9. A great place to look for candies that you don’t need in big quantities is on the shelves next to the check-out point in grocery stores.

10. Have fun!