The unhappy birthday cake

Birthday cakes and I go way back and most hold memories of joyous occasions. Then there was the time I nearly knocked off my grandmother with one.

As a young girl, my interest in cooking prompted my mother to often put me in charge of the family birthday cakes.  These weren’t anything tres gourmet, of course – mostly boxed cake mixes and packages of powdered frosting made spreadable with a little water and an electric mixer.

But I had a special touch when it came to decorations. Like picking out all the green M&Ms and carpeting the whole cake with it. Or hiding smashed-up Kit Kat bars in-between the layers. Or making a garden of daisies on the top using almond slices with Goober flower centers.

On one such occasion – my younger brother’s birthday – I set about making a very special cake in anticipation of company coming – a couple of aunts and uncles, a few cousins, a neighbor lady that wanted me to call her “Aunt Tillie” even though I hated to, and my poor, unsuspecting Nana. The surprise, I decided, would be to put tons of peanut butter and jelly in-between the cake layers for my peanut butter and jelly-loving brother.

Everything was going along smoothly until it came to the jelly part. It was just too darn slippery and the top layer kept sliding off. So I buried about a thousand toothpicks in it to keep it together. You couldn’t even tell. 

Next thing I know, our lovely little family gathering had turned into Nana getting a toothpick wedged sideways in her throat, gagging and coughing and turning all red and cake spittle flying from her mouth and everybody yelling and slapping her on the back and the table shaking with all the commotion and coffee spilling on the good white tablecloth and after it was all over, nobody wanting cake except for the dog. Talk about a black cloud. I quit the cake business then and there.

Decades passed and I’m happy to say I got back on the horse and have shown great improvement in my baking techniques, so I’d like to share my most requested family birthday cake recipe with you. Guaranteed not to kill or maim.


(With a surprise in the middle)

1 angel food cake mix
3 tablespoons good quality powdered cocoa
3 cups chilled heavy whipping cream, divided
1/3 cup sugar, divided
3 squares (1 ounce each) semi-sweet chocolate
Non-pareil candies for decoration

Remove and discard 3 tablespoons from the cake mix and replace with 3 tablespoons powdered cocoa. Bake cake according to package instructions. Allow to cool.

In a deep bowl using an electric mixer, beat 1 cup of the cream until soft peaks form. Slowly add 2 tablespoons of the sugar and beat until stiff. Meanwhile, melt chocolate in the top of a double boiler over hot, not boiling, water and allow to cool slightly.

Remove cake from pan and cut horizontally into thirds with a long, serrated knife. Place the bottom layer on a cake plate. Gently spread on half the whipped cream. Drizzle half the melted chocolate over the whipped cream. Repeat with second layer. Place third layer on top.

Whip remaining cream until stiff, sweetening with remaining sugar as above. Frost entire cake. Decorate with non-pareils.  Store in refrigerator, uncovered.

Robin Benzle

Robin Benzle lives in Bay Village. For more recipes, visit

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Volume 3, Issue 9, Posted 4:44 PM, 05.03.2011