baking, birthdays, lemons
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have your cake

have your cake | baking for who's in your heart on a raisin + a porpose

A hair over seventeen years ago at this time, I was enormously pregnant with my second baby and facing re-jiggered calculations on the part of those with the slide rules and calculators which indicated that the second baby might very likely be born on the fourth birthday of the first. This did not seem ideal to me, for numerous reasons, but I was reassured by science and experts that there was very little to be done about it at that point.

They underestimated me and the baby, in many respects. But we can get to that in a minute.

have your cake | baking for who's in your heart on a raisin + a porpose

While we were still hypermentalating about the potentially shared (or near-shared) birthday notion, my husband gently raised the subject with the birthday’s sole proprietor at that time.

“You know,” he said, super casually, while we were driving and talk, as usual, centered around the upcoming celebration of being four, “Mama might be kind of busy on your birthday this year, so someone else may need to make your birthday cake.”

I added that maybe we could even get a fancy bakery birthday cake.

I don’t recall the exact transcript of what emanated from the center of our universe in the back seat (where she sat in the center of the back seat, because it was the safest spot, and soon we would have two carseats, each containing a center of our universe, so WHERE WAS EVERYONE GOING TO SIT?? speaking of hypermentalating) but whatever she said, it was not expressed in a tone of assent and enthusiasm.

“Why would mama not be able to make my cake?” she said, equal parts scornful and mystified, once she had recollected herself to a degree.

“She might be busy pushing out the tummy baby,” muttered the person who had broached the tender topic, and was perhaps now questioning the wisdom of his choice.

“Then she can make it the next day,” said the person who was in no mood for nonsense or further conversation but willing to close on a note of moderate flexibility.

Here’s the thing: I grew up with sisters who had March birthdays that were only days apart. They themselves were only a year apart, so the dynamic was a little different. But it left an impression.

I had a talk with the tummy baby. Her sister had been something of a Gigantor as newborns go, and her arrival complicated as a result. I spoke to the baby about the various realities at play here, in terms that were clear and friendly, but frank.

“Come out early and you can get fat while I watch,” was the gist of the deal I hammered out.

I told everyone we had reached an agreement, and exactly not one person believed me. I was the size of a parade float, and they chalked this talk of early arrival up to wishful thinking on my part.

have your cake | baking for who's in your heart on a raisin + a porpose

And so it came to be that on the 5th of March, well prior to the due date, I was undeniably in labor with the aforementioned tummy baby. The almost-four-year-old observed me waddling about, occasionally holding the edge of the counter to brace myself through a contraction. I told her the baby was coming, and her stake on March 23rd was secure.

“So today is going to be the baby’s birthday?” she asked. I told her yes.

She laughed. “That is so silly! It is SO SILLY for the tummy baby to be born on its birthday, because it is too little to eat birthday cake!” She shrugged with a kind of ‘suit yourself, you crazy baby’ shake of the head. Babies! They have no sense.

So of course I made a cake. A lemon-poppy seed cake, because that was the coin of the realm in her kindergarten.

have your cake | baking for who's in your heart on a raisin + a porpose

Baking a cake while I was in labor made zero sense to anyone but me and the not-quite-four-year-old, but it made eminent sense to both of us so what of it. No one was going to argue with either one of us that day.

I made a cake (baking keeping me conveniently near the counter, for edge-gripping purposes), not an especially fancy one but still a cake, and then some hours later I pushed out the baby, a very well-baked and lovely baby, and then with ample time remaining to get back on my feet, on the 23rd I made a proper birthday cake for people with the good sense to be old enough to eat cake on their birthday.

I started thinking about making the cake that appears here a few days ago, not connecting it to anything other than having a lot of lemons around and needing a baked item to bring to someone as a thank-you. It began its tenure in my life as a recipe for a very French-seeming, buttery cake written for a very early (possibly made of stone) version of the Cuisinart food processor and once we discovered it, it quickly became my oldest sister’s go-to baked good.

have your cake | baking for who's in your heart on a raisin + a porpose

Today would be that sister’s 57th birthday. It’s also a week past the anniversary of her death four years ago. Grief is a complicated landscape. There are many reasons to grip the edge of the counter, I’ve learned, which is still conveniently located in range for anyone who happens to be making a cake.

But you know how things go, in a person’s mind. On my way to the kitchen, I thought of the daughters, now tall and leggy and flying around the world on adventures, their birthday cakes deferred to some moment outside the month of March, when they alight here again. Cake and occasions and who is where. It’s all connected, and when we get quiet the pathways become illuminated, even if everything is not always clear.

have your cake | baking for who's in your heart on a raisin + a porpose

This is a handy cake to know about so I hope you will take it as lightly as cake should be taken, and tuck it into your repertoire. I wrote it down as “Boo’s Lemon Cake” in the recipe journal someone gave me in high school. Over the years, I scribbled additions and modifications to it on a page that is now thoroughly marked with at least four different kinds of pen or pencil as well as plenty of butter and lemon juice. Poppy seeds were added around the time of the second baby, as noted above. Cream cheese entered the picture about ten years ago (the original had none) because it made for a slightly more substantial texture, and today when I took an additional leap and made a gluten-free version so I could eat it, the cream cheese was a good support to those grains in making the cake more cakey.

If you ever need cake in a hurry, here’s your guy. It makes good use of whatever citrus happens to be around for you, so switch that up as you like, and the poppyseeds are optional. For you guys, anyway. Not optional here, no matter who is around.

have your cake | baking for who's in your heart on a raisin + a porpose

citrus cake

makes one full or two small loaves

for the cake:

  • ½ c sugar
  • one lemon
  • one orange, lime or blood orange
  • ½ c unsalted butter (8T)
  • 2T cream cheese
  • 2 eggs, room temperature
  • ¾ c sweet rice flour
  • ½ c oat flour
  • 2T tapioca starch or flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1T poppy seeds

for the glaze:

  • ½ c confectioner’s sugar, sifted
  • 2-3T lemon, lime or orange juice, or a mixture (just a heads-up that using blood orange juice here will give you a day-glo effect, as above)
  • 1t vanilla, orange liqueur, brandy or mirin (my favorite)
  • A scrape of citrus zest, if you like

Heat the oven to 350°. Line your pan(s) with parchment, or butter and flour them, whichever annoys you less. Definitely a toss-up for me, though using binder clips to secure the parchment until the pans are filled cuts down on the flowery language in my kitchen.

Use a carrot peeler to remove the zest (no pith) of the whole lemon and half the other fruit, in ribbony strips. Place the strips in the bowl of the food processor with the sugar, and pulse to combine, until the zest is very finely minced up, the sugar has gone all colorful and the scent near bowls you over.

Add the butter and cream cheese, and pulse a few times, then let the machine run until the mixture is smooth and creamy.

Add the eggs, one at a time, combining well after each.

Add the dry ingredients and pulse until they are fully incorporated, scraping down the sides between pulses.

Bake about 25-30 minutes, until the top is cracked and golden and the center tests clean.

While the cake is baking, put the powdered sugar in a small bowl and stir or whisk in the alcohol, and then a dribble at a time of the citrus juice, until you have a nice, smooth glaze.

Once you remove the cake from the oven, while it’s still hot, spoon the glaze generously over the top. You can do a second coat after the cakes cool a bit, if you like and there is extra glaze to contend with.

Thanks to the richness of the cake and the glaze on top, this keeps well and would not object to being mailed, I reckon. I’ve also frozen them in the past, as a stockpile against future cake needs.















  1. Has it been 4 years already? 17 years already? And about 25 since we first met? Wish I had me some of that cake right about now.

    • janet says

      Isn’t that all just crazy? I don’t feel any of us are as old as all this math adds up to. Trade you cake for those rice crispy deals. Xo.

  2. Just when I was thinking that I couldn’t love anything as much as I love this post, I saw the picture of the lid that said Bobby Seed and that was the only thing I could love more.

    Plus how did you know I was walking around wondering what gluten-free cake I should make for a certain terrifying party?

    • janet says

      If I cared for other items the way I care for that label, those would be well cared for items. And you know I try to anticipate all your party needs.

  3. Oh Janet. These weeks are made for walking. But they are also made for writing. And so the walking waits. You are so wise in every which way. Lots of this day love, every day. xoS

    • janet says

      I don’t always feel wise but I do feel that love every day. xo

  4. I baked banana bread while in labour with my first. My waters broke as I bent over to check on their progress (new oven, in a new house) much to the distress of the young apprentice electrician who was performing a few odd jobs.
    My eldest and I then baked banana muffins 2 days after his brother’s arrival. Drawing great big circles in our lives and connecting the new to the old

  5. Tess D says

    I just love your writing! And I love how you’ve captured the way food and memories connect so powerfully.
    And this cake! As soon as I’m done with my Whole30 adventure, this is going in the oven over here.

    • janet says

      I credit my last month’s WHole30 with my eating just a slice of this and not the whole cake. Thanks for kind words and for reading!

  6. I’m very sorry about the loss of your sister, Janet. Your photos and words are lovely, as always…and, yes, there will be “future cake needs”…

  7. Benno Friedman says

    Janet, how beautifully you write about things appearing prosaic and mundane, imbuing them with poetic sensibility and descriptive clarity without running up the flagpole your considerable linguistic or intellectual abilities.

  8. prima says

    not a saturday goes by that cvb does not remark about tia’s “something fancy farm”… and that is how we remember. big lov’s

  9. sillygirl says

    So sorry I didn’t realize you were gluten intolerant – sorry for sending you a bread cookbook!

    • janet says

      No sorry for such a nice gift! And I bake plenty for others who are extra tolerant of gluten so it’s quite useful!

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