Slices of cake

Photo: Sang An

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Life Is Sweet
Quick: Name one other food that arrives at the table with the pomp and spectacle of a birthday cake. Even the most modest stack of frosted layers is loaded with as much symbolism as it is sugar and butter.

Yet for all its significance, this sweet tradition is surprisingly young. The cake as we know it and the rituals surrounding it have 19th-century American roots, for it was in this nation's domestic kitchens that home cooks started baking celebratory cakes for family and crowning them with candles. In Europe, name days, saint's days, and even birthdays had long been celebrated—but only by the upper classes, and typically with sweets made by experts. As for that ubiquitous song, "Happy Birthday to You" debuted a mere hundred years ago.

Which is why (with all due respect to the geniuses who made the confections on these pages) we are fans of the homemade birthday cake. Because even if the icing melts or the middle slumps, it's a testament to a baker's affection, and to her willingness to devote time and care (and not just money) to making someone else happy.

If you are inspired to re-create one of these cakes, it's okay to cut yourself a wee bit of slack. Make just two of Christina Tosi's three fillings for her rich and fudgy banana cake, perhaps, or serve David Guas's gâteau de bayou without the meringue.

Not that you should skimp on everything. "Always use the best ingredients you can find," says illustrious cake baker Sylvia Weinstock. "And follow the recipes exactly." When a recipe calls for room-temperature eggs, for example, they really need to be at room temperature.

As for decorating, pastry chefs are as perfectionistic and nimble-fingered as surgeons. You can aim equally high, or just pipe on a wiggly border. It's all good. Once you set a match to the candles, dim the lights, and start singing your heart out, your cake will look spectacular—especially when you see it reflected in the eyes of the person you created it for.

—Celia Barbour

See the cakes!