I celebrated my birthday this past weekend. More precisely, I enjoyed several little celebrations over several days. I told M that I wanted to do three things: go out for Japanese food, bake myself a cake, and play some uninterrupted Skyrim. His reply? “Going big for the 3-1, huh?” I think he was being sarcastic.
In truth, I’ve never been a big birthday bash person. I don’t dislike parties, but I’m not fond of being their focus. It took a fair amount of faking comfort to get through the baby showers last summer. Something about opening all those presents in front of everyone.
Anyway, the festivities started early, thanks to a snow day last week. Since work usually gives the final say around 07:00, the baby and I were already up. I got a shower, saw the happy email, and decided to settle in for a little gaming. Something about snow just makes me want to play Skyrim. Incidentally, is there a mod to remove all the nonessential dragons? Fast-traveling is becoming a major pain. (Yes, I know dragons are basically the point of the game. I’m a scaredy-gamer, and I really just play to collect and craft. Or kill bandits. I can do that.)
Japanese food was Saturday’s task, checked off at Hana Japan in Newburyport. We gingerly took Little Bear with us, and, to my shock, he lasted the entire nearly-two-hour dinner without fussing once. He couldn’t seem to get enough of the charming ladies in kimonos, the paper lanterns, the carp streamers hanging from the ceiling. I, on the other hand, could not get enough of the food. Their rendition of nabeyaki udon was different than the one I used to order at Mr. Sushi in Brookline but was still excellent. The noodles were perfectly chewy, the broth was rich, and instead of cracking in an egg, they topped it with slices of tamago, or Japanese omelet. It added a great sweet counter to the savory. I also had agedashi tofu for the first time. I’ve wanted to try the dish for years, but I dragged my feet on making it myself. I can now add it to my repertoire without fear. Deep-fried tofu is wonderful.
My present from M arrived earlier than expected. Because I’d asked for it specifically, it wasn’t a surprise like he prefers (and is very good at). But it was eagerly anticipated and joyfully received. I’ve been dabbling more and more in writing, both everyday and decorative, so I asked for my first real fountain pen. This pen works for calligraphy, though I fully intend to use the 1.1 Italic nib I selected for everyday cursive. I chose this pen especially because it includes a converter, and I am mildly obsessed with bottled ink. I also got samples of this ink and this ink. I look forward to spending a messy hour learning how to swap them in.
The last step of my chosen fun was the cake. For some reason, I started getting really particular about baking birthday cakes once M and I moved in together. Except last year, when I prioritized homemade bao, though a blizzard nearly derailed that. Two years ago, I made almond champagne confetti cake. This year, I wanted something green tea and simpler, though you wouldn’t know it from how it turned out. I wanted something made with green tea. In googling, two cakes really stood out: a swiss roll and a mille-crêpes cake. Having never made génoise, I decided the modular style of a crêpe cake might be more forgiving this time. (Silly me.)
On a hunch, I thought chestnut might be really good with green tea. However, all I had on hand was sweetened chestnut spread, and I couldn’t find a pastry cream recipe that used sweet purée. I really didn’t want to try my hand at reducing the sugar when I’d never even made crème patisserie before. So I figured the chestnut spread could be its own component and flavored the pastry cream with white chocolate instead. As happens with a six-month-old in the house, I wound up making the components separately and in advance. I actually assembled the cake on my birthday night.
It was not great.
The pastry cream was too thin, so things started sliding, then it essentially started weeping down the sides of the cake. The white chocolate seemed heavy to taste. The chestnut was strong and had to be mixed with cream to spread easily. The crêpes turned out well, at least. I’m adept at making American-style pancakes, but I’d always heard the first crêpe or two off the pan comes out badly. This was not the case for me, somehow. A small victory amidst the mess.
I didn’t realize how badly I wanted a win until I didn’t get one. I don’t make a huge deal about birthdays, but it was so disappointing to work hard on my birthday cake and have such a subpar result. (Note: the flavor the next day was good, but it never really firmed up. I basically ate my cake with a spoon.) But hey, there is some silver lining. I discovered a taste for chestnut. My love for green tea continues unabated. And I’m a surprisingly dab hand at making crêpes. Just don’t ask me to layer them with pastry cream again.
The night of the cake, I was feeling a bit bleak. I don’t cook or bake often enough these days to be unperturbed when an effort goes awry. But I’ve had some time to reflect. Reading back over this post, I realize that this birthday was full of things that I love. Which means, despite the culinary disaster, it was a total success.