Life lessons from a birthday cake.

Yesterday was Christmas. It was also John’s 40th birthday.

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A Christmas birthday is tricky. Having a holiday-ish birthday myself, I realize that a little extra effort to make the day special is important. So, at his request, I made John a lovely birthday cake from scratch, frosting and all!

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Let me tell you something: it was a true labor of love.

I spend a lot of time in the kitchen, so I’m not exactly sure what happened. But baking this cake was somewhat of a disaster for a while. A flour and egg CHERNOBYL, you guys. Thankfully, with the help of a spatula, a lot of vanilla bean buttercream frosting, and a big glass of wine, the cake turned out to be beautiful and delicious.

And the whole experience reminded me of a few things about life.

Expectations decrease joy.

I had high hopes for The Most Amazing Cake in the World, which would, of course, make me The Most Amazing Wife in the World. I really had no chance of meeting that lofty expectation, and doomed myself from the start. Had I approached the whole experience with an open mind, I would have had the opportunity to be pleasantly surprised instead of potentially let down or disappointed in myself.

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Good ingredients make a big difference.

We brought home incredible, fat, Tahitian vanilla beans from our honeymoon. And the flavor was so intense and rich- it really came through in the final product. Kind of like life- what you put into it is what you get back.

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Amazing things take effort and hard work.

For a “simple” vanilla bean cake and few ingredients, I wasn’t prepared for how much time and effort it took to create a homemade birthday cake.  The cake, frosting, and decorating took hours! But, as with most things that take a little elbow grease, it was worth it.

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It helps to taste the sweet stuff along the way.

Look at John’s smile! If I hadn’t dipped my finger into the cake batter or the frosting bowl along the way, I might have gotten a tad grumpy. Tasting little bits of the good stuff made me smile- and kept me motivated toward the final goal.

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Despite best intentions, sometimes things don’t go as planned.

Understatement: the cakes didn’t come out of the pans cleanly. In fact, I was trying to think of ways to serve it in chunks or crumbles. I didn’t have enough ingredients to start over, so I had to roll with the punches, regroup, and make it happen.

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If things start to fall apart, don’t give up.

I shoveled out cake pieces with a spatula and stacked them on top of other cake pieces, spackling the whole mess together with frosting. It was an uphill battle, as the crumbly pieces stuck to the knife and the whole thing was off-kilter. I was covered in frosting, and couldn’t document the insanity with photos. But I was on a mission– I would succeed!

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Though you might feel like you’re failing, no one else has a clue.

I booted John from the kitchen before things really started melting down and vowed to fix this mess into something presentable. It was, after all, his big day. It was about HIM. When he asked if everything was ok, I said, “Sure!” and kept right on working. Sometimes some one-on-one time with yourself helps make the solution to a problem more obvious.

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Things might get really messy- but they can be cleaned up.

Kitchen= disaster zone. Sink= dirty dish graveyard. Apron= crunchy with splatters. Face= covered in flour and smeared with butter. Even though life can get sticky and messy and overwhelming, it’s temporary. This too shall pass.

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You can always make a bad situation better with the right attitude.

As I scooped frosting into holes and picked crumbs out of the sides, the cake started to take shape. I started to realize this wasn’t going to be a total loss. We might have a birthday cake for dessert, after all. The light at the end of the tunnel kept me smiling through to the end.

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Things aren’t what they seem from the outside.

I may or may not have smeared frosting onto the sides of the cake with my fingers. It was an inch thick in places, the cake in shambles underneath. But from the outside, you’d never know it. A little glitter here, a distracting heart decoration there. Don’t judge a cake by its frostingor the cook by their methods.

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It’s the thought that counts.

John asked for a particular cake, and that’s what I made for him. I knew that even if it tasted disgusting, he’d hug me and thank me for spending time to make him happy. We could always eat ice cream from the freezer instead and be just as content. That knowledge took the pressure off and my little pile of crazy started to look quite beautiful.

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No one cares that you’re not perfect.

This one is key for me. I’m my harshest judge, my worst critic. And I’m the only one who has any idea about the little missteps or errors along the way. A tasty mouthful of cake is what’s remembered, not the spills and sighs it took to get there.

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Make a wish.

Having hopes and dreams to aspire to can help keep a smile on your face and a spring in your step, whether times are good or bad. There’s always something to look forward to.

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The hard parts make the good parts a lot sweeter.

Drum rollthe cake was spectacular. The specks of vanilla bean in the moist cake and the fluffy frosting was so apparent and delicious– I almost forgot how hard it was to pull together. And the Birthday Boy LOVED it- which is all that really matters to me. I might even have accidentally achieved Most Amazing Wife in the World status- at least for a day.

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Everything is better when done with love.

This is the most important life lesson. Enough said.

Life’s too short. Recognize the little things. Think of others. Do your best. Give yourself a break. Enjoy the journey.

And always say yes to another piece of cake.

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15 replies »

  1. “Expectations decrease joy.” You’re preaching to the choir on this one! I’m the queen of high expectations and then the biggest baby when it comes to the disappointment that follows. (This is one of those things I need to work on to be a better me.)

    But, the cake looks gorgeous and those vanilla beans are huge! I’m sure it tasted really good. And, I’m pretty sure John appreciated your hard work for him in the kitchen.

  2. This was a lovely post, Amber, and it really struck a chord. “Expectations decrease joy” is one of the hardest lessons I’ve learned in my twenties. Expectations are very different from excitement or anticipation — expectations become this rigid Frankenmonster that take on a life of their own. I loved your life lessons and presentation of this post. This deserves to be Freshly Pressed!

    • Thank you so much, Jorie! Taking “expectations” out of the picture doesn’t mean LOWERING expectations, which I had to realize. It means being open to what’s coming and enjoying all of it. It’s a struggle for me sometimes!
      Freshly Pressed: a great example of letting go of expectations. It would be fantastic, but after putting hard work into ‘good’ posts and feeling sort of secretly sad that they weren’t recognized, I let go of it. Now it would be a happy surprise! 🙂

  3. Oh, I agree with the message that is sifted throughout this entire post, Amber. Your attitude sparkles even brighter than the candles! (And putting 40 on that cake might have ruined the mood and beauty of the whole thing. Never mind. He can go all-out-fire-alarm at 41. LOL)

    What 40-yr-old newly wed husband wouldn’t just love all that!? Sweetness to the core.

    Aren’t vanilla beans a delight? So worth all the work. You can make your own vanilla extract from them too, you know, to use in cookies and other treatie-treats…

    We’re all about homemade. Typically, it’s not just a reward for yourself and your loved one, but also the world around you (in so many ways that most never give a shred of thought to — but I do). Keep it simple. Sprinkle it with love. And whatever you do, do it with joy.

    • I thought 40 candles would be overkill! SO I did one for each decade and one for good luck! haha.
      These vanilla beans are so big and fat- It was so cool to learn how much they BABY them in Tahiti. I have a recipe for homemade extract that I haven’t tried yet!
      I do a lot of things homemade and this isn’t even my first cake- it was just a funny series of mishaps this time!
      Whatever you do, do it with joy. So true. Thank you!!

      • Great idea — a decade per candle! To celebrate my 11-yr-old’s birthday a few weeks back, we found a number “7” candle and then put four more in (it’s all we could find). “That equals eleven, Mom. I’m good,” he told me. I was in a frantic state of life at the time and didn’t want to run to the store just for candles. His acceptance of “good enough” made my heart melt.

        It’s all about the love!

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