Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Birthday traditions, and a splashy birthday cake

Our little boy turned two years old, and his big sister was excited for weeks leading up to his birthday. She is such a doting sister, and a very family-oriented kid. Where her dad and I are 100% not religious and very loosey-goosey with traditions of any kind, she insists that she would like us to have special family traditions.

We chatted a bit about this and decided to establish five fun family birthday traditions starting with Niam's birthday this year:

1. A big, colorful, festive birthday banner will be strung up in the dining room the night before each person's birthday. Years ago, I had bought a fabric panel designed to be cut up and assembled into just such a banner; Lila and I finally completed it earlier this month, so our family birthday banner is ready and was used for the first time for Niam's birthday.



2. On the morning of the birthday, the birthday girl/boy will wake up to a small surprise. For Niam's birthday, we inflated a few polka dot balloons the night before and left them around the living room. The toddler was indeed surprised and delighted and ran around madly with the balloons in his pajamas at 5 in the morning!

3. On the morning of the birthday, we will make the birthday boy/girl's favorite breakfast, stick candles in it and sing the birthday song before leaving for work/school or whatever the day brings. We made a stack of chocolate chip pancakes for Niam and it was a delightful way to start the day.

4. We will have a special birthday dinner where the birthday girl/boy gets to choose the menu or choose the restaurant if we decide to eat out. I am looking to buy/make a birthday tablecloth and a special birthday plate for the birthday dinners at home. For Niam's birthday, we made some of his favorite foods- mac and cheese, corn on the cob and roasted broccoli.

5. For the kids, I will make a special birthday shirt announcing their age that they get to wear for the day. I made one for the little guy using a plain striped onesie appliqu├ęd with the number 2 with a bit of fabric from my stash.


The idea is to make the day special- both in terms of anticipation and happy memories- while also keeping things fairly simple and doable on my end. Because the fact is that while traditions are fine and good, they are a lot of work for the person who upholds them. To keep things organized, I have a box designated for the banner, candles and other birthday supplies that will be used time after time.

Apart from the actual birthday full of newly minted traditions, we hosted a small birthday party on the weekend for some of our friends and neighbors. A July birthday in Georgia can mean only two things- either you choose a venue where you can cool off in the water or you stay indoors with the air conditioner on. We took our chances with the weather and opted for a party outside, renting a picnic pavilion in a local park that has a splash pad- a playground with water features.

I made an under the sea/ fish tank cake to go with the splashing/ water theme. No original ideas here; the cake decoration was completely cribbed from various cakes I saw online. The nice thing about this cake is that it looks quite sweet while needing NO skills whatsoever to decorate. And you can decorate it in 5 minutes flat using a few items that you can buy in the supermarket. Read on for the details.



1. The cake: My sister recommended this chocolate cake recipe that she always makes for my nephew's birthday cakes. I wanted more servings so I took that recipe and this recipe, put the ingredients from both recipes together to make one big batch of batter, and baked it in 2 pans- a 8x8 inch one and a 9x13 inch one. Confused yet? ;) The idea was to make a big cake and a smaller cake so Lila and I could each have a cake to decorate and we would have enough servings to go around.

You can make any shape/size of cake as long as you have a flat surface for decorating.

2. The frosting: You need blue frosting for the water. We made standard buttercream frosting with 3 drops of blue gel food color + 1 drop green gel food color. Spread the frosting on the cake- it doesn't need to be smooth, in fact, a few waves and swirls give the frosting texture and the cake looks more realistic.

3. The sand: Crush vanilla wafers (or any brown/sand colored cookie) in a food processor to sandy crumbs. I sprinkled the crumbs/sand over the lower one-third of the cake.

4. The seaweed: Buy Fruit by the Foot and Fruit roll ups. Cut the candy into the desired length, twist and ruffle it and place artfully on the cake.

5. The pebbles: To make pebbles/ rocks at the bottom of the water, I used raisinets candy (chocolate covered raisins) with a few colorful jelly beans.

6. The fish: The "schools" of fish are cute little Goldfish crackers- buy the kind called "colors" which comes in a few fun colors. Other sea creatures include gummy fish and gummy worms.

7. Castle: Use a couple of vanilla wafers (the rectangular ones with the hatched pattern) and a few knife cuts  to make a castle.

This is Lila's cake- you can see that she is not a minimalist! Her cake tells a whole elaborate story where the castle is a school by the coral reef and the fish all have names and are going to school etc. etc.


If you make this cake for a party, I highly recommend serving the leftover candy in small bowls alongside because all the kids will want the slice with the gummy fish!

Along with the cake, we served lemonade, snacks (crackers and corn puffs), fruit (apple slices and watermelon cubes) and cheese.

Lemonade for a crowd: I'm jotting down the formula for future reference. Mix 4 cups sugar and 4 cups water in a saucepan. Heat until the sugar dissolves, then cool to make simple syrup.
  • Fill a 2 gallon cooler two-thirds with water. 
  • Add the simple syrup made above.
  • Add 30-32 ounces lemon juice. This can be freshly squeezed lemon juice, but I took a short cut this time and used two 15-oz bottles of RealLemon lemon juice concentrate. 
  • Stir the syrup, water and lemon juice, then fill the rest of the cooler with ice.
To minimize waste, we took along a plastic tote with plastic plates, plastic and stainless forks in a caddy, and plastic and stainless steel cups. All the dirty dishes got piled back into the tote to be brought back home and into the dishwasher. We did use a few paper napkins and a few paper plates but there was way less trash than if we had used all disposables.

Also, the birthday boy is too young to have an opinion about birthday gifts and party favors, so we were able to request no gifts and skip the party favors. Being in a park with a splash pad and playground meant that there was no need for additional party activities and all in all, this turned out to be a fun, simple and low-key birthday party.

* * *

The summer reading continues with the Read Harder 2018 challenge.

Task #3: A classic of genre fiction (i.e. mystery, sci fi/fantasy, romance). Mystery is my favorite easy-reading genre and I started reading a classic mystery, The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. Fifty pages in, I just couldn't get into the book and gave up. Around that time, I happened to read this New Yorker article on artificial intelligence, and it reminded me of an old friend from graduate school who loved Isaac Asimov's robot novels. So I happily switched genres and read Asimov's I, Robot, a classic of science fiction. Science fiction is not a genre I generally read but this one is a classic for a reason. A reporter is interviewing robot psychologist Dr. Susan Calvin as she retires- she narrates interesting cases from her career, and in doing so, traces the evolution, so to speak, of robots. This is such a fascinating story collection- it is based around the three laws of robotics coined by Asimov, which influenced not only subsequent generations of science fiction writers but also real life scientists working in the field of robotics.

Image: Goodreads
For Task #8: A comic written or drawn by a person of color, I chose The Best We Could Do, a graphic memoir by Thi Bui, a Vietnamese American writer/artist/teacher. Through her unique, sepia colored illustrations, Thi Bui narrates the story of her parents' childhoods, how they met and started a family against the backdrop of civil strife and war and the circumstances that led them to take their little kids on a harrowing and unpredictable journey as refugees. The amazing thing is that Thi Bui started chronicling the oral history of her family, decided that graphic art would be a good medium to tell her story and then had to teach herself how to draw comics! Incredible.

A lot of the memoir talks about how the trauma of growing up in unstable times reverberates across generations. Thi Bui ends the book with this gut-wrenching sentiment: "But when I look at my son, now ten years old, I don't see war and loss or even Travis and me. I see a new life, bound with mine quite by coincidence, and I think maybe he can be free." 

Back in grade school, history was an almost universally hated subject, and those dreadful history textbooks were chock full of disjointed events, wars and the dates to memorize. What a tragic lost opportunity that was. I wish we had learned history through memoirs and novels that told poignant stories from various points of view, the ones I'm discovering just now as an adult. Reading The Best We Could Do taught me more about the history of Vietnam that I ever knew.

For Task #11: A children’s classic published before 1980, I picked up All of a Kind Family Uptown by Sydney Taylor, first published in 1958. This is one of a series of books about a large and loving family (5 daughters and a son) growing up in 1910s in New York City. It is a warm and comforting series of stories about daily life in NYC in the days of the first world war, siblings and their little life adventures and Jewish family traditions. This would be a good book to read aloud with 9-12 year olds- I thoroughly enjoyed reading this one and will look for the others in the series.

Tell me about your family traditions and birthday celebrations!! What are you reading these days?