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 appliquéd 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? 


  1. That is such a darling cake. Happy bday to your little guy! And Lila is such a cute big sister.
    We dont have any bday traditions as yet for our five year old. Apart form his first birthday, his other bdays were extremely low key where I baked him a simple cake, made pasta and we took some chocolates to distribute to his friends. No bday party. But this year "I "need" a car shaped cake and I need to invite my friends home" he has declared. And he has already told his friends that they are invited to his bday which is in 2 months time! So in most likelihood we will end up doing something for his birthday this year!
    I am currently re-reading Thinking, Fast and Slow.

    1. Neha- Aww- a car cake would be super cute. At age 5, he's very clear about what he wants :) and the anticipation and excitement about the birthday party are the very best parts, because the actual party goes by in the blink of an eye and with complete chaos ;) I hope he has a fun birthday in a couple of months.

      I've out Thinking, Fast and Slow on my to-read list; it sounds very interesting.

  2. Happy birthday to little Niam! Traditions are so fun! Both my kids love gulab jamun, so I always make it on their birthday. This time my son has also requested Dump cake (he loved it he last time I made it!). We usually do a birthday donut or pancakes with candles. Since my son's birthday comes in the summer (its's next week), we take the day off and we do something he likes (Shedd aquarium) this time. And then birthday dinner at night.
    I love the cake and am totaly copying it sometime! So fun that you let Lila decorate her cake. You are such a good and patient mom!
    I just finished reading 'A Place for Us'by Fatima Farheen Mirza. I am starting the All the light we cannot see. Heard so many good things about it.

    1. Sangeetha- Thanks! There's just something about birthdays and an overload of sweet treats :) Birthday donuts are a really sweet idea. It was good to make two cakes so I could let Lila go on town on hers and leave mine alone ;)

      I too have heard many people praise All the Light We Cannot See. Another one for the TBR list.

      So you live in Chicago? I'm flying to Chicago in a couple of days (very short trip)- do you recommend any must-see, must-eat places?

    2. Yes, I do live in Chicago. Are you going with family or by yourself? Recommendations will differ based on this. Oh there so many things to do. And this is a wonderful time to be here. Either way with or without family I would recommend Millenium Park to wander around, the Navy Pier Ferrous wheel for a gorgeous view of the city, drinks at Signature Room in Hancock tower, deep dish at Girodano's. West Loop is up and coming and has a lot of local farm to table restaurant with a unique twist. Our favorite is the Little Goat cafe/diner, Publican and Fulton Market Kitchen. Also hit Devon street for chaat. I could go on and on but email me for anything specific. sangs50 AT gmail DOT com.

    3. Sorry to be jumping in. But one of my favorite things to do in Chicago was the architecture river cruise.

    4. Sangeetha- Thanks for the great tips. I have visited Chicago a few times but that was years ago. I remember Navy Pier and Millennium Park, Magnificent Mile being wonderful to just walk around and soak in the atmosphere.

      We're going as a family but I might be sneaking off to the city for a few hours without the kids. I'll e-mail you if I need specific ideas- thanks so much :)

    5. Shriya- In fact, thanks for chiming in! The river cruise sounds wonderful, I'll have to see if we can fit that in.

  3. Oh my goodness - Chicago is so much fun! If you are bringing the kiddos, Maggie Daley Park and Shedd Aquarium are must-do's. Grant Park and Millennium Park are nice to walk around in good weather. Foodwise: I always make time for Nhu Lan (vegetarian banh mi and pho) and Xoco (Rick Bayless Mexican street food) if at all possible. Piece (non-Chicago style pizza) is also amazing. So jealous :)

    1. Bek- girl, do I sense that you are missing your old haunts ;)?? Maggie Daley Park would be great for the kids to run around. Would love to try Nhu Lan! Xoco is closed on Mondays- sob. You might be getting texts from me for more recos ;)

    2. Yes! There are a lot of places worth missing (which is what makes visiting so great). Another worthwhile food visit is La Boulangerie, which is a fantastic French bakery/cafe.

  4. My daughter loves birthdays - the decorated cake, the special meals, the planning the party, the cupcakes for school - traditions are fun but can be tiring - and your description of Lila insisting on traditions made me think how interesting it is that kids create traditions - we did it as kids and sylvia does it too. Your books sound interesting reading - I read a book recently called the things we keep by sally hepworth about a woman in her 30s with alzheimers in a nursing home - it gave great insight and compassion into the world of people with dementia. And I am sad to hear you hated history - I loved it at school and studied it at uni - it still feels an important part of my life. But glad you are now discovering it. There is such interesting recent history to be read and discovered which I think is often taken for granted and lost

    1. Johanna- you and your girl are amazing at making treats and throwing fun parties- I love seeing them on your blog.
      I truly wish history wasn't such a drag. Also, in India we chose science OR arts (humanities) OR commerce (business/economics) streams right out of high school (grade 10) and there is no crossover between these branches. As a science student I totally missed out on studying any literature/ history/art. I am trying to make up for that as an adult and consider myself a student for life!

  5. What cute traditions and cake! Such a sweet way to celebrate Niam's birthday. We don't have any special birthday traditions but, do try to make the day special in some way. Love all your ideas.
    I just finished reading the first book in the Maisie Dobbs series and started the second one. If you like light, cozy mysteries, this series is a good one.


    1. Anu- Thanks :) I have enjoyed several books in the Maisie Dobbs series- and agree with you that it is a good one! I am sure there are a couple of new ones out since I last read it- will look for them.

  6. Happy birthday to your little guy! Love the non-minimalist cake--reminds me of my son's fro-yo, where I can barely identify the base for the toppings :)

    1. Thanks Niranjana! Yup, fro yo is just an excuse to pile on the candy toppings :)

  7. Awesome cake... Did you let him squish it all over his little face lol

    My husband was recently in Chicago and he was raving about a pizza place near de Paul university. Peaquod(sp?) pizza

    1. Janani- No, he squashed it straight into his mouth ;)

      I did get to eat some really good deep dish pizza on my Chicago trip- not that one but one near cousin's home. So good!

  8. Hi Nupur,

    Happy Birthday to baby Niam! What a lovely tradition that Lila and you have come up with :)

    I agree that traditions are tedious for the upholder. Looking back, looks like we had a simple tradition too. We used to decorate the dining table with a birthday banner, chocolate cake (both my kid's favorite), birthday card and the gift, the night before, after the kids went to bed. They would be so happy to see it the first thing in the morning. We would cut the cake and they would eat it for breakfast with milk. The rest of the celebration would be in the following weekend either with a birthday party when they were young or with a birthday dinner as they got older. Now they are off to college and not at home for their birthdays.

    I would feel that I didn't do enough to make their birthday's special. As their birthday's are in October and November it would be too hectic - with start of school, then start of all our Indian festivals starting with Krishna Jayanthi, Ganesh Chathurthi, Navrathri, Diwali and the ensuing celebrations at home, temple and Indian associations. Then celebrating Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas at home and at school.

    It would be a celebration overload in the Fall. We couldn't let go one or the other as we wanted to pass on some culture and tradition to the kids :):).

    You brought back memories!


    1. SS- Thank you for the wishes! Your overnight birthday decoration sounds so very sweet. Chocolate cake for breakfast would be special indeed. Fall does get to be a very busy time in terms of celebrations! My kids' birthdays are in July and September which are pretty lite on competing events, although people are often traveling in July. One of our little friends has her birthday on Dec 26- poor kid, imagine competing with Christmas ;)

      I loved hearing your birthday memories!! Your kids are very lucky that you embraced all these different celebrations- such fun for them.

  9. Happy birthday Niam! How quickly the time has flown by! I hope he is a better sleeper now :)). I LOVE Lila's cake - tell her that I wish I were one of those fish going to school in that lovely castle by the coral reef! I wonder what Duncan's role in the whole event was ?!?

    1. Thank you dear Kamini! I will cautiously say that yes, he is a better sleeper now. He often lets us sleep all the way until 5 AM- imagine that ;)

      Duncan got to stay home in air-conditioned comfort while we were out celebrating- with his thick fur coat, I think he liked that!

  10. Lovely birthday cake. Belated bday wishes to the little one. The part sounds like a fun party.

    I read your blogposts regulary but rarely comment. I have been inspired by many of your posts. Some of the things that I started doing based on your blog posts- carrying a container for food take out when we go to restaraunts, composting.

    I have been thinking of greener parties and how to speak up when there is a community organized party. Even simple things like, bringing our own water bottle, cutleries and taking home stuff to recycle if there is no recycle bin at the parks- would go a long way. I see posts on Nextdoor app, on how HOA is not cleaning up the bins properly after parties. People want to blame others but dont want to change their day to day actions. A few months ago, I spoke up and said No to plastic part favors and suggested books for kids during a party organized by a group of friends for our kids. Many parents agreed to it. Would love to hear about if you speak up about green party ideas if you are attending a party organized by the community.

    1. Thank you for the wishes, and for chiming in! You are so right that community events produce mountains of trash and are "low hanging fruits" for taking simple do-able steps to reduce waste. I could and should be more vocal about it, a lot of why I don't speak up is because I'm not the organizer of any community events at least at this point.

      But I do see people around me doing positive things: friends doing a book exchange instead of birthday gifts and favors, our neighborhood Halloween party uses reusable dishes and silverware, Easter egg hunts reuse the plastic eggs year after year. All our parks have recycling bins. Slowly I hope we have a culture shift towards sustainability and not just using stacks of disposables in the name of convenience.

  11. How did your little boy get to be two already? Wasn't it just the other day that you unveiled his birth on these pages? What a lovely tradition you have. Long may it continue. For my son's 10th birthday back in March, we had a sleepover with ten children and they played hide-and-seek and football and table-tennis well into the night. We ate dinner and let them watch a movie and then when they woke up to a surprise snow fall the next morning, they bundled off into the garden (we're lucky enough to have our own little forest) and spent the morning throwing snow balls and sledging. It was better than any party we have ever hosted for him so far with minimum waste and maximum fun. It is also the best thing we could have done since we are now relocating to the UK, back to the matchbox house with stamp-sized garden (first world problem, I understand).

    As for my Read Harder challenge. I bought Fun House - a graphic novel by Alison Bechdel (of the Bechdel test fame) upon a friend's suggestion, only to find that I had ordered a German version. So I'm taking my time reading it, langsam, langsam.

    Meanwhile, can I please request you to give my own self-published food memoir - Life On An Eversilver Plate - a go? Details on my blog www.jikku.blogspot.com . Thank you!

    1. Abhi- Time does fly, doesn't it? Your son's sleepover party sounds absolutely perfect and the stuff that fond memories are made of. LOL at buying the German version! Fun house is on my to-read list. Good luck with relocating across the pond! I will definitely read your memoir!

    2. Thank you, Nupur. Look forward to hearing what you thought of it.

  12. Hi nupur, what a lovely thing to do - make your own traditions! Both my husband and I come from families where we don't do much for birthdays, it's just another day but my almost 3 year old seems excited about his, that's coming up in another couple of months. So far just thinking will send over a cake that he can share with his friends in school, let's see. I want to recommend a book I read in July and enjoyed wholeheartedly- I think you will too- 'a place for us' by Fatima farheen Mirza!

  13. Belated Birthday wishes to little Niam! Hugs <3

  14. Many many happy returns of the day to your little one! And the cake looks scrumptious - the best kind, not overloaded with icing and very home-made authentic and yummy.

    Our birthday tradition is to skip the party, donate a toy you have outgrown (this is always fun, how not a single toy is willing to appear in this category until the day ;) ) and instead take a family trip to some fun destination. We started this after her fourth birthday when she was about ready to start making her own choices.

    Hope you are enjoying the last few weeks of summer!


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