Why Peanut Butter Cake?

It is difficult to know how traditions develop in families. In ours, an event or action gets repeated a few times, and it becomes a tradition. Such is the case of special day celebrations. Special days are those that are significant for an individual family member. Birthday, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and so forth.

These days often require planning, and usually contain at least three nonnegotiable elements: breakfast in bed, gifts, and a dinner made to the celebrates specifications. The month of May has two of these special days, both for my wife Julie. In May we celebrate her birthday and Mother’s day.

After so many years one would think that pulling off this tradition would be easy. It isn’t hard, but it requires organization and preparation. Two such events separated by only a few weeks offer their own challenges. Finding gifts even small ones, for someone who has all of the necessities of life, can be difficult. I’m not saying that Julie is overly demanding. The fact is that I want to do the best that I can to make her (or any other celebrant) feel special on their special day.

Julie’s request is typically routinized. Her breakfast in bed routine involves coffee, fruit cup, orange juice, and some sort of home baked item that has cinnamon in it. As far as gift items I have learned that grander items should be purchased by request, but I’m capable of finding smaller offerings. Dinner is usually healthy fare, and always from scratch.

I start my information gathering early, at least 10 days before the event. “What do you want us to make for your birthday?” I always get the same response, “I’m thinking about it.” Because of my OCD traits I start to stress, and just before I reach the zenith of my anxiety Julie will give me her list.

This year most of her birthday requests were typical. Homebaked cinnamon coffee cake was the feature item for breakfast. Parmesan tomato/basil encrusted salmon for dinner. Great, as I had salmon steaks in the freezer from Costco!

For many years her dessert choices have remained the same: a Baker’s Square French Silk pie for Mother’s Day, and a Dairy Queen ice cream cake for her birthday. Always the same, except for this birthday.

Instead of an ice cream cake from DQ she wanted a peanut butter cake, homemade and from scratch. Pressure… Her mother made her said cake for her 16th birthday. I was to use the same recipe from a 1950s Betty Crocker cookbook. It was to have a peanut butter ganache filling, and fluffy homemade buttercream frosting. I started to sweat.

Dear readers, I am not afraid of the kitchen, and I am not afraid of baking. With that said, it has been years since I made a layer cake, probably decades since I made one from scratch. I wasn’t even sure what peanut butter ganache was.

Julie’s cake requests were exacting and based on the teenage memory of a cake that her mother made only once, and to celebrate her 16th birthday. I was certain that the efforts of a Food Channel chef would not compare to the sweet birthday memory of a one time only peanut butter cake filled with ganache, and delicately frosted with vanilla buttercream. I was doomed.

Desperate times call for desperate actions, and I became a man with a plan. My two teenage daughters have been bonding over baking Snickerdoodles and Matcha Green Tea Cake. What better way to show their love than to take over the cake assignment! Any effort made by them would be greatly appreciated by Julie. A new memory replacing the old. Problem solved, or so I thought.

At the 9th hour my older daughter “bailed” and my youngest turned to me for baking assistance. When your kids call, you answer. We found the cake recipe from Julie’s 1950s Betty Crocker cookbook, a frosting recipe from my 1980s edition, and a ganache recipe from Google. We were ready to go.

Off to the grocery store went Grace and I. List in hand, ready to do battle with measuring cups and spatulas. Driven by purpose, driven by fear, we moved forward.

I would like to inform you that bittersweet chocolate is not the same as Baker’s chocolate. A fact discovered late in our ganache making process… But I digress.

There was much to do. 1950s cookbooks seem to be written in a strange cypher, formatted in a pattern similar to a crossword puzzle. Find the pan size in the recipe above, the baking temperature on a different page, the ingredient list scattered among the baking instructions. We persevered. Time ticked on.

The 9” layer pans were found in basement storage. The Baker’s Secret pan release spray at the very back of the spice cabinet. Time ticked on.

The cake recipe barely covered the bottom of the cake pans. Something had to be wrong, we decided to double the recipe. Time ticked on.

Apparently, a double recipe takes significantly longer to bake than a single one. Time ticked on.

The cake started to brown, but was completely liquid in the center. I turned down the oven’s thermostat and covered the top of the pans with foil. Time ticked on.

We made the ganache, it was bitter! I called on powder sugar and made a recipe modification. Time ticked on.

The cake was finally done, but red hot. Onto a cooking rack and into the freezer it went. Time ticked on.

We decided to double the batch of frosting. Note to self, when adding powdered sugar to the Kitchenaid turn the machine’s speed control down to low. Mess and major clean up! Time ticked on.

Time to find the fancy party cake plate… ugh, it needs to be washed and dried. Time ticked on.

Why not teach Gracie my trick of keeping the cake plate clean by using waxed paper. Now where was that waxed paper? Time ticked on.

I normally go to sleep very early, as I get up before 4 AM to exercise. The cake was completed, but it was now well past 11 PM. Time ticked on.

Our project completed, we went to bed with hope that our efforts would be appreciated.

The cake was well received, and my family said it was good. I believe Julie was pleased with our efforts. I have no idea if it approximated her sugary memory, but she did have an extra big piece with a side scoop of peanut butter cup ice cream.

Despite all of our trials, Gracie and I had a lot of fun baking the cake. We worked through a variety of problems, laughed a lot, bonded over both our successes and failures, and moved forward despite our lack of knowledge. We are good at supporting each other in both our missteps and triumphs.

Today my goal is to remember that some things in life require effort, mistakes can often be corrected, and that trying to do the right thing can be as important as succeeding at doing it. My additional goal is to remember that Baker’s chocolate has no sugar, while Bittersweet chocolate does. Thank goodness for miracle that we call powdered sugar!

1950s cookbook
The cake pans didn’t look full enough.
How the heck do you make ganache?
Julie seemed pleased with our creation.
An inside view of our efforts.
Nothing says birthday cake like a side of ice cream!