I’m not exactly what you call a “mean mommy,” but I like to keep everyone’s expectations around here pretty low. Clothes? All hand me-downs. Our fanciest vacation? Gary, Indiana (If you can ignore the steel mills and oil refineries, they have a pretty nice beach). And birthdays? Local blood relatives only, please.
But, I will pour every ounce of my love into the birthday cake. Birthday cake is the most delightful of all food products. You don’t need cake– it is pure pleasure, existing only to mark a significant life event. Cake is chemistry, architecture, engineering and art, wrapped into one delicious frosted package.
My baby boy turned three last week, officially marking the end of his babyhood journey. Have I mentioned how crazy I am about this kid? He’s the sweetest, most affectionate little man I know, and an incredibly easy baby. Sleeping soundly through the night after one month, even though his “nursery” was a folding bassinet in the back of the dining room. Even birthing this kid was easy. I waited until the end of “Chicago Code,” took a cab to the hospital, and Sam was born half an hour later.
We asked Sam what he wanted for his birthday dinner. Not surprisingly, he requested pizza. “What kind of pizza?” his bossy big sister nudged. He pondered for a second, then declared, “STRAWBERRY pizza.”
I do confess: I have a soft spot for my kids’ absurdisms. At this age, their tenuous grasp on reality is beyond delightful. Their adorable delusions are like having a tiny friend on psychedelics, but without all the paranoia.
I couldn’t make an actual strawberry pizza, but it was a perfect idea for a BIRTHDAY CAKE!
- Base Cake: Yellow cake (though chocolate would be OK, if you don’t mind shattering the illusion after it’s cut)
- Frosting “Crust”: Powdered sugar + fat of your choice (butter/shortening/cream cheese), vanilla and food coloring
- “Pizza Sauce”: 3 cups of frozen (or fresh) strawberries, plus sugar and corn starch.
- “Cheese”: Coconut flakes, plus red and yellow food coloring
- “Pepperoni”: Fresh sliced strawberries
STEP ONE – BAKE: Bake a cake. It doesn’t really matter what kind, but if you really love your kid, bake a yellow* cake to continue the illusion of pizza crust inside and out. May I also gently suggest the recipe I found in Amy Sedaris’ entertainment masterpiece, “I Like You.” At the risk of violating dozens of copyright laws, here’s the recipe I used. But really, you should own this book. This is not a “joke” cookbook — I’ve tried several of the recipes and and no one has died, or even complained.
Distribute the batter evenly between two 9-inch round cake pans, or a single, really big round cake pan, though I’ve never seen one bigger than 9-inches. Heh. While the cakes are baking, you’ll want to start making the “crust,” “pizza sauce” and “cheese.”
STEP TWO – FROST “CRUST”: Next, we’ll make “crust” colored frosting. Despite all the hype, frosting is just powdered sugar mixed with the fat of your choice. I like the recipe on the back of powdered sugar bag. The best piece of cooking advice my mother ever gave me was “They never put a bad recipe on the back of the package.”
Add food coloring (gel or liquid) to your frosting until you reach the desired crusty color. I roughly followed the “chocolate malt” formula on – you guessed it—the back of the food coloring box.
PRO-TIP!! Some bakers slip strips of parchment paper under the edge of the cake to keep the serving plate clean while frosting. But why waste perfectly good parchment? After you make your frosting, cut up strips of the BUTTER WRAPPER and use those as frosting prophylactics. The earth will thank you.
Take 2/3 of the frosting and spread it evenly over the cakes, as seen above. Chill in the fridge for about half an hour while you lick the beater.
Remove the chilled cakes. If any of your guests are immune-compromised, wash your hands. Fill a small cup with warm water. With wet fingers, use the rest of the crust-colored frosting to sculpt a ring around the top perimeter, like a deep-dish pizza** You can also use wet fingers to smooth out the sides of the pizza cake (don’t worry about the top).
Then back in the fridge for just a bit.
STEP THREE – STRAWBERRY “PIZZA” SAUCE: Dump a big bag of frozen strawberries (let’s say three cups) into a saucepan. Heat until mushy. Then use a stick blender to puree into sauce.
Add a half cup of sugar, and maybe a tablespoon of corn starch, and cook down for an hour or two until you reach the consistency of pizza sauce. When you try sneak little tastes of it, you will burn your tongue, but it’s worth it. Cool until it reaches room temperature or lower.
STEP FOUR – COCONUT “CHEESE:” Dump a couple cups of flaked coconut into an empty take-out container, preferably Thai food. Combine a few drops of red and yellow food dye together with a teaspoon of water and add to the coconut.
I know sophisticated gourmands such as yourself would never DREAM of eating orange-colored cheese, but this really does look the best on a fake pizza. Anyone who’s ever worn make up for television will understand.
Sprinkle evenly over the pizza sauce.
STEP FIVE – FRESH STRAWBERRY “PEPPERONI”: You could easily stop here for cheese pizza, but since Sam specifically requested Strawberry pizza, I wanted to add an extra layer of strawberriness. Just slice up a few fresh strawberries into rounds (don’t use those funny-shaped mutant ones), and place on top of the cheese just before serving. If you add them too soon, the fresh berries might start to leak unsightly juices on your deep dish.
STEP SIX – SERVE: Before you light the candles, get everyone to put out their cigarettes and join you back in the dining area. Turn out the lights, then light the candles, and make your dramatic entrance.
* Fun Fact: Yellow cake is the only cake named for its color. Nobody is really sure of the flavor.
** Contrary to what you see in the travel brochures, Chicagoans never actually eat deep dish pizza, except when our friends and relatives visit from out of town and we have to. Don’t worry, the hot dog thing is for real.