Jane Austen

Birthday Celebrations

Here at Riskies, we just finished celebrating our blog birthday celebration! This week is Risky Megan’s birthday, plus another friend of mine is having her birthday party tomorrow night (note to self: go buy card!), so birthdays are on my mind today. And what’s the best part of a birthday? (besides getting bookstore gift cards, that is…) Cake of course! So I was curious and looked up a very brief history of the birthday cake…

It seems that our idea of a birthday cake dates to around the middle of the 19th century (the Victorians liked to do everything up big–weddings, funerals, birthdays), but cake associated with special occasions goes back to the ancient Greeks. In Greece and Rome, cakes that resembled flat rounds made with nut flour, leavened with yeast and sweetened with honey, were served at important birthdays and weddings. Candles seem to have come from this time as well, since it was believed that covering a cake with lighted candles made it glow like the moon (so it was often an offering to Artemis, virgin huntress goddess of the moon). It’s also thought that the smoke from the candles could carry prayers to the gods–maybe a precursor to our idea of the birthday wish?

In parts of Germany in the 15th century, some savvy bakers hit on the idea of making special one-layer cakes for customers’ birthdays. By the 17th century, the upper classes had cakes much like our own idea of a proper birthday cake–multi-layered, icing, decorations. Elaborate birthday parties seem to be a Victorian thing–the Victorians really liked doing everything up big (weddings, funerals, etc). In the Regency, birthdays would be celebrated but in a more low-key way–a special dish at dinner maybe, cakes, gifts like handkerchiefs or books. But a well-known personage’s birthday was always more elaborate. A letter written in 1799 by Goethe says, “…when it was time for dessert, the prince’s entire livery…carried a generous-size torte with colorful flaming candles – amounting to some fifty candles – that began to melt and threatened to burn down, instead of there being enough room for candles indicating upcoming years, as is the case with children’s festivities of this kind…”

Oh, and the song “Happy Birthday” became popular in the early 20th century (it first appeared in print in 1912). Now it’s the number one most recognized song in the English language…

Here is a recipe for a black forest chocolate cake I always like on my birthday! (but I’ll have to wait a while for it, since my big day is not until January…)


  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 tablespoon vinegar
  • 1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 cups white sugar
  • 3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 cup strong brewed coffee, cold
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 (21 ounce) can cherry pie filling
  • 1/2 cup cherry liqueur
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Grease and flour two 8 inch cake pans. Make sour milk by combining milk and vinegar. Set aside.
  2. Sift together the flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder and salt. Set aside. In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, oil, coffee and vanilla. Stir in the sour milk. Gradually beat in the flour mixture, mixing just until incorporated.
  3. Pour batter into prepared pans. Bake in the preheated oven for 30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean. Allow cake layers to cool completely before filling.
  4. To make the cherry filling: Combine the cherry pie filling and cherry liquor. Refrigerate cherry mixture until chilled, then fill cake

Of course, if you feel like going the opposite direction, there is always Cake Wrecks for inspiration. I love that site!

What do you do on your birthday? What’s your favorite kind of cake?

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11 years ago

I’m a chocolate girl… Every one should visit cake wrecks… A friend of my mom’s asked for ‘a carrot cake with nothing on top’ and that’s what she got. A carrot cake iced with “nothing on top’ inscribed in icing’ You never saw so many 70 year old ladies fall out of their chairs laughing so hard!!

Keira Soleore
11 years ago

Ammanda, your posts are always such fun, and Hello Kitty is such a hit (AHEM!) with us.

I’m a white/yellow cake person. Chocolate icing is fine though vanilla is preferable. But a wholly chocolate cake with chocolate frosting is too much for me.

11 years ago

I love the Hello Kitty cake. I pretty much always get a Carvel ice cream cake.

Janet Mullany
11 years ago

I recently had an astonishing cake that was chocolate graham crackers sandwiched with whipped cream and refrigerated. The refrigeration and the whipped cream converted it into a cake-like item and it was wonderful, particularly as it was incredibly hot and no one wanted to cook.

I like to make cakes from scratch, otherwise cake mix with lots of whipped cream and fresh fruit.

Amanda McCabe/Laurel McKee

“A carrot cake iced with “nothing on top’ inscribed in icing'”


Janet, that sounds delicious! I have heard of graham cracker concoctions like that but have never been able to try it. Now I definitely have to…

Louisa Cornell
11 years ago

What a darling cake, Amanda! We do a lot of Hello Kitty cakes here at the bakery I manage. And Cake Wrecks is one of our favorite places to peruse. Definitely an inspiration for what NOT to do when decorating a cake!

I love a good coconut cake, but my favorite is our triple chocolate cake! YUM! Death by chocolate.

Because I spend so much time working with cakes I seldom have one on my birthday. Although the girls in the bakery made sure I had a fabulous cookie cake for my 50th birthday.

11 years ago

Cakewrecks is a wonderful site. The cakes in the Aug. 14 Threadcakes 2011 post are incredible. I have decorated cakes, but those are so far past incredible, I can’t imagine being able to do them.

On my birthday, it really depends on where we are and what we are doing. I like just about any kind of cake and frosting combination, except maybe the red velvet cake.

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