A YOUNG CHINESE I first met in Peking asked me to celebrate his birthday American-style shortly after he arrived to study here. He assumed there would be a dinner party, but was unprepared for our bringing in the birthday cake -- its candles lighting up the suddenly darkened room -- and singing "happy birthday to you."
"What do I do now?" he managed to ask.
"Make a wish and blow out all the candles," we instructed him.
It took him several tries to get the hang of that, reminding me that this whole ritual -- not only the candles, but the cake and the wish and the darkened room -- is taught from infancy in America.
In China, a celebration features long-life noodles eaten with a choice of sauces. The trick is to eat the noodles without breaking them, no less complicated than blowing out dozens of candles. In both cultural worlds -- the Chinese and ours -- the food shared in the celebration is grain prepared in a festive form to celebrate life, and the customs surrounding its handling symbolize a happy and long life.
As for traditions in Europe, not all Eruopeans use candles and wishes; some instead turn the cake into a kind of fortune telling for all, with a ring (for marriage), a button or a thimble (for spinsterhood and bachelorhood and a coin (for wealth) baked into the cake.
Until modern times, birthday celebrations in most parts of the world were reserved for the old and famous, for royalty and for long-dead saints. After all, until the 18th century, the passing of time was reckoned in relation to church and other national feastdays rather than by a carefully-kept calendar of dates.
The individual birthday celebration for children seems to have begun several hundred years ago in Germany, and developed when people started putting candles in a ring on the top of a favorite cake. The gathering of relatives and friends is a relic of the gathering to protect the individual from intruding evil spirits.
In Middle and Eastern Europe the birthday celebration has been elaborated to feature at least three cakes; and rather than choosing among them, the guests have a slice of each. There is usually a fruit or nut cake, and a pound cake and high torte of some kind, the last used as the birthday cake with candles. There is, as well, a bowl of whipped cream to heap on the cakes.Family and friends attend what has become a traditional afternoon tea-confection occasion.
In Yugoslavia, as an example of the more Eastern Christian tradition, there has been the Krsna slava (baptism dinner), a family celebration of the Saint's Day on which the male ancestor was baptized centuries ago. The saint's picture is hung in the home and a commemorative candle lit annually. On that day -- St. David's in March, St. George's in May, St. Michael's in November, as examples -- each family commemorating that saint has a gathering of relatives for dinner and frequently an open house for friends, with many kinds of cake.
Part of the slava celebration always has been the koljivo or jita , a molded "cake" of boiled unmilled wheat blended with walnuts and sugar. Traditionally this was taken to the church to be blessed and then served to guests as they arrived in the home. Western tradition also is followed, according to Elisabeth Parker, who left Belgrade 12 years ago. Individual birthday parties are celebrated, complete with a favorite cake and candles. One of the great favorites for birthdays is a chocolate nut torte which, Parker says, not only looks delicious, but tastes even better and is well worth the making. Its equally wonderful name combines both the old and the new -- Shirley Temple torte!
In other parts of the world, Africa and India for instance, birthday celebrations for children are Western colonial customs that took hold early, along with -- or instead of -- more traditional celebrations. In Nigeria, for example, young people traditionally have celebrated age-group days, with a meat or fish stew as the traditional food. However, Western birthday cakes have long been used, at least in the cities.
In England the heavily-iced birthday cake with candles to blow out loses the candles when the celebrant becomes an adult. In some parts of northern England, birthday treats were much simpler for children. Mothers would make birthday scones, individual cakes into which a few fortune telling symbols would be baked. This form of celebration cake is cooked on a griddle, a round iron baking sheet with a handle, placed on top of the stove.
In America we use a variety of methods to make birthday cakes.Tortes do not have flour or any leavening but eggs. Pound cakes have flour and take a great deal of beating to lighten them, so the electric mixer has enhanced their tradition. Baking powder is another method of easing the work of making cakes rise. And now we have cakes mixes as well. And for birthday cakes, pre-mixed decorative frosting in tubes has been the vehicle for the newest tradition, the instant birthday cake.
As for the recipe for any birthday cake, Victoria Chase had a poetic formula: What goes into a birthday cake? Sugar and salt, and smiles and tears butter and eggs, and hopes and fears sift and stir, and beat and bake That's what goes into a birthday cake! -- Victoria Chase, The Ladies Home Journal
If you want to try something more specific, here are recipes for some of the cakes mentioned above. GLAZED POUND CAKE RING 1 cup butter 1/2 whole nutmeg, ground 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 2/3 cups sugar 5 eggs 2 cups of sifted cake flour
Soften the butter and add the nutmeg and salt, beating 4 minutes in a mixer. Blend in sugar, beating about 2 minutes. One at a time, add 4 eggs, beating 2 minutes after each addition. Add the remaining egg, beating only 15 seconds this time. Fold in flour and beat for 2 minutes. Pour the batter in a greased, floured 9-inch tube pan. Place in the oven and only then set the heat at 300 degrees. Bake 2 hours. Cool in the pan 10 minutes and then turn on a wire rack.
Note: If the cake is mixed by hand, double each mixing time and bake 1 1/2 hours. Glaze: 2 cups confectioners' sugar 4 teaspoons each orange and lemon juice
Whirl together in food processor or blender until smooth. Spread over cake. After the glaze has set, decorate as desired. JITA (Slava "Cake") 1 pound unmilled whole wheat 1pound sugar 1 pound ground walnuts Vanilla extract to taste Confectioners' sugar for decoration
Cover the what with water (at least 4 cups water to 1 cup of wheat) in an ovenproof pot large enough so that the mixture fills no more than 3/4 of the pot. Bake at 350 degrees for 2 to 3 hours. You might have to add water, all of which will be slowly absorbed. It is done when the grains are very tender (they must melt in the mouth, not needing chewing.)
Drain the wheat thoroughly in a colander, place a plate beneath it to catch further dripping, and refrigerate overnight. In the morning grind the grain -- which should be absolutely dry -- twice. (If you used bleached wheat, it only needs to be ground once.) Place the grond wheat in a very large mixing bowl and add the sugar and almost all of the walnuts. Mix by hand, adding vanilla to taste.
Dust your hands with a bit of the reserved walnuts and transfer the mixture to a serving platter, forming into a melon shape with ridges etched by hand. Cover the whole with a dusting of ground walnuts and then with a dusting of confectioners' sugar so there is an even white glaze. Blot with whole "melon" very gently with a paper towel. Cool in the refrigerator until ready to serve. The longer it cools, the more the flavors will blend. SHIRLEY TEMPLE TORTE 10 ounces confectioners' sugar 5 ounces choccolate 14 eggs, separated 10 ounces ground hazelnuts 1/8 teaspoon lemon peel
Rum to taste
Melt the sugar with the chocolate in the top of a double boiler. Remove from heat and add the egg yolks, one at a time, stirring constantly. Add nuts. Beat egg whites until they form a peak. Fold, along with lemon peel, into the batter. Bake in 3 buttered and floured spring pans in 350-degree oven for approximately 50 minutes. Cake is done when a toothpick comes out clean. Cool the cake, preferably overnight, and sprinkle with rum. Filling: 5 ounces chocolate 3 whole eggs, beaten 5 ounces butter 4 ounces confectioners' sugar Ground hazelnuts for decoration
Melt the chocolate with the beaten eggs in the top of a double boiler, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and stir in the butter, beating until smooth and glossy. Beat in confectioners' sugar. Spread between the layers and then over the whole. Sprinkle the frosted cake with more ground hazelnuts.
Note: This is a big cake, but it will stay fresh a long time.