This week is the 53rd -- and probably the last -- of my children's birthdays to be celebrated at home. When my third child goes off to college next fall, I'll be resorting to long-distance parties with a cake from a campus bakery or a mail-order service. Or maybe I'll send a brownie cake from home.

I turned to brownies from traditional layer cakes for birthdays once my daughter got too old for a "princess" cake. It was a doll sunk into a hoop skirt of cake layers festooned with about a pound of pink frosting. Over the years, layer cakes gave way to birthday pies, giant birthday cookies and birthday cheesecakes. The all-time favorite, though, was the birthday brownie.

Brownies have several advantages as birthday cakes: No cake base is easier or quicker to make and if there is one dessert that is among everyone's favorites, it is the all-American brownie. For children's parties, a big brownie cuts neatly into small or large portions. It is sturdy enough to eat by hand or with a fork without much mess. Most important, a big uncut brownie, made in a sheet pan, is an ideal canvas for birthday decorations.

My brownie sheet cakes have been baseball diamonds and flower gardens. With one child's birthday in November soon after Halloween, sometimes his cake was a train, its cars a handy repository for leftover trick-or-treat candy. I found my limits, however, when I tried to make Matt the TV cake he requested; even he couldn't guess what it was.

As the children grew up, the cakes grew more elegant. Once Julia Child taught me on television how to make a lacy caramel cage for a cake. So we had a rash of caged strawberry shortcakes. Black Forest cake and raspberry butter cream tortes had their years.

But while the cakes grew more elegant, the rest of the party food grew simpler. When my children were toddlers the parties were as much for the mothers as the children. (I didn't mention fathers. In those days men weren't yet enlightened enough to attend children's parties.) I'd make trays of Danish-style open-face sandwiches for the mothers and we'd hang around nibbling at them all afternoon while the children, too excited to eat, played with the birthday toys.

As the children grew older, even the mothers absented themselves, so fancy sandwiches gave way to tuna salad, peanut butter and jelly or hamburgers. By Joe's 10th birthday the children had rediscovered eating, and I was writing about feeding children nutritiously. So I bought fast-food burgers, added homemade carrot-cabbage slaw, then rewrapped them. Some of the kids didn't notice; others assumed this was Burger Chef's new wrinkle. When my children found out, they admitted they much preferred the slaw when they thought it was Burger Chef's rather than Mom's.

I knew it was time for the food to get fancy again when one year I heard the little girls at Libby's birthday party whispering about the ice cream, "It's not Ha agen-Dazs!"

We've had birthday parties at zoos, pizza parlors and pool halls. We've gone to a dollhouse museum and have had a fire engine come to the house (though not since the dispatcher forgot to tell the firemen that it was for a party rather than for a fire). I never had the fortitude to carry out Dr. Spock's suggestion that the birthday child invite only one friend for each year of age. We usually had at least a dozen guests for the birthday child, then a best friend or so for each of the siblings. And there were grandparents, sometimes aunts and uncles, maybe a neighbor or two. All that changed in the teen years, when the children turned away from birthday parties altogether, at least ones that included parents.

Those three homemade birthday cakes a year were an unwavering tradition. Then one year something -- I've forgotten what -- prompted me to ask the birthday child whether he minded having a store-bought ice cream cake that year. To my chagrin he wasn't disappointed, but ecstatic. It had been his dream, he said, someday to have a "real" cake rather than a homemade cake.

I attributed it to his not wanting to make me feel guilty.

Tabletalk For a homemade birthday cake away from home, you can order a gift package sent by Handle With Care (4801 Dover Rd., Bethesda, Md. 20816, (301) 951-0367). The 4-pound food package includes a pound cake -- not decorated, but for a birthday it comes packed with balloons and candles -- plus a pound of brownies, a pound of fresh fruit in season and a pound of dry-roasted nuts. It costs $22.50 including postage, and must be ordered two weeks ahead.

Chalet Bakery near Oakland, Calif., sends its decorated cakes via TeleCake in a box that plays "Happy Birthday" when opened. Federal Express delivery is promised within 48 business hours. The 5-pound cakes are $29.95 for chocolate, carrot or raspberry-filled white cake, $34.95 for chocolate swirl cheesecake, shipped frozen to thaw by arrival. Call (800) 225-3872; payment can be by major credit card.

Organize your own birthday delivery service by calling a bakery or restaurant in the town where you want a cake sent. You can usually arrange payment by credit card. Some bakeries will deliver, or you can send a gift card to a friend with instructions for picking up the cake. College roommates, likely to get a piece of the gift, are often glad to arrange pickup.


4 ounces unsweetened chocolate

1 cup (2 sticks) butter

4 eggs

2 cups sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 cup chopped walnuts (optional)

2 teaspoons vanilla

Grease a 9-by-13-inch pan, line it with waxed paper and grease the paper.

In a small saucepan, melt the chocolate and butter together. In a large bowl, beat eggs and sugar until fluffy, then blend in the melted butter and chocolate.

Stir salt into flour, then blend into the batter. Add nuts and vanilla. Spread in pan and bake at 325 degrees for 35 minutes or until center is just beginning to firm. Cool in pan, then turn out onto a tray, remove waxed paper and frost.

1988, Washington Post Writers Group