How to make a birthday cake for a one-year-old

Pretty unicorn birthday cake with pink background

By Kaitlin Barker Davis

1. As soon as your baby turns eleven months old, obsessively begin Googling healthy sugar-free first birthday cake recipes. This will give you something to do since you can’t stop time. Every day since her birth has been saturated in now-ness—this midnight diaper change, this mystery rash, this skipped nap, this tumble, this tooth—and now it’s almost her first birthday and there’s nothing you can do to slow its arrival. But you can make a cake.

2. Ask your sister for recipes because she is a wonderful baker and you are not. Worry that you will never make a cake as beautiful as she did for her daughters’ first birthdays. (This step is easy—the technique is very similar to the worry that you’ll never be as good a mom as her.) Don’t forget to ask for a frosting recipe too. She will just tell you to mix whipped cream and cream cheese together and when you ask for more specifics, like ratios and how to make whipped cream, she will be vague in the way of expert bakers who don’t need recipes.

3. Because you have texted so many questions, your sister will offer to make the cake. You are allowed to be tempted, but ultimately you must decline. Your daughter will have no idea who made her cake, but this is beside the point—which is that every day she slips a little further out of your hands. Hands she doesn’t need to carry her everywhere, to spoon purees into her little bird mouth, to turn the pages of her books. And so it is essential that your hands make this cake.

4. Her birthday is this weekend, so you need to pick a recipe already and shop for the ingredients. Nothing seems just right, but this is because you’re trying to find a cake that can symbolize an entire year. The two hours of pushing that you swore you’d never forget but are already growing hazy. Her first laugh and first word and every moment in between. Finally decide on a banana cake sweetened with applesauce and maple syrup.

5. Make the cake the night before her birthday, in case it’s a disaster and you have to do it all over again. I know that you just put her to sleep and now you’re weeping because in the morning she will be one, but baking a cake will be a good distraction. Specifically, something to pour all your emotions into. Meticulously add each ingredient, the wet in one bowl, the dry in another. Preheat the oven. Discover you only made enough batter to fill one mini cake tin, and because something in you needs the cake to be two layers even though your baby will only eat a portion of one, make another batch. Good thing you have those extra disaster ingredients.

6. Bake the cakes. Pull them out with pride after exactly 18 minutes, just like the recipe says to. They’re going to look perfect, and you’re going to text a photo of them to your sister, and then they’re going sink in the middle like little craters. This might be because they needed to bake longer, but more likely they collapsed under the emotional significance you expected them to carry. Either way, everything can be fixed with frosting. Just cover them up and go to bed.

7. In the morning, lift your one-year-old out of her crib and bury your nose in her hair. To your relief, she will still smell like a baby. Now go get started on the frosting. With the mixer in one hand and the heavy cream only partially whipped, call your sister twice on speakerphone regarding the consistency. Acknowledge how unequipped you feel for this task. You don’t have those special frosting piping tools (which you could’ve borrowed from your sister), so instead you’re going to do your best to spread it evenly with a butter knife. Take a deep breath. It will turn out fine. If you can remember, this is how you felt about becoming a mother too. Your sister knew everything. She was so good at it but she couldn’t do it for you, and you called her constantly with all your questions, and you figured it out, even if it still sometimes feels like you use a knife to spread frosting while she uses proper frosting equipment to pipe perfect little rosettes.

8. If you are having a unicorn-themed party, carefully decorate the cake with the gold unicorn horn and ears and eyelashes that you stayed up too late making several nights in a row. Add silk flowers for the mane. (Modify this step to fit your own overly thought-out theme.) Go ahead and take a moment to congratulate yourself on your beautiful creation.

9. Carry that cake to your baby in her high chair while a room full of family and friends sing her happy birthday and your head spins with the extra feelings you couldn’t bake into her cake (a pinch of sorrow, a dash of pride, a smidge of disbelief). Blow out the candle for her, but be prepared: it will feel like blowing away her first year, your first year of motherhood. A flicker of light, a puff, and then gone.

10. Give your baby a spoon because the cake is so big she doesn’t recognize it as something she can eat. Take all the photos you want as she digs in and rubs frosting into her hair. A cake can’t stop time, but this one will somehow help mark its passage. And this is all you really needed.

Kaitlin Barker Davis is a writer living in Portland, Oregon with her daughter and husband, who is an excellent chef and makes dinner every night. In addition to unicorn cakes, becoming a mother has forced her to learn simple culinary skills. She is currently mastering the art of not burning pancakes.

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