I always thought it was such a small number. It's just an upside down six, after all. Four little letters, one digit, nothing much. Nine dollars won't buy an album, even on itunes. Come Christmas, nine days won't bring you any lords a-leapin', any pipers piping. Nine won't get you enough toes for two feet, enough pennies for a dime, won't even cover the parks you've hit this summer. You don't even like parks, the going part anyway, though that old outside magic always kicks in once we land. Sheesh, you were nearly nine pounds when we first laid eyes on you, and you were so tiny I could tuck you in the L of one elbow.
Suddenly, nine seems a little bigger than I thought. Like googolplexian, plus a little. Nine. The last year you'll have spare fingers when you tally up your age. Halfway through elementary school. Halfway to eighteen. And even though we keep talking up that last one, pointing out the whole adulthood-on-the-horizon thing as we ask you to put away the silverware and take out the trash and help haul the groceries, we are so not done with you yet, m'dear Max. Some days, it feels like we've barely just begun to enjoy all that you are.
You surprise us still, you delight us more, every single day. Yes, you're bigger, taller, stronger enough to help with all those pesky chores (and yes, they'll get bigger, too). But it's not your size so much as your style that I'll remember of this last year.
Your persistence (two words: monkey bars).
Your kindness. Seriously, sharing those robot legos with Henry? You made his year.
One hundred little acts of courage. Reading your poem before fifty-plus faces, familiar and un-. Taking a field trip to your least favorite place (without a single chaperone who shared your DNA), and coming home all a-buzz over snapping turtles. Going down that super-steep tube slide, going up that tricky climbing wall, going cross-country mid-year to a brand new school. And house. And state. Without missing a beat. Keep it up. Bravery suits you.
The way, on walks, you'll be rattling on about beating the boss in World Eight and how the only way to get past it is to press A and hold down the up arrow and !BOOM! We all fold up accordian-style, right behind a suddenly-still you, a four-family-member pile-up. Because you saw and stopped and stooped instantly to examine -- right there, on the sidewalk, see?! -- a magnificent thick crawling colony of ants. I love that in a boy.
Your sly humor, so dry I often miss it, until I see that half-cocked grin, those sparkling eyes. So deadpan, so clever, I often find myself chuckling days later. The way you've begun picking up on all life's little punchlines, punctuating them with a smug, subtle "do-doo". A wickedly on-topic the defending Pokemon is now confused.
And that's all just last year's news (and a little something to remember it by, below there). Yup, nine's going to be a big one, huge really. I can hardly wait. Happy Birthday, Max.
And for the rest of you, a chocolate cake. Well, technically, crumbs. I feel sort of bad about this, especially since we really wanted you all around the table, and instead I'm trotting out virtual scraps. Some cakes just don't stick around long enough for pretty pictures. In my experience, those are usually the best cakes to have around, however briefly. The least I can do is get you the recipe.
Can we all agree that a cake's only as good as it's frosting? This one's no good for decorating -- no perky roses, no loopy script -- but it's pretty outrageous for eating. It's one of those happy finds, utterly delicious and brilliantly simple, just a puddle of melted dark chocolate whipped into heavy cream until it takes on the color of tree bark and the flavor of chocolate-dipped clouds.
Of course, no cake succeeds on frosting alone, and the center of this one's no slouch. It's not one of those cardboard-colored, "let's add two Tablespoons of dry cocoa and call it chocolate" cakes. With a half pound of bittersweet melted into the batter, it produces a deeply fragrant, intensely rich slice. Which is also, sort of magically, feather-light, with a soft, tender crumb. This might have something to do with beating the eggs and sugar for ten (!) minutes, until they go from gritty yellow glob to huge billowing pillow. I never knew whole eggs could quadruple in size until I baked this cake.
Topped with a glossy dark slick of ganache and slathered on, around, and in-between with a double batch of those whipped chocolate clouds, it's about as grown-up as a cake can be and still pass as little kid's party fare. Even if that kid is looking a little less little every time you turn around.
A Very Nice Chocolate Layer Cake
Adapted from Pasta & Co., Alix's Chocolate Layer Cake
I make this with bittersweet chocolate (60-70%; Lindt is very good and cheap as these things go, and available at Target. Callebaut and Valrhona are favorites) and organic cream. I can't taste the organic difference in much of anything, except cream, which is sweeter and whips much, much higher. Important in a frosting. Organic Valley (not ultra-pasteurized), in the little yellow container, is a widely available brand. Some kids do find this cake a little too dark, not quite sweet enough, but it's been Max's go-to birthday cake for nine years. And counting.
Oh, and about those walnuts? I have a vocal no-nuts-PLEASE brood, and not one has ever noticed them in the batter. They're ground so find they melt into the cake as it bakes, leaving behind a marvelous richness and haunting flavor. But I do check to make sure no party guests have nut allergies.
For Two Cake Layers
8 ounces bittersweet (see note above) chocolate, chopped
1/4 pound salted butter (1 cube)
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups unbleached flour
1 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. baking soda
1 cup toasted, finely ground walnuts (see below)
2/3 cup plus 2 Tbs. buttermilk
1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Spread heaping cup of walnuts on baking sheet, and toast 8-10 minutes in preheating oven, until golden and fragrant. Let cool.
2. Butter or spray two 9-inch cake pans. Line bottoms with parchment rounds.
3. Melt chocolate with butter, in double-boiler or microwave. If using the latter, cook in 10-second bursts, stirring well between each, for 30-60 seconds. Cool to room temperature.
4. Blitz cooled walnuts with 1/4 cup of the sugar in food processor, until very finely ground, 1-2 minutes.
5. Place sugar, eggs and vanilla in bowl of standing mixer. Beat, first at medium, then medium-high, for ten minutes -- yes, ten -- until quadrupled in size.
6. In a large bowl, whisk together flour, salt, baking soda and walnut flour. Alternately stir in the buttermilk and cooled chocolate mixture, just to combine. Carefully fold in beaten egg-sugar, just until mixed. Divide batter between the two buttered and lined cake pans.
7. Bake for 30 minutes, or until knife comes out damp but clean. Cool 15 minutes in the pan, then carefully invert to remove.
FOR CHOCOLATE FROSTING:
8 ounces bittersweet chocolate (see above), chopped
2 cups organic whipping cream (not ultra-pasteurized)
2 tsp. vanilla
1. Melt chocolate, as above. Cool to room temperature.
2. Whip cream and vanilla until soft peaks form. Pour chocolate into cream, and whip a little longer until it just turns fairly stiff, 10-20 seconds.
FOR CHOCOLATE GLAZE:
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate
2 1/2 Tablespoons salted butter
1. Just before assembling cake, melt chocolate and butter in microwave.
Place one completely cooled layer on cake stand/serving platter. Top with one third of chocolate whipped cream. Spread out until level, then set second layer on top (bottom side up delivers a nice flat surface). Spread a thin coat of frosting around all sides and top (this is your crumb coat). Rinse and dry frosting knife, and complete frosting cake with remaining whipping cream. There will be plenty for approximately 1" on top, and 1/2" around all sides. Pour glaze on top, gently nudging it toward the edges. A dusting of sprinkles or chopped walnuts is nice here, where the whipped cream and glaze meet.