Oberlin Blogs

The Happy Birthday Blog, or How I Became a Birthday Planner

December 12, 2010

Ma'ayan Plaut ’10

I find it amazing that I have been in Oberlin for four years for my birthday, two years of which I have had a blog here on the Oberlin blogs, and yet have never written about my birthday, or Oberlin birthdays in general. So, of course, it takes a very special birthday for me to write about it on the blogs.

So, I present: Happy Birthday, Ben (who turned 19 last Monday!), or how I learned to stop worrying and decided to make a gigantic cake for Old B.

I think college birthdays are hard but awesome. Specifically, I think that college birthdays your freshman year are hard but awesome. Your family isn't here, your friends from home aren't here (or maybe they are... surprise!), and if your birthday is early in the semester, you don't necessarily know anyone well enough to find them the perfect present.

As you get along in your Oberlin years, you can plan for such things. I once bought a birthday present in November for a friend whose birthday was in March. I am a sneaky-deaky planner. You know when your friends' birthdays are and you can plan/surprise/bake accordingly.

So, Ma'ayan, what are my options on my birthday?

(Well, for me, my birthday is during commencement week, sandwiched between two incredibly awesome friends Eric and Izzie. Freshmen year I escaped to Kentucky, but every year since, my birthday has fallen during the magical yet stressful week of seniors crying and families doting. I've had cupcakes in gazebos, reunion concerts, late-night pizza parties, and early-morning Feve-brunching. I've even had a great deal of friends in hazes of less-stress able to celebrate with me.)

The options:

- Your parents are awesome and order you a birthday-in-a-box.

A convenient and adorable way for your family to contribute to your birthday in Oberlin. Campus Dining Services has a care package option that includes a mini-birthday-party-in-a-box. They may or may not include cake, ice cream, soda, plates, and utensils. You receive a slip of paper in your OCMR, and then pick up your boxed celebration at the Decafe.

For some reason, I cannot find the link to this option right now. I know these things exist. The number of cakes I have partaken in exceeds several dozen. CAKE! (And it is not a lie.)

- You and your friends have an extravaganza of silly things and birthday things.

Things I have been known to do for birthdays: epic scavenger hunts, a Shakespearean-themed party, bake brownies at midnight, find the most ridiculous stuffed animal at Ben Franklin as a gag gift, go into WOBC at 5am with a crowd of people to wish the DJ a happy birthday, and my crowning moment, masterpiecing a three-person birthday puzzle with a party at the end (instructions to follow).

1. Have three friends with birthdays in close proximity (the same day or one day apart).
2. Buy a ridiculous simple puzzle at Ben Franklin.
3. Complete the puzzle, flip it over, write directions to a birthday party on the back.
4. Take apart the puzzle, mix up the pieces, and distribute one puzzle piece each into an envelope. Add a cryptic note to each envelope encouraging the recipient to bring the piece and head to a designated meeting spot at a certain time.
5. Equally divide envelopes and address to the birthday kids. Distribute to friends of the birthday kids to return-address accordingly so no one suspects anything.
6. Slide all the envelopes (each person, individually) into the mail slot in the mail room. Don't do too many at once because you'll then be charged as mass-mailing (that's not a bad thing, it costs 10 cents per piece of mail. If you do them all at once, be prepared).
7. Ideally, all the birthday kids receive an amount of puzzle pieces, go to the designated location, put together the puzzle, read it, and follow the directions to the party.
8. CAKE! (It is not a lie.)

- You head to somewhere with birthday traditions.

If you're at Harkness Co-op and someone knows it's your birthday, you will be required to skip around the room to the tune of "Skip around the room, skip around the room, we won't shut up until you skip around the room," accompanied by beating on the tables in time, and repeated until you've skipped around the whole room. It is a delight to watch (and oh how I wish that I had been at a co-op meal on any of my Oberlin birthdays).

The Feve will give you a free drink on your 21st birthday. Plan accordingly. Woo! Feve!

If you're lucky and surrounded by boistrous friends at Stevie, you may manage to get the whole room to sing to you. This is actually quite fun. Despite the fact that Oberlin is such a music-oriented school, I think I have heard both the best and worst renditions of Happy Birthday sung here. I have no idea why this is the case.


So, back to my story.

First-year birthdays are really special, but I really didn't want to be the overbearing relative... but I did want to contribute. I started by contacting the head cook my brother cooks with on Monday night, incredibly food-talented first-year Nat. Nat is known for making delicious pastries stuffed with well-seasoned veggies and cheese and listening to amazingly good music (all the Zeppelin! All the Daft Punk!) while cooking. He also let me take photos of his cooking extravaganzas one day. Thanks, Nat!

So, I emailed Nat saying that I wanted to bake a cake. He said that it sounded brilliant. Approval. There will be cake. And it will be eaten.

Sadly, I had to inform Ben that I would be dropping by on Monday to bake because I wanted to make sure he was going to be there, that he would help me find ingredients in Old B's kitchen, and that I could get into the kitchen. Even though it wasn't a surprise, he was totally psyched. Birthday cake for everyone!

Using everyone's favorite co-op measuring implements (Earth Balance and Seven Stars yogurt containers... easily standardized 2- and 4-cup measures, respectively, plus a soup spoon to help me eyeball the smaller measurements), I portioned out the dry and wet ingredients for a modification on a wartime cake recipe (originally from my grandmother and lovingly known in our family as "Wacky Cake") that had long since been appropriated for the co-op masses. Using no dairy and no eggs (both hard-to-come-by ingredients in wartime), this cake is naturally vegan, cheap, and uses only one (large stainless-steel co-op) bowl. It is the perfect co-op baking recipe, and one of the only things I will willingly make at the drop of a hat (recipe below for anyone who is interested).

After the delicious meal and awesomecake, Ben headed off for an evening of meetings, reading, and writing. College work (and pre-finals) will stop for no man and for no birthday.

I, in turn, headed home to start this blog post.


Wacky (Birthday) Cake
Egg-free! Dairy-free! Easily soy-free! Doesn't taste like any of those things!

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup canola oil (or melted butter [unveganized]/Earth Balance/oily thing)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract (optional)
1 teaspoon white vinegar (or apple cider vinegar or lemon juice)
1 cup water (or milk [unveganized], or rice milk, or soy milk, or chocolate-complementary fruit juice like orange or cranberry)
(I also add cinnamon and nutmeg because they make chocolate taste really really good.)

Optional add-ins: chocolate chips, crumbled Oreos, dried fruit, peanut butter, coconut flakes, instant coffee... the possibilities are rather endless.

- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly grease an 8-inch round cake pan (or a 1 dozen cup cupcake tin).
- Mix together the flour, sugar, cocoa, baking soda, and salt. Add the oil, vanilla, vinegar, and water. Mix together until smooth.
- Pour into prepared pan and bake at 350 degrees F for 45 minutes, or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean.
- Remove from oven and allow to cool.

For a co-op of 80 people, increase the flour to 9 cups, sugar to 6 cups, cocoa powder to 1 1/2 cups, baking soda and salt to 1 tablespoon, oily/butteriness to 2 cups, vanilla to 4 teaspoons, vinegar to 1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons, and water-related liquid to 6 cups.

Make sure the batter doesn't go higher than one inch in the co-op pan, or it may not bake evenly. If you're using a convection oven, it'll probably bake quickly in about 35-40 minutes, but in a traditional oven, might take longer.

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