Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Frosting On the Cake

My daughter Isabel graduated from high school this past weekend— a milestone that warrants all the buildup and fanfare and celebration that accompany it. Not only does it mark the end of thirteen-plus years of school, but also the end of her childhood. My feelings about this, of course, are mixed: joy at seeing her arrive shining at this threshold and sadness to be saying goodbye.

We threw a small party for Isabel, for which Chris and I made a slide show of her growing up over the years. As I was sorting through old photos, the memories came flooding back:

her baby sweetness,

toddler curiosity,

preschool zaniness,

girlhood girlyness,

preteen exploring,

teenaged searching,

and mature loveliness.

Looking through all the photos, I realized how I had grown up beside Isabel; how she had taught me how to be a mother. When I was pregnant with her, I was happy, but terrified. I didn’t know if I had what it takes to be a good parent. I remember feeling like I was standing on the edge of an abyss. Now, I realize that this image was accurate, and that parenting is a kind of cosmic leap into unknown depths—of emotion, commitment, and love. At some point this year I came across a poem by Sharon Olds that captures, like a good poem does, the complexity of the experience.

High School Senior
by Sharon Olds

For seventeen years, her breath in the house
at night, puff, puff, like summer
cumulus above her bed,
and her scalp smelling of apricots
--this being who had formed within me,
squatted like a bright tree-frog in the dark,
like an eohippus she had come out of history
slowly, through me, into the daylight,
I had the daily sight of her,
like food or air she was there, like a mother.
I say "college," but I feel as if I cannot tell
the difference between her leaving for college
and our parting forever--I try to see
this house without her, without her pure
depth of feeling, without her creek-brown
hair, her daedal hands with their tapered
fingers, her pupils dark as the mourning cloak's
wing, but I can't. Seventeen years
ago, in this room, she moved inside me,
I looked at the river, I could not imagine
my life with her. I gazed across the street,
and saw, in the icy winter sun,
a column of steam rush up away from the earth.
There are creatures whose children float away
at birth, and those who throat-feed their young
for weeks and never see them again. My daughter
is free and she is in me--no, my love
of her is in me, moving in my heart,
changing chambers, like something poured
from hand to hand, to be weighed and then reweighed.

Isabel also happens to be the valedictorian of her class. Even more than the accomplishment, though, it was the speech that she chose to deliver that filled me with pride. She spoke about the importance of living life with passion, and how true happiness can be found not in wealth, power, or fame, but in the small moments of joy and beauty that we encounter every day if our eyes are open to recognizing them. It was the frosting on the cake.

I made way too much food for the party; we’re still enjoying the leftovers. For dessert, I made a lemon cake with almond frosting, using a cake pan I bought for the first party we threw in honor of Isabel, her Welcoming. 

I’ve used the cake pan for many other parties over the years to make a variety of cakes and frostings (and sometimes in a pinch have resorted to Betty Crocker). But I had yet to make a frosting that I was completely satisfied with—one that tastes like the creamy-but-light swirls that sit atop cupcakes from a fancy cupcake bakery,  like Magnolia in New York City. I did a little searching through recipes online and—what do you know?—I found one on Epicurious from a Magnolia cookbook. The recipe sounded strange, starting off with a base of flour and milk—lots of milk—but I decided to give it a try.

At this point it was also after 10 pm the night before the graduation and I didn’t have the energy to question the ingredients. If it didn’t turn out, I could run to the store in the morning before the ceremony. But oh-my-goodness did it turn out beautifully. I finished decorating the cake around midnight, having eaten several spoonfuls of velvety deliciousness in the process. The secret to its light creaminess must be the milk; I used local Monument Farms 1%, the kind I happened to have in my refrigerator, and the consistency was perfect. I wouldn’t have wanted it any richer.

It seems most people at the party agreed. One person left with the recipe, and several others asked about it. This will be my go-to frosting in the future, for all the celebrations yet to come.

Creamy Vanilla Frosting (adapted from More From Magnolia: Recipes From The World-Famous Bakery and Magnolia's Home Kitchen)

Makes enough for one 3-layer 9-inch cake or one 12 x 18 sheet cake

6 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups milk
2 cups (4 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
2 cups sugar (I used slightly less)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract (I used almond extract)

In a medium-size saucepan, whisk the milk into the flour until smooth, starting with a small amount of milk and gradually adding more. Place over medium heat and, stirring constantly, cook until the mixture becomes very thick and begins to bubble, 10-15 minutes. Cover with waxed paper placed directly on the surface and cool to room temperature, about 30 minutes.

In a large bowl, on medium-high speed of an electric mixer, beat the butter for 3 minutes, until smooth and creamy. Gradually add the sugar, beating continuously for 3 minutes until fluffy. Add the vanilla and beat well.

Add the cooled milk mixture, and continue to beat on the medium high speed for 5 minutes, until very smooth and noticeably whiter in color. Cover and refrigerate for 15 minutes. Use immediately. Once spread, the frosting stays fresh-tasting for up to 3 days.


  1. Beautiful. Just like the daughter you have shared with us!
    Just last year, I heard someone say that our job as a parent is to eventually prepare a child to leave us and be on their own in our world. I thought, how odd. In our hearts, we want them to be ours forever. But, it is not meant to be this way. You, my friend, helped to prepare the "icing on the cake" and you should be very proud! Love u.

  2. So beautiful. This brought tears to my eyes. Congratulations to Isabel and to you all.

    1. Thanks, Linda. I hope your summer is off to a good start. I have an idea (French related) that I'll email you separately about. A bientot!