Well, you guys, Elsa is one. And I’m kind of an emotional wreck about it. We had a little birthday party for her over the weekend, and I made this puppy cake for her because this girl loves her some canines. The recipe is at the bottom of the post, but if you’re up for a good ugly-cry with me, you can watch this little video that Eric put together of Elsa’s first year of life…
And then you can read this letter I wrote to her. I don’t have baby books for either of my kids because how does anyone ever have time to actually do that? But I have written them these monthly letters to keep track of what’s going on in their lives. Here is Elsa’s one-year letter…
Baby Girl, you are one! One! You have been with us an entire year, which just can’t be true. This year has gone far too quickly, and it feels like I blinked, and tiny, squishy, scrunch-faced newborn you turned into this baby with all the giggles and rolls, and then I blinked again, and this almost-toddler with enough hair to make a mullet was standing steadily at the ottoman, thinking seriously about walking across the room to get in on some Cheerios action in the kitchen.
There are so many parts of you that are the same as when we were just getting to know you. You are still quiet – or maybe serene is a better word. You are, for the most part, at peace with the world, pretty easy going. You delight in so many things, but in a quiet way. This is not to say you do not fill our house with squawks and squeaks and pat your mouth over and over to make that bah-bah-bah sound, but there is just a quietness of spirit about you.
And we are still calling you sweet. All the time. Your face lights up when you see me or Owen or your dad. Lately, when you’ve woken up from your nap before Owen, you begin crawling towards his closed door the minute he wakes up and you hear him cry, excited to greet him. You will sit still and snuggle on the couch with us, even though every cell in your body is telling you to go! crawl! stand! bounce! dance! climb! Though you would do anything to be up and crawling on the couch, and you are ever on the go, you are still content to be held, and when I pick you up from naps, you still nestle your face into that space between my shoulder and my neck, sighing happily and patting my back, just like I am patting yours.
Honeybear, you just seem to be on the cusp of everything. You could walk. You really could. But all of our efforts to entice you into taking a step end with you doing excited mini-bouncy squats, almost falling and righting yourself, but you will not pick up your feet, despite the hours we’ve spent walking behind you, your hands clenched tightly around our fingers as you walk the length of our house. Your crawling these days resembles a cartoon character, your arms and legs motoring round and round. You’re just so fast, and you are ever finding your way into the bathroom to your beloved toilet, or over to pound away on your dad’s laptop keyboard, or racing across the room to grab a stray baseball card of Owen’s to chew on for a minute before anyone notices. You easily climb up stairs now. In fact, for 45 long seconds over Christmas, we lost you inside of your Grandpa Joe & Grandma Pam’s house. Your dad and I each thought the other was watching you, and when we realized our error, we took a few laps through different parts of the house, racing to find you, only to discover you far away in their back bathroom, happily pulling toilet paper off the roll, quietly. You’ve got stealth, girl.
I do not think you are too far from talking either. To hear you say Mama makes me want to never stop having babies. Infrequently, you throw out appropriately timed, breathy dah!s when you see your dad. But Hi!? You’ve got that one down. You wave your entire arm excitedly and say hi to anyone you see, to the people walking by the house on the sidewalk, the stranger in the grocery store, to us across the dinner table. You live to greet.
Your dancing spirit continues, and you are quick to clap along to any song, shaking your head back and forth before stopping to raise the roof. You are always on the lookout for a chance to play your dad’s guitar, or the banjo, and what amazes me is that you don’t just bang, but you seem to pick out individual strings – carefully, so pleased with the sounds you are making. You hum along when we sing at church and absolutely light up if we sing together at home. Anytime you hear Owen bust out Only A Boy Named David, you swing your arm back and forth with gusto at the ’round and ’round and ’round part. It is such a defining response of this part of your life.
You have also learned to love play. You drive Owen’s cars around the floor, making something between an engine and siren sound. You delight in pulling things out of containers – wipes, books, blocks, and throwing them on the floor. You love to knock over block towers, and to jam out playing songs on the baby laptop. You are literally into every cabinet you can squeeze into, and you crawl under our table tunnel several times a day, somehow worming your way through the bottom chair rungs without injuring yourself, something I don’t remember Owen being able to do without pain and frustration. And the window. You have finally discovered the joy of standing at our front window, using a stool to boost you up. You will stand there for thirty minutes, commenting with mahmas and bahs and oohpagoowoos at all that you see outside. You can even carefully get yoursel down most of the time, but it amazes me how long you will choose to be up there. You especially love when it gets dark out and the car lights come on.
Despite our several rounds of shared family stomach flu fun, you have finally found your way with food. You are careful and pick up the smallest crumbs with your thumb and forefinger, bringing them to your mouth before using your other hand to make large swipes, driving all the cheerios to the floor, laughing at the genius of your trick. You seem to like most foods but definitely prefer fruit and bread and anything you can pick up yourself. You dislike being spoon fed and grab at the spoon, wanting to put it in your own mouth.
You use that same forefinger to point at books, all the time, now. Pointing as if you were reading or saying, “Hey guys, but have you seen THIS lion cub? He’s amazing!” Your love affair with all things animal continues, and you squeal and squawk over all the animal picture books we have, laughing and shaking with happiness in the presence of any dog or cat.
Even your birthday party was puppy themed. You now have a whole litter of stuffed animal dogs, and your cake was a three-dimensional puppy cake. Though we celebrated with just the four of us on your actual birthday, with Owen singing Happy Birthday to you at least 16 times that day, with balloons and cupcakes and presents, we also invited a bunch of family and friends over to celebrate your little life with a brunch a day or two later. A brunch full of food and people who love you and all of their kids who played with every toy in our house. Our house was filled with life and love for you, and I loved every second of it because you were just so happy. On your actual birthday and at your party, you seemed to get it….that all eyes were on you, that we were remembering how much we love you, that we were doing all of the things to bring a smile to your face. You were not overwhelmed by any of it, but took it in with your serene smile, happy to hear all of the voices singing, before diving finger first into some chocolate cake and carefully picking up every crumb.
Elsa, I walk this delicate line between desperately wanting you to grow up so we can know you better…hear your words and discover what excites you and introduce you to this great big world…I also long to keep you snuggly and small enough to fit in the ergo, your cheeks warm against my chest in sleep, your breath tickling my skin. I long to braid your hair and color with you and watch you take care of the dog I’m sure we will inevitably get at your impassioned request, but I also want to keep you forever in this stage of innocence, in which a funny noise, a blinking light, the smallest of things delight you. This is the line that all mothers walk, I think, and so for now, like Mary, I treasure you and all of these things about you in my heart. I store them up and I bring them out at night when I am trying to fall asleep, replaying the beauty of your large eyes against your baby face, reliving the moment that you learned to give kisses, remembering the softness of your hair and your cheeks.
I love you, Elsa, and am thankful for every single minute of the last year we’ve gotten with you. I can’t believe you’re mine.
Notes on the timing used to make this cake: Give yourself a few days to make this cake before your event. The cake can be made, cut, and frozen up to a week ahead of time. You'll want to be frosting a frozen cake, so be sure to give yourself time to freeze it! -- The frosting can be made, tinted, and kept covered in the refrigerator 3 days ahead of when you want to use it. Be sure to allow the frosting to come to room temperature and give tinted frosting a good stir to make sure coloring is even. -- Cake can be assembled and frosted 24 hours before serving. Keep covered at room temperature.
For TWO 13x9" cakes
4 cups sugar
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (plus extra for cake pans)
1 1/2 cups unsweetened cocoa powder
4 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 cups buttermilk*
2 cups strong black coffee, slightly cooled
1 cup vegetable oil
4 teaspoons vanilla extract
four pieces of parchment paper, cut into 13x9" rectangles
*You can make a buttermilk substitute by pouring 2 tablespoons of white vinegar in a 2-cup measuring cup and then filling to the 2-cup mark with milk. Stir and allow to sit 5 minutes before pouing into batter.
For buttercream frosting & decorations:
2 cups unsalted butter (4 sticks), softened (but not melted!) Ideal texture should be like ice cream.
7-8 cups confectioners (powdered) sugar, SIFTED
1/2 teaspoon table salt
2 tablespoons vanilla extract
up to 6 tablespoons milk or heavy cream
brown and yellow food coloring gel
2 piping bags or 2 gallon-sized ziploc bags
grass frosting tip (#233 or #133 depending on brand)
3 large round chocolates
black writing gel for decorating cakes (optional)
1 strawberry fruit rollup
Bake the Cakes:
Preheat oven to 350°F. Spray and flour two 13x9x2-inch baking pans. In the bottom of each pan, lay one rectangle of parchment paper - spray and flour the parchment paper as well. Set aside.
With an electric mixer set to low, combine the sugar, flour, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder and salt until thoroughly combined. Add eggs, buttermilk, coffee, oil and vanilla. Beat on medium speed for about one minutes; the batter will be thin. Pour batter evenly into prepared pans; I would suggest weighing your batter so you can divide it perfectly evenly between the two pans.
Bake for 33-36 minutes or until wooden toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool 10 minutes in pan; Prepare 2 wire racks by laying the other 2 rectangles of parchment paper over them. Run knife around the edge of cake pans and then lay the other 2 sheets of parchment paper over the tops of the cakes. Holding the parchment paper on, carefully flip the cakes onto wire racks. The tops of the cakes should be resting on the parchment paper, which should be resting on the wire racks. Peel the parchment paper that was on the bottom of the cake pan off of the cake and allow to cool completely.
Cut the Cakes into Puppy Shape:
Prepare template & cut:
Prepare a paper template using the image below recipe) as a guide. Pro tip :) Pay careful attention to cut the top of the dog's body and the bottom of his head at the same curvature. Also - be careful not to make the forelegs too chubby :)
Once cakes are completely cooled, lay template over cake and use a paring knife to carefully cut out shapes.
At this point, carefully wrap each piece in several layers of plastic wrap. Lay wrapped pieces on a baking sheet and freeze for up to a week. Frozen cake is MUCH easier to frost.
Prepare & Frost Cakes:
With a hand mixer on medium speed, beat butter for 3 minutes.
Add 6 cups of powdered sugar and turn your mixer on the lowest speed (so the sugar doesn't blow everywhere) until the sugar has been incorporated with the butter. Increase mixer speed to medium and add vanilla extract, salt, and 4 tablespoons of milk/cream and beat for 3 minutes. If your frosting needs a more stiff consistency, add remaining sugar. If your frosting needs to be thinned out, add remaining milk 1 tablespoons at a time. You're aiming for a stiffer frosting.
(a)Measure out 2 cups (about 16 oz.) of the frosting into a bowl. Using the brown and yellow gels, tint this to a very light brown. This will be your base crumb-sealing layer.
(b)Measure out another 2 cups (16 oz.) and tint it slightly darker using the brown and yellow gels. This will be your fur color.
(c)Measure our the remaining frosting (should be about 1 cup, 8 oz.) Tint this dark brown using just the brown gels. this will be for the ears.)
Frost the Cake:
Remove frozen cake pieces from plastic wrap. Use a pastry brush or the back of a butter knife to brush excess crumbs off the pices. Arrange the bottom dog pieces(head, ears, body, tail) on your cakeboard as seen below. Use the lightest tinted frosting (a) to cover the tops and sides of each piece, to seal in crumbs. Frost the tops and sides of the forelegs and snout and attach these to the body and face of the dog.
Next, fit frosting tip into a piping or ziplog bag (that you've snipped a tiny bottom corner off of. The tip should just be poking through the hole). Fill the bag with the fur-colored frosting (b). Holding bag upright, pipe fur all over the dog (except the ears). Pipe in a down and out direction. Add an extra layer to create eyebrows for the dog. Pipe some fur off the sides, and use a butter knife to spread the fur along the sides of the dog.
Finally, wash your grass tip and outfit a new bag as described above. Fill bag with dark ear-colored icing (c) and pipe frosting over the ears of the dog.
Place two chocolates for the dogs eyes and one for the nose. If desired, spread black gel icing on the nose to give it that classic wet-nosed dog look. Using scissors, cut the fruit rollup into a collar and tag shape and place on the dog's neck.
Cake can be stored at room temperature for 24 hours before serving. I stored mine in a long but shallow rubbermaid I had so I could cover it with a lid and not have the lid affect the frosting.
Once cut, the cake will be good for 2 days at room temperature (covered) and beyond that should be stored in the refrigerator.