wanting to be there

One morning awhile back, at work before anyone else, in a kitchen quiet except for the sounds of my own activity, I listened to part of a recent episode of This American Life. (Do you listen to that show? It's wonderful.) Most of what I heard was about the Brooklyn Free School, a school where (to paraphrase the way it was being promoted on the show), "kids make the all rules."

Kids make all the rules.

To most adults, that sounds like anarchy. The only "rules" a kid would make would necessarily be in the realm of ice cream for breakfast, TV all the time, and no bedtimes, right? Because isn't that what kids, left to function without rational adult influence, would naturally gravitate towards? A life of wild abandon, of no consequences and lots of loafing and inordinate amounts of junk food?

Turns out, not so much.

According to the radio show, the students at the Brooklyn Free School do a surprisingly good job of policing themselves, making sound decisions for the good of the collective whole, and promoting ideals of mutual respect and consideration, all within an environment dedicated to learning. They have control over their daily activities, control that has been enthusiastically given to them by the adults in their lives, and it is a responsibility they apparently don't take lightly. Granted, the kids aren't without adult guidance and assistance, but the school appears to function smoothly without the authoritative, top-down administrative style of so many public school systems.

It was really inspiring to listen to.

Kalen's school, while very progressive, is not a free (or democratic) school. But it incorporates many of the same empowering values and models I heard illustrated on the radio. And there is so much respect for the individual student, for his or her readiness and abilities, natural inclinations and inherent thirst for knowledge, that there is a wonderful, school-wide atmosphere of simply wanting to be there. A lot.

It's infectious. A really great place, and Kalen is thriving there.

One thing I love about his school is the way it mirrors some of the ways we function as a family. The kids certainly don't make all the rules in this house (as inspiring as the Brooklyn Free School was to hear about, I am not the kind of parent who could live like that), but their thoughts and feelings get a lot of respect from us adults, with their opinions carrying weight when it's time to make decisions, and they are encouraged to think things through for themselves, to make choices that feel right to them and that they can live with. It's a lot more egalitarian here than it could be, I know, and I hope it results in our boys growing up to be confident, independent, considerate adults. I hope I hope I hope.

It was in this spirit of allowing child-led decision making on issues that affect them that we ended up with grilled cheese sandwiches, a period of very loud noise, and way too much blue food coloring for Kalen's birthday party last month.

He turned six — SIX — which means, as Josh has pointed out, that he is now closer to being ten than one. He has turned the corner, rounded the bend, barreling down the road towards big kid-dom, without so much as a backwards glance at his quickly receding babyhood.

It's quite thrilling to watch, really.

He's got this amazing mind that never shuts off, and he comes up with some remarkable ideas. He's a builder, a creator, a problem-solver, an artist and an inventor. In this regard, he is very much a 44-inch tall replica of Josh. Not a day passes without him working on at least one "project," as he calls them, and he's usually got three or four going at once.

He can also be a very serious child, with the longest attention span I've ever seen, and he is  a voracious reader, and not just with books. He is constantly paying attention to the world around him, and noticing signs, flyers, newspapers, computer screens, ads . . . and he is reading everything. As one who remembers a childhood so full of books that I was often chastised for not going outside, for not playing enough, I think I know where he's coming from. Words, quite simply, are fascinating.

And, whether by nature or school/family influence or a combination of both, he likes to be given choices. So when it came time to plan his birthday party, I didn't hesitate to ask him what he wanted.

"Grilled cheese sandwiches."

"Okay, and what else?"

"Nothing, just grilled cheese sandwiches."

"Um, okay . . ." (We ended up supplementing two platters of grilled cheese sandwiches with a big pot of tortilla soup. After some initial consternation because he hadn't chosen it, Kalen was okay with it.)

Instead of party favors and traditional games, Kalen had a better idea. "I know! Each kid can make an instrument! Some can make drums, and some can make noise makers, and then all the grown-ups can watch while we do a parade around the house. Then everybody can take their instrument home!"

Which was an excellent idea, so completely befitting for him, so perfectly Kalen. So his birthday party featured craft time, which was received with great enthusiasm, and soon the dining room was full of paper and stickers and glue and chopsticks and plastic containers . . . and noise. Most kids chose to make noise makers, which, per Kalen's detailed instructions, consisted of lots of dried beans sealed inside a container. Of course that's what everyone wanted. Who wouldn't? (To any of our friends who, in close retrospect, would like to answer that with an emphatic Me, I am so sorry. I find that designating offending toys as 'outside toys' helps.) I thought it was awesome. It was so great to witness a room full of kids, all joyfully engaged in making stuff. I realize we still have lots of birthday parties in our future, but right now, I think this one is my favorite.

And of course, no birthday is complete without cake. Which brings us to the blue food coloring portion of this post. Legos are a very big deal at Kalen's school, and he has quickly jumped on board the obsession train. Naturally, he needed a Lego cake. He gave me the Lego I was to use as a model, and the first thing that jumped out at me was how blue it was. Like really, all the way, deep dark royal blue.

I told him I might not be able to match the color. I needn't have worried.

I'm not even going to tell you how much food coloring I whipped into that buttercream. I don't want it to be public knowledge. But I will tell you that gel food coloring darkens a lot overnight, and if you dig around in your pastry draw and find one labeled 'royal blue,' well, by golly, that's just what you're going to end up with. That, and a lot of guilt and the overwhelming need to apologize to all the parents for turning their beloved offspring's mouths such an unnatural color.

Anyway, in addition to the color, Kalen decided that it would be really cool if "the cake looked regular, but when you cut it, it was chocolate and vanilla." You're right, Kalen, that would be cool. It's your birthday, so let's do it. (If you're ever in the same situation, and looking for a time-saving trick, it's good to know that if you've got a big pan and you're using two similarly-weighted batters — I made two butter cake batters — you can just pour one batter on top of the other. They won't mix, and will bake just fine, and you'll end up with a dual-colored caked without using multiple cake pans or the need for slicing and stacking.)

In retrospect, it could have been a lot worse. He could have asked for a Lego cake that looked like an actual Lego creation, not just one building piece. He could have wanted multiple colors. He could have insisted that little Lego people be involved. He could have asked for something that would have guaranteed a day of head-banging frustration for this cake-decorating-challenged mama.

Certainly, I got off lucky. And the lack of ornate decoration allowed the focus to stay on the cake itself, which was delicious. My go-to birthday cakes have always been adaptations of Rose Levy Beranbaum's butter cakes from The Cake Bible. Long ago, when I first got that cookbook, I read the section that explains the science behind Rose's reverse creaming method, and it was an Aha! moment for the way I approach gluten-free cake baking. Her rationale for beating the dry ingredients with the butter first, instead of creaming the butter and sugar together per the standard creaming method, is to minimize the formation of gluten proteins that will toughen the cake.

Clearly, we don't have to worry about that.

But something about her method made sense to me. I felt like I wanted to coat all my gluten-free flours (especially rice flour, with its tendency towards grittiness) in a cushion of fat. And I wanted to beat the eggs into the batter for long enough to, in Rose's words, "develop the cake's structure." I wanted the soft, tender cakes that Rose promised, no matter that mine had to be gluten-free.

So, although I truly don't know the science behind why her method, designed to minimize gluten formation, would work for gluten-free cakes, I'm here to report that it does. Oh, it does. Every time I make a butter cake it receives wonderful compliments from everyone who tries it. And not the good-for-gluten-free variety of compliments. No, I get told that it's so soft, so flavorful, that it's the best cake they've ever had, all before they realize it's gluten-free. And when people find out its 'alternative' status, well, there's a lot of incredulousness. And requests for more.

You know it's a good cake when the non-gluten-free people in your life prefer it to the traditional gluten-full version.

I ended up making the vanilla butter cake twice for Kalen's birthday. He needed a batch of cupcakes to bring to school on his actual birthday, and he surprised me by choosing vanilla over chocolate when given the choice between the two. Although I'm barely eating any sugar anymore, I couldn't help but have half a cupcake that night, as we sat around the dining room table toasting our newly-crowned six-year-old. And oh man, that cupcake . . . even I was unprepared for how good it was. Exceedingly tender and soft, with a very fine crumb, and such an intense buttery-vanilla flavor. It took all my willpower not to eat more.

Sometimes I think of vanilla cake as "plain." And I've had many vanilla cakes that live up to that characterization. But not this cake. This cake is, quite simply, perfect. And it's a good one to have in your arsenal, especially if you find yourself needing to meet the requests of a child with very particular tastes, one who knows exactly what he wants.

Because sometimes, on the days when it matters the most, you have to let him take the reins. And it's nice to be able to trust that everything will turn out just great.

Gluten-Free Vanilla Butter Cake
Adapted from The Cake Bible
Yields 2 9-inch round layers

Be sure to use high quality vanilla and butter, as the flavor of both really come through in this cake. This recipe scales up and down beautifully, which I find helpful for when I need just a small batch of cupcakes or a large, 12-inch size celebration cake.

242 grams whole milk, room temperature
116 grams egg yolks, room temperature
10 grams vanilla extract
300 grams Tara's gluten-free pastry flour
300 grams granulated sugar
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon baking powder
1½ teaspoons xanthan gum
¾ teaspoon fine sea salt
170 grams unsalted butter, room temperature

Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Prepare two 9-inch round cake pans by greasing them, lining the bottoms with parchment circles, greasing again, and flouring. (If you don't have parchment, just be sure to grease and flour the pans really well, and your cakes should release just fine.) Set aside.

In a small bowl, gently mix together about ¼ of the milk, the egg yolks, and the vanilla. Set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the pastry flour, sugar, baking powder, xanthan gum, and salt, and mix on low just until blended. (You can also do this with a hand-held electric mixer.)

Add the butter and remaining milk to the flour mixture. Mix on low speed to moisten the flour, then increase speed to medium (high if using a hand mixer) and beat for 1½ minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl.

Add the egg mixture in three additions, beating for 20 seconds after each addition, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary.

Pour the batter into the prepared pans, using a spatula to smooth the surface. (I like to put my pans on the scale and weigh out the batter, ensuring even layers.)

Bake for 25-35 minutes, or until a tester inserted near the center comes out clean, the top springs back when lightly touched, and the cake has just begun to shrink away from the sides of the pan. Cool on a wire rack for 10 minutes, then invert cakes onto racks to finish cooling. Invert again so that the cakes are right-side-up, to prevent cracking.

Cakes can be kept at room temperature, tightly wrapped, for up to two days before frosting.


  1. Love this story, Tara. And the cake? You'll never forget it, ever and it is totally perfect. For my once upon a time 6 year old I made a giant princess cake with more color than I will ever admit using... Happy birthday, Kalen.

  2. Lisa - Aw, thanks! Glad you can relate.


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