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Iron Chef Birthday

September 18, 2012


My daughter tells me that the taste buds of the average human being change every seven years. I have not researched the scientific justification for such a claim, because I suspect that she has latched onto it solely to explain why today she won’t touch the cornucopia of foods she ate without complaint at six-and-a-half. But now that I’ve reached the ripe old age of forty-something, I have been pondering the evolution of my taste in birthday cake over time, and I think she may actually have a point.

In the earliest days of kid-dom, I was seriously more interested in the aesthetics of the birthday cake than the taste (Never mind that I didn’t know the word “aesthetics” at that time of my life). I may have had a flavor preference when it came to the cake itself, but it was really more about the icing. Even until two or three taste-bud-evolutions ago, I was a corner-piece guy — the more icing, the better. Don’t want yours? Give it to me. Cake optional. As for design, I have a fuzzy memory of a teddy bear-shaped cake and a few other intricate designs that Mama pieced together and frosted to perfection.

Somewhere around late high school or college, I grew out of the need for traditional birthday cake and realized that on my special day I could have whatever cake I wanted. For years, Mama had been making an apricot nectar cake that I grew to love, and that became my standard celebratory confection for a record number of years. 

When I was single and living in North Carolina, she would make it if she happened to be there during birthday week; otherwise, she would find a way to send one. My colleagues at work began to look forward to my birthday as much as I did. After getting married and moving overseas, the scarcity of ingredients in that corner of the world forced a change in birthday pastries — or so I expected. Oddly, we could find the necessary apricot nectar in any decent-sized grocery — the rarity was the lemon cake mix, so whenever one of those would make an appearance in our city, we would snatch up as many as we could. 

One year in that same international setting, I decided to go way outside the rectangle and ask for a birthday pie. I hadn’t had a good old-fashioned chocolate pie in ages, and thought that would really satisfy my birthday appetite. And old-fashioned it was — made from scratch, and delicious. 

After finishing off that one, I confessed to The Wife that my true favorite was a caramel pie, but knowing how hard it was to make I hadn’t bothered asking. I didn’t realize that I had just issued a challenge. A day or two later, I walked into the house where I was presented with a caramel pie that looked just like the ones that Granny’s friend Elwa used to make back in Belmont — the ones I had assumed were so hard to make. Wowza. 

Turns out you can make pretty decent caramel pie filling by boiling sweetened condensed milk for hours in the can. That showed me, and this was one time I didn’t mind being shown.

This year I turned everything on its ear — or ears, I should say, of corn. I listen to a food show podcast out of Los Angeles, and I had heard about a sweet corn cake developed by Zoe Nathan, an apparent demi-goddess of the pastry-chef world, which she serves with a sweet corn ice cream from Shiho Yoshikawa at the Sweet Rose Dairy. 

The combination sounded strangely appealing to me, so I decided that’s what I would be having. I won’t bore you with details, but take my word for it — there was a lot of work involved. Cutting corn off the cob. Infusing. Scalding. Temperature regulating. Overnight chilling. This took some time, and that’s just the ice cream. As for the cake, let me just affirm something: when the recipe says “put in 10 inch spring form pan”, they really mean it. 

If you put it in an eight-inch pan (like mine, as I discovered when I measured it later) you will have a huge mess in your oven. 

I warned my family that they could not look at this as ordinary birthday cake and ice cream. Rather, they had to consider themselves as a panel of judges on Iron Chef America, secret ingredient: CORN! 

When it came to the ice cream, out of the six of us: two liked it, two spit it out, one tried just a bit and remained neutral, and of course, Daughter didn’t get anywhere near any of it. In anticipation of this, we had also secured three pints of “normal” ice cream, just in case. 

The cake got a better review. 

It was much like a very sweet hunk of cornbread, only more cake-like in texture. When I took the leftovers to work, my colleagues had mixed reactions to the cake — one ate every crumb I took and asked for the recipe, another said “this looks like moldy cornbread." 

(In her defense, I had used some blue corn meal in the mix, and like we all learned in kindergarten, yellow and blue do tend to make green.) 

Those brave enough to try the ice cream all agreed: it tasted like corn.

I decided that if I had ordered this combination, served with a dollop of strawberry compote as Zoe Nathan served it at Rustic Canyon restaurant, I probably would have enjoyed it as a single serving of something quirky but good. Next year, though, I think my taste buds will agree: it’s time to go back to the apricot nectar, shaped like a Rebel Bear, served with a side of caramel pie.

Jay Reed is a local foodie and pharmacist. The culinary tastes expressed here are his and do not necessarily reflect the appetites of the Starkville Daily News or individual members of its staff. He welcomes your comments at

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