The lesson of chocolate frosting

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Home-made birthday cake

When it came to planning M’s birthday party, I didn’t mind paying for the deluxe package at the indoor play centre he had chosen as the venue – it included enough activities to keep a group of 10 and 11 year old boys busy for a couple of hours, plus pizza, drinks and gift bags.  But I did balk at paying $40 extra for a birthday cake.

Based on past experience, M likes the idea of birthday cake more than he likes eating it.  Even if is a fancy bakery cake with a picture of his favourite Pokemon on it, he only has a couple of bites of icing.   So aside from the fact that $40 for a cake seemed expensive, even compared to a store-bought cake, it was going to be a waste of money.  But a birthday isn’t a party without a cake, so I decided to make one myself.

Making the cake was the easy part.   I’m an ok baker and I used a recipe my mother gave me a couple of years ago.  I made the same cake last year and M said he liked it.

Frosting the cake however, was a bit trickier.  My previous attempts were highly unsuccessful.  The last time I actually made frosting was almost 20 years ago, when I made a birthday for my husband.  As he recalls, it had the texture of concrete.  And I don’t think it tasted much better.

So after that experience, I swore off making frosting.  I would make cakes that didn’t need to be frosted, or if icing was absolutely required, I’d buy frosting-in-a-can.   Last year, I asked my neighbour, who is a birthday cake genius, to make the icing, so I could frost the  cake I had made.  He turned up with a huge bowl of creamy, yummy chocolate frosting, enough to cover 2 cakes.

But this year my neighbour was unavailable.  So I decided to bite the bullet and try making the frosting myself.  I bought a big bag of icing sugar and did what I usually do when I’m desperate – I called my mother.   She’s been making frosting since before I was born, so I figured following her tried-and-true recipe would significantly increase my chances of success.

Her recipe is simple:  melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a 1/4 cup of water; remove from the heat and add 2 squares melted bittersweet chocolate and 1/2 vanilla; stir until well-blended and then add 2 cups of icing sugar, beating with a wooden spoon, until smooth and the desired consistency – thick enough to stay on the cake.  I followed her directions to a T.

After beating the frosting for what seemed like 30 minutes, it was still too thin, so I called my mother back.  She told me to add more icing sugar.  I was a little nervous about putting in too much and ending up with chocolate concrete (a la the last frosting episode), but I added a bit more.  I kept beating it with the wooden spoon (if I’m going to make frosting regularly, I’m going to need to lift weights to strengthen my shoulders and neck muscles – they were killing me), until it seemed thick enough to spread on the cake.

The frosting went on smooth and thick.  M declared it was tasty.  I decorated the iced cake with 2 different kinds of sprinkles and stood back and admired my handiwork.  Not only had I made a fine-looking cake, but I had successfully conquered my fear of frosting.  Admittedly, with a little help from my mother.

Frosted cake

Birthday cake decorated with sprinkles

Final product - frosted and decorated birthday cake

At the same time as I was wrestling with my frosting demons, my husband called to say that M was being difficult at soccer and he was bringing him home.  When M got home, I asked him what had been going on.  According to M, he wasn’t allowed to play in goal this week, as he had been the goalie last week.  He didn’t want to play any other positions, because in his words, “he sucked at them.”

One of the comments on M’s final report card was that he needs to work on taking more risks – he prefers to stick with tasks he’s comfortable with and is often resistant to trying new activities.  Sometimes getting him to try something new or unknown is like trying to blow up a boulder with a firecracker.  Lots of noise, but the boulder doesn’t move.

I’m not sure how much of M’s aversion to risk-taking is attributable to his ADHD.   He is a perfectionist and most perfectionists, he doesn’t like to fail.  Really, who does?  Since M also has low self-esteem – pretty typical of kids with ADHD – not being able to do something well feels like failure to him.  So not surprising that he tends to stick with things he knows he does well, like math and tennis.

But while learning something new can be scary, it is also a way to develop new skills.  Like playing mid-field or striker and passing and shooting the soccer ball , rather than just catching it in goal.  Or figuring out the elements of a story by participating in a creative writing exercise in class.   Or, in my case, making edible frosting for the first time in over 20 years.  Accomplishing something new is also a good way to build up your self-esteem.  M was a little intimidated by performing with the school choir for the first time this year.  In the end, he really enjoyed it – not only did he have a strong sense of accomplishment, his singing improved.

According to his report card, M has a hard time asking for help.  When faced with a task he finds  challenging, rather than asking the teacher or a classmate for assistance, he balks.   This year, he was much less disruptive in class when he decided he didn’t want to what the other kids were doing – rather than kick up a fuss, he would just withdraw.  His teacher found this a bit frustrating, but we saw it as a big step – while he wasn’t doing what the teacher asked, he was dealing with his frustration in a much more appropriate manner.  Over the course of the year, M did become more comfortable with asking for help, especially when he ran into a conflict with another child.  He had a very good relationship with a couple of the counselors in his after-school program and he was increasingly able to seek them out proactively when a situation with another child arose.  In the past, when he would try to deal with a conflict on his own, he’d usually end up losing his temper and getting into trouble.

As I explained to M as I was frosting his birthday cake, taking a risk can be hard.  My last effort at making frosting was such a disaster, that I avoided doing it again for almost 2 decades.   But even though I had to call me mother several times, I finally succeeded in making frosting that looked and tasted good.   No matter how old you are, there’s no shame in asking for help.  Even if M felt more comfortable playing in goal, there was no reason he couldn’t learn how to play another position.  Since his dad is one of the coaches, he could ask him for extra help.  Although he doesn’t need an excuse to watch the Eurocup of soccer, he could pay special attention to how players in different positions worked together.

I’m pretty sure M won’t suddenly embrace trying new things.  The last coupe of nights at supper, he’s refused to eat his carrots because they weren’t baby carrots from a bag.  But he did go cycling today with his dad and I on some nearby trails, something he’s never done before.   The next time he  get nervous about moving outside his comfort zone,  I’ll remind him about the frosting.  Sometimes we just have to push ourselves a little bit – when we do, the rewards are that much sweeter.

By the way, both the cake and the frosting were delicious.

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