Birthday Bonanza: Striped Bass and Chocolate Peanut Butter Cake

One of my favorite times to cook is during the holidays and birthdays. It gives me a chance to try out something new, which usually means spending more time in the kitchen than I usually do. It also provides the opportunity to try out more than one recipe, since dessert is often part of the deal.

Beverly’s birthday was the other day. For us, her birthday is often a two-day affair, involving cooking meals and a cake and, at some point, eating out. This year was no different. We began on Sunday and finished up Monday—her actual birthday—with lunch out. And because we were so full from eating lunch out on Monday, and didn’t make it to the dinner place we planned to go, we still another meal out to complete.

When I was growing up, birthdays weren’t celebrated. Yes, they were recognized and always involved some type of gifts and even a box cake, but it was a low-key family event done at the end of the day, usually after dinner. It was that way for everyone, so it felt appropriate for the occasion. By the time I was in high school, I often worked on my birthday because it is in July, and gifts equated to money handed to me without fanfare.

It wasn’t until I moved away that I experienced birthdays as something extraordinary, first as something nightmarish and then as something celebratory.

My first birthday away from home was at Marine Corps boot camp in San Diego. I was midway through boot camp and there had been no recognition of anyone’s birthday up to that point. Mine was different, however, because on the day I turned 18, a huge box of cupcakes arrived via email from Indiana. A friend sent them to me, along with a funny birthday card and a long letter, none of which I expected and, knowing where I was, wanted. One of my drill instructors made me open the box in front of everyone else in the early evening, and when he saw that it was 24 cupcakes, he gave me two options: either eat every cupcake myself by the time I went to bed or share them with everyone equally, which meant dividing up 24 cupcakes among 38 recruits.

I said, “Sir, I will share my cupcakes, sir.”

“Okay, recruit,” the drill instructor said. “Make sure the portions are equal because all of you are equal.”

As I began to try to imagine how I would divide 24 cupcakes into 38 pieces, the drill instructor leaned over my shoulder and said, “Now, recruit, if you want, you can either cut those cupcakes up yourself or you can delegate. If you delegate then you got to entertain us all by reading your letter aloud.”

I had yet to read to the letter, but I knew there was nothing in it that could cause as many problems as failing to cut the cupcakes up equally would.

“Yes, sir, I will delegate, sir,” I said. Then I turned to the other recruits and with the first two I saw, I said: “Jansen and Thomas, you will cut the cupcakes up.” I knew there was nothing they could say in response, but before I could see the looks on their faces, I picked up the letter and climbed on our soapbox—the wooden box that we used whenever a recruit was instructed to speak to the entire platoon. I began reading what ended up being a 6-page letter of my friend’s activities since we graduated that spring. By the time I finished, the cupcakes had been cut, shared, and eaten, and nearly everyone was looking at his own mail or preparing for the next day. When I finished, I looked around and saw the drill instructor was gone.

Stafford, who had become my best friend in the platoon after competing against him in track and cross-country for four years in high school, looked at me and said, “Why didn’t you just cut the damn things yourself. You ruined good cupcakes with that stupid, f**ck*ng letter.” (How Stafford and I ended up in Marine Corps boot camp at the same time after spending four years being each other’s nemesis is another story.)

Thus was my first non-family birthday experience. After that, I didn’t celebrate my birthday, or anyone else’s for that matter, until my son was born. Beverly birthday and now Ines’s are cause for celebration every year, with big run-ups.

For Beverly, the day is an event that coalesces around food. It begins early on the morning of her birthday with phone calls and text messages from family and friends from all over the United States and Germany. Then there is the opening of presents, which had begun to arrive via mail days before. There is really no time to cook the day of the birthday.

The night before, however, we spent cooking. First, Ines and I made a cake. Then, the three of us made dinner.

First the cake: Beverly picked it, and Ines and I made it—a Chocolate Peanut Butter Icebox cake, recipe courtesy of Smitten Kitchen. Most of my dessert recipes come from Deb Perelman. Her cookbook is great, but her blog is fantastic.

The cake turned out to be quite easy to make. We commandeered the kitchen for two hours and, comme par magie, we had a cake. Really, we had six large chocolate cookies held together by a peanut butter cream. To make it look like a cake, we baked each 7-inch “cookie” separately, let it cool, and spread the peanut butter cream (mostly peanut butter and heavy cream beaten into a frothy frenzy of deliciousness) on each layer until we had a six-layer cake of pure decadence. It helped to use the finest Dutch chocolate powder available and pure peanut butter. My only concern was that Ines would eat so much of it that we wouldn’t have enough to build the cake.

Once we finished, we packed it away in the refrigerator for 24 hours so the cookies could absorb the cream and soften up to become oh so cake-like. When all was said it done, it wasn’t necessarily pretty to look at, with the misshapen cookie pieces (we planned it that way) and beige cream, but it was delicious. By the middle of the week, it was gone.

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Now the meal: Beverly picked the meal and bought the ingredients, and together we made it. She did the salad (all very secret in what it contained and how it was dressed), and I did the entrèe: Ina Garten’s roasted striped bass with mussels and shrimp.

I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again and probably every time I mention her name, Ina Garten is the master. This time period’s most popular chefs will continue to open their restaurants and do their Food Network shows, or if really multi-talented, do his travel show around food and social commentary, but it is Ina who will churn out the most memorable and always usable cookbooks, with recipes that run the gamut of possibilities and that are always crafted so that anyone with a little bit of effort can make them (I mean and needed every word of that rambling sentence.).

I’ll keep buying the others’ cookbooks, or accept them as gifts, but they’ll never outnumber the Ina Garten cookbooks Beverly has collected over the years. And, imagine this and turn green with envy like I do, she does it all for Jeffrey….and for her friends. Oh, if only our paths had crossed in the 1970s when I was a teenager and Ina was just starting out as a chef. Maybe she wouldn’t have left Jeffrey for me, but they could have adopted me as their teenage son. I would have agreed to that. I definitely know I would have never joined the Marines.

Anyway, the roasted stripe bass consists of, yes, bass, with shrimp and mussels laid over top and a southern European/Turkish sauce of tomatoes, pancetta, olives, garlic, onion, saffron, and white wine poured on top of the seafood. Everything is roasted in the oven at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. Unbelievably, this meal takes only an hour to make. It took me longer to shell and devein the shrimp then it did to do anything else.

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I never knew birthdays could be so much fun.