In the early light of a summer morning, my 2-year-old daughter toddles down the stairs with her bunny and favorite book in hand. She climbs sleepily into my lap with her matted hair and koala print pajamas, and while the birds and squirrels come to life outside our window, we read “Blueberries for Sal.”
“Kerplunk, kerplunk,” my daughter says as she flips through the pages, following Sal as she drops blueberries into her empty bucket only to eat them a minute later.
Only the day before, my daughters and I had gone blueberry picking ourselves. Their pails looked remarkably similar to Sal’s: nearly empty, but stained blue with the remnants of eaten berries. Our harvest—well, mostly mine—sat on our kitchen counter, washed and ready for the morning’s activity: cake baking.
For our family, summer is the busiest time of year for birthdays. In July and August, there are six amongst my siblings and in-laws, so we never lack an excuse to get together and celebrate. A few years ago, I was looking for a way to use the overwhelming crop of zucchini I had somehow managed to grow that summer. I found a delightfully refreshing berry-zucchini cake recipe, perfect for a summer celebration.
I baked it for my brother-in-law at a family gathering, substituting with the ingredients I had on hand and topping it with a lemon icing. The result was a zucchini cake made moist with applesauce and studded with blackberries and blueberries, essentially a fruit and vegetable medley in cake form.
It has since become the No. 1 requested birthday item for any member of my family. “It’s your dad’s birthday,” my mom will say over the phone, “and I just wondered if you were going to make The Cake?”
From Start to Finish
What I love about this cake is that it comes with so many opportunities to include my children in the baking process. My girls are currently 2 and 4 years old and love anything that is tactile and hands-on. There are many days when I don’t have time to let them cook with me; I’ve got to get a meal onto the table or out the door in a hurry. But I love when I can turn something like baking a cake into an activity they can participate in from start to finish.
This particular week, we picked blueberries and blackberries, filling up our pails with the sweet fruit of summer. I told them about the cake we were making, this one for their aunt. While we picked, we brainstormed birthday affirmations for the family party—more on that in a moment.
When it’s time to make the cake, the girls like to help with adding all the ingredients to the bowl: shredded zucchini, berries, sugar, eggs, flour. They help me spoon it into the cake tins, to bake while they take their nap. We top the cake with a lemon buttercream frosting and pile on any extra berries.
On Cake Days, my kids tend to eat their dinner at a record speed, then anxiously wait for everyone else to be done so that we can finally have dessert. Then comes my other favorite part about birthdays: the affirmations.
During dessert, we go around the table and have each family member share something they love about the birthday person, or a way they have seen that person grow in the previous year. It sounds cheesy or uncomfortable until you actually do it. I love hearing the good things other people see in one of my siblings or in-laws, and I love the looks of genuine delight on my children’s faces when they receive birthday affirmations on their own special days.
My older daughter has embraced these affirmations wholeheartedly. When she thinks of something she likes about an aunt, uncle, or cousin, she asks me to write it down for her so that she can say it to them on their birthday. In her world, affirmations range from “I like it when you play cars with me” to “I like the way you listen and give hugs.” I love the way this tradition pushes me and my kids to actively look for and comment on the good in people around us.
In encouraging us to simply take the time to say, “Here’s what I love about you, and here’s where I have seen it this year, and I’m proud of you,” birthday affirmations in our family have fostered a culture of kindness, thoughtfulness, and authenticity. It’s been a wonderful method of building trust between us.
As we go around the table, celebrating what we love about the birthday person, it’s hard to tell what’s sweeter: the cake or the company that eats it with us.
Berry-Zucchini Birthday Cake With Lemon Icing
Makes one 8-inch, 2-layer cake
- 3 eggs, lightly beaten
- 3/4 cup oil
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 1/2 cup applesauce
- 2 cups white sugar
- 2 cups shredded fresh zucchini, patted dry with a towel
- 3 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 cups blueberries and blackberries, mixed
For the Lemon Buttercream
- 1 cup butter, room temperature
- 3 1/2 cups confectioners’ sugar
- Juice and zest of 1 lemon
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1/8 teaspoon salt
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter and flour two 8-inch round cake pans (or use non-stick baking spray).
In a large bowl, combine the eggs, oil, vanilla, applesauce, and sugar. Beat together with a hand mixer until well combined. Fold in the zucchini.
Slowly stir in the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Do not overmix. Gently fold in the berries. Divide the batter evenly between prepared cake pans.
Bake for 35 to 40 minutes in the preheated oven, or until a knife inserted in the center of a cake comes out clean. Cool for 20 minutes in the pans, then turn out onto wire racks to cool completely before frosting.
For the Lemon Buttercream
Combine the butter, sugar, and salt and beat until well combined. Add the lemon juice and vanilla and continue to beat for another 3 to 5 minutes, or until creamy. Fold in the zest.
Rachael Dymski is an author, florist, and mom to two little girls. She’s currently writing a novel about the German occupation of the Channel Islands and blogs on her website, RachaelDymski.com