I (Rachel) grew up fairly religious. It was more because it was the thing you did in a small town with lots of corn rather than actual devotion, but the holidays were always particularly reverent. While there definitely was Santa Claus and presents and good, good secular shit, we totally kept the Christ in Christmas.
Despite the religion, it wasn’t the most stable environment. We tried, our parents tried, but it always stayed a mess. Christmas time, though, was always a time when we were on our best behavior. Even when things were patently not good, we would rally and put the trouble behind us. I think that we saw the Holy Family and realized that if Joseph could buy a line about Mary getting knocked up— knocked up by GOD— before he even got a piece, and that he could love her and that child AND be a real father to Him; the least we could do was be sweet for a few weeks of the year.
The big JC and relatives influenced most of our big family traditions, but the best tradition, by far, was spending Christmas Eve with my mom making Him a birthday cake. It was usually just a microwave cake— the kind that came in a plastic tray and had pleasantly chemical chocolate fudge frosting— or a box mix, but every few years we would go really wild and make it from scratch. Those were the best years.
Even when it was just a box cake, we always turned it into a bit of a production. Or it felt that way to me. I bugged my mom for weeks to go get ingredients and we agonized, in a good way, over what flavor to get. My brother and I would take turns actually insisting that Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, preferred Butterscotch or Chocolate Fudge, respectively. Which conveniently happened to be our favorite flavor.
About a half an hour before bed, after the sprinkles and white plastic tubes of writing icing and church, my dad would turn out the lights, and we knew it was time to gather around the cake with a box of unlit candles. My brother and I took turns, putting one candle in the cake for each person we could remember that was present at the Nativity, lighting them one by one. I typically made sure all of the animals were present and accounted for while Zach tried slipping in extra Wisemen whose names sounded strikingly similar to Ninja Turtles. Whoever named the most got to blow out the candles and then we’d sing Happy Birthday to Jesus, actually out loud, without a hint of irony, and totally off key.
Whatever remained after we each ate our fill became property of Santa, and was served with a glass bottle of Coca-Cola, and some chex mix for the reindeer in a big, lemon yellow, plastic bowl.
Part of becoming an adult means choosing what you want to take from your childhood and putting it into your real life. Choosing what and who your family is, and how to best navigate those relationships. You aren’t stuck completely with the past, but you also aren’t left to face the future without a template.
While my faith is radically different than when I was a kid, and the four of us don’t get together for the holidays, making Jesus a birthday cake and lighting the candles on Christmas Eve is something I’ve held on to. Maybe it’s because I fucking love cake, or because, regardless of any divine status, a dude who asked people to be excellent to each other, to break from their classist, capitalist bullshit, and to stop using God as an excuse to be dicks totally deserves a dope birthday. It is definitely something that makes my holidays feel complete and I’m glad it’s stuck around.
This year, Jesus is getting a cake that’s the birthday tradition from another one of my favorite families. Earlier this year, Lucy and I got to celebrate our sweet friend Ashley’s commitment to her partner Karen and their family. Lucy did an incredible job photographing the day, and I had the honor of baking. Part of that honor included making Mary Phillips’ Chocolate Banana Sour Cream Cake, a treasured family recipe from Ashley’s beloved grandmother.
Moist is probably the worst word on the planet, but it aptly describes this cake. It is so moist. It’s yielding. It’s tender. It has an inexplicably delicate crumb that turns the modest cocoa powder into an explosion of dark chocolate goodness and is just hardly scented with bananas and looks like cakes do on TV every single stinking time.
It is, without question, the most delicious cake that has ever existed.
- 2 c. Sugar
- 1 c. Shortening
- 2 ½ c. Cake Flour— Lilly White is going to give you a better cake, if it’s available in your area.
- 2 tsp. Baking Soda
- ¼ tsp. Salt
- ½ c. Natural Process Cocoa Powder
- 2 c. (or 4 medium) Bananas, mashed
- 2 eggs
- ½ cup Buttermilk
- 1 c. Boiling Water
- Makes one 13x9” sheet cake, or 24 cupcakes.
- Preheat your oven to 350°. Grease a cake pan, line with parchment, grease again, and dust lightly with cocoa powder, or drop cupcake liners into your tins.
- In your stand mixer, cream together the Shortening and Sugar.
- Put some Water on to boil.
- Sift together Cake Flour, Baking Soda, Salt, and Cocoa Powder, and set aside in a separate bowl.
- In yet another bowl, smush or blend the Bananas, Eggs, and Buttermilk.
- Add ⅓ of the Flour mixture to the Shortening and Sugar. Mix until hardly combined. Add ½ of the Banana mixture, mix until combined, and then add ½ of the Boiling water, and stir until things kind of look like batter.
- Add ½ of the remaining Flour mixture, followed by the last of the Banana mixture and Boiling water, just like you did before.
- Finish it all off with the last of the Flour mixture, and stir by hand with a rubber spatula, being sure to scrape the sides down well.
- Evenly distribute in the prepared pan. Bake until just set in the center, a few moist crumbs should cling to a toothpick but it shouldn’t look like pudding; 45 minutes for a 13x9”, 20 minutes for cupcakes.
- Cool completely and top with Chocolate Frosting and sprinkles, or just a dusting of powdered sugar.