This year, I stepped into my 18th birthday with a plan. I will bake my own cake.
Why? Because it’s:
When I told my mum about my plan, instant puppy-dog eyes.
“Rysha, I can bake you a cake if that’s what you want.”
“Yeah, I know Mumma. If I baked a cake because nobody else would bake me one, that’d be sad. But since I know that’s not true, it’s meant to be empowering. Like self-care, you know?”
Just like every 49-year-old forced to live in ‘woke’ culture, my mum pretended to understand and left me to me.
Now, I had planned this whole exercise one month in advance.
No, wait, make that twelve.
Last year, during some routine YouTube-surfing, I came across this recipe for a Strawberry Shortcake and was instantly sold. Strawberries (the poster-child for Indian parents everywhere to remind you how expensive fruits are), happen to be my ABSOLUTE favourite.
Lay those strawberries on buttery sponge cake, between pillows of whipped cream?
That’s just cruel.
Although I found the recipe a year ago, it didn't amount to much—partly because 17 is not a worthy-enough birthday year and mostly ‘cause I got lazy. However, it seems my YouTube recommendations have a mind of their own because the recipe showed up on my timeline again this year. So, I took this as a sign from the Self-Pampering Gods and before I knew it, was delivered an Amazon package containing:
A cake tin much sturdier than our ancient Handvo-maker.
Cake flour, which is basically Maida’s even unhealthier, more refined older brother.
Butter paper, because parchment paper is an American myth.
Ammonia, not for the cake but for Dad’s favourite child- his garden.
Ingredients at the ready, I began hyping up my elaborate self-care endeavour, a week before B-Day. And for all those with pitying eyes similar to Mum’s, I had 3 serious (and more concrete?) reasons:
1. I am celebrating 18 years of me.
This year, and most years, I’ve definitely done my best: with The Teen Tribune, college applications, Board exams.
Not perfect, but enough.
I’m saying it here because I’ve struggled to say it so far.
Self-love sometimes feels like a social construct, devoid of real-world application. Instagram dresses it up all pretty in ‘I am woman, fearless, and divine’ reels and while there’s also the occasional ‘realistic’ model’s puffy, crying eyes—self-love is usually not relatable.
In fact, for me, self-love has always been conditional. Something I can deserve if I look better, if I’m smarter, and so on. But I realise this if cycle of mine is endless and exhausting. Thus, I want to bake a cake for myself for the same reasons someone else would for me.
Because, right now, with 0 tech improvements, I am enough.
2. It’s a proper cake.
As ceremonial as this cake is supposed to be, it’s not the first thing I’ve baked. Except, usually I bake gluten-free, sugar-free, happiness-free. It's not that healthy can't be tasty, but healthy is not wholesome—you always feel like you’re cutting some corners on an experience.
As someone who has struggled with disordered eating, baking the Full Monty has been a fear. Even now, when I’m nearly 2 years recovered, I resort to ‘healthy’ cake recipes over 'normal' ones. These usually have so many swap-ins, they pretty much swap out the cake part. But one look at the ingredients of this recipe—butter, sugar, cream, flour—reveals that this is cake alright. And instead of halving the recipe saying, “No one will eat it, then I’ll have to”, I’m baking the whole thing, in full measure, to stop cutting corners on myself. This is me believing, “Let me eat cake cake.”
That, and I owe it to my family for tolerating 2 years of cardboardy banana bread.
3. I’m okay with mediocrity.
So before doing this, I Googled “Is baking your own cake for your birthday sad?”
You know, asking for a friend.
The search results showed me that my self-discovery exercise isn’t the most original. Lots of people have baked their own cake. But most are chefs who know their cake will probably be better than a store-bought one, and to them, the whole self-care aspect is just icing.
As for me?
In ninth grade, I baked my crush a cake and cracked an egg… vertically.
While I’ve definitely improved in the kitchen (my coffee >>> Starbucks), baking is still subaverage. And this cake is not going to suddenly change that. It’ll be, at best, okay. So, while this cake is intended as a grand act of self-care, it will also be a reminder of my mediocrity. Since I don’t really care about baking, mediocrity is easier to accept; but it's still an exercise towards accepting I’m never going to be the objective best at anything. Not even self-care, when and if this recipe fails.
Even if I suck, I still deserve cake.
Three great reasons?
And the more I repeated them to people, the more I believed it could change me. Then I thought, “This is great. I must share this groundbreaking experience with the world. Ooh, maybe through a documentary? Like, Eat Pray Love: Rysha's Version.”
So I planned. How to film it, right from introducing the ‘Why’, to buying ingredients, to taste-testing. And somewhere, in all this planning, the self-care bit got lost.
I had put so much on this experience and what it could do for me that I got tired before I even started. So, when my birthday finally rolled around, as birthdays tend to do, I didn’t do it. I blamed it on there being guests, the kitchen not being free, etc. But honestly, it just felt more like a chore than a celebration. And this was the one thing in my deadline-ridden life, that I didn’t HAVE to do.
Now, I wish I could end the story here and say I realised the value of self-care is in its spontaneity. That you don’t need to plan and perfect, months in advance.
But remember that long list of things I’d bought off Amazon?
Yeah, that cost as much as 4 birthday cakes. My mum may not understand woke, but she does understand broke.
So, a week after my actual birthday, I did it. And this time, it was spontaneous and imperfect.
I blasted Prateek Kuhad, did a whipping-workout and then shut the oven door on my elaborate 18th birthday. Cake done and dusted, I decorated it with 3 boxes of pre-bought, and now nearly-rotting, strawberries. After the cake was cut with immense difficulty (wasn’t the spongiest sponge) and served to my relieved family, I had finally been cared for.
The cake wasn’t the best, as expected. It didn’t rise as much as the recipe showed, and was dotted with whites of uncooked egg. But it did its job well enough—it was moderately cut-able, and served as a sturdy vessel for the real hero: whipped cream.
Which leads me to the perfect metaphor for self-care: it does the job well enough.
I always thought self-care had to be extravagant. Indulgent. Purposeful. And initially, when I wanted to bake my cake, that’s what I aspired for it to be. I thought, “What’s the point of ‘self-care’ if I do it like I don't actually care about myself?”
Now, after over-hyping this cake into procrastination, I know this approach was unsustainable and untrue. The cake’s purpose was over the second it turned stressful. But when I came back to it without planning to, it felt right.
And that’s what I wish, for the next 18 birthdays, self-care looks like.
A post-lunch nap on the study table or a muddy auto-ride in Bangalore rains.