Birthday (Pan)Cakes

It’s funny how perspectives on having siblings can change so dramatically over the course of one’s life. Having been an only child for a whole three and a half years, I have blurry memories of the years B.C. – in my case, that stands for “Before Chelsea,” my younger sister.

Although I was so young, I can remember asking my mom to have another baby, so I could have someone else in the house to play with. I felt overjoyed when I found out that she was going to have one, and then ecstatic when I learned it would be a girl. I can remember my mom pushing me on the swings while suggesting names for my new sister. I can’t imagine the ones I came up with, but she ended up not choosing any of mine. Once Chelsea was born, I doted on her and cuddled with her until she was old enough to walk and talk and develop a mind of her own.

That’s when things changed. While we had our good moments, I also started seeing her as a nuisance, as someone I had to compete with for attention. Eventually, we got older and started appreciating each other more, and I can’t imagine not having her around.

In my family, we’ve always had pretty traditional birthday cakes. As little kids, we always wanted Carvel ice cream cakes, and then when we were a little older we requested beautifully decorated cakes made by a local baker. Nowadays, I generally make layer cakes from scratch, and this year my sister’s 23rd birthday cake was no exception. However, instead of doing any actual baking, I used PANCAKES for the layers. Yes.

Several months earlier, my sister and I had been drooling over THIS recipe, and I “jokingly” said I would make her next birthday cake out of pancakes. She was so surprised when I actually revealed that I had made one!

Photo taken by Chelsea Ross

Photo taken by Chelsea Ross

I referenced the idea behind the original recipe, but I took many liberties with my version. I had no buttermilk on hand, so I used some vanilla almond milk that worked really well. In terms of the frosting, I made a standard vanilla buttercream and mixed in a healthy amount of cinnamon to give it more depth and tie into the whole breakfast-for-dessert theme. My sister loved her personal birthday cake – although she did complain that she couldn’t stop eating it.


Gettin’ Figgy Wit’ It

When was the last time you heard a song by Will Smith? I heard “Miami” playing in the grocery store the other day, and was instantly transported back to 90s sleepovers with my friend Katie… those were the DAYS

My sister always teases me for liking “old lady fruits.” Dried dates, prunes, raisins, apricots – I love them. I love the chewy texture, and the rich, concentrated flavor that results from extracting their moisture. I belong to that rare breed that would choose an oatmeal raisin cookie over chocolate chip any day. While my friends chowed down on Sour Patch Kids and Reese’s Pieces, Raisinets were my childhood movie snack of choice, and I’m probably the only one in my family who ever ate fruitcake on Christmas without viewing it as a chore.

Another favorite snack of mine as a kid were Fig Newtons. I don’t think I had tried a fresh fig until I was in my twenties, but I loved the deep sweetness of the dried figs that filled those soft cookies. I had bought a package of dried figs while visiting my parents in Connecticut over the holidays, but never found the chance to use them. I was in Connecticut again this past weekend, and my mom reminded me that I had a whole package of dried figs in her pantry that needed to be used soon.

Since my dad is the only one in my family who enjoys figs as much as I do, I wanted to find a recipe that would mask their chewy figgy-ness, but benefit from their rich flavor. My mom loves spice cake, so I decided that would be the perfect vehicle to slowly ease her into the fig club. Yeah right.

As a kid, one of my favorite books was called Liver Cookies – gross, right? The premise of the book was that these two young girls decide to blend up healthy foods that kids usually despise, like broccoli, and incorporate them into baked goods, so that no one would even know they were getting their vitamins while eating a brownie. In a way, this spice cake reminded me of that book, since I pureed the figs after stewing them so that their texture wouldn’t be as prominent in the cake. This gave the cake more of a figgy nuance, and eliminated any possibility of the cake coming out dry.

My experiment seemed to work, as my mom devoured her slice with gusto. This recipe works well as a base for any kind of dried fruit or nut – the original called for walnuts, but I had leftover pecans that I substituted. I also only used half of the amount of sugar in the recipe, since pureeing the figs added another element of sweetness. To make it “healthier,” I swapped half of the all-purpose flour for whole wheat, and I liked the hint of nuttiness it gave to the cake.

This isn’t your great-aunt’s stale fruitcake – the fig mixture prevents the cake from drying out, and adds a rich depth of flavor that granulated sugar can’t emulate. Since I baked it in a loaf pan rather than a Bundt, it’s technically bread rather than cake, and thus it’s appropriate to eat for breakfast! Right?

Spice Cake With Figs & Pecans

Adapted from this recipe


-1 pound dried figs, stems removed (I actually found it easier to cut the stems off after the figs were stewed)

-1/2 cup almond milk

-3/4 cup all-purpose flour

-3/4 cup whole wheat flour

-1 teaspoon baking powder

-1/2 teaspoon baking soda

-1/2 teaspoon salt

-1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

-1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

-1/2 cup butter, softened

-1/2 cup sugar

-2 eggs

-1 teaspoon vanilla extract

-pecans, or any nut you have on hand (optional)


  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Grease and flour a loaf or Bundt pan. Place the figs into a saucepan, cover with water, and simmer on low heat for about 5 minutes. Drain and cool, reserving 1/2 cup of the liquid.
  2. Cut the figs into 1/4 inch cubes. In a food processor, combine the reserved fig liquid and the figs in batches, until they’re more of a paste consistency. Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon and cloves; set aside.
  3. In a large bowl, cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs one at a time, then stir in the vanilla. Beat in the flour mixture alternately with the almond milk. Stir in the fig mixture and pecans. Pour into prepared baking vessel.
  4. Bake in the preheated oven for 30 to 45 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out mostly clean, but with a few crumbs (I prefer to underbake slightly, so that the cake doesn’t dry out – it will continue baking for a bit even after it’s out of the oven). Let it cool for 15 minutes, then turn out onto a wire rack and cool completely.
  5. Or, just grab a fork like I did and eat it warm out of the oven :)