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Birthdays at Caltech

At university, students often are away from their families, so it is up to those we live with who have become our adoptive family to step up on special occasions and fill in the blanks. Like birthdays, for example. It is a tradition for my whole House to come together and celebrate someone’s birthday at 12 a.m. the day of. In the general sense it is a terribly unhealthy practice, this business of eating at midnight, but in all practicality, if you are part of the plurality–if not majority–that goes to bed after 2 a.m. (and this spans a wide windowfrom 2-6 a.m., if not later for the truly nocturnal), then it is not so bad.

The friends or roommate of the lucky person will put together a cake for the occasion. Now, this can be anything from a slapdash, hastily-thrown-together entity to a very emotionally invested work of culinary genius and self-expression. Other times, a friend’s birthday cake can be wild channel of exploration. In this post I will introduce you to some of the cakes I’ve seen, and taken part in, over this past year. Let us begin!

In the picture below, some of the freshmen decided to experiment with chocolate ganache and create a fancy, spilled-wineglass cake for their friend as a tasty joke:

My friend Vasant is quite public about his fondness for sharks, so we made him a shark cake for his birthday this year. The cake and frosting are vanilla, with artwork done in colored sugar sprinkled on top:

Below is a piece of the birthday cake that my roommate Sandra made for my 22nd birthday this year. It is a chocolate and peanut butter masterpiece drizzled in two flavors of frosting.

The roommate and I made a pumpkin cheesecake tiramisu for our friend Jimmy’s birthday, improvising butter and milk for whipped cream (mixed in a blender because we didn’t have cream or an egg beater), Nilla Wafers dipped in espresso (in place of lady fingers), pumpkin cream cheese and frosting beaten together as a replacement for the mascarpone cheese filling, and homemade freckled chocolate (shavings and blocks of chocolate bars courtesy of using a grater). It was delicious.

My friend Ramya even had a cake ordered for her by her friends:

And for two of my friends whose shared birthday fell on our House’s ski trip this year, I made them a Taiwanese-style fruit-and-cream-filled chiffon sponge cake, complete with an apple swan on the top.

Finally, my friend Melissa, who is a geochemistry major, got a gorgeous chocolate dirt-and-rock cake for her birthday! It was baked with love and studded with chocolate rocks and rock candy crystal specimens from our friend Zoey’s neighborhood store back home.

The birthday celebration generally proceeds thus: We blindfold the person and lead them to our common areawhere the cake is sneakily waiting. The blindfold comes off after the candles are lit, before the singing commences…

This is a collage of different birthday kids in the early mornings of their special days:

From the top left, going clockwise: Ramya and Rupesh with their respective bakery-delivered and chocolate wineglass cakes and blindfolded as their candles are lit; Jimmy and his pumpkin cheesecake tiramisu; Melissa and her rock cake; and Jagriti and Mugdha with their fruit and cream chiffon cake. Everyone looks so happy, like they can’t stop themselves from smiling. Thatis my favorite part.

What my House refers to as "1.5 birthdays" (because they happen between two hallways called Alley 1 and Alley 2) are a nice midnight break for anyone working hard on a problem set. It’s always enjoyable to see what kinds of inside jokes surface during the cake-making. In a place like Tech that can be stressful and is away from home, it can be a comforting and just nice feeling to celebrate one’s birthday with a group of your Housemates who feel like family.

As always, thanks for reading! Till next time,


Anita Chen

Anita is a senior majoring in chemistry and minoring in English. Born in the island nation of Taiwan, she braved the cold on the American East Coast for a year at the age of six before moving to San Diego, California. At Caltech, she is involved in the music program and the literary and visual arts magazines. She is also an upperclass counselor (UCC) in Ruddock House, one of the 8 dorms on campus, where she watches out for the mental health of her peers and every once in a while tries to stir up trouble and excitement for her hallmates. In her spare time, she tutors and TAs, writes poetry and prose, plays the violin, draws, paints, cooks, and climbs rocks. She is currently pursuing her senior thesis project under renowned professor of chemistry Harry B. Gray, and plans on attending graduate school next year.

Graduation year: 2017

Option: Chemistry

Minor: English

House Affiliation: Ruddock