It only took me 5 months to write up and post this, and it’s just in time for Halloween! I’ve had non-stop work travel and projects this year and I was lucky enough to even have time to bake for Vin’s cake, so I’ll take it as a win!
This year marks the 40th anniversary of my husband’s existence. Facebook keeps reminding me of all the cakes I’ve made for Vin’s birthday (and how fucking long I’ve been THE Cake DealerTM) and how friggin’ stellar they are, so this year’s cake has to be EXTRA AMAZING to make sure my guy has the best birthday ever and show his exponentially increasing awesomeness. Yeah, no fucking pressure on me. I’ve done themed cakes of things that are important to Vin. For example, why would I ever make a vegetable cornucopia for his birthday? I’ve made a lot of food-related cakes and the meat idea is kind of “meh” for me now; to be honest that porterhouse is probably the best it’s going to get and that was seven years ago hahaha But this year’s idea was pretty much given to me by Vinnie himself.
He said it was silly that some adults who shall remain unnamed were throwing themselves 40th birthday parties and that it was the last thing he’d want. Naturally, I do the opposite and start planning for a big birthday bash b/c I’m just the best! I browsed large format dinners, considered renting a bus to get tickets for Medieval Times, booking part of a beer hall, thought about booking Sammi’s Roumanian (I think we’re not as young as we think we are so this would have been straight out insanity, hangovers and digestive issues all around), and then came across this list that suggested renting out a movie theatre. It honestly was more along the lines of what I wanted: a private space where everyone could be grouped together for a proper “SURPRISE!” and still be fun and I could have interchangeable guests knowing how some people have a tendency to say “YES” and not show up and others may not respond and then you’re gifted with their presence at the event. (Yes, I’ve learned my lesson from wedding planning. These things are the worst for a Type A planner like yours truly.) Also, I kind of liked the private theatre idea for ME, too. I always wanted a movie theatre birthday as a kid, the kind where you watch a movie with your friends (and all the other strangers who bought tickets for that movie time as well) and then go into a private room with super bored movie staff and have shitty cake and pizza… it sounded way more fun before I said that out loud, didn’t it? But I liked this idea and wanted to do it right. So I did my research and contacted a few locations in the city, and got quotes for different days and times for Vin’s potential birthday bash. The pricing is just like a wedding; the prime times for Friday evening and Saturday cost much more than a Sunday evening shindig, and to have the party on Vin’s actual birthday would have been double b/c 1) Memorial Day weekend and 2) “Solo” was premiering. The Sunday a week before his birthday it is! I email Vin’s family and close friends and ask if they’d be interested in coming to the city to surprise Vin and watch a movie (most likely horror) on a Sunday evening, and the RSVPs were pretty high! A lot of people were out of town or had family events, but I got a lot of “YES!” responses. In crowd sourcing the ideas, I also included a clearly worded notification that said “Don’t mention this to Vin or I will fucking hunt you down =)” with emphasis on the smiley face. I settled on the Alamo Drafthouse even though I had never been but heard great things: the seats were comfortable, the food and drink options were good, the stadium seating views were perfect, they had a good sound system, and you could be a lazy ass and order food/drinks and servers would just bring it to you. The manager there was a dream to work with and answered all of my 23497602 questions and gave helpful food suggestions and ideas for logistics… it made organizing this surprise remotely SO much easier. I never set foot in this place until the actual party and it was a breeze.
The biggest concern I had was whether or not I could bring in a cake since the contract explicitly says no outside food is permitted, but it was not a big deal at all. Phew! I ordered a bunch of burgers and sliders and pizza and popcorn for the guests, and the manager was sweet enough to let people in early so that more people could be on time for the surprise AND she suggested that 80s music with movie clips would be playing in the background before the movie started. How’s THAT for amazing customer service?
So what was next… step 1: I picked a date and location, and the next big decision was what movie to show??? I wanted it to be horror because that is Vin’s absolutely favorite genre. I, on the other hand, I can watch any Marvel movie or Pixar flick on repeat but “Paranormal Activity” made me scared of my own house and I couldn’t stand to be alone at home thanks to that stupid movie. But it’s not for me, it’s Vin’s special day so I was determined to suck it up and watch a scary movie. I gave suggestions like “The Shining” or “Creepshow” or other 80s classic horror films, and after conferring with Vin’s brother and the movie theatre manager, “The Shining” was the winner. Vinnie’s brother said it was Vin’s favorite, and also the manager said it was probably easiest to get the licensing rights to show and that since it’s a classic horror movie it would appeal to more people, so this was the theme of Vin’s birthday. (Little did I know, a LOT of people had never watched nor wanted to watch “The Shining” so half the theatre cleared out after cake was served hahaha)
Step 2: Designing the invite. I knew JUST the design I wanted and it was perfect for this party. You know the scene where Jack Nicholson sticks his head through the door and is like, “Herrrrre’s Johnny!” Vin has this really endearing tendency to give crazy eye and look deranged in most of his photos, so it was pretty easy to find a pic of him looking mildly psychotic. I asked our friend Ben if I could use his high res photo of Vin giving such a look, and then asked Vin’s brother to Photoshop the photo to be just like the door scene and the invite would read, “Herrrrre’s Johnny Prime!” How fucking fitting is that? I know, I’m a great creative director, too. I sent out e-invites to Vin’s nearest and dearest to “come play with us!” and based on all the “YES!” responses, I ended up renting a larger theatre at the Alamo.
Step 3: Cake. What is the first thing you think of when someone talks about “The Shining”??? Is it the hotel? The creepy twins? “REDRUM”? The weird bear performing sexual acts on some dude in a tux? For me, the most iconic thing of the movie is the hedge maze. I had it in my mind from day one that I would be making a cake of this, and it would involve the most intricate planning and secrecy and if… just IF, all of this worked out, it would be spectacular. However, the more people asked what kind of cake I was making, the more I started to doubt myself and think I was crazy.
Step 4: I laid out my plan and told Vin I had a baking order that had to be delivered in Brooklyn the day of the surprise party, and I was being paid well to just make a sheet cake and some cupcakes for a kid’s birthday. (My being paid in seeing Vin’s shocked reaction at the party: priceless.) I said I needed his help carrying the cupcakes and getting the doors for me, so to make up for it I’d take him out for food afterwards. I was not entirely lying to my husband. =D I spent a good three lunch breaks looking up all high res images of “the shining maze” I could find on google.
Some of the images were shitty and inaccurate, like there were all these drawings and recreations of completely symmetrical mazes. WTF? If you look at a screen grab of the scene where Jack Nicholson is peering over the replica of the maze in the hotel it’s clearly not the same on both sides. What lazy half assery is that? So yeah, I pored over tons of images and studied tons of pics and read all about the Mythbusters guy making his own replica of the hedge maze.
After I found a relatively helpful Mindcraft-looking layout, I had to recalc all the measurements because the sheet cake I baked was not exactly the same size as this piece of paper I printed. Also, there was NO way the hedges on this cake could be as thin as the tiny squares on the paper, so I had to take that into account, too. Thank you, engineering and math skills for helping me in my time of need!
Now comes the fun part. It took about 5 days to make everything from start to finish.
On the first day, I prepped all the cake batter (vanilla + a shitload of sprinkles b/c Vin’s favorite cake is funfetti™) to make a dozen cupcakes and three layers for the sheet cake. Every time I make a sheet cake, I always forget the baking sheets are never quite as large as I think they are, so I ended up with a sheet cake that was much smaller than I originally anticipated. Fuck. And I overbaked the cupcakes by like… an extra minute so I wasn’t thrilled with how this project was starting. I stayed up late the first night to dirty ice the sheet cake to trap in the moisture and covered that shit in saran wrap. The naked cupcakes were stored in the freezer to be used if ABsolutely necessary. Oh yeah, Vin was 10 feet away from me the whole time I was baking. Hah!
The next morning I woke up early while Vin went on a run to roll out black fondant and cut out the letters for “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” I found the PERFECT font type cutters on Etsy @katobakingsupplies and they had custom sizes (2”!!!) and 3-D printed me a custom “A” too. The letters looked exact from that screenplay scene where Olive Oyl flips the hell out at Jack’s desk. I intended for this phrase to wrap around the bottom of the sheet cake, but honestly, I wasn’t sure how this was going to turn out. I cut out the letters and let them air dry and harden and hid them under a blue silicone mat so Vin wouldn’t see it. Again, this was “hidden” in plain sight on my workbench all week.
That evening I baked MORE cupcakes and made a crapload of plain white frosting for the cake and cupcakes. Our fridge was getting pretty full. I couldn’t work on anything for a day and a half since we had a dinner event with a bunch of friends, so I just took the next day off from work to do the BIG part: the hedge maze. Have I ever made a hedge maze before? Let alone an edible yet structurally sound hedge maze that is proportional to a blurry screenshot from a movie? Well we were going to find out. Vin left for work and I took the day off to really get started on this cake. I taped printouts of a couple images to the wall in the kitchen and measured and calculated ratios and estimated lengths and just tried my hand at it. I made one batch of Rice Krispies treats per the recipe on the box and it was just wayyyy too soft and gloopy. This was not good. I mixed in two different shades of green and a couple handfuls of cereal in and just covered my hands in PAM and went at it. I rolled out the green glob on a large silicone mat and then used a multi-strip pasta cutter (it was a random find from Williams Sonoma that is one of the best investments ever for cutting fondant and for apparently rolled out Rice Krispies treats and I have yet to use it for actual pasta) to cut out 2” strips for the hedges. The consistency was relatively solid, yet still pliable enough so I could score the edges and bend the strips to make corners. They had to be rolled out as thin as possible because I wanted to be as accurate as possible in making the maze, and it was a super tough fit. I started off putting the border around the cake and then honestly took a good half an hour to brace myself to start constructing the rest of it. I took a sticky green strip and measured it and started from one corner and just put it down. That’s how it began. I couldn’t lift it up again to replace it or move it so I just had to continue with what I started. And it wasn’t just taking a ruler and measuring out the squares, but measuring the distance from the border to the center open area, where the arch was supposed to be, making sure things were proportionate… I honestly didn’t have a game plan, like if I was going to start from one corner and branch out from one end to another, or focus on the center first and then expand out… I ended up kinda jumping all over the place because there were main focal points that needed to be centered, and I didn’t want the spacing to be completely distorted.
I started on one corner, jumped to the corner across from it, planted pieces in that connected the center to the border, marked up the open section in the center, then jumped from the archway border and worked my way in. I’d say about ¾ of the cake is pretty accurate; the remaining part I improvised b/c I was getting fucking tired and running out of space, so I just winged it. I didn’t know how to best make the arch so I literally bent a strip of green Krispies treats into an arch shape and “voila!” It was a bit thin and kept leaning over so I stuck a couple toothpicks to reinforce the arch, but all in all the maze still looked pretty damn decent. I made good time for establishing the base of the cake decorations and had to run out to meet Vin for dinner, so I covered the cake in this massive cardboard cake box and put it in the fridge. That evening I couldn’t work on anything because we both were home, soooo on that day I rested. Hey, even God needed a break, too.
On Saturday, I was expecting Vin to have a press dinner with his friends so I’d have the time I needed to put the finishing touches on the hedges (did you notice those pointed pyramids on the outer border or how the center hedges have that beveled castle top structure? No? Well, I did. And they have to be on the cake!), but of course… that dinner was canceled. My Uncle Rob came to the rescue and devised this plan to take Vin out for cigars and steak dinner and it gave me the few hours I needed to finish the little decorations and to stabilize the weak parts of the hedges (I silently screamed when a part of the border broke off, but luckily, soft Rice Krispies treats are like cement and I just plugged that piece back in and patched up some of the thinner areas of the hedges. Phew!). I took a small shaker full of powdered sugar and sprinkled that all over the hedges so the contrast would show up better, and then arranged the black fondant letters around the bottom of the cake. They fit perfectly. I padded the top of the box with bundles of saran wrap and put the top of the cardboard cake box over this and taped the edges shut so Vin wouldn’t be able to peek anyway. (He doesn’t dare touch decorated cakes lest he ruin the design and endure my wrath.) And then I cleaned up the kitchen and waited for my uncle and Vin to come home. It was extra funny because Vin kept asking me if I wanted to go to the cigar bar, and I said I wasn’t feeling it so I’d stay home. And then when they decided to stay out longer to get steak nearby (aka I needed another hour or so and my uncle stalled for time for me), Vin kept asking if I wanted to join them for dinner and I kept replying I wasn’t in the mood for steak. Haha This is what happens when you marry someone that actually likes your company and wants to hang out with you all the time <3
The next day was THE day. That morning Vin went to run and I decided it would be fine to finish the cupcakes in front of him. The cupcakes followed the theme of the movie, too, but you kind of had to really think about it and be a fan to get the abstract concept. Also, the whole hiding in plain sight thing was really working out for me with his birthday so I was just going to run with it haha I mixed the perfect shade of light blue frosting that was identical to the dresses the “twins” wore. I tied light pink ribbon around the cupcakes because the creepy ass girls had pink ribbons around their waists, and with two dozen quick swirls of light blue frosting my baking and cake decorating was DONE. Vin came by and was like, “Baby, these look so nice!” And I extra smilingly said, “Thanks!” He even took a pic and sent them to his friends (who were also coming to the party) and they were like, “Are those for a gender reveal?” Good going, guys. That was brilliant. hahaha
I cleaned the kitchen AGAIN and showered and packed up the cupcakes in a sturdy bag and ordered a Lyft to head to Brooklyn. Vin was all, “Did you confirm the reservation for food?” And I was all, “Yeahhhh, uhh, they said we could go whenever and it’s a block away from the drop off… it’s fine don’t worry about it,” and Vin actually texted one of our friends (who was attending the party!) what to get at this place. I was not prepared for that and didn’t have the chance to warn the guy, but luckily he replied to Vin, “Everything is good.” hahaha I tried to gauge the timing as best I could, but given unpredictable NYC traffic, Google said that it would take anywhere from 30 min to an hour 15 to get there. Geesh. I gambled that it would take 45 min so we left at 330 to get there around 415. But here’s the thing: we had been driving for about 10 min and I realized I forgot Vin’s glasses. He kinda needs them to see the freaking movie. I should have snuck them in my bag while he wasn’t looking, but I completely forgot. I made the driver turn back (and tipped him well for the trouble!) and said, “Shit! I forgot… the cake topper! I can’t believe I forgot it! Shit! Shit shit shit!!!” So I set the cake on the seat, ran up to our apartment with my tote bag, grabbed Vin’s glasses case, threw it in my bag, and then ran back to the car. This caused a 15-20 min delay in timing, but actually, it was good because people tend to be late no matter how much you drive in that they have to be on time for the surprise. I had a dependable and responsible friend run point and get to the theatre early and I kept her updated with the traffic and when we were getting close. She kept texting updates about the food and guests and said that some stragglers were trickling in at 415, so it was good that we were a little late. I called her when we were about 3 min away and said, “Heyyyy, we’re getting close with the cake. See you soon!” and then went up the elevator with this massive covered cake and right into the theatre. Vin’s holding the bag of cupcakes (just in case he drops it during the surprise!) and he’s like, “They just let us walk in? How do you know which theatre number to go in?” and I’m all, “Yeah, the Alamo knows I’m delivering a cake and they said to deliver to theatre #3. Can you walk in front of me b/c I have to adjust carrying this cake.”
And then, it happened. He walked in and about 60 people yelled, “SURPRISE!!!” and Vin is shocked for a good 20 seconds. He’s stunned to see friends we haven’t seen in a while, he wasn’t expecting to see all his siblings and cousins, and he’s just smiling and shaking his head, “Seriously?” I came in behind him with this small smile just watching his expression, and luckily, the man doesn’t stop grinning. (You don’t understand how worried I was that day b/c I kept thinking all of a sudden, “What if Vin is PISSED I threw him a party???”) One of his friends takes the cake box from me and instinctively I’m like, “AhhhHHHH be careful!!!” like someone has just grabbed my newborn child from my arms. I mean, I haven’t checked on the cake for almost a day and just hope it didn’t melt in the sweltering heat! Thankfully, the cake was intact when I lifted the cover and the smell of butter and sugar wafted from the box. I finally let out a sigh of relief and could breathe again. Pictures were taken of the cake, I got shit for not putting a tiny Jack in the hedges, tons of hugs and hellos were given, and it was smiles all around. It was just great to see so many people come to say, “Happy birthday!” to Vin, especially since a whole bunch of friends and family came in from wayyy out of town, and it meant to ton to me. I mean, it was either that sentiment or people just wanted to come have some legit Cake Dealer cake and watch “The Shining” on the big screen. I was extra impressed everyone kept the surprise and Vin had no idea. My smiley face threat worked!
Vin tried to cut the first piece of cake but it’s not easy with the hedges. And so I am just mashing the cake b/c it’s still super moist (YES!) and this plastic knife is not doing the trick and the Rice Krispies are a bitch to cut through. Luckily, my brilliant point person friend (Allison, I <3 you!) helps a ton and we tag team the cake: she rips off the pieces of hedges, I cut the cake pieces, and she scoops them up into plates. I was told I outdid myself with design AND flavor and it was my best cake yet =D
We had a small section of extra cake left and took home about 8 extra cupcakes. And I was worried there wouldn’t be enough cake. Psshhh! The servers were great and were on top of everything. No one was without a drink, they had plates and forks for the cake, popcorn was set up on tables so we were ready to go with the show. We didn’t get some food that I originally ordered, but that was fixed afterward due to the great customer service. I really can’t thank the theatre enough for managing this so well considering I had never been here AND was arriving at the party late. Unfortunately, some people couldn’t stay for the movie (or they had no interest in seeing a horror movie), but I was glad everyone was able to give Vin birthday hugs and a good time was had by all. And that I remembered Vin’s glasses for the movie. And that he fulfilled his dream of making fart noises in a movie theatre during a sexy scene. And that he didn’t get mad at me for throwing the party. hahaha It was a good surprise, and after all that we’ve been through, I was just happy that Vin was happy. Happy 40th, baby. I love you so very much. And note to self: if I ever make this hedge cake again, I’ll stick a small frozen Jack Nicholson in the maze or I will never hear the end of it. =D
Photos by Ben Hon