My son has always been a little weird about birthdays. Some years he hasn't wanted anyone at all to attend. Some years he wants just grownups. Some years he's wanted just to take one friend, a little girl he's known since he was a toddler, to high tea. Twice, we've had a real party: once here, when I made an attempt at creating a space themed party (complete with moon rocks and jet packs), and once at a paint-your-own-pottery place, which ended up being sort of anticlimactic ("is that all?" asked one very sweet little girl when I served up the cupcakes, party coming to an end).
This year, I probably nudged him towards a real event. We don't have a house that's very conducive to parties, though. No basement, a large attic that's his room (but where you can't stand up except in the middle), small living room. And in September and October, there's no guarantee that you can do anything outside; as it was, the weekend had been threatened by the possibility of Hurricane Joaquin before it turned away from the east coast, widely skirting the midAtlantic states.
I offered up a movie, but when we started to look at the options, there was nothing much playing, and it feels weird (to me, anyway) to invite people to a movie party where you can't talk with each other. Pottery was out. Laser tag felt awkward with a group of five or six kids. Most places wanted a guarantee of ten children, and they'd charge you whether you brought those children or not. On a whim, I suggested bowling, and he seemed to warm to the idea.
I sent them an email, not wanting to drive an hour to the next-closest lanes, and asked about reserving a time. They took my information casually, making me wonder if they were keeping any record of my request, not asking for any deposit or credit card information. All they wanted was a head count, the day before. It was cheap, as kids' parties go. It seemed almost too easy.
My son wanted pumpkin cupcakes. Not vanilla or chocolate, or even red velvet, but pumpkin. I scoured my cookbooks to find something suitable, worried about kids not liking pumpkin, worried about the high standards adults set for my baking, because I hadn't made cupcakes in a while. (This is for another post, but has anyone ever typecast you as something you no longer want to be solely identified for?) In my zealousness, I overfilled the cups with batter, which overflowed into giant cupcakes, stuck together and stuck to the pan. I decided not to pipe, but frosted with a flat knife as liberally as I could, uncharacteristically (for me) to the edges of the cake, knowing that frosting hides all sorts of flaws. Not that most (any?) nine year olds would care about how a cupcake looks.
On the day of the party we packed up what little we had to bring with us and drove out, parking, for the first time in my memory, on the cracked macadam lot. Inside the bowling alley, it smelled like sweaty old leather and snack bars of fried food; the plastic orange bucket chairs and dingy plastic-encased computer screens looked like something out of the 70s. My husband kept laughing at the kids who would touch the screens, thinking that something would happen. It was ... retro. And not on purpose.
But it was also bright, and friendly, and non-threatening. It was a place where kids could wander around back and forth, where you could bowl a terrible game with friends and still have a good time. Which is exactly what we did for the next two hours, adults and kids alike. The kids organized themselves once they had a bowling order, and we asked for an additional lane next to the kids, where we laughed and joked about needing bumpers, cheering wildly when one of us bowled a good frame.
And though they weren't exactly everyone's favorite, the cupcakes, like the bowling alley, were just right once you got past appearances. Moist, not too sweet, tasting like fall.
Pumpkin Cupcakes with Cream Cheese Frosting
from Crazy About Cupcakes by Krystina Castella
1 stick unsalted butter, room temperature
1 c. firmly packed light brown sugar
1/3 c. white sugar
2 large eggs, room temperature
2 c. all purpose flour
2 t. baking powder
1/4 t. baking soda
1 t. cinnamon
1 t. ginger
1/2 t. nutmeg
1/8 t. cloves
1/2 t. salt
1/2 c. milk
1 1/4 c. pumpkin puree
1 t. vanilla
Preheat oven to 350 degrees and line your cupcake pan.
In a large bowl (I use an electric mixter), cream together butter and sugars until fluffy (about 3-5 minutes). Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.
In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, the baking powder, the baking soda, the ground cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves and salt. Add a third of the dry ingredients to the butter mixture, mix gently. Add half of the milk. Continue to mix gently, alternating dry ingredients and milk until everything is combined. Don't overmix!
Add the pumpkin puree and the vanilla extract and beat until smooth.
Fill the cupcake liners 1/2 full (seriously, don't do what I did), and bake for 20-25 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.
Cream Cheese Frosting
One 8 oz. package cream cheese, softened
6 T. unsalted butter, softened
3 c. confectioners’ sugar
1 T. vanilla extract
Using an electric mixer, cream together cream cheese and butter until smooth. Slowly sift the confectioners’ sugar into the mixture, and continue beating until all lumps are gone. Add the vanilla and mix until fully incorporated. Add a splash of milk if you would like the mixture to be a little fluffier, and add more sugar if you'd like it to be stiffer; beat to the desired texture.