The number of emails I’ve gotten with the words “you’re invited” in the subject line has dropped drastically in the last month or so. But there it appeared in my inbox. The subject line read: “You’re invited to Ben’s virtual birthday.”

Ben is 2 years old. His birthday party was supposed to be a casual affair — just coffee and doughnuts with a few friends and family members — but with everyone adhering to Gov. Jay Inslee’s pleas to “stay home, stay safe” during the coronavirus pandemic, things changed.

This is a kid’s birthday in the time of a pandemic. I’ve also seen Instagram photos from friends who have arranged party hats on stuffed animals in front of their adorable tiny children, and videos of kids waving through windows to friends and neighbors with “happy birthday” posters, leaving treats and presents on doorsteps.

For some parents, I imagine there’s a sigh of relief. No elaborate theme to plan and execute. No favors to organize. No guest list to fret over. But there still may be big expectations, and tough conversations to be had. Virtual might be the way to go.

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Included in the email invitation for Ben’s birthday was a recipe for his great-grandmother’s “wacky cake” and the line “we’ll be having cake, and you can too!”

When we had all assembled our cakes and signed on for Ben’s party, his mom introduced everyone. There were people from Seattle in attendance — but also Oregon, Hawaii, Wisconsin, California and New York — so many more than would’ve been able to make Ben’s party if it had gone on as planned offline. It was a small silver lining, nice to see so many smiling faces, even virtually. 

Everyone showed off their cakes, and we sang along heartily for Ben as he blew out his tiny “2” candle.

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The party ended soon after, but I’ve been thinking about the cake ever since. It was a small form of physical connection, all of us around the country eating the same exact cake at the same time. Plus, it’s a pretty darn good cake.

It’s called “wacky cake” — but some may know it as “crazy cake” or “dump cake” — and it’s been around in one variation or another since pioneer days.

It’s a chocolate cake, and incredibly simple to make. Not only do you mix the ingredients in the pan in which the cake bakes, there are no eggs, milk or butter (hooray, vegans!) needed. Cakes without eggs or dairy have been around since medieval times, for people have always loved (and dare I say needed?) cake no matter how bare the cupboards were.

What makes this cake “wacky” is the inclusion of vinegar, but also the way it is mixed. After mixing up dry ingredients directly in the square baking dish, make three rows in the mix, like you’re hoeing furrows in a garden. Pour the vinegar in one, oil in another, vanilla in the third. Then you pour a cold cup of water over the entire pan and stir until it’s smooth. It takes less time than whipping together a box mix, and you’ve made a cake! From scratch!

The cake bakes for a mere half-hour, and when it’s finished, you’ve got a fluffy, chocolate-y cake. At this point you could put together a frosting (the one for Ben’s birthday had a recipe for classic, caramelly penuche frosting), whip some heavy cream or just eat warm, chocolate cake without adornment.

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Because of its simplicity, it’s easy to have interested kids help. It’s one that will put a smile on your face, made even better when its someone’s birthday.

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Wacky Cake

Adapted from Marabelle Penn

Yield: One 8-inch square cake

Ingredients:

1 ½ cups flour

1 cup sugar

3 tablespoons cocoa powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon salt

1 cup water

6 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 tablespoon vinegar

1 teaspoon vanilla

Steps:

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

2. In an ungreased 8-inch square baking pan, combine dry ingredients, stir to combine. Make 3 indentations in the flour mixture. Pour vinegar, vanilla and oil in the separate rows. Pour water over the entire mixture. Stir together with a spoon until smooth.

3. Bake for 30 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. Cool and eat.

The coronavirus pandemic has changed many aspects of our routine lives. How are you staying connected to a sense of normalcy? Share your story below, and it could become a part of a photo portrait series.