The initial conversation took place months earlier in December, with frigid winds pounding against our winter parkas. Master/Master and Blondilocks were insistent that we orchestrate a birthday bash for our Fearless Leader. I reminded them that MSAP was not a fellow who embraced his birthday, preferring to keep it on the down low. The more they insisted, the more I resisted. In the end, youth won the tug-of-war.
Following months of undercover emails and off-hour phone calls, gaggles of folks were poised to descend upon the Garden State. As the surprise drew nigh, the intricacies of preparing savories and sweets right under his nose became my biggest hurdle. Beginning three weeks out with a simple exercise in cookies, I rolled up my sleeves and assembled my triple ginger mise en place.
MSAP: Mmmm, ginger?
NMMNP: (monosyllabic) Yes.
MSAP: For us?
NMMNP: No. Maybe. No.
MSAP: Is there anything for dessert?
NMMNP: (overcompensating with too much information) They are for Sibling Sister From Seattle and her family when they arrive in three weeks. Yes. That’s right.
MSAP: So that means ‘no’ as far as dessert goes?
Seven days prior to the festivities, Operation Biscotti I - Crunchy Fruit and Nut
MSAP: What kind?
NMMNP: Cherry. Pineapple. Pecan. You wouldn’t like them.
MSAP: Sure I would.
NMMNP: I’m working on a recipe.
MSAP: Are you saying I should find something else for dessert?
NMMNP: Here. (Handing over a fresh box of graham crackers.) I think there’s ice cream in the freezer.
Some of you might consider that harsh behavior, but believe me, these were desperate times. Six days out, Operation Biscotti II - Double Chocolate.
MSAP: (Passes through kitchen sans comment.)
NMMNP: (Calling off into the distance) These are for Master/Master when he comes home in August!
Three days and counting, Super Secret Barbequed Brisket Preparation.
MSAP: (via text message) Negotiations running late. Catching the next train but will walk home.
NMMNP: (Still feeling guilty about the biscotti) You don’t want to walk home in 100 degree heat. I’ll be there. (Turning to face the brisket simmering in the oven, ‘PICK UP THE PACE!’ No response from the brisket. A short time later, brisket is sequestered away in the freezer, hidden behind bags of ice and pounds of sweet butter.)
Two days prior, Clandestine Sour Cherry Pie.
MSAP: (uncorking a lovely bottle of dry rosé) Are those cherries for baking?
NMMNP: What cherries? (Stashing a head of lettuce and armful of organic carrots on top of 5 pounds of pitted sour cherries.) Funny you should mention that. (Pause) Yes. (Pause) I really should do something with those. I will. Maybe a nice pie for the weekend. (Dramatic pause) By the way, I’m sorry about your birthday.
NMMNP: Well, I haven’t really planned anything. (Lies.) Just lunch with my folks. Maybe Blondilocks if she isn’t working. (More lies.)
MSAP: (Combing the Arts and Leisure section) That will be fine. We can drive to see them if it’s easier.
NMMNP: (Eyebrows raised) Oh no, no no no. They will be happy to come here.
MSAP: (Glancing up from the paper.) What are you working on now?
NMMNP: Nothing. (Hiding triple batches of pâte brisée beneath an oven mitt.)
MSAP: You wanted to do something with all of those cherries.
NMMNP: Yes. I did. I do. I will.
One of two sour cherry pies was baked in the small window of time between my arrival home from work and the arrival of the Mid-town Direct NJ Transit train. Unable to secure an out of the way cooling place in the kitchen, I spontaneously boxed up the pie with the lid ajar and hid it in Master/Master’s bedroom closet. Yes, the distinctive fragrance of vanilla bean and cherry wafting through the hallway went unnoticed. And then I promptly forgot about it. The second pie, (another Sour Cherry) and the third, (Blueberry) would have to wait until Saturday morning. The birthday cake itself unfolded as follows:
Friday after work, Extreme Baking. Separating eggs, whisking yolks, whipping whites and folding, folding, scraping, baking. The biscotti are out of the oven, the cake is next on deck. Text message arrives indicating another delayed train. NJ Transit is nothing if not consistent. Cake exits the oven with moments to spare before I head downtown to meet the train. Draping a sheet of parchment paper over the cake, it rests near the window, slightly off the main drag of the kitchen. Later in the evening, he notices.
MSAP: You know you have a cake here.
NMMNP: Yes. I know I do. It’s for next week. I’m going to let it cool and then I’m going to wrap it and freeze it. We will eat it next week. (The biscotti are lounging unassumingly on cooling racks.)
MSAP: (eyeing the biscotti.) Are those for next week as well?
NMMNP: Oh. Those. (There are dozens. I don’t have the heart to say no.) Sure, have ONE. (Emphasis on the number one. He does. Actually, he has more than one of each. Now I’m silently glaring, ‘STOP EATING THE BISCOTTI.’)
On the day of the festivities, we hit a glitch. Pretending to go to ‘work’ I drive away, awaiting word from Master/Master, Sweet Soprano and Blondilocks regarding their estimated time of surprise. Instead, MSAP decides to prepare a budget for a Broadway theatrical, settling down before his computer, crunching numbers and wreaking total havoc on the plans. Blondilocks must intervene, sending word that she is arriving by train and needs to be met at the station because I am ‘working.’
In the end, Operation Total Surprise was successfully executed. Blondilocks insisted MSAP run a series of errands including a stop at Target, the Home Depot and Costco. Somewhere between barbeque grills and spackle, who should they stumble upon but Master/Master and Sweet Soprano. Sadly, I missed the surprise reunion because there were lobster rolls to prep, pies to bake and a cake to assemble. None of this would have been possible without the culinary expertise of dear Alicia, cool as a cucumber despite the sweltering temps and sweet Moira Susan for aiding and abetting.
A surprise of this magnitude required step-by-step precision. Particularly when the birthday boy is a focused individual, not one for meandering through retail emporiums on a Saturday. Keeping everyone in line was an excruciatingly detailed flowchart, created by Master/Master, Blondilocks and Sweet Soprano. Penned in hot pink and turquoise Sharpie markers, it even provided “recovery tactics” should things somehow go awry. There was however, no mention in the flowchart where I had hidden one of the pies. In the midst of over whipping the cream and having to begin again, it suddenly came to me; pie box hidden behind the Ithaca college sweatshirt hanging in a closet on the second floor.
Guests arrived in fits and starts with each ring of the doorbell heralding a new surprise. Master/Master assembled a gifted trio of jazz musicians to punctuate the merrymaking. And thankfully, there was leftover birthday pie for mid-morning snack the following day.
Surprise Birthday? It doesn’t take a village. It requires a team of highly trained Secret Agents armed with an intricately orchestrated flow chart. Copy that? Over and blow out the candles.