This past weekend, we celebrated my mother-in-law’s 80th birthday with a luau-themed open house. It was a terrific party. Friends and family came from all over the country to help her celebrate and to raise their glasses in toast to her.

Weeks before the party, one of my sisters-in-law  suggested the luau theme as a nod to my mother-in-law getting to go on her dream vacation to Hawaii this coming October, a start-the-celebration-early-whet-the-appetite type event. Brilliant. With the theme agreed upon, a couple of my other sisters-in-law and I sat down to plan out how we were going to turn a Midwestern suburban backyard into a Hawaiian island. Ideas flew fast and furious, and in the middle of the melee, I jokingly said, “I’ve seen Sandra Lee make a volcano cake that really smokes…I could do that.” Snort.

Apparently I didn’t snort loudly enough because the gals gathered around the table immediately jumped on the idea. “Wow, that’d be great! Can you do that?”

Wait…wait…I didn’t mean…huh?

For those of you who do not know who Sandra Lee is, she’s a tall, gorgeous, incredibly freakish, blond woman who has several cooking shows on Food Network. In a nutshell, Sandra’s a fruit loop. An entertaining fruit loop in an good-grief-I-can’t-believe-she-just-did-that kind of way, but a fruit loop, nonetheless, who dresses to match the curtains over her kitchen window and the color of the standing mixer on the counter behind her. A fruit loop who closes every show by sipping a cocktail as she goes through a long-winded explanation of the “inexpensive tablescape” she’s created that just happens to match her clothes, the kitchen curtains, and the standing mixer. The same tablescape that is taller than your average sixth-grader and easily more expensive than my first house. I can go on, but I won’t. If you don’t believe me, read what Anthony Bourdain wrote about her recently on his blog in a post called A Drive By Shooting. Anyway, Sandra’s schtick is “semi-homemade cooking” which means that most of what she “cooks” on the show comes out of a box or a package. She uses an expensive-looking chef’s knife to hack the boxes and packages open–which, I suppose, makes her feel justified in using the word “Cooking” in the title of her show–but the knife gets very little use otherwise.

Anyway, the aforementioned volcano cake is no exception to Sandra’s “semi-homemade” repertoire. Made from boxed cake mixes, canned frosting, and those aerosol cans of decorator icing, it truly is a pastry chef’s worst nightmare. It is, however, a five-year-old’s dream. It smokes. It’s covered in frosting. Lots and lots of frosting. And it smokes. Did I mention that? Tom wanted to know if I’d make one for his last birthday…but I digress.

The freakishness of its original creator aside, however, I have to admit the idea of a volcano cake as a conversation piece for a luau-themed party isn’t bad one, especially–I reasoned–if I made the cake and the frosting from scratch. All righty then.

The Friday before the party, I began baking the cake layers. Five in all: two 10″ round layers, two 9″ round layers, and a bundt cake. And here, I’m going to admit–after extensive searches through my recipes and a number of online recipes–I did make the cakes from a box. Or, more specifically, boxes. I’ve never been much of a cake baker, but of the cakes I used to make before going gluten-free, none seemed dense enough to withstand the weight of the other layers once they were all stacked atop one another in volcano formation. I felt pretty confident I wouldn’t have a lack-of-density problem with boxed cake mixes. All those artificial ingredients I can’t pronounce have to have some purpose, I suppose.

I did, however, make the frosting from scratch. I’m not a big fan of sweet frosting–plus, I really wanted to do something special for the big event–so I decided to do a cream cheese frosting instead of the typical butter cream frosting. Saturday night, I made nine cups of chocolate cream cheese frosting and six cups of white chocolate cream cheese frosting. The white chocolate frosting got divided up and colored red, orange, yellow, and green. Each color went into a pastry bag, and the whole lot went into the refrigerator until the next morning when I would take it to my in-laws where I planned to assemble the cake.

Before falling asleep that night, I began to worry that the masses wouldn’t like the cream cheese frosting. I fell  into a fitful sleep and woke the next morning at 5:30 to resume worrying. By 5:45, I was out in the kitchen trying to decide if it was worth the gluten-intolerant side effects I would experience if I taste tested the cake with the cream cheese icing on it. Luckily, Tom wandered into the kitchen about that time, offering to sacrifice himself for the cause, so I smeared a blob of the icing on one of the mutant 10″ layers I wasn’t using and asked for his thoughts. “It’s not what I was expecting,” he said sheepishly as he tried to lick the icing from the corner of his mouth.

Well, that’s all it took. If it wasn’t what he was expecting, then it wouldn’t be what my mother-in-law or any of her guests were expecting either. Within seconds, Tom was off to the grocery store for more butter and powdered sugar, and I was warming up my KitchenAid. By 9 am, I was showered, my car was loaded with the frozen cake layers and buckets of butter cream icing in all the required colors, and I was on my way to my in-laws.

I’m happy to say–after all the hoopla of getting the components of the cake assembled–the cake itself came together without much fuss. Most importantly, it was warmly received by the crowd for both its novelty (we did actually get it

The volcano cake (aka The Giant Chocolate Boob)

The Giant Chocolate Boob (aka The Volcano Cake)

to smoke) and its taste, and my mother-on-law seemed genuinely pleased. So, what’s the problem? Well, there was no problem until after the party when I saw the pictures of the thing. Viewed in person, it was a pretty respectable replica of a volcano. At least, I thought it was. In the pictures, it looks like a giant chocolate boob coughing up party streamers! Seriously. Take a look. Once again, just as I’m feeling pretty cocky about myself and my abilities, my ego gets side-swiped a la raisin on the white capris. I fear I will go down in family lore as the creator of the giant chocolate boob, particularly by anyone who didn’t see it in person. I can just hear future generations talking about the demented aunt who made the obscene birthday cake for her dear, sweet mother-in-law’s 80th birthday party. What a freak.

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