I can pinpoint the exact moment I peaked: the morning after my eleventh birthday party, when my mom doled out slices of my Spongebob-printed cake with whipped frosting to my sleepover guests for breakfast. After a night where two-liter bottles of soda were flowing and Radio Disney tracks blared loudly enough to make the neighbors wish they could rescind the tax money funding local schools, what better way to keep the party going than with more sugar? My mom’s philosophy (no doubt informed by my picky eating) was that it didn’t matter what you ate for breakfast, as long as you ate. But my friends were awestruck. “Your mom lets you have cake for breakfast?” I shrugged, but I was beaming inside. I felt like a micro-socialite, luxuriating in the social glow of a fifth grader whose parent heroically allowed a dozen rowdy children to stay up all night in a two-bedroom apartment and eat cake for two meals straight. This was the soiree I had always dreamed of. A milestone for the tweens-in-head-to-toe-Kohl’s community.
For reasons that included not getting a bra until way too far into middle school, I would ultimately climb no higher on the social ladder. But I was still known as Birthday Cake Breakfast Girl, and eventually I grew up into Birthday Cake Breakfast Woman. So it’s my duty to say this to you now: please make store-bought cakes a mainstay in your fridge.
Grocery store cake is my favorite kind of cake. It’s easy, it’s festive, and no matter where you buy it, it’ll always taste kind of the same. I love the artificial, chemically sweet frosting, and the way you can peel it right off the cake with your fork and redistribute it to the bare sides of your slice. I love that when I walk through the aisles with a cake that screams “HAPPY BIRTHDAY,” I feel like king of the grocery store. It’s a declaration: I have something to celebrate. Even if I don’t—and to clarify, I don’t—the placebo works. Grocery store cake is the best cake because it’s a decadent treat made ordinary.
Some people criticize store-bought cakes for tasting generic, or having a chemical aftertaste. And they are generic. We have the wonders of industrialization to thank for premade cakes (and their aftertaste, I guess). It depends on the chain, but grocery stores often get sent both premade cakes and prepared icing. According to a Kroger spokesperson, Kroger cakes are sometimes “baked off-site [in] Kroger Manufacturing plants or partner plants,” while others are baked in-store.
From there, bakery decorators frost them to look like the celebratory sugar-bombs we know and love. Heather Lewis, a culinary school student who’s worked as a cake decorator at Walmart, said that there are firm parameters on how to decorate the cakes. “That way no matter which Walmart you go to, you get a uniform look,” she said. “You know exactly what you’re going to get when you walk into a Walmart bakery.” There’s a comfort associated with that level of consistency: these cakes are relics from childhood that I get to revisit.
I’ve been buying round bakery cakes regularly for the past few years, picking one up whenever I’m feeling down or exhausted or in need of a special treat. Over the past year, though, it’s gotten to the point where whenever I don’t have a cake in my fridge, I’m actively seeking my next opportunity to get one. In the absence of cake, my fridge is a barren tundra, the occasional string cheese strewn on a shelf like tumbleweed and a Brita pitcher that keeps goading me to hydrate.
To all of you who have gotten really into baking in the past year: I’m happy that it makes you happy. I love looking at your photos of beautiful cakes and pastries and tarts—it’s ASMR for my eyes. And I definitely love eating them. But doing the actual baking? Whisking together flour, sugar, and milk or whatever (okay, fine, box mix) until my right bicep looks like a snake that’s swallowed a golf ball? Using the actual oven instead of my air fryer? No thanks. The last time I baked a cake, it looked like someone punched it. Baking makes me feel like an incompetent pioneer woman. People tell me that if I practiced more I would get better at it, but I don’t want to do that. I want to crawl under a weighted blanket and drink an herbal tea that has not been approved by the FDA. And eat cake.
Grocery store cake offers so much variety. Flowers! Plastic balloons! Festive ribbons in all four corners! An entire ice cream cone on top for some reason! Frosting colors that definitely don’t occur in nature! Here’s a tip: the Carvel ice cream cakes in the freezer come in a cardboard box rather than a plastic bubble, so you could even, hypothetically, wrap up an ice cream cake for yourself to open later. (Try doing that with milk or eggs.)
Sometimes if I don’t have enough space in the fridge I’ll shove individual slices into a Tupperware, which I can then pull out at any hour of the day to take a few forkfuls of cake. A homemade cake could be stuffed into a Tupperware too, but that would mean destroying something that you put a lot of hard work into. Once you buy a cake from the store, you’re allowed to do whatever you want with it, and it doesn’t feel like a piece of your soul is dying when you rip it apart. Plus, you get to call the container “cake tub.”
There are, of course, the logistics of transporting a clunky cake home from the store. The plastic containers aren’t exactly ideal for public transit, but it’s not the end of the world—you just have to plan a little more for your cake errand by uncoupling it from your regular grocery trip. I like to do a cake-specific trip, because it’s less stressful for me to walk into the store, head immediately to the bakery, pick up my cake of choice, and slide through self-checkout. Even if it tips over on my way home, well, I was planning on squishing it into a mammoth Tupperware container anyway. If you have a car, all the better. I can’t drive because I spent all of my time in driver’s ed wondering whether the two scariest gym teachers at Niles North High School were getting paid extra to scream from the passenger seat or if they were simply in it for the love of the game. But if I could drive a car, I’d plop three different cakes in the backseat (seatbelts on).
Once you’ve gotten your prize home, it’s worth it. Settling down with a glass of wine and a little nighttime pile of frosting cake is its own routine, something that I believe the Sleepytime tea bear probably does in the Celestial Seasonings extended universe. And the opulence! Cake for no reason at all. I might as well be a Victorian heiress relaxing after a long day of hobbies, like being really bad at playing the harpsichord and glaring at birds.
Store-bought sheet cake is a comfort food, one that makes me feel like things will be okay eventually. And if anyone wants to work with me to develop that idea into a Freeform show about a group of teens who learn some gorgeous lessons about life, love, and happiness while working summer jobs at rival grocery chains, please email me at email@example.com. In the meantime, make cake a part of your life, permanently.