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Do teenagers still want birthday cakes? They’ll definitely love this one

Birthday cake posing as boba tea
Birthday cake posing as boba tea.
(Evan Sung / For The Times)

Every year, I make a cake for my girls’ birthdays themed around whatever they’re obsessed with at the time. The older they get, the harder it is to come up with ideas. Bugs? Easy. Princesses? Totally doable. Pirates? Tricky, but made it work. What’s harder than creating the cake, though, is making it spark that same childlike joy year after year.

So this past spring, when my twins turned 16, I added an element of surprise to their birthday cake. They love getting boba with their friends; that was my starting point. At their age, I was doing the same thing in the San Gabriel Valley when boba started showing up in Taiwanese restaurants. Now it’s everywhere.

This may look like a cup of boba, but it’s actually a birthday cake with chocolate cake balls, piloncillo brown sugar pudding, and pound cake ice cubes.

I nixed the idea of a boba-flavored cake or a cake topped with actual boba because, well, gross. Instead, I decided to put together a dessert that looks just like boba but tastes like my girls’ favorite sweets — boba-sized fudgy chocolate cake balls, piloncillo pudding the same shade of creamy tan as milk tea, and pound cake cubes close enough in color to the pudding to masquerade as ice. I secretly saved a few boba cups and piled in the cake and pudding and slid in the straw.

Bubble Tea Birthday Cake Recipe
This cake is best eaten with spoons.
(Evan Sung / For The Times)

After I cleared my girls’ birthday dinner plates, I handed them their cups of boba. Their faces went from disappointment — All you got me was a cup of boba? — to suspicion — Why is this so heavy? Finally, shock: ”Yo! Mom! This is sick!” And for a moment, their eyes lighted up with the jack-in-the-box delight that’s particularly hard to extract from teenagers.

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And that’s the point of the birthday cake now: giving my kids the feeling of being kids again. If I’m honest, it’s a selfish act too. I get the me-time of baking, something sweet to eat and a moment of kiddie wonder. It’s not that I don’t want them to grow up — OK, I don’t — and I know the whole birthday cake routine can’t turn back the clock. But, for at least a few moments, it does.


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