It's birthday time again in our home, and I am once again stressing about THE CAKE. I have friends who throw elaborate, bounce-house parties with the requisite theme cake from the local bakery. They have goodie bags, five-course meals and a pinata. The parties in our home are scaled down-affairs. I try ("try" is the operative word here) to keep things simple: maybe a few friends, maybe an activity or two, with everyone getting a candy bar at the end. Such simplicity means that all energy and focus revolve around the birthday cake.It all began with Jackson's second birthday, which featured a cake that looked exactly like a beach ball sliced in half, with a button gumdrop on top. He was my first child. My ambition as a mother was nearly limitless. Then Addison's second birthday rolled around, and his party featured a train cake, four cars long, filled with candies and pretzels. The stage had been set, and there was no going back.This led to a whole parade of fanciful cakes, including none other than a Curious George Skiing Down The Mountain cake, which found me hunched over a small figure of Curious George, fashioning him a pair of skis, poles and goggles. By the time Addison's third birthday rolled around, I was burned out, my motherly ambitions disappearing into the sunset. I purchased my first store-bought — store-bought! — cake, cut out a Bob the Builder paper plate and mashed it on the top. But then came Preston's second birthday. He's my third son, so stereotypically shafted in so many ways: no photo album, no stocking over the fireplace and our family theme song still refers to him as the "baby on the way." I just couldn't let him down. So the center of his second birthday party was a shaggy dog cake frosted with a million little hairs.The era of the handmade cakes had returned.A few months later and fresh off Halloween, Addison wanted a "spook" cake, which in his mind had fangs, long fingernails and a large red tongue. I spent days sketching and re-sketching ideas for how it would come together, stretching my artistic limits nearly beyond their capabilities. The end result, created with assorted candies and a large Twizzler tongue hanging off the side, looked more like a crude version of a Mayan god. But Addison seemed pleased.That was 2007. Then came the doozy."Jackson, what kind of cake would you like for your sixth birthday?" I asked as the date approached this past spring."A tanker cake," he said immediately. This was our second go-round with weapons of major destruction. For his fifth birthday he wanted a gun cake. (This in a family that has never owned a gun nor allowed the boys to watch a movie with a gun in it.) I ever-so-gently morphed that idea into a tamer bow-and-arrow cake. I nodded hesitantly."OK, I think I can do that."I could envision the tank already, a two-tiered, army-green cake with licorice treads and a swizzle-stick gun. It would be my opus magnum. It would probably also take me five hours to make."Oh," Jackson added, "and I want it to shoot real fire."I steadied myself against the counter."Well, that might be a bit more difficult," I said slowly. "Any other ideas?"We finally settled on a volcano cake, which oozed chocolate fudge and candy. (And which did not, regretfully, shoot real fire.) Slopping chocolate cake into the garbage can the next day, I could feel birthday-cake burnout on the horizon. Preston's next birthday got the repeat beach ball cake from an earlier era, even though he begged for another doggy cake. Now it's Addison's birthday. I am already in holiday mode, making out plans for the litany of pies to be made for Thanksgiving and hunting local stores for stocking stuffers. But Addison's birthday comes the day before Thanksgiving."How about a pumpkin pie for your birthday this year?" I asked him hopefully. "It's your favorite pie, and we could slather it with whipped cream and candles!""Well..." he said. "I was really hoping for a teepee cake."I could feel myself breaking into a cold sweat."A teepee-shaped cake?" I asked. "How about a chocolate cake with a teepee on top?"He nodded. "Oh, yes, that would be fine." I waited. Nothing more? No more elaborate concessions?"OK, so that's it," I said. "A chocolate cake with a teepee on top.""Yes," Addison said. "And on top of the teepee are little birds. Eating corn muffins. And there are Native Americans who are crying because they want the corn muffins. And there's a fire pit with a little pot hanging over it where they're making maple sugar, and inside the pot is a long spoon..."Here we go again.