My friend Cheryl, from my writing group, asked me to make her a cake for her birthday. Baking is a sort of zen practice for me, and Cheryl, who is a super-zen qigong kinda gal, appreciates this fact. So I started looking up some recipes and found a German Chocolate cake that used white chocolate. Hmm, Cheryl likes coconut, let’s do that one. I decided to make the frosting from scratch as well, I like a challenge. I shopped Friday morning and planned to bake the next day.
So at 4:30 on Saturday I’ve got the kitchen cleaned up and ready to go. The kids are occupied, Dan’s in the bedroom reading, and I start taking out my ingredients. Toast the pecans. Separate the yolks from the whites. Vanilla, sugar, baking powder.
Baking powder. Where is the baking powder?
Come on, everybody has baking powder, it’s a pantry staple. I just had baking powder, I just saw it. I take everything out of the cupboards, I tear apart the spice cabinet. No baking powder. Oh, and now that I’m looking: no coconut, either. Didn’t I have all that coconut left over from Christmas? Can’t really make German Chocolate cake without coconut! Grumbling, I grab my purse and head to Von’s. Extra butter and eggs, just in case, too. Oh and while you’re out, honey, why don’t you pick up some salad stuff and some chicken, I’ll grill us some dinner, says Dan. Fine.
So now it’s 5:15 and Dan is going to want the kitchen at 6. No problem, I say. I’ll have it in the oven by then. But I’m a little agitated so I think, okay, this is for zen Cheryl, what would she do? Light some candles, take some cleansing breaths. So I light a few tealights and invite in the good cooking energy. Maybe a little glass of wine. Ahh, that’s better.
Everything’s measured out and ready to go. Time to get the pans ready. I bought two new 9-inch cake pans especially for this cake, because it’s supposed to be a triple-layer, and I just have the one Wilton cake pan. Okay, here are the new ones. Here’s the Wilton pan… oh shit. No way. The Wilton pan is… 8 inches.
I can’t have two 9-inch layers and one that’s 8! Crap. Another trip to Von’s, where I got the other two. I can’t stand it.
I can’t believe he says he’ll go. He’s not real excited about it, but I think he can tell I’m frazzled, so I give him the cardboard insert from the one of the new pans and say, just get me one of these. They’re next to the syrup.
I start the batter while he’s out. My trusty KitchenAid mixer (“Emeril green”) takes care of whipping the butter and sugar and I glance over at my candles. The tealights on the windowsill are a little close to the fringed red plaid curtain, so I pick them up to move them to the other side of the sill, pushing the curtain away, and by the time I have set the tealights back down a huge flame is shooting up from the red plaid fringe and halfway up the (apparently highly flammable) curtain. It was that fast. Holy shit! I rip the curtain down and throw it in the sink, dousing it with the sprayer. Smoke has already started to rise up to the ceiling, so I grab a cookie sheet to fan it away from the smoke detector. Luckily, I had never replaced the battery since the last time when I set a potholder on fire.
Jesus, I need more wine.
Okay, okay, back to the batter. Oh, here’s Dan. He doesn’t smell any smoke or notice that the curtain is gone. Good. Grease and flour the pans. Crisco. Of course I don’t have fucking Crisco, are you kidding me? Margarine. Margarine and flour the cake pans. Dear God please let that work.
Did you know that if you try to melt white chocolate chips on 100% power they don’t melt, they cook into a hard crusty glob? I didn’t. Let’s try that again on 50% power, like it says on the instructions. Dummy.
Somehow I get the batter done, folding in four-egg-whites-beaten-until-stiff-peaks-form, and divide it among my three perfectly matched 9-inch pans: into the oven they go. Dan the grill master gets everyone fed, and I do not check my cakes until the timer goes off. Immediately I can see that they were in 5 minutes too long: the edges are too dark. The margarine probably didn’t help there, either. All that work and I overcook them. Oh well, nothing I can do now (deep cleansing breaths); let’s get to work on that icing.
I haven’t made a stovetop caramel-type frosting for years. As I get my ingredients (which, mercifully, I do have) ready, I think to myself don’t fuck this up, you’ve only got one can of evaporated milk and I think another trip to Von’s would push me right over the edge into Joan Crawford territory. No more burnt frosting! Ever!
At 8:45, I start stirring the evaporated milk, brown sugar, egg yolks, butter and vanilla over low heat, constantly like it says on the recipe. Mmm, smells yummy. At 9:00 I am still stirring and looking at this lovely caramelly liquid and wondering if it’s ever going to get thick. The recipe says stir constantly until thick. What’s thick mean, anyway? Like pudding? I mean, thick, come on, that’s pretty vague. I know from experience that too long on the heat will mean a burnt flavor, and not enough will mean a runny congealed mess. After 20 minutes of stirring I think it’s thick and add the pecans. Almost immediately I know I got it right and confidently add the coconut. Whew.
The next morning, day of the writing group, I tenderly spatula the perfect frosting onto the slightly overdone layers while Dan and I have an argument about some stupid thing, dishes in the sink or potholders too close to the flame on the gas burner, whatever. Ugh, now my cake has that bad energy in it, too, as if Von’s frequent flier miles, burnt edges and an incinerated window curtain weren’t enough. I wish I had made a double batch of the frosting to sweeten up the karma. Also because I know it’s pretty good and I have no idea what the cake itself will taste like. I pack up my creation and head to Cheryl’s, 40 minutes away on the west side.
I know you’re probably expecting me to tell you there was a car crash and my cake went splat against the windshield, or I dropped it in the driveway, or there was a sudden downpour and it was melting in the dark, all the sweet coconut icing flowing down; I don’t think that I can take it, ‘cause it took so long to bake it... no, I made it inside and at lunch I poked it with fluorescent candles (yay! I remembered the candles!) and we sang happy birthday to Cheryl. And it was pretty good. A teeny bit dry, if you ask me, and not nearly enough caramel deliciousness on top. But everyone seemed to like it just fine.
So it seems Martha’s place at the top is in no way threatened by my latest foray into baking, and I think I may take up qigong as my zen practice for a little while. On the bright side, now I get to go shopping for a new curtain. Flame resistant of course.
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