In my first cookbook, I confess to a lot of beginner goofs, and in my second I am still not ashamed to admit that I don’t know it all, in fact far from it. The most poignant example of which was the snowman birthday cake I attempted to bake for my husband. Oh , we can laugh now, but at the time it was the Queen of All Disasters. Picture this: Hubby is hopelessly nostalgic for a snowman-shaped birthday cake that his Grandma used to bake for him. He recalls every detail and subtly hints that he would love to relive that experience. As a loving wife –with more guts than brains – I decide to surprise him with this custom cake. But inexperience spells failure, and I’m forced to serve him a monstrous, ill-shaped, under-baked Snowthing, clumsily decorated with potato chips and candy sprinkles. It was my worst nightmare, and his best laugh, in years. You can read about the entire sordid affair, details and all in my new book. And for those of you, who think I make up these adventures, take a gander at this photo. Hubby captured it all in living color, and he never even tasted a bite of the mess. Not that I blame him. It was inedible.
But you know me. I don’t give up. So I tried again the next year and take 2 was -- how should I say it? Sad. Not as pathetic as my first attempt because this time I used a real cake pan about a 1/4 of the size of the first cake I tried to “build” for him.
I don’t hide the fact that baking is not my thing. So my snowman was too rich and too heavy and he was even rounder than any decent snowman should be. That’s because I forgot that cake batter rises and, well, it rose like a fat balloon, spilling over the sides of the cake pan. The snowman had sort of a degenerate look. In fact, it looked so sick that, again, Hubby refused a bite.
In his defense, I must tell you that Hubby almost never passes up something I’ve prepared. He bravely digs in, pronounces it terrific, or nobly reassures me that “somebody somewhere will love this.” But this time, he didn’t even want to try the cake, so you get a picture of how unappetizing the whole thing looked. I guess it was so far from his grandmother’s light and fluffy, perfectly round and cutely decorated snowman cake, that even to acknowledge my shameful thug as the same species would have been a disgrace. There was nothing about my renegade to suggest the soft grandmotherly hands icing her masterpiece, lovingly bestowing upon it a nose and mouth made of raisins, not to mention a belt and little buttons.
Now over the years, Grandma has acquired the title Great-Grandma and we’ve dubbed her GG. And GG is a kind soul. She finally took pity on me and gave me her Snowman Cake Pan! It’s about 50 years old, and she handed it to me as though it was the passing of the torch, bestowing blessing and heartfelt prayers that this will bring me mazel and help me get this right. She even threw in her hallowed decorative icing tubes.
And then she whispered something else. She uses Duncan Hines cake mixes, and Duncan Hines icing.
Yes. It’s true. And my mind begins to reconfigure the challenge: if, GG, the matriarchal gourmet genius of this family can use DH, so can I! I can do it!
I clear my mind, straighten my shoulders, set my jaw, and kick the kids out of the kitchen. They are allowed to watch from the doorway, but Mommy is very busy fixing Abba’s birthday surprise. So they watch me from afar, eyes wide, mouths drooling, as I gently place the cake into the oven.
I set the timer, yet I find myself running back and forth to peek every so often. The snowman swells with precision in his antique pan. He is calm, unflustered, reliable. I check and recheck. And finally, the wooden skewer comes out clean.
Dutifully, I follow GG’s instructions and wait for it to cool completely. That’s something I almost never do: who has the patience to let dessert cool completely? But I restrain myself and wait.
The moment has come to ice – and in walks Hubby. He has caught a whiff of the whole affair and this time he wants to supervise. Ok, so it won’t be a surprise. We’re in this together. I proceed to ice, with Hubby hanging right over me, coaching me about theory and techniques. and giving me a Mr. Miyagi type wax-on wax-off kinda shpiel. After he points out yet another uneven area, and reminds me once more that the sides should be done with one fluid smoothing motion, I am about to bring Mr. Snowman down on his head!
But I don’t. We’ve come this far, and it’s looking like a winner. I give the snowman two eyes, a nose, and a mouth. I don’t use raisins, like GG did. This is my cake, for goodness sake, and I’ll use icing if I want to. It just seemed like just the right time to put my foot down.
Hubby accepts the revision. But then, with his insistence, I paint on the snowman’s belt just like GG did, and give him a buckle just like GG did. And then something comes over me. Call it a spurt of creativity. Without warning, I begin to give the snowman a pink icing bowtie and hubby almost faints. As I am drawing, Hubby sees his dreams of the perfect cake come crashing down, but I’m in my stride now. The bowtie comes out perfect. As I finish, he smiles and says, "Oh a bowtie! Kids, Mommy made a bowtie!" He was so proud, he almost called GG.
Thank G-d for Duncan Hines. You won’t hear many cookbook authors say that, but I’m happy to share the accolades. Guess what. The cake was delicious. So after my three tries at this, and 6 days after his birthday, Hubby not only tried the cake, he ate it! Ate it all!
Now he expects one every year.
What's your worst baking nightmare? Let us know in the comments!