Contrary to what the general population believes, individuals who spend the months of November and December plying others with holiday treats often feel deprived themselves. It is my belief that professional bakers deserve a sweets pardon, allowing them an extension on sweets consumption. The occasional gingerbread man with the broken arm and the crumbled meringue mushroom abandoned by a Bûche de Noël do not constitute a holiday dessert buffet. While the rest of the world is swearing off sugar, I’m hungry for something sweet, and someone to share it with.
How fortunate that Sibling-Sister-of-Toronto is swinging through town this weekend. There is only one woman who will patiently listen as I tick off my ‘Greatest Hits’ list of pies, cookies, and cakes, imploring her opinion, only to disregard her input. As the one driving the dessert cart, it is my job to choose and this weekend, I choose chocolate with a side of strawberry/rhubarb.
My week has already been filled with too many pie shells and graham cracker crusts. Taking a step back from my rolling pin feels necessary and restorative. Reaching into the depths of an unruly kitchen cabinet, I unearth my grandmother’s 9” Bake King cake pans and take them for a spin. Lined with parchment circles, they submit to buttering then flouring, then knocking out the excess. There is nothing flashy about these pans; they are steadfast and reliable, not too shallow, not too deep. The pans hold just the right amount of rich, chocolate batter that perfumes the kitchen, announcing ‘clean-test’ just before the oven timer beeps.
This particular chocolate cake was originally served at a very long table, in a very small Manhattan restaurant, at a milestone celebration, several milestones ago. It was one of the few times in my life that Jessie didn’t bake my birthday cake, a sobering realization that Jessie’s presence in our kitchen was finite. Jessie taught me the hows and whys of cake baking, defining and demonstrating ‘springy to the touch’ and ‘clean test.’ She preferred dramatic swoops of frosting to buttercream roses coaxed out of piping bags. One year, yielding to elementary school peer pressure, I pleaded for a Barbie doll cake from the Cedarhurst Bake Shop. Behind her black-framed glasses, Jessie raised her salt and pepper eyebrows in disdain. The Barbie doll cake was wildly popular with my fourth grade classmates, but couldn’t hold a candle to Jessie’s towering checkerboard cake with dark chocolate frosting.
For decades, Jessie’s vast repertoire of cakes held center stage at our dining room table. Years later, my sister whipped up some of the most exquisite and delicious celebratory cakes. When life-changing cakes were in order, my dearest pal/professional pastry chef, Betsy, outdid herself. We bakers are a strange lot, spending much of our lives turning out cakes (and pies) for people we will never meet. And when it comes time to don the paper crown, some of us whine and complain. Maybe what we’re really saying is, we don’t want someone else to do it.
A celebrated pie baker/author once whispered to me, “I don’t want someone else to bake my pie; I want to bake my pie.” I understood exactly what she was saying. Cake, just like pie, creates indelible food memories. We want to get our hands on those memories and re-create them. And we think we are the only one who can do it.
So when I head to the kitchen with the intent of baking a very specific, triple layer chocolate cake, it’s because my food memory is telling my brain, this is a proper candle blowing cake. The kind of cake that should be blanketed in great swoops of frosting, crowned with but a single candle to signify celebration. The very cake to slice with a multi-pronged, silver cake breaker that will dot the tablecloth with confetti crumbs. The cake that calls for the very best butter and cocoa the color of midnight and maybe, because it’s January, something that hints at the promise of spring. A cake that will became fixated in one’s food memory, the fragrance of chocolate and flame and candle wax permeating the air, long after the last licks of frosting have been scraped from our plates.