A Lifetime of Cake


Many years ago, a two-year-old I loved demanded that we get to work in the kitchen. "Bake cake! Bake cake!" she said. By her fourth birthday, she was a bit more specific, requesting a strawberry cake: bright pink, with bright pink frosting. That became the ritual and annual request until her tenth birthday, when without consulting her, I gave up the artificial color and used strawberry jam to make a pale pink beauty that pleased me, but really disappointed her. "It tastes good," she said, "but it's not pink enough."

That year I learned a very important lesson: if you're going to bake a cake for someone, bake them the cake they want, even if it's blue—(which I detest)—even if it's hot pink. I struggled with this lesson, and sometimes faltered. Not that long ago I caught myself trying to push a cake flavor on a close friend. She wanted a mocha cake with caramel frosting, but I tried to encourage her to have a chocolate cake with lemon frosting. On an ice cream related note, my sister always wants a chocolate cake with mint chip ice cream on the side, preferably Baskin Robbins, which is a nuclear green. One year I bought Breyer's Natural mint chip instead, a beautiful french vanilla with chocolate shavings and natural peppermint oil. "It's good," she said, "but it's not the same." Oh. That again.

What I've finally learned after all these years baking birthday cakes is this: if you're baking someone a cake, it shouldn't become a negotiation or a compromise, not even if we're talking about the difference between au naturel and carcinogens. To bake or not to bake? That should  never be the question. Because baking a cake for someone is about being generous, caring, and thoughtful. And you can't be thoughtful and controlling at the same time.

I think I figured this out in the wee morning hours. I nearly named my baking business "The Midnight Baker," because I am often up past the bewitching hour watching that miracle rise in the oven, flipping the pans to release the warm layers, then waiting until they are completely cool so I can frost them and place that layer cake safely in a cake carrier. It may look pretty on the table, but true satisfaction comes only when I give that cake away, when I can cut into it and place the first slice on a pretty plate and offer it up to the lucky recipient, like the gift that it is.