There are only a few occasions when our kitchen seems a little too small. I felt that familiar cramping, space invading feeling when it came time to bake a 96th birthday cake for Todd’s grandmother, Gladys Clifton or as our son Leland calls her, “GG”. I remember thinking that morning when I snoozed the alarm, I should be getting up early to have the kitchen all to myself, but this morning I decided to sleep in. Besides our friend Gail Strack had called a few days before offering to bake one of her flawless carrot cakes for Todd and Gladys’ combined birthday since they are so close to each other. Even though I had already purchased all the ingredients for a cake, I could not compete with that and besides it’s done, and I can sleep. Win-win. It was only a few moments later Todd entered and said, Gail called and decided he should have his own special cake and she would deliver it a week later, on his actual birthday. Just as I think I was out; I get pulled back in.
I plodded downstairs and started to organize the ingredients. Two Duncan Hines boxed French Vanilla cake mixes. I can remember being amused and thinking the French part gave it a special appeal! I had also already googled “how to make a boxed cake mix better”. So, to each batch I used four eggs instead of three as the box instructions called for, added a half cup of flour, sugar and sour cream. I also added a small box of vanilla instant pudding mix, substituted butter for the requested oil, milk instead of water and added a tablespoon of vanilla extract. I wanted to do a tall cake, so I planned on making four layers. With the four layers cooling I decided to start the butter cream icing. This is when Chef Todd walked in. The kitchen began to shrink and the back of my neck to constrict. Todd is the very best cook around and everything he make is so good. He learned how to cook from Gladys at a very young age when she taught her grandchildren during the summers. He has such a command with flavor and he casually makes it all look so easy as he adds a dash of this or an inspired impromptu splash of that. He cooks. I bake. He is Aquarian. I am a Virgo. He is the overall picture. I am the details. These zodiacal, predetermined DNA personality traits all collide when we are both working in the kitchen. I walk the difficult line of wanting to ask for his expertise, but also wanting to option to disagree with him when it comes to baking. Baking is an exact science and cooking is much more free-wheeling and forgiving.
I had just used a pound of perfect room temperature butter for what I thought was a sublime frosting. So many times, I forget to prepare and set the butter out in time to naturally soften and resort to a quick, unsatisfying microwave fix. Not this time! It was wonderful or at least I thought it was. I proudly offered it on the tip of a teaspoon for him to taste. His response was delayed. He then suggested I fold in a little of the pear filling I had prepared into the buttercream. I took his advice and it only took a few folds to know it was going bad. I now looked down at something like a concrete mix. Mostly I regretted wasting an entire pound of butter! I had a meltdown resembling butter left too long in a cheap microwave and proceeded to vent in Todd’s direction telling him to stay in his own lane along with his Southern fried catfish, French fries, bacon wrapped filets, chicken strips and potato salad! He did all that and I just had one cake to bake and failed! Baking fails can be so demeaning! I made another batch of icing and was preparing to start frosting the cakes, when he swerved back into my baking lane again, suggesting I brush each layer with a simple pear syrup I had drained from the pear filling. It was a great idea and a trick we had interrogated out Gail, Carrot cake, Strack. It helped make the cakes super moist but did not make up for the loss of a pound of real butter. I can pout over lost butter for at least two or three days and feel completely justified.
The cake finally was frosted and looking great. Todd’s other suggestion to form roses for the top was another redeeming stroke of genius. Then we took out the grocery store bought numeral shaped candles. The numbers were trimmed in bright red and multi-colored confetti print. This would not do for the neutral cake. We wanted the nine and the six, just not the other stuff. So, I took a knife and scraped off the red trim. The confetti print was imbedded, so I decided to use some golden colored milk paint we found abandoned long ago in a junk drawer. I decided to coat it with sugar to give it a little more sparkle. As the candles were about to be lit, I realized the paint may be flammable. I mentally reassured myself recalling the milk base and prayed we didn’t give GG a big bang for her birthday (even though she does have a Park Hill Candle named for her)!
I was also thinking of Leland when this towering stack of cakes was presented to her. When he was just a toddler, he loved to make cupcakes with Todd’s mom, Darlene. During one of her visits, Leland carefully carried out a cupcake to GG. She said, “oh thank you, but Leland honey do you have one without icing?” “I cannot handle too much sweet.” So sweet little Leland toddled back to the kitchen, licked off all the icing and presented it back to an unsuspecting and delighted Great Grandma. We know this because Darlene watched him do it. Hence, I decided on a naked cake with minimal icing as a reminder of that day. I also consider this a cautionary tale for all of us when we consider sending something back to the kitchen!