When it comes to baking cakes, I am no match for my mother. Actually, I am no match for my grandmother, either. Yet, I am the one who loves cake probably more than both my mother and her mother put together. Perhaps that is because both were so good at baking them.
My grandmother made the same cake for most occasions. It was a simple homemade yellow cake with homemade chocolate icing. She made everything homemade, including bread, including sausage…and she grew fresh vegetables in her garden. I’ve always said that she could make a fried egg taste like filet mignon. My grandmother was a natural, wholesome cook. She somehow got us kids to beg for more broccoli. That’s how good hers was, cooked to perfection, even though it was just plain broccoli. I would give anything to have the cake recipe my grandmother followed–or probably didn’t follow; she rarely followed a recipe. My grandmother’s yellow cake was hands down the best cake I have ever tasted.
My mother, ever the rebel, baked differently from her mother. My mother not only followed recipes (at least until she made the cake a couple times), she often tried new recipes, or made up her own recipes that she rarely wrote down. You might say she was a visual cook, a creative cook. She could also have something in a restaurant, go home to her kitchen and duplicate it. She seemed not only to guess the ingredients but also the correct amounts and combinations.
If you had to pin down my mother to one cake, you might say she was mostly a master at the cake du jour. That is, whatever cake was trending: dump cake, bundt cake, poke cake, angelfood cake, cheesecake, banana cake, coffee cake, chocolate eclair cake, tiramisu….She loved what she called an “easy” cake, but none of them seem all that easy if you don’t make as many cakes as she did. She would even go beyond wild on occasion and try things such as Pumpkin Caramel Dream Cake or Tartufo –whatever she might come across– this woman who whipped up Baklava like it was omelettes. In truth, my mother was an expert in all things phyllo dough. She used it regularly, while I am afraid to open the package. There were also the many fruit pizzas, which were cake-like with their crusty cream-cheese bottom, along with the various cookies, the millions upon millions of mint squares, the occasionally poorly shaped biscotti of her arthritic years. All and all , you could pretty much rely on some kind of dessert whenever you had dinner at my mom’s, and more often than not, it was a cake she made while dog-tired after preparing a lavish little feast, just to let you know she was excited to see you.
So here we are, nearing my father’s 85th surprise birthday party, trying not to be too sad because Mom’s no longer with us. I’ve got her and her cakes heavy on my mind, and wish so much that she were here for the festivities. As I prepare, I do spontaneous impressions of her, knowing what she would say and how she would say it, if only she were here to see the plans taking shape. My mother loved joy, and nothing feels or is as joyful without her enthusiasm, without her excitement. You know, that feeling of wanting to call your mom when you can’t. Because nobody cares like your mother does.
So I ordered one big cake, enough to feed 50 people, at the same bakery I always got my mom’s birthday cakes. Mom was easy…she liked strawberry whipped cream cake; that was her staple favorite. Dad, less a cake fan, harder to predict; I guess he mostly likes cannoli cake, which is often served at weddings. After hours with the baker, I finally settled on something called “success cake,” with a sort of autumnal look to the orange ganache on top. I liked the name. It’s supposed to have hazelnut and almond cake with praline and macadamia nut French buttercream. I got to taste it when I was trying to decide, and it was very light and not very nutty-tasty, just delicately flavorful–probably the tastiest cake they had at this popular neighborhood European bakery. I’m worried we might not have enough, so in addition, I want to make one of my favorite cakes, a carrot cake, just in case. In my mother’s honor, I want people who want it to have a piece of cake to take home with them.
This is Day 16 in the 31 Day Writing Challenge, 31 Days of Breaking Free from Fatigue
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