Archive | October 15, 2015

Just a Little Cake Talk

strawberry whipped cream cake

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.  poke cakeThat 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.

Tartufo chocolate cream cake

Tartufo chocolate cream cake

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.

strawberry whipped cream cake

This is Day 16 in the 31 Day Writing Challenge, 31 Days of Breaking Free from Fatigue


© debra valentino, all rights reserved,

Look, look, look! A book! A book!


While speaking in depth recently with a new friend about my writing and the challenges of finding one’s voice and genre, along with the complications of writing what’s right and true to one’s experience vs. the need to protect those in our story, she made my day by recommending a few books that might help me to answer these questions.  Then she made my day even better by saying she was going to send them to me. When they arrived in the mail this week, my heart and psyche did some unanticipated healing.

As a reader, there isn’t anything better than receiving a book you truly want to read, except reading it.  So, when a huge wave of fatigue visited last evening as I continue to write and walk daily, and I was left taped to the bed, committed to staying off Facebook at least while I focus on breaking my fatigue in new ways, I reached for one of the two books she sent.  Within five minutes of reading, possible fewer, I was dead asleep.  When I awoke shortly after, panicked and most likely from not breathing, I thought, “I should put on my CPAP.”  As is often the case when I am fatigued, I was just too tired to reach down for the mask, to turn on the machine,  I fell back to sleep wondering if this would be the night I died in my sleep.

I didn’t want to die, but I knew I could, just as I always know. After all, I believe I had a friend die this way, not long before sleep apnea was commonly understood; “He died peacefully in his sleep,” they would say. He had gained a significant amount of weight; I could hear him breathless after climbing the building stairs; he probably did not understand why, probably dieted as best he could–or at least thought he needed to start, likely chalked it all up to smoking and/or even drinking.  So jovial, intelligent and big-hearted was he…yet, he likely had no idea that sleep apnea was the bigger culprit. Only now do I presume it was.  No one ever really said–I’m not even sure the coroner knew.  One day, after having yet another great conversation with him in the parking lot before leaving work, just as I watched him drive away, he was within moments gone, never to return.  That was seven years ago, almost to the day.

I slept deeply for about fifteen minutes when another episode of interrupted breathing again awakened me. This time when I awakened, I was more alert, refreshed from having slept, yet so much so I no longer felt sleepy.  I decided to get out of bed to go read in the living room.  As I passed the study, I saw the mounting mess upon my desk–the mess I’ve been wanting to clean all week.  When I was in sales as a young woman, I was taught never to leave work with a cluttered desk.  The idea later echoed by a rhetoric professor in graduate school, who warned us about the limitations of writing in texts.  You always want to return to both with a clear mind, refreshed, with a new way of seeing, in any small way uncluttered or possibly improved, both the professor and the sales manager would say.  My clean desk at the university, taken from my experience in business, contrasted with those of my less focused colleagues, proud of their messes, unaware of the advantages, not at all interested since they saw such feats as either impossible, unnecessary or anally retentive.  With all work experience behind me, the sight of my cluttered home desk on my way to read in the living room sickened me, made me feel like the failure I sometimes feel I’ve become, the woman who returned from death to begin back at square one to evolve, yet again.  The powerhouse of energy who is no more.

The book I began reading stunned me with its exquisite prose.  The perfect example, as my new friend said, of poetry fashioned into memoir.  I was able to read the first fifty pages, before turning in for the night, again too tired to hook up myself to the breathing machine.  This is as self-destructive as I get; I’m just too tired sometimes to function.  Fortunately, last night was not the night for me to go in my sleep, or I wouldn’t be writing this blog post.  Around 5:00 this morning, my sweet husband lifted the accessory tube to me to put on, asked how to work the machine, and I muttered, “You just have to press the button on the left twice.”  Too tired to feel embarrassed, I drifted back to sleep, while in my thoughts beginning to compose this post on my grateful introduction to “I Wore the Ocean in the Shape of a Girl.”

Let me tell you that I am bowled over by the writing in this woman’s story, just as my new friend said I would be.  So beautiful, so anxiety producing, so heart-breaking, so perfectly paced and so well-crafted, so happily self-examining, revealing and insightful.  I am startled by the contrasts in our life experiences, yet how they appear to end up in much the same place. The writer, with experiences much different from my own, led an early life of promiscuity and self-destruction.  She works at fighting alcoholism and goes to rehab only to end up the self-professed “Queen of Going Back Out.”  I have never been much of a drinker–you can’t even really classify me as a social drinker, although I am not a teetotaler…and though I’ve read about Alanon and attended a few meetings, I mostly attend lectures and go on spiritual retreats.  I am more like the nun in her story, who tells her that no matter what she’s done it isn’t her fault when in fact it pretty much is, the nun who wants her to choose hope, the nun she does not return to see.

Yet, I walk a parallel line in my own life’s experiences.  At the very least, I share the same keen perception and attention to detail that she maintains even during fog-infused blackouts from drinking too much. During the worst of my head injury, I was similar to her in her drunkness–still able to take in so much from any given scene that, despite our deficits, much of it remains unapparent to most.  She has been raped by three men at once and had countless sexual encounters with many others, while I have not, yet when she writes, “I need to be touched in a non-violent way,” my head and my heart explode with recognition.

This is what good writing can do.  It can bring into the universal that which is private, personal, exclusive. You might think it is the plot that carries this story, but the specific experiences are not what capture me. While some readers may look for this sort of adventure, titillation, intensity, the action of it rather repels me; not morally so much as psychologically.  It’s almost as if the appeal for me is the moment where the writer takes or gets a breath, some ease, a glimpse of rest.  That she survives it all and wants to keep going… and so much more, too soon to be articulated.  Mostly, undoubtedly, it is the level of the writing that makes this book stand out.

My new friend warned me that I would not be able to put down the books she was going to send me.  Her statement is so true, that I hope we can be friends forever.  Regardless, I greatly appreciate and will never forget this gift she’s given me.  As I read, I carry forth in my head what I want to write, what I really want most to say, but until now have felt I could not, should not. It is such a balancing act, and Kelle Groom succeeds, masters it.  I am still afraid, but now feeling somewhat liberated. As if the possibility of sharing “The Worst Thing That Can Happen” (Chapter 6 in Groom’s memoir) can be done with grace and precision, and to benefit readers who will empathize without judging, and judging all characters, not just my own–which is part of what I do with others who may not deserve any sympathy or empathy.  This tolerance and perspective that comes naturally to me (at least in most cases), which I haven’t worked out from a writing standpoint. The quandary that keeps me from feeling I can draw my characters fairly, objectively, roundly, whether they deserve it or not.  Kelle Groom writes boldly, and I really cannot wait to read more to see how the book continues.

This is Day 15 in the 31 Day Writing Challenge, 31 Days of Breaking Free from Fatigue


© debra valentino, all rights reserved,