The Cake Crusader
By Laurie Goldwasser
My 4th grade teacher was an impulsive nun whom I felt compelled to please. Her standards were exacting, and I knew if I met them I was doing well. The custodian at my school was a joyful woman with Down syndrome. Her quick smile and excited reaction to a simple “Hello, Pauline!” made me glad to see her in the hallways. When my teacher dedicated class time to making cards for Pauline’s upcoming birthday, I knew I wanted to do more to please both of them.
I devised a plan to bake my very first cake, a birthday cake for Pauline. I envisioned a two-layer cake with pink frosting and decorative borders like those in the window of the local bakery. But of course those cakes were produced in a professional kitchen where parchment paper lined pans and skilled bakers deftly controlled pastry bags outfitted with a variety of tips. Those things were never found in my mother’s kitchen nor would she have known how to use them. My mother didn’t enjoy cooking. She never had time or the inclination to consult a cookbook. Left to my own devices, a cake mix was prepared and poured into two worn nine-inch pans. After baking, the cakes were left to cool in the pans while I made frosting. I relied on my mother’s instructions, which were offered from another room. She was busy taking care of one of the many things a mother of five is compelled to do. Without any detail, she instructed me to “beat a stick of oleo with powdered sugar and milk.” In the absence of a recipe or any previous experience, I proceeded to make a sweet concoction that was the consistency of a cream soup. I tried to remove the cooled cakes from the pans but they were stuck.
Mom suggested I coax them out in pieces and patch them together with the frosting. I followed her directions, even though she never laid eyes on the frosting she confidently declared could salvage my masterpiece. I was devastated when my efforts produced a cake that looked more like a Dr. Seuss drawing than the edible art on display at the local bakery. The only thing that remotely resembled my vision of Pauline’s cake was its color. I managed to coax the perfect shade of pink out of that tiny bottle by patiently dropping red food coloring into the mixture one drop at a time. My disappointment was only slightly assuaged by my mom’s declaration “It’s the thought that counts!”
To my surprise, my teacher’s reaction to the cake was enthusiastic. Encouraged by her approval, I set out to find Pauline. The sheer delight on Pauline’s face erased my embarrassment. I knew my effort pleased two very special women that day. I also know my mother’s assessment was right.
My vivid memory of that oozing, cockeyed cake provided me with all the incentive I needed to do better. Determined to make food look as good as it tasted, I focused on presentation and technique. My self-directed curriculum included spending time with my friends’ mothers who were great cooks, reading women’s magazines and checking out cookbooks from the local public library.
As a ten-year-old, I began a life-long passion that I still enjoy fifty-something years later. Cookbooks outnumber novels in my personal library. Family vacations have been planned around cooking schools and food tours. I enrolled in a cake decorating class and took my younger daughter with me. My kitchen drawers are filled with gadgets used so infrequently I forget I own them. I planted watermelon radishes in my own garden when I realized their colorful slices would provide unique garnishes for my plates. French words such as bain-marie, mirepoix and amuse bouche are part of my vocabulary. My culinary pursuits began with a lopsided birthday cake and a desire to please special people in my life. I’m still perfecting my skills while surrounding myself with extraordinary people.
About this writer
- Laurie Goldwasser. People are the essential element in Laurie’s life. She strives to live by the bumper sticker pasted in her pantry – “Love people, cook them tasty food.”
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