Caring

Cake and I go way back. My earliest memories, I suppose, date back to when I was four years old. That cake came from a box, but to my brother and I, perched on the small square of countertop, fighting to lean over the bowl to “help” with stirring and tasting, there was nothing more delectable. We licked the beaters, splotches of chocolate staining our shirts and outlining our smiles. With every birthday we repeated the process, alternating chocolate and funfetti. We watched my dad creatively cutting and shaping and decorating till each cake represented the things closest to our young hearts, forming castles and dinosaurs, designing Death Stars and frosting skating rinks. Cake was special; it was time and patience and love.

For a long time, cake continued to be found solely in a box mix, at least as far as I was concerned. Theoretically, I knew these things could be made from scratch, but I never saw the necessity of it.

Halfway through my first year of teaching, my roommate got engaged. We sorted through all the Pinterest pages, looked at dresses, picked out flowers. Of course the topic of wedding cake surfaced. She wasn’t really a fan of cake, had never liked it. Torn between tradition and taste, we debated back and forth. Then, in a fated moment of well-meaning overconfidence, I told her “I could always just make your cake.” I remember saying it in that half-joking but potentially serious tone, the one you can play off as meaning nothing even if it means everything. “That’s brilliant!” she replied “I love everything you bake.”

Alarmed and shocked at my own boldness, I frantically began covering my bases. “Well, I should probably bake a test cake for you, you know, so you can decide if you actually like it.” Somehow, even in this moment of panic, I still hadn’t made the most important realization, the one that wouldn’t come until I opened my King Arthur cookbook: I had never baked a cake from scratch. Not once.

I remember standing in the kitchen in front of my green mixer, the words Elegant White Cake standing large and black on the page. With a sigh of resignation and stubborn determination, I set to work, measuring and sifting. At least she has time to make other plans, I thought, this won’t go anywhere and no one will ever know.

Three hours later, she and her fiancĂ© took bites of cake amid my preparatory excuses: I’ve never made this recipe before; it’s okay if you hate it; you can still have cookies at your wedding. I felt a mixture of chagrin but also unquenchable pride when they enthusiastically told me that the cake was amazing. As I trepidatiously charged through the process of cake baking in the following weeks and months, I would often remind myself of that moment. That memory, even more than my roommate’s enthusiastic encouragements, erased the doubts a little more with each repetition, giving my confidence a boost every time it wilted under pressure.

Four months passed faster than I would have wished, and the wedding day arrived. The cake, against all odds and despite an unfortunate poke from a curious toddler, was beautiful. Of course there were mishaps along the way, but somehow, it was perfect.

Fast forward two years, and here I am, settling in to bake for yet another wedding. The stress and the doubts haven’t gone away with time, but they’ve lessened significantly. As I go through the process of baking and decorating, I think back to my first cake, and I realize why I do this. It’s because cake is still made up of the same love and care that I saw when sitting on that countertop licking the batter from the box-mix, watching my daddy pipe “Happy Birthday” in curly letters. I bake cakes, not because they are particularly easy or simple, but because they are the small way I’ve been given to express to my friends how much I treasure them. Perhaps I’m ascribing too much eloquence to buttercream and devil’s food, but I have to say that if desserts could be love-languages, I would want mine to be three frosted layers of sweet, fluffy cake.

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