I don’t remember the first cake I ever tasted, although there is a photograph of it. I’m sitting in a high chair at my first birthday. The cake is square, with the face of a shaggy dog designed into it – the eyes, nose and tongue of the dog made out of edible bits, on a sheet white icing that is covered with a snow of shaved coconut. The smile on my face is huge, as if I knew what was about to happen.
There is something about cake that makes us smile. People ogle it when it enters the room, they “ooh” and “ahh” over it if you made it, and they become quiet as they eat it if it’s really good. It’s like a giant Proustian madelaine that is shared among friends, flooding everyone with memories.
I love making cakes, even though I am not what you would consider a professional at making them. I will screw it up when I cut the edges off or when I try to make two layers out of a single piece. My cakes are often a little lopsided. I sometimes won’t put enough flour in the pan and it will stick, leaving me with various crumbly pieces to forge back together hidden under a sheath of ganache or fudge. My better half used to say that if I didn’t fuck up at some point when I made the cake, it wouldn’t be any good. Thankfully, now, I don’t forget to properly flour the pan and my knife skills have improved. I’ve even earned an even hand when it comes to frosting. There are fewer stray crumbs, the symmetry is better, and even the floor is less of a mess.
I always thought cakes were made for good memories. The ones where we remember the time we got the cake that was shaped into whatever toy or character was popular that year. Or the time someone made you a cake as a thank you. Or the first time you realised that you could make a cake that didn’t come in a box. The first time you made a cake for someone. The one they remind you about every time you see them.
The first time I made a cake for my better half, David, I was enthused but confused. He told me how his mother would make a sheet cake, somewhat similar to an angel food cake, which she would slather with packaged lemon filling. I thought I would improve on that idea by making a lemon pound cake with a real lemon curd filling and lemon icing. We had only been dating for a few months at that point, and we decided to have a party at his apartment. When the guests had arrived and drinks were drunk, we came to the moment of truth: the cake. Slices were handed out, I bitched and moaned about how I had hard time getting the cake to look even and David ate his cake in silence. When I asked what he thought of it, he said, “It’s good. It’s really good.” But I could tell there was a “but” in there, bouncing inside his head, fearful of how to tell me what he wanted to tell me. “But it’s not the cake I told you about.” He smiled, disappointed at what he had said. “But I love the cake!” Good save. A month or so later he told me he loved me too. He’s still here, four years later.
A few months ago, it was a friend’s birthday, and I had decided to bake him a simple chocolate cake. There were a couple of (expected) fuck ups – I had to make the icing twice – but all in all, a good cake. Chocolate layer cake with a chocolate hazelnut ganache separating every layer and slathered on the outside.
My partner and I presented the cake to our friend, with a little “Happy Birthday” song, a couple of cheap candles on the top, as we placed the cake in front of him. He smiled and said “thank you” very quietly. And then we noticed he was crying. Not a full sob, but just a little cry. Worried that we had done something wrong, we asked him if everything was all right. He told us that no one had ever gone to this much trouble for his birthday. That he didn’t remember the last time someone made him a cake.
There were hugs. There was even a little bit of handholding. And then when everything was done, there was cake. A lot of cake. There was eating of cake, cutting of cake and “I don’t need more and I am stuffed but I want another piece of it” cake. And then the cake went home with him, to be eaten by slowly over a few days, knowing that somebody wanted to make him a cake, and will make him a cake every year.