Purple Rain in Ocean City: A Celebration, a Lament, a Learning Experience

I imagine that most people, when packing to spend a week in a rented apartment in a Mid-Atlantic resort town, do not make a point of carefully selecting knives, silicone spatulas, a good can opener, and a pair of serious kitchen scissors to take with them, along with a Microplane. They also wouldn’t pack a set of four mixing bowls and a stock pot, and they absolutely wouldn’t bother with two 9” cake pans. That is their business; that is their God-given right.

But I have, in 2016, done these things. And I have not regretted it for a moment.

We were in this same apartment last year, sharing the apartment with a close friend from our college days, G., and her husband and their children. Last year when we came, we had no idea of how the kitchen would be equipped; we expected to be able to cook sort of normally, and tried, but kind of failed. Part of it was, I admit, total apathy on my part, but a lot of it was due to a sense of frustration with the gear in the kitchen. The big stock pot we cooked spaghetti in, to serve with Cincinnati chili, smelled deeply of boiled crab. It wasn’t the worst thing in the world… but…. it wasn’t ideal. Especially for our crew: We don’t all like to cook, but we all like to eat. And it matters to us if we boil spaghetti and it tastes like old crab and Old Bay. We are not pleased by such things. It doesn’t feel like exciting Fusion Cookery to us. It feels weird and not at all pleasant.

So this year, I said to my husband, we weren’t going to screw around. Not only would we eat proper food in the apartment, at least some of the time, and not just live on crappy boardwalk food like French fries from Thrasher’s and sub-par gyros; but I also had plans to bake a birthday cake for my friend’s oldest child. This girlchild is not a little girl like my daughter: she is in her 20s, an adult, and someone who doesn’t require lots of fuss at her birthday, but I feel she deserves a little fuss. Her mother has two little boys, now, aged 5 and 7, and it always strikes me as possible that her firstborn might a little bit shorted in the birthday-celebration department, now that she’s got these two much younger little brothers. Maybe she doesn’t care. To be honest, she probably doesn’t, and would rather spend her birthday with her boyfriend anyhow. But I care; I wanted to make a cake for her. So I planned ahead.

A digression, but an important one: Some months ago, shortly after Prince died, I was in a Target in North Haven, Connecticut, with my friend Eliza. This is as novel to me as going to Harrod’s. While there, I discovered something that probably most Americans in my demographic already knew, which is that someone out there has been marketing Purple Rain cake, in a boxed mix, for some time now. If I watched TV and went to supermarkets more often, I’d’ve already known about this. But I don’t, and I don’t, so I didn’t. “What the hell is this?” I gasped to Eliza, who laughed. I insisted on buying it — its price had been slashed to something wretched, like $1.25 — and said, “I’m gonna bring it when we go hang out with G. in Ocean City this summer.” I posted to Facebook about this cake mix, and there was much discussion of preserving it in a kind of archival way, but it dawned on me that the obvious thing to do was to bake the Purple Rain cake as A.’s birthday cake, which we would be celebrating at the end of August. I put the box into the cabinet where I keep baking supplies and said to my daughter, “When I pack for us to go to the beach for a week, do not let me forget to pack this.” 

August came. I began to organize in earnest. G. and I exchanged dozens of emails regarding packing lists: what would we need for the beach, for the kitchen, to increase our general comfort. “Don’t forget laundry detergent,” we reminded each other. I remarked that because I’d been given a wonderful knife roll as a birthday present, I’d be able to safely and easily pack good kitchen knives. “Also some other things we’ll want in the kitchen,” I said. “Like a can opener that works, and a cheese grater that won’t cut our hands open, and stuff like that.”

I plotted and plotted. I set aside a stock pot to take with us. I debated taking a Dutch oven but decided against it (should have brought it! Next year). I pulled out two cake pans. I packed groceries (boxes of pasta, various shapes; canned beans; canned tuna in olive oil; canned olives; capers; a small block of Parmesan cheese). We made dozens of good meatballs and put them into strong-sealing plastic tubs that would be packed to travel in a cooler stocked with ice packs. I packed dishcloths and tea towels. I packed a cutting board. I packed my little silicone-coated kitchen tweezers, because I thought they might come in handy, though even I admitted it was a little crazy.

I remembered to pack things that had to do with going to the beach, too: I packed an ancient Indian print tapestry to use as a beach blanket and I packed cornstarch to use when we had to rub sand off our children. I packed Solarcaine. From our domestic Health & Beauty department, I packed a thermometer (natch) and a bottle of cold and cough medicine just in case (and yes, it came in handy).

So we arrived in Ocean City on Sunday afternoon and I unpacked our things and G. mocked me  (though she had also packed an astonishing amount of stuff, including several cans of chick peas, some cups of instant macaroni and cheese, and a whole watermelon). My husband mocked me as well, but I moved serenely through the kitchen knowing that I would have what I would need for the week.

Naturally, setting up the kitchen for the week required a trip to a supermarket. Some things, you don’t want to pack ahead when you’ve got a six hour drive to your destination. “We need milk, we need fruit….” To bake the Purple Rain cake, we’d also need eggs and a bottle of oil. G. and I spent less money than I had feared we might, on that grocery run, which I felt was a testimony to how well we had planned ahead. I admit, it wasn’t good that we had to buy a pound of butter and a bottle of vegetable oil — I could have handled that better — but as oversights go, these are small failures. We did remember to buy a can of ready-made cake frosting to decorate the cake. (I was not willing to hand-whip some kind of frosting together; besides which, a Purple Rain cake seemed to be the kind of thing that deserved some equally terrifying frosting to go on it. I mean, you wouldn’t make Swiss meringue to go on top of a Purple Rain cake, would you? No, you wouldn’t.)

It was self-evident that a can of lurid purple frosting  would be just the ticket for the Purple Rain cake. “AND it comes with Funfetti®! G. pointed out gleefully. We grabbed a box of little white birthday candles (but no further decorations, as we saw no need to gild a  funfetti’d purple lily). We drove back to the house feeling pleased with ourselves.

Monday mid-day, I started to assemble the Purple Rain cake batter with a kind of cockiness (“I bake cakes all the time, this’ll be a snap!”) that was quickly dimmed by apprehension as I realized that I was going to have a lot of small technical issues. It turned out, for example, that we had no measuring cups. We had no measuring spoons. It hadn’t occurred to me that the kitchen wouldn’t have these things and, astonishingly, it hadn’t occurred to me to pack them. I had silicone tweezers, but no measuring spoons. Worse, while the oven could be turned on, I had no ability to gauge how hot it was really getting: a huge disadvantage when baking.

The recipe called for, as I recall, three tablespoons of oil and one and a third cups of water. I eyeballed these amounts using a kitchen tablespoon and a teacup. I felt I was likely to get it roughly correct, but I worried, nonetheless, because I knew I was going to be baking these things in the wrong size pan anyhow; that is to say, I was, in a sense, screwed before I’d even begun. “It’ll be fine,” I assured myself. “I can totally do this shit.”

Totally doing this shit is what I did, and G. and I spent a lot of time laughing at how it got done, but boy did I not have much faith in that cake. You have to mix up the cake batter in one big bowl (if combining by hand, they recommend 450 strokes, which is a lot). Then you separate the batter into two bowls.


Icing GhostTo one bowl, you add purple dye that comes in a tiny packet about 1/4 of the size of a takeout ketchup packet; it is a tiny packet of what is surely purple toxic waste. (Photo taken by G., who observed that it looked like I’d drawn little teeny purple-featured ghost.)

You stir the purple dye into that one bowl of batter. You want to have one bowl of uniform purple batter and one bowlful of pristine white batter. (The white batter is white: it is white like Marshmallow Fluff, weirdly beautiful) Then you carefully pour the batters into the buttered-and-floured (in my case, buttered and cake mix’d) cake pans in such a way that concentric circles of cake batter form a beautiful bullseye in the pans. This is easier said than done. Actually, had I been at home, with my full batterie de cuisine, it would have been a snap, and I’m tempted to give a cake like this a roll once we’re home (using regular cake batter, maybe I’d add chocolate to half the batter). But under the circumstances, it was all a little challenging.

But we did it. And I took those 9” cake pans and I put them in the oven and set my phone’s timer for 30 minutes. I washed some dishes, and then went to relax on the porch for a bit.

About eight minutes later, G. came out to the porch. “I think the cakes are burning,” she said.

“Shit,” I said eloquently. I looked at my phone’s timer: I was supposed to have another 22 minutes to sit around being lazy. “That can’t be right.” I went into the kitchen and opened the oven. G was saying, “I think the oven runs really, really hot.” I tipped a knife several times into each cake, and the things were fully baked. It made no sense. I’d set the oven to 350° but it was like they’d baked at 450°, and boy howdy they were done. “Well, ok then,” I said. I then realized I had no cooling rack on which to rest the pans. I opened a cabinet wondering what I could find that might be a decent substitute, and I found a stack of those wicker “plates” that always seem to take up residence in summer-resort houses. I never knew what they were for, but pressed for a solution to my problem, I used them as cooling racks for the cake layers, and felt very clever. (G. tells me that people use these to lend support and strength to cheap paper plates. Now I know.)

I let the cakes cool for a good long while before attempting to pry them from the pans.IMG_7037

I figured that trying to tip out cakes that weren’t cool enough would be a recipe for disaster in what I already felt to be a tenuous situation. What I didn’t count on was that getting these things out would lead to disaster pretty much no matter what. I whacked and whacked the bottoms of those pans; I ran knives around the edges; I whacked and whacked some more. Both layers fell from the pans, eventually, landing fairly neatly on the waiting plates, but in each case, the bottom crust remained in the pan. The good part of this was, I could confirm IMG_7038visually that the cakes were, indeed, both swirled purple, and baked all the way through. The bad part was, the layers were all fucked up. What you see here is one layer of cake, turned onto a plate, and its bottom crumb, still firmly attached to the baking pan. It wasn’t an ideal situation. And I still had to frost the cake.

The usual way to frost a cake involves putting down what Cake People call a “crumb coat,” a thin coating of frosting that seals the cake. You do this after you’ve trimmed your cake layers so that they’re not domed anymore. In my case here, it was all folly. The cake layers were so thin and mangled there was nothing for it but to pop open the can of frosting and just have at it. I peeled as much cake “skin” as I could out of the pans, and placed them carefully where they belonged, and then I just started plopping tablespoons of frosting in strategic places. If I was careful, I reasoned, I could spread a thick layer of frosting atop one messy layer and carefully flip the second sad layer atop that, and then I could pray.

So that’s what I did. The frosted cake was far from a thing of beauty, but it was purple.

The Funfetti® didn’t hurt us, but I’m not sure it helped.

That evening, after dinner out at a restaurant, the two families came back to the apartment. The younger children were wildly excited about the cake. The 26 year old was politely amused. G. and I managed to light 26 tiny white candles without burning anyone or anything, and we sang “Happy Birthday” really quickly so as to avoid having wax melt onto the purple frosting — it seemed important to move fast, since the truth was we didn’t know if the frosting itself would melt, either.

Then we cut into the cake. Purple Rain Cake

The crumb was so tender the slices of cake could barely be called slices. Doubtless if you use an 8” pan this isn’t so much of a problem — but the shallowness of the layers and their precarious condition meant that this was a cake that should really have been doled out with a large serving spoon. But the kids ate it up, and asked for seconds (denied). The leftovers were packed up and sent home with the birthday girl when she left the next day (to have her proper birthday celebration in the company of her boyfriend).

The cake itself tasted fine. It had a very soft, fine crumb, and was very sweet, but it lacked a distinct flavor; perhaps this is just how white cakes are. I have to admit, I’m not an expert on white (or purple) cakes. The frosting definitely had that synthetic tang we all know and love. I think the adults found it amusing, but not a cake they’d sneak slices of as the night wore on… and the fact that we had leftovers to pack up supports this judgement.

The rest of the week, when we needed dessert, we did what any self-respecting person on an ocean boardwalk would do. We bought ice cream and caramel corn and fudge. Some of us gorged on deep-fried Oreos…. but we can discuss that later.

Note for future rented apartment vacations:

What I didn’t pack that I should have: measuring cups and measuring spoons; an oven thermometer; pot holders; a cork trivet or two; perhaps a cooling rack, if I’m going to be stupid enough to bake a cake. And, most importantly, ingredients to bake and frost a decent cake.


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