The Things We Do for Friends

A few days ago I attended a baby shower for a friend who is, honestly, a much better baker than I am. She is the kind of person who thinks nothing of making numerous fruit pies to enter (and win) pie competitions; and she’s not opening cans of fruit fillings, either, the way I probably would if someone asked me to make a fruit pie, which no one in their right mind ever would. She is an extremely organized and determined person. She has clearly been this way from infancy. She probably started working on her piecrust skills when she was about three. Whereas I am 47, and my mantra is, “Piecrust can go fuck itself.”

But hey, she’s having a baby, and the organizer of the shower asked if I’d provide a dessert. I naturally said “Sure thing!” and started thinking about what I could make. The question became a little more complex when I got word that the other woman working on desserts was not going to be available to do it, after all — she was moving house, it turned out, during the crucial time. “I can provide dessert for everyone,” I said, cheerfully, “it’s totally not a problem.”

In retrospect, I should have made two beautiful cakes. “Beautiful” being, you know, a term of art, here, when applied to things made in the Hausfrau’s kitchen.

I need to accept that making cookies that look beautiful and are actually delicious is not my forte.

But I was foolish when I took to the kitchen this past week to work on this project. I thought, “Two cakes is a bad idea because what if people don’t want cake, they just want a little sweet thing to nibble?” I decided — again, foolishly — that the thing to do was make a couple dozen tasty cookies, and one showstopper of a cake. Cake’s precise nature TBD.

I texted the mother-to-be’s husband (he’s the father-to-be) and asked, “Is there anything that I DEFINITELY should not use when I’m baking for this event? Any flavors/ingredients she absolutely hates?” I had begun to think about cookies with a chocolate peanut butter glaze and maybe chopped salted peanuts on top. Father-to-be wrote back almost immediately: “She hates peanut butter.”

Ok, good to know.

I decided to make chewy brown sugar cookies with a nice glaze on them. Mostly because they are good and they are easy for me to put together. “A caramel glaze,” I thought. I had to think carefully about what order to do all this work in; I had only a few hours in which to bake the cake and the cookies. It was Friday: I wanted to allow myself time in which to fuck up royally (in other words, make sure that if things went hideously wrong, I could work out a plan B on Saturday morning).

I made the cookies first. I used the “close to Entenmann’s” cooky recipe I’ve written about elsewhere, and left out the chocolate chips. I also upped the brown sugar content a little bit. (I doubled the recipe because I needed to have several dozen cookies, since this was all being done for a big party, not just for my family.) While the many racks of cookies cooled, I assembled the cake batter (King Arthur’s golden cake recipe, done in three 8″ layers) and baked it. I wound up utilizing every single metal gridded object in my kitchen to use as a cooling rack, and stacked things up in the microwave to assure that no evil cat would pounce on anything. I’m looking at you, Jackknife, you raw-pizza-dough-eating piece of crap.

I waited until Saturday morning — day of event — to assemble and decorate my finished products. At nine in the morning I was making caramel, transferring it into a squeeze bottle, and dousing the brown sugar cookies with glaze. While the glaze hardened, I made a Bird’s custard buttercream (cribbing from a Nigella Lawson recipe — this is a thing I’ve made a million times, Bird’s buttercream, just working off-the-cuff and not caring much about proportions — but I wanted to have a formal framework this time because, again, I was going to be serving this to people other than my loyal, if highly critical, husband and child).

Because the mother-to-be is a fan of fruit desserts, I felt called upon to do something with the cake that involved fruit. I, of course, had no fresh fruit in the house, and I wasn’t about to go find some in the nearby stores. Working with fruit means worrying about things like seeding and peeling and things I just do not have the fortitude to deal with, certainly not with four hours to go before loading finished products into a car. “I have jam,” I said to myself. “People put jam in layer cakes.” Knowing that I had precisely zero experience of doing this, I decided to Google “jam cake filling,” and I’m glad I did, because I learned that in order to do it right, you have to make a ring of buttercream at the edge of the cake layers before you put on the jam. The idea is you build a dam of buttercream and then paint the jam inside the dam. (And the vessel with the pestle holds the brew that is true.) This prevents the jam from squirting out the sides when you put the next cake layer on. The assumption is that you’re going to frost the sides of the cake, and you wouldn’t want jam that’s poking out from the between the layers to screw up how your cake frosting looks.

So I loaded a pastry bag with buttercream and began to pipe a dam around the edge of the first layer. I melted some jam in my yellow saucepan (the same saucepan I’d used to make the caramel in, so there was a small amount of caramel mixed in with the jam; “it won’t hurt anyone,” I said to myself) and spooned it carefully onto the cake. You can be fairly loose-handed with this part of the process, as long as jam doesn’t pool up threateningly in any one part of the cake (too much jam will certainly make the cake a sodden mess). I placed the second cake layer atop the bottom layer and built another dam. I had to re-heat the jam a little bit to get it spreadable again, but this was easy, and then I spread the jam onto the second layer. This used up most of the jam. “I need some chocolate on this,” I thought to myself, and then I remembered that the Nigella recipe I was using for the buttercream was for a cake that actually involved, in addition to buttercream, a layer of chocolate glaze. I consulted it quickly and thought, looking at the yellow Descoware pot which now held the remnants of both caramel making and jam filling making, “I could whisk some chocolate into there and throw in a tiny bit of corn syrup and cream and make a pourable chocolate glaze in about two minutes.”

You know, there are reasons why my cakes taste good and look like crap. No matter what, I’m always trying to do the short-cuttiest thing to arrive at the tasty object. Nice responsible cooks do not use the same pot, unwashed, to create three entirely different elements of a cake.

I placed the third layer on the cake and built a dam on it and then I filled the dam with a thickish layer of the buttercream. It was clear that I didn’t have enough to do the sides, but I figured it didn’t matter. Nigella’s cake, in the cookbook, didn’t have frosting on the sides either. And anyhow, I reasoned, the chocolate ganache (now reconceived as a kind of raspberry caramel chocolate ganache) would drip photogenically down the sides. It was gonna be awesome.

I put the cake into the fridge to make the buttercream harden a little faster, and turned to the raspberry caramel chocolate ganache. I decided, on a whim, to drizzle some over the cookies, on which the hardened caramel glaze was, sadly, nearly invisible. This made them look a little more appealing, but not by much. I was sad, because I knew they were good cookies, but no one in their right mind would leap to taste them, because they just looked like tan blobs.

The cake, on the other hand: after a thick layer of chocolate was draped over the top, it really didn’t look so bad. It looked almost handsome. I wasn’t able to get the chocolate to drizzle down the sides quite as I’d hoped, but on the other hand, the layer on top of the cake was nice, and I managed to decorate the layer of chocolate with some buttercream stars and the mother-to-be’s first initial. It looked — well, okay, not professional, absolutely not professional — but it looked ok. It looked like it might be worth eating.

The moment came, finally, when the woman running the baby shower told me to cut the cake. I’d brought my own knife and a pie server with me, to assist with this project, because I wanted the slices to look as sharp as possible when I served them — I’m so glad I thought ahead and did that, because the place where the shower was being held had basically no kitchen equipment. I cut very carefully. First I cut the cake in half; then into quarters; then into eighths; then into sixteenths. These were very thin slices of cake. The first one that landed on a plate looked… well, I’ll be brave and say it: it looked perfect. The yellow cake was creamy yellow; the layers of raspberry jam were bright, deep red against the yellow; there was a layer of faintly pink Bird’s buttercream, and then a thick layer of chocolate. Each slice had a little of everything, and it looked wonderful.

At the end of the baby shower there were about six cookies leftover, and two very thin slices of cake. (I panicked, when it came to the cake, and cut it as shallowly as I could, because it was obvious that people were drawn to the cake more than the cookies, and I’d have to stretch that 3 layer, 8″ round cake to serve thirty plus people — no mean trick, considering that under normal circumstances I’d feel an 8″ round serves about ten people. Luckily, the children at the event favored cookies over cake.) The lesson I learned: when in doubt, bake a cake.  And, the next time I have to bake for a baby shower, do two cakes: one Aunt Velma and one golden cake.

Having written that last sentence, I’m sitting here thinking, “Why the hell didn’t I do that in the first place?” Hindsight is 20/20. It would have been so easy to do an Aunt Velma with a nice vanilla sour cream or cream cheese frosting. I’m an idiot. Well: I’ve got more events coming up soon. There’s always another opportunity to make cake. I may have to create one (an opportunity, and a cake) today, come to think of it. We’re having pizza for dinner, and an Aunt Velma for dessert? What’s to complain?

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