My mother is making a cake.
She is using a recipe of mine (the one in that picture above, in fact), and has called me six times to discuss the situation.
1) “So, the recipe says: ‘Oil 2 9” round pans.’ OK. Got it. My question is: what is a cake pan?”
“I mean, I think I know…but…what exactly does it mean when it says ‘cake pan’?”
And I talk about regular cake pans vs. springform pans and as it turns out, she owns neither. I tell her she could just make cupcakes (“Well….I have a muffin pan, could I use that?” “Yes. They. Are. The. Same.”), but she is set on a cake, so I advise her on what cake pan to get: first choice: two 9″ springform pans. I explain what a springform pan is, badly (“It has a latch thingie…..I’m tired.”). Second choice: two metal 9″ cake pans, preferably made by Chicago Metallic, available everywhere. Third choice: silicone pans, of which I am not a fan.
2) She goes to Target and calls me in the store: they have only one springform pan (“What a clever idea! The side just comes off!”), so could she make the cake in that? No, not really—why go to all the trouble of making a cake if it’s not a layer cake? And cutting the cake in half horizontally is too much trouble for my mom. She needs two pans. So she gets a regular metal pan: “It is definitely metal….at least….I don’t think it’s silicone.” “Is it flexible? It is plastic? Silicone is plastic.” “No….um….it is not plastic.”
How my mother can sound unsure about whether or not a pan is metal or plastic is part of the unending wonder and mystery that is my mother.
3) “So the cake is in the oven. It smells really good. You know, I had a big revelation tonight, with the new cake pans: I’ve never, in my life, made a cake that came out well. I never had the right equipment, or the right ingredients, or I was trying to make it vegan and it came out weird because of that, or something.”
It’s true. And it sort of makes me want to cry.
I hadn’t made a decent cake until I was about twenty. Childhood annoyances with cooking caused by the fact that we owned almost no kitchen implements might explain why today I rent a space to hold my insanely large collection of everything from a teeny little brush specially designed and reserved to clean pastry bag tips to three types of mandolines. In high school and college I used to get so angry at my failed cakes that I would punch them. Seriously. There really isn’t much more angry-making than spending the entire afternoon making a cake only to have it sink in the middle, or break in half, or never cook through, or burn, or any one of the million other cake issues I used to have. Jacob still laughs at the two birthdays in a row when I served him iced and decorated cakes with giant punch marks in the middle—because what do you do after you punch a cake, throw it away? No way. Cake is cake, after all. Punched or not.
These days I can throw together a perfect cake in 20 minutes flat, and every single time I put it in the oven I remember my decade or so of punched cakes. A deep part me thinks I will always be a cake puncher, and that my pretty cakes are just narrowly averted failures. It isn’t true at all, not in any way, but to see why I carry this idea around let’s go back to my mother and her cake.
Part of me loves that my mother is, in her sixth decade, just now having major revelations like the need to have the right equipment for the job. But, as the child who grew up in a cake-less household, it of course annoys me too. Mostly I love the sense of possibility I can tell she often feels in her life: with decent free time and no horrible husband around, she has a freedom she hasn’t had in thirty years. She pampers her cats and her dog, calls me too often, and tinkers in the world of homemaking. She’s sort of Benjamin Buttoning this part of her life, and that seems right to me.
Her interest in cooking began around the time I went to cooking school in 2000, when she began calling to ask me everything from “What is fennel?” to “Is sautéeing different from stir-frying”? (She calls every method of cooking “stir-frying,” which seems to come straight from 1975 and makes me laugh every time. Whenever I’m telling her that she should just sauté some vegetable or another with olive oil and garlic and salt, she says, hesitantly “…so, do you mean…sort of stir-fry it?” Also: might I mention that she does not own a wok? All her “stir-frying” is done in a battered skillet she inherited from her mother.)
4) Back to the cake. After the call to discuss the Cake Revelation, she called ten minutes later: “OK, just two more questions. First, when can I take the cake out of the pan?”
“Well, when it’s cool. At least 20 minutes, half an hour would be better.”
“Did you already take it out of the pan?”
“Well….I started to.”
“Did it break? You can patch it up with frosting if it did.”
“Oh good! OK, that reminds me: when can I frost it? Can I frost it when it’s warm?”
Clearly she is ready to frost it and be done with the whole thing.
“No. It’s got to cool, otherwise it will melt the frosting and it will be a big mess.”
“You know, I was thinking that. I think that’s what might have ruined cakes of mine in the past!”
“You used to put the frosting on when it was right out of the oven??”
“Well….sort of.” When I catch her being inimitably herself in the deepest and craziest ways, my mother has a way of saying “sort of” where “sort” is all floaty and high like she is trying to escape out of the room through the ceiling. “Sort of” means “always.”
5) The next day: “The cake was amazing!!! It was so delicious!! Well….in the end it was getting late, so I think I might have turned it out of the pan a little early, because one layer sort of broke apart….then I might also have put the frosting on too early, but it was great!”
again, not it.