When Cake is Not Just Cake

We are a celebratory family. With that we also traditionally have celebrated with cake. Birthdays, anniversaries, confirmations, baptisms, graduations and weddings are resplendent with cake. There are a million kinds, but it has been my way to make them from scratch.

When I was little my mother and grandmother made scratch cakes and only with a wild concoction that she had read about in a magazine would my mom used a box mix. Imagine my surprise when watching “The Cake Boss” I discover that they use a mix. It was a dark day when I realized that this was happening and that the light cakes I had eaten from bakeries were manufactured and distributed as a box cake. My homemade cakes were often heavy and it took a crane to move it about, but they had great taste.

Some podcasts I have listened to have taught me that this factory manufactured cake is now the preferable taste for the masses. In a taste test line up the box cakes have the day! This was not always the case as early in the days of their development my mother could take one bite and detect if it was scratch or box. I also believe that the manufacturers have worked on them enough now over the decades that they taste good. The chemicals also make them last, seemingly forever.

Making a cake for me is a symbol of love. It isn’t just cake. The decorations are also a nod to how much I care for the person and just making the whole thing says that I care. I look at different ideas and try them out. Sometimes they are spot on and sometimes they are a little wonky, but they are from the heart.

My Grandma Knutzen made sample cakes. I learned later that they were really metal doll dishes. She would make up the batter and put some of the batter into these small dishes baking them in her wood burning oven. The sample cake would be a tester to determine if the temperature was just right and if it had the right spring when poked gently with her finger on removal. Normally she would just stick her hand into the heated air of the oven to see if the temperature was right and adjust as needed, but cakes are a bit fussy and the sample cakes would be the refinement in the cake making process. If it went to her satisfaction she would cool them, and pop them out on a rack, tasting and sharing with me the love she had just baked. I always determined that they were just fine and she always asked me of my opinion. Thinking about that now, I wonder why she would even think that I, a 5 year old, would know anything about baking, but of course anything she would make or do was perfect. She would have her hand on her hip, apron about her tiny frame and really consider my agreement as if I were grown and knew one thing. She would have gone out and had my uncle Billy or Grandpa get warm milk right from the cow for me to have along with it. Though I did not care for warm milk, it was a new delight and sometimes I would have a bit, but more often to her chagrin would choose to have the milk go into the refrigerator for later. I had thought that it would be the same later and although she reminded me that it would not be warm she said that she could always warm it up.

While she was mixing the cake she would sit me on the red kitchen stool in the corner and feed me as many chocolate cookies as I would want. The cookie jar was right at my reach. She would mix the batter with her hand on the big spoon more than not and told me about how she was had to be more careful not paying  paying close attention and got her fingers into the beaters where they took a beating. It was a stand mixer and I still don’t know how that happened. I think she looked at that mixer as more of a problem and danger than a helpful appliance. There she would mix and measure.

The cup measure was a cracked coffee cup kept in the flour bin housed right in the kitchen cabinets. The horizontal handle was at the top of a long cupboard where the door was the front of a flour bin that bent out and hinged at the bottom. It was always filled that I remember and could possibly house pounds and pounds of flour that came in large bags. Extra flour was kept in 5 gallon tins in the pantry.

As she mixed and poured she talked and I ate, nodding when she asked if I remembered so and so. I pretended I did because I wanted to make her happy. The names of her sisters, best friend, nephews, brother, nieces, mother and especially father were the main topics as well as the neighbors both at their present farm and the one where she grew up. She told me about the hardness of some of the relatives and the mysteries that made them so. She told about the goodness of some of the relative and the happenings that made them so. I could tell she was often exasperated and worried with those she talked about, but to me she was giving me her whole self, her attention and her love all while she made meals and cake.

She made 7 minute frosting as that was her favorite. I think that is a cooked frosting. She made more of the cake than the frosting. My mother always said that that the cake had to be very good and the frosting should be as well, but it was just frosting. One of her metaphors to me when she was talking to me about marriage and sex was that the marriage should be like the cake. It should be good and paid attention to and that the frosting was like sex. If the cake wasn’t any good the frosting was just frosting and it was best to have both good cake and frosting combined. Smart. Cake is not just cake.

I made all the special event cakes for my kids when they were with me. Once I sent down some cupcakes with Steven’s friend Sam for his birthday when Sam was traveling there. It was the Jesus Birthday Cake which is from the recipe Waldorf-Astoria Red Velvet Cake. It must have cream cheese frosting. Mom first made if for my nephew John, her first grandson, at his first Christmas so he would remember why we celebrate Christmas. She made it every Christmas until she passed the baton onto me with the magical pans. It has been a tradition since and Steven and Kyle like that one the best for their birthdays too.

Steven asked me to make their first son’s and our first grandson Xavier’s birthday cake when he was one. Cindy requested an elephant and other animals on it. I like it that they asked and I did what I could, because, sometimes cake is not just cake.

Kyle and Jodi asked if I would make them a personal one for their wedding cake last October and I was honored to do that. What a dream for me to be asked. Then our daughter Erin asked if I would make the wedding cake for her and Marcus for their wedding a week ago. What an honor. Erin, like me, really likes the chocolate cake with the peanut butter chocolate frosting. The first plan was to make that one and then Marcus had a request to make a Queen Victoria Sponge Cake.

I had never made that one before until Marcus was dating Erin and I thought I would give it a go. At that time that particular trial was not successful. I had not known to use the proper caster sugar and had also used the wrong flour. I made it once more with another method and it was not what I was looking for. I inquired of a pastry chef I know to see where I could improve on it. She gave me some advice and the actual one for the  wedding turned out well. It was important to me to get it right. Marcus’s mother had made it for them when he was home as well as it being a British traditional cake. Marcus’s mom has passed away and it was important for me to get it right to honor Marcus and his mom’s love for him as well as their traditions. I did my best and got positive vibes on the cake from both Marcus and his brother James. Erin loved it so it was all good. That was all that counted. Erin said I could completely frost it instead of the way it usually is served just as a berry and butter cream filled without outer icing. I still wanted to make the one that Erin enjoyed best so I made that one too. Sometimes cake is not just cake.



One thought on “When Cake is Not Just Cake

  1. I know what you mean about cultural tastes changing. Years ago I made red velvet cakes from scratch, trying to find a recipe that met with approval. It was never Wonder-Bready enough for my audience, not light and Squishy enough.. Now I just use a mix although I myself prefer a cake from scratch.


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