There’s a photo of me I’ve always loved. It was taken on December 22, 1979, five days before my first birthday. In the picture, I sit in a high chair, a toffee-haired baby in a striped shirt. In the foreground is my mom, young, petite, barely five-feet tall, with her sleeves rolled up. With one hand she holds a cake; with the other, she holds me back. Her young hand kept mine from getting too close to the single shining candle.
The expression on my face is clear: I want that cake. And why wouldn’t I? For my first birthday, my mom had baked something beautiful, just for me and no one else. It was a sunny yellow cake covered in vanilla frosting with a pale green border and clusters of holly berries.
Cake was my first memory. I was three, and my mom was busy. She was scraping clean the side of a mixing bowl, sifting flour, smoothing the batter in the pans with a clean spatula. I was always nearby in the kitchen, but it wasn’t until later that I realized I was watching an amazing baker. When I was three, I just wanted to be around that buttery smell, the warmth of the oven, my Mom’s sure movements, the anticipation of sweet.
My mom pulled the round pans out of the oven. Once the cake layers cooled a little, she carefully inverted them onto plates. The cakes were perfect: no cracks, no chunks still stuck to the pan. Perfectly pristine pastry.
She must’ve left the kitchen for a minute because, for a minute, I was alone: with the gold stove, the gold refrigerator, the orange and gold linoleum floor--and that golden yellow cake. Quickly, I tore off a tiny bit. The cake was still warm; I barely had to chew.
It was delicious--until she walked in the room. I was caught. I remember feeling worried: I could see on her face that those layers were no longer perfect. But I also remember feeling smug: I was a cute baby, and like all cute babies, I got away with everything. I wasn’t afraid of taking the heat--especially for cake.
Believe it or not, my mom barely scolded me. Still, I felt guilty--okay, just a little--and maybe my eyes started to water. But before I could get worked up, she was calming me down. “No sense crying over spilled milk,” she said, smoothing my hair. “It’s nothing a little frosting can’t fix.”
Later, I learned that my mom had taken cake decorating classes before I was born, but as a child all I knew was that when she decorated cakes, it looked effortless. All her pastry tips lived in a hinged plastic box. She never used an offset spatula--something most pastry chefs can’t do without. My mom decorated cakes with a table knife, and for the longest time I thought that was how everybody did it.
(Now I know that makes it harder.)
Baby boys and butter knifes: neither could interfere with her talent. She made beautiful cakes. She would form icing roses by hand and, as a child, I would watch, awed, hoping to one day be able to make them, too. She’d pipe each flower on to a little square of waxed paper and transfer them to a plate to rest. As they sat, they’d develop a crunchy, sugary shell. I just wanted to devour them all. And my mom would let me; I’d eat a couple--the ones she was least happy with. As I ate the rejects, I plotted which ones I’d hunt for once the cake was finished and served.
To this day, I still can’t make icing roses like she could. That’s probably why I’ve adopted a more renegade approach to cake decorating. But ever since I lunged for those icing holly berries, ever since I snuck that piece from those pristine layers, cake has been a part of my life. My mom is responsible for that, and I like to think seeing my cakes would make her smile.