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Cake plans

(article, Deborah Madison)

The cake was pink and covered with sprinkles. Its crumb was yellow and coarse. The layers were crooked, and they badly wanted to slide. So that they wouldn’t, my mother anchored them to one another with metal shashlik skewers; then, to make them festive, she threaded ribbons through their handles. She put candles on the cake and lit them.

I was mortified. I was 15, and this was my birthday cake. Fifteen is often a unkind age. Fifteen-year-olds are supersensitive, unforgiving, and unable to imagine the efforts of others, especially mothers. Still, I knew that was not really my birthday cake.

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Twenty years later there was another pink cake covered with sprinkles. The crumb was coarse and yellow, but there were no skewers, ribbons, or candles. The cake sat on a plate on the counter of a little gas-station café in central Mexico where my friends and I were traveling. I brought pieces out to the car, and we stood in the dusty road in Mexico eating my birthday cake, or one a little closer to it.

Although embarrassed by my mother’s cake, I can’t claim to always turn out a perfect cake myself — even for myself. On turning 60 I planned a cake-and-champagne party. There would be layer cakes and lots of them. Of course I would bake them myself. It was summer, we were in the midst of a heat wave, and I was jet-lagged and not very happy about this milestone. Nonetheless, I was determined to make my birthday cakes — and from my own cookbooks, furthermore.

h1. Too fancy to eat?

Maki, at the blog Just Hungry, linked to these elaborate cakes recently. We liked them too.


Every one of them failed. The butter cakes sank. My olive-oil cake remained stuck fast to its pan, and a big chocolate cake broke into two because I didn’t let it cool long enough before moving it. Every one went to the compost — all that butter, all those eggs, the good chocolate.

[%image slice float=right width=300 caption="Contentment in a slice of cake."]Fortunately my husband, who somehow was able to anticipate this disaster, had ordered a cake from a bakery. My name was on it, and clusters of flowers were sculpted in butter cream. It was perfect. It was pretty, its crumb was delicate, its taste sweet, and it was good to eat. And even in the heat it didn’t melt, or slip, or slide, and everyone enjoyed it. I hope that this time I expressed my gratitude. 

My very old wish had come true: A store-bought cake.

The Almond Torte from Lindsey Shere’s book, Chez Panisse Desserts, is the best cake in the world, my favorite of all time, and it’s the one I’ve chosen to make for others' birthdays. Almond paste is the special ingredient, and the cake is austerely elegant. I just made it for a June birthday, split it in two, spread my own apricot jam between the layers, then covered the top with whipped cream. Finally, I tossed red rose petals over all. I thought some paper umbrellas might look cheerful on it too, along with the candles, so I added them. Extra, I know. I just hope no one was embarrassed. (It did all get eaten.)

h1. Featured recipe


p(bio). Deborah Madison is the author of numerous award-winning cookbooks, including Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. She lives in New Mexico.

Also on Culinate: Deborah reminds us to savor the taste of local foods and gives us plenty of ideas for hot, whole-grain breakfasts. And read Roz Cummins' interview with Deborah Madison.

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