I make a cake about 3 times a year. Notice that’s the same number annually as my headcount of offspring.
Once my kids are able to talk, I give them a choice of what kind of cake they want for their birthday. Then a week before the party, I google the cake. I usually end up on a short video from a website called Disney FamilyFun. Last week’s search for “jack-o-lantern cake” was no exception, and I optimistically watched this video. The cake seemed easy enough — but as is always the case when you condense cake-making into 60 seconds, some details are easier said (by a talking head who doesn’t even make the cake) than done. That little part where you simply flatten the gumdrops into a pancake to make the facial features? Yeah, well. Standing on a stool to put all of my body weight onto a rolling pin for fifteen solid minutes seemed like a bit more trouble than the end result was worth.
Which might be why I totally biffed the “3-dimensional effect” created by using chocolate to shade the features. Tim was the first to notice it (of course) after I put it all together. I was standing there, admiring my work and feeling prideful because there were still 15 minutes before the party started. He looked at it, and said, “Something’s whack with that mouth.”
And lo, there was. I somehow forgot, in an instant, how to do something I learned when I was eight: how to draw shadows from a light source.
Once I saw it (again, thanks Tim) it’s like I just wanted to wipe it off, in a fit of OCD-fury. But alas, our first guest arrived. And her Mom said no, you can’t redo it, not now.
But you know what I can do? I can Photoshop it, for perpetuity. I learned that when I was twenty:
It still doesn’t look right — I think it’s a contrast issue.
But no matter. The real reason I need to get back-to-the-basics of cake-making is that the cake? It was dry. And the truly frustrating part of this is that I’ve given people advice on how to make a birthday cake that’s not dry (especially when you freeze it). For years, I made the same cake every birthday: The Grit’s Vegan Chocolate Death Cake. But this year, with two layers to play with, and wanting to change things up a bit, I went with two Cook’s Illustrated recipes: this one (yellow cake) and one from The Cook’s Bible (chocolate cake). I made the cakes the evening before the party, and immediately wrapped them in plastic after they cooled on the rack. They were iced not 12 hours later. And it was so disappointing, to cut into dry cake at that party. No, the 6- and 7-year olds didn’t notice, but I did. And isn’t that who I’m doing this for, anyway?
There was so much butter in those cakes. And buttermilk. And eggs. Aren’t those the very ingredients that should guarantee a moist cake? What’s a perfectionist, compulsive mom to do? Who can tell me how to make a rich, moist, homemade cake that’s worth the decorating effort?