Into Each Life a Little Cake Must Fall: Lessons from a Cake-Tastrophe

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Pastry cook prepares a cake with cream and chocolate
Whoops.

This is the tale of an epic Cake-Fail.

It felt, at the time, like an absolute disaster.

Real disasters, like earthquakes, tornadoes, wars and disease put this story in perspective.

But in our day-to day lives, there are experiences that feel like disasters at the time; experiences in which survival adrenaline is at work; in which you encounter failure a dozen ways over. Life itself may not be at stake, but it can be difficult persuading your mind of that fact when faced with the crushing of plans, or a spectacular “miss”when your results are at stake. Your results and failures, of course, never affect just you, but a whole host of people either waiting for your promised outcome, or cleaning up after you when something goes wrong.

Whether your flop happens in a single moment or in a slow build-up over years, when it does hit, all you can see is the ruin—a crisis to deal with, and no-way out.

In thinking about some of the more difficult challenges I’ve been facing recently, I found myself ruminating on that experience, so long ago now…

It’s Not Always a “Piece of Cake”…

It was in the early 90’s, during a few years when I was a stay-at-home mom. I had a stint as a high-end cake decorator—pastry school, seminars, cake conferences—the works.

I trained with some of the greats, whose names are known to all the famous cake people on TV today. It was before the Food Network and YouTube turned spectacular cakes into a competitive sport, as well as into a skill accessible to anyone with a computer. Back then it was still a rarified world of buttercream and gum paste specialists, and my own presentations were replete with “ooh’s and ah’s” from admirers when I produced my floral fantasies in sugar, the likes of which few people in that era had ever seen.

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Baby shower cake with intricate lacework, sugar doll and hours and hours of work…one of my favorites, done in 1992, prior to the birth of my niece, Jenna.

Through a caterer, I got an order for a cake for a garden wedding on an estate in Greenwich, CT. The couple were very specific about the kind of cake they wanted: poppy seed with raspberry filling. I went to my baker, Manfred, to put in the order. He was a Viennese pastry whiz who sold me delicious “blanks” (un-iced cakes) from his shop. I conveyed the rather unusual flavor request, and he nodded. In my mind, I was envisioning a thin spread of raspberry jam between several torted layers of each cake. Torting, or having many layers of filling in each cake, is part of the art of fine pastry, and I left the execution of same in his capable Viennese hands.

Cake. Chocolate Mud Cake #2
Torted Layers

Two solid weeks were spent working on the elaborate buttercream flowers that would go on the cake. There was no room for food in either my fridge or my freezer; the kitchen was a mass of colored containers of icing and Tupperware containers of frozen buttercream roses, sweet peas, bleeding hearts, daffodils and my specialty: multi-colored pansies.

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Not the cake of this story, this bridal shower cake shows a sample of some of the buttercream flowers I loved to do. This is one of the few photos I have available now. Credit for the buttercream technique goes to the incomparable Betty van Norstrand, with whom I studied at Vie de France Pastry School.

When I picked up the “blank” cakes the day before the wedding, I saw that instead of a thin layer of raspberry jam, Manfred had created each cake alternating multiple 1/2″ layers of raspberry mousse with an equal proportion of cake. Not what I’d thought, but, hey.

Ok, then. I set to work.

Fourteen hours of decorating later, after pounding in the requisite dowels and structural supports that go into the architecture of wedding cakes; after endless intricate and meticulous buttercream Cornelli work: after icing flower placements and finishing flourishes, at 10:30 on the morning of the wedding I loaded the cake into the back of my minivan for delivery. Because my daughter was hardly more than a baby, she got to come on the delivery run too, as did my husband, acting as driver and loyal supporter and helper.

Did I mention it was a hot, humid summer day?

As my husband slowly pulled the car about five feet down the sloped driveway, he glanced in the rear view mirror and said: “Oh Shit!”

This was not a good sound.

I ran around to the back, lifted the tailgate, and stared at a fallen, soggy mass of stair-stepped layers. The mere vibration of the car had been enough to coax every torted layer to slip past all the internal supports and external baffling, The gelatinous texture of the filling had provided a nice slippery surface so that with the slightest encouragement, the cake layers had gone for a ride on a confectionary Slip ‘n’ Slide, leaving a disastrous mess of mousse and the pillaged wreck of cake and buttercream.

I can still feel the shock and disbelief that simply did not register at first. I don’t like to think about that moment, even 25 years later.

We jumped back into the car and drove down the hill to the bakery. I was in total panic. Manfred came out to the car and said: “Oh, Shit! Oh Shit!”

He was followed by his wife (the “bad cop” in the relationship) harping loudly: “It’s not our fault! It’s not our fault!”

Manfred shook his head ruefully and then looked at his watch: 11:00 a.m.

“I have some frozen layers in stock. Give me two hours. I can cover them with fondant—then you can just do the flowers,”  he offered.

Fortunately, I always made many more flowers than needed in case of breakage.

Two hours till pickup of the layers…that gave me…how long?

The wedding was at 6:00 p.m.. I had to deliver it well before then. I’d have two, maybe three hours to pull it together. At most.

WEDDING-DISASTER-2
It looked something like this, only many times worse. Of course, we weren’t standing around taking photos, so I took this facsimile off the Internet. Note that the filling here is also raspberry jam! Hmmmm…

Now I had to call the client. We drove back home, because this was before cellphones. My heart was racing as I dialed the bride’s number.

The father of the bride answered.

“I have bad news and good news,” I began. “The bad news is that the wedding cake I just spent 14 hours decorating collapsed in my car. The good news is that you will have a wedding cake.”

I held my breath, waiting for his response.

The father said, in a voice full of compassionate concern: “Oh, how terrible for you!”

What? Yes, that’s what he said. He paused and thought.

“I think I can buy you a little extra window of time,” he said, with the satisfied air of someone who had just solved a puzzle, “The cocktail hour is at 6:30-7:30 p.m. Why don’t you come then, after the ceremony?”

I could have cried with gratitude. In fact, maybe I did.

While my husband scooped the buttercream disaster out of the back of the van with cardboard shovels that he concocted, I called my sister-in-law to beg her to please come and watch my daughter so I could concentrate on the Herculean task at hand.

She later told me she hadn’t heard my voice sound like that since my mother had died a few years before.

I got to work filling pastry bags and organizing the remaining flowers, entirely re-designing the cake in my head. I had no idea what size layers Manfred had on hand. Fortunately, one layer had escaped the “car”-nage—the small top layer that would rest separately on elevated crystal pillars. One less layer to worry about, I thought, even if it would look slightly different than the rest.

My husband picked up the frozen cakes from Manfred. It’s worth noting that putting fondant over frozen layers is risky, as the fondant will sweat with moisture. The fondant could tear, or the flowers get runny, or who knows what else. I just hoped if that was going to happen, it would take place after the cake was safely at the client’s and I was nowhere in sight.

At 6:30, I pulled my minivan into the driveway of the home-wedding-in-a-mansion in Greenwich. I could see the bride and the guests with their canapes and cocktails under a tent in the distance. The caterer came running out to meet me, threw her arms around me and gave me a huge hug, like a war veteran meeting another battle-scarred soldier. Together, we got the cake settled onto its display table in the house, put the top layer with the bride & groom decoration on top, hugged again and I left. The fact that it wasn’t poppy seed and raspberry seemed to matter not at all.

My husband and I had a dinner out, including a few stiff drinks—and neither one of us was a drinker.

Some time not that long after, my corporate career came calling again, and I laid my pastry bags down for good.

Things I Learned from the Great Cake-Tastrophe

People Recognize that Shit Happens. They Can be Surprisingly Kind and Generous. Also, Looking Back Through the Rear View Mirror, Grace Abounded.

That Manfred had extra cake layers in the freezer, of a wedding cake size— that alone was grace. Otherwise,who knows what I’d have done…I might have had to stack up a bunch of cookies on a plate and plunk a bride and groom on top.

fase preparazione  pasta con macchinario industriale
Commercial sheeter

Manfred also had a commercial sheeter (a machine that can roll out large amounts of dough or fondant in just a few passes). I could never have covered three large cakes by hand in that time, if I’d had the fondant in my supplies—which of course, I didn’t. He didn’t have to offer his help, but he did. In the middle of a busy workday and took his time to bail me out right now. When I later tried to reimburse him for the extra cakes, he told me to forget it.

I was also extremely grateful that it was the bride’s father who picked up the phone, because had it been the mother-of-the-bride, or the bride herself, it could much more easily have been a very different story. (I refer you to any episode of Bridezillas for potential reactions.)

Killer bride photo series. Bridezilla with wooden rolling pin. Studio shot
What I was expecting

The father was not only cool in a crisis, he was kind. His approach to the news was that it was just another thing to deal with, and everything has a solution. He took in the whole picture, not just how he or his daughter were affected. Miraculously, he put himself in my shoes and didn’t make me wrong. He had an ease with the problem-solving and came up with a solution. I was left with the feeling that this quality is probably what made him the kind of businessman who could afford a mansion in Greenwich. This was both Grace and Kindness in spades.

I offered the bridal couple a compensatory anniversary cake for the fact that they had not gotten their flavor request. They never asked for it. They could easily have asked for a refund, or asked me to fulfill on my free cake, but they never did.

yardm&destek
What I got

My husband did whatever was necessary in the background without asking about it, dropping whatever else he had in mind for his weekend. My sister-in-law dropped all her plans to come babysit the whole day, and babysitting was not her favorite thing. In a crisis, the reinforcements rallied.

When you share a failure story, you find others have trod the same path. That’s often what makes them compassionate, especially if something similar has ever happened to them. War veterans stick together.

Manfred, a master baker, told me in the aftermath that this is exactly why he hated doing wedding cakes; he’d had enough of his own disasters. Owing to the precarious nature of wedding cake transport, he had evolved the method he had done with me: he left the layers frozen, covered them with fondant at the last minute, put a few simple roses on the cake, drove like hell to the wedding location and prayed.

The caterer at the wedding who ran out to meet me with open arms wasn’t angry, or sniping about how I’d let her down or how her client weren’t properly served. She approached me as someone who has seen her share of disasters and pulled it out of the hat at the last moment herself. That too surprised me no end.

Even Masters Get the Blues

Chef Kumin
Chef Albert Kumin

Some time after this, I shared my Cake-Fail story with Chef Albert Kumin, with whom I studied at Vie de France Pastry School. Chef Kumin was a former White House Pastry Chef, the founding pastry chef of Windows on the World, a legendary chocolatier, and at the time, one of the few people preserving and teaching the art of pulled and blown sugar. (He also bore a strong resemblance to the Swedish Chef from the Muppets.) When I told him what had happened, he shook his head and said: “Once I was in a big competition in Canada. I’d worked forever on four-foot tall intricate woven sugar baskets with blown sugar fruit. They were so tall and heavy it took a few people to lift them. When I got to the site, I saw they had to be transported through a revolving door.” He shook his head again, sighing ruefully. “We did our best, but, the whole thing shattered in an instant.”

(Anyone who has watched Cake Challenges on the Food Network knows that transporting a large confection from the work site to exhibition the table just 4 feet away can be the most perilous part of the contest.)

Sometimes, Pressure Yields Great Results

The cake I actually delivered, with three large tiers plus the top layer, was assembled and decorated in less than four hours. In some ways, it looked better than the one I’d slaved over for four times as long. I had learned this as a painter back in art school: the quick impromptu variation dashed off after laboring long hours on some drawing or painting was often better than the one on which so much studied effort had been expended. All the carefulness of the first work gets metabolized by that long study; spontaneity arises from that integrated foundation in a freer, more poetic way.Screen Shot 2015-07-14 at 1.12.16 PM

Epilogue: 25 years later…

As I have struggled in a period of great challenge, I was on a drive with a friend when this old experience flashed though my mind. Many things have not panned out the way I had hoped or needed; other things hold promise but are infinitely slow to materialize, or disappear before they can get going.

I realized that the memory of the Cake Fail came to me because from some perspectives, where I am in my life now looks just like that mess of buttercream and mousse smeared in the back of my car. I know the image came to me to give me fresh hope, and to remember, that even when you are looking at a situation to which the only reaction is “Oh, Shit”, a million small and large graces abound. And out of that mess arose an even more wonderful creation, supported by many other hands.

If I wasn’t on a diet, I think I’d have a piece of cake, just about now!

beautiful young woman eating cake secretly

What is YOUR Cake-Tastrophe? Would love to hear from you in the comments!

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One thought on “Into Each Life a Little Cake Must Fall: Lessons from a Cake-Tastrophe

    Ken Kraus said:
    July 14, 2015 at 5:36 pm

    Like Manfred’s backup cakes, I am sure you will find a way, helped by unseen hands of grace, to rise from this occasion, as you have in the past. And your brilliant mind will emerge with new wisdom, of course.

    Like

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