Spiritual Reflections

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 short time when I was mostly a stay-at-home mom. Unable to sit around, and with my corporate travel restricted due to my young baby, I had a stint as a high-end cake decorator—pastry school, seminars—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…

I was on a drive with a friend when this old experience flashed though my mind.

I realized that the memory of the Cake Fail came to me because from some perspectives, life can look just like that mess of buttercream and mousse smeared in the back of my car. I know the image came to encourage others, 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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Rosh Hashonah Reflections

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Holidays live in the past as much as in the present.

Major holidays inevitably serve as triggers of memories: the memories of childhood celebrations, the memories of phases and people in adulthood that have come and gone. They are visceral, sensory-laden cues: the sight of a holiday symbol, the sounds of songs or the chants of rituals, the smells and tastes of foods that we eat now while mixing in memories of “then.”

The High Holidays bring a mixed bag of emotions for me. The season has always carried with it a subterranean unsettled feeling.

Growing up, we were barely a generation away from the Eastern Europe “Fiddler-on-the-Roof”-Russian/Polish-Ashkenazi-Jewish experience that continued to live on vividly in our own young lives in the form of the elders of our big, Jewish cooperative neighborhood.

But comparisons to the shtetls of Eastern Europe cease there. There were no men with sidecurls, tsitsis (fringes) and long black coats on our streets. Yet, who among us had a grandparent without a heavy Yiddish accent? Impossible to imagine!

Mom’s parents, and many of their crowd who formed the community in which we lived, had thrown away religion as shackles that kept them oppressed. They were modern, progressive, labor-supporting humanists. My mother professed herself to be an atheist, with the Holocaust as her ultimate proof.

But Mom was a fiercely committed Jew. She practiced a highly-refined brand of Culinary Judaism blended with a secular observance that merged our rich Yiddish-influenced environment with a big dose of pro-Israel activism. She was committed to our Jewish identity as a people and a culture, and she maintained an uneasy truce with the religious aspects from a safe distance.

Every now and then, we got a smattering of religion thanks to the fact that the only synagogue in our area was Orthodox, so if there was a bar mitzvah in the circle of friends, it was going to be under the aegis of the fire-and-brimstone-leaning Rabbi Sodden.

(I must pause here to note that my impressions of Rabbi Sodden were formed from my few visits to his temple on the High Holy Days, where, like any good Orthodox practitioner of his day, he took the opportunity to harangue the once-a-year crowd and douse them in a little bath of guilt. Later, under other circumstances I got to see a more empathetic side of him. I read that he passed in 2007, having served his community for 60 years.)

Dad, on the other hand, had served some time in cheder, and had a more religious inclination, although it wasn’t much expressed.

Except for at one time of year: The High Holidays.

This, I realized, was the Season-of-Mom’s-Discontent.

The September holidays weren’t at all like Chanukah for her, with its child-centered celebrations happily observed—awash in presents, candles and oil-infused latkes. And they weren’t like Passover, either; Passover, with its dramatic story of the Exodus—and with a dinner that took a month to prepare; relatives joining from near and far at a table that reached from one end of our Bronx apartment to the other—had the same importance to Mom that Christmas has for Christians.

But these Days of Awe—it seems there was no escaping the fact that they were days of Awe about one’s relationship to God. It was a temple holiday, or more properly, a synagogue holiday.

And we didn’t go to synagogue.

Except, Dad usually made his way to the shule during the holidays, and, mindful of the fact that he was not a regular, he would stand in the very back of the sanctuary that had its folding doors rolled back to accommodate the crowd.

Our erev Rosh Hashonah ritual consisted of mom preparing a big dinner, set out on the white tablecloth reserved for Shabbes (yes, we observed Friday night as a special dinner/family time). She would then periodically go to the window where she would watch impatiently for the sight of people coming back from the shule. Often there was an air of annoyance or impatience, one I can now well appreciate, as she had four hungry children to keep occupied, holding them off till Daddy got home.

In New York City, at some point long after these memories, the Board of Ed decided to close the schools for the Jewish holidays. Mom, a NYC teacher at that point, remarked that so many of the teachers of that era were Jewish, they really didn’t have the option to stay open with that many teachers out. But when we were young kids, the schools were open on the High Holy Days, and we, like all the Jewish children, stayed home.

There was no school for us, but no playing around either. We got into our dress clothes and walked around the neighborhood to visit our grandmothers. When I asked once why we couldn’t go to the park, my mom uneasily stated that if you weren’t in school, you were supposed to be in shule, and so she did not want us to be cavorting in the playground. This, then, was her show of respect. We dressed up, visited both our grandmothers, and waited for school hours to be over to be released to play. The message, she repeated often, was that religious or not, if you did not respect your own holidays, certainly no one else was going to.

A few times in my memory, Dad took us to the synagogue, perhaps at the end of Yom Kippur, for the last few moments of the service, to hear the final blast of the shofar. Since it was an orthodox shule, my going required my mother’s presence, in order for me to stand with her on the women’s side. I felt her impatience with a service all in Hebrew, her general discomfiture, her feeling out-of-place. I remember her turning to me and saying “that’s Adon Olam” (the song/prayer)—it means that it’s almost over” she said with a sigh of relief, both that the service was ending and that she had at last understood something in all that Hebrew.

Obviously, I was very sensitive to my mother’s signals.

There was one place among the High Holiday observances where Mom conveyed a different sort of tolerance for the worship at the synagogue. It was when Dad would go for the afternoon Yizkor (memorial) service, in memory of his parents and his brother and sister-in-law. Mom did not accompany him; her memorials were in the candles she lit on that occasion, but there was a different sort of understanding in her voice when she referred to that. We did not go with Dad for that either, because in Orthodox practice, you did not go to Yizkor if your parents were alive.

As time went on I married, and with my husband, I joined a Reform temple. There, High Holidays were a family affair, with men, women and children seated together. It was a whole different atmosphere, with new music and new styles of worship. There were many years of enjoying that familial experience. But after my divorce, the suburban family temple no longer felt like home, and as my spiritual life shifted, many aspects of that environment no longer spoke to me in quite the same way.

Every year I question whether I want to go to a service or not. Some years I do, some years I don’t. I laugh now, that it appears that in this area, I have inherited some of my mom’s ambivalence around this particular holiday, or perhaps around traditional observance of it. I’m hardly alone. Ask any non-orthodox Jewish person if they are fasting on Yom Kippur and watch the dance begin.

I didn’t go to a service this Rosh Hashonah. I didn’t have a round challah, or dip apples in honey, or even spend time with my siblings.

But more importantly, I am aware of what this holiday represents: a time to review your life; to make amends, to complete the past, to start anew. This year, Rosh Hashonah was an internal affair. Next year? Who knows?

May we all be inscribed for a good year.

Chasing Saints

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While visiting Julio, (my friend of more decades than I care to admit) at his house in Florida some dozen years ago, I found in the guest bedroom—a room that vaguely resemble a monk’s cell if you don’t count the opulent bedspread and plush mattress—a single book with browning pages. It bore this intriguing title: “The Incorruptibles”. While it sounded like a 1950’s movie starring a gang of teens, it turned out to be a captivating account of many Catholic saints whose bodies were documented to have been found intact years or centuries after their death. I stayed up late into the wee hours, reading the somewhat grisly details of various body parts or even whole bodies in inexplicable states of preservation; no mummification required.

Around that time we were planning a trip to Italy. I was also studying with the mystic, healer and former Catholic priest Ron Roth, whose main guide was the 20th-century mystic and Capuchin priest, Padre Pio. So when I floated the idea of a detour down the Italian boot to San Giovanni Rotundo to visit Pio’s home-base, Julio’s eyes lit up as did his face with his (paradoxically) devilish grin: “I’m there, baby! I love chasing saints.”

Julio has a gift for such bon mots. The phrase made me laugh aloud, and it stuck. As it turns out, the two of us did chase saints across Italy, or as we later joked, Padre Pio chased us across Italy. In years after, we went on to chase saints halfway round the globe.

When I was growing up as a Jewish girl in the Bronx, in a secular Yiddishist environment, such a notion as saints would bring puzzled laughter. I remember my mom making humorous comments from time to time, like: “It’s the building next to that church, you know: ‘Our Lady of Ten Thousand Mitzvahs.’ ” In a largely agnostic/secular/atheist environment, the idea of devotions to deceased mortals and their representative statues was an inexplicable phenomenon of a culture diametrically opposed to our own.

It took many years of study and experience for me to begin to understand the world’s attraction to saints, and my own as well.

The first big piece of news for me was that those regarded as saints are found in every faith, and devotion to them is not limited to Catholicism. There are even those who could rightly be regarded as secular saints. The second was that there are among us today many who by any regard fit that description.

I’m fortunate enough to have been in the presence of some of the greatest of our time. It’s been my encounters with the living ones that gave me the understanding of the intense devotion to those who no longer walk the earth.

So, I think for a while, I am going to run a periodic series of reflections on sainthood; what it means for us in this era, and some of my personal experiences with those whom we may hold in this regard.

I leave this post with my favorite quote from one of my most powerful influences: the writer, Jungian psychologist and perhaps saint himself, Robert A. Johnson. Anyone who has heard one of my talks knows I am fond of quoting him, and this paragraph from his autobiography: Balancing Heaven & Earth: A Memoir of Visions, Dreams and Realizations sums up one of the most important and least understood aspects of this rich topic. Having once been invited to be the saint for a rural village in India after he spent several weeks there, he later wrote his reflections on the experience, which, while he kept in humble and humorous perspective, clearly affected him deeply. While I have come to appreciate other aspects that distinguish saints of all backgrounds, this unique perspective provides a good jumping off point:

I have meditated on the subject of sainthood many times since this experience, and I find a bit of wisdom in understanding that saints are people who suffer the projection of unlived holiness from a group of people and are made to serve in this strange role whether they like it or not. It is only the other side of the coin of scapegoating, in which a group chooses an individual to carry the dark side of their own personalities, which they are unwilling to own for themselves. This idea has been borne out by careful examination: every group I have ever experienced has done this living-out-by-appointment of the human elements that are too good or too bad for an ordinary person to accommodate in his or her own life. The group gives that overwhelming characteristic to some person nearby. God help the poor person who is landed with either of the excesses that humankind finds equally difficult to bear.

Stay tuned.

Love and blessings,

Rev. Nettie