Wednesday, 11 March 2009

The Importance of Cake

I have some wonderful memories, and if I am honest, a lot of them involve cake. Let’s face it; cakes play a role in many of the pivotal events in our lives. From the cake at our Christening or naming ceremony, to our birthday cakes, to the cake that is served at our wedding, they are a part of most celebrations. Having said all that, cakes are also something that can be very every day – making the ordinary memorable, a creative expression that brings pleasure to all concerned. A slice of simple loaf cake with a cup of tea after a hard day brings new meaning to the words “comfort food” – and a slice of coffee cake with a cup of the matching beverage is a decadent treat that makes any ordinary morning decidedly special.

The first cake I really remember properly was a train cake my Mom made for my third birthday in Canada. There was a decoration that wrapped round the cake, with cute pictures of trains on it and candles and decorations on top of the cake that echoed that. I vividly remember looking at it sitting on the table in front of me with its three candles lit. I was so tiny my chin was virtually at table height, so my three year old eye line was just at cake level, and the cake filled my whole field of vision. The multicoloured train carriages fascinated me. The next cake I remember was one with a set of plastic Cinderella decorations on top of it. In the froth of the icing were nestled an elaborate horse drawn coach, a beautiful Cinderella wearing pretend glass slippers, a few mice and even a handsome Prince. I loved that cake too – in fact I played with the decorations for months afterwards. From there we moved on to store bought cakes, decorated with beautiful icing roses. Remember those icing roses that decorated most of the cakes in the seventies? They looked so beautiful and delicious, and all the kids always wanted one. This led to quite a lot of arguments at the table, despite the fact that the roses really did not taste very good at all, and were often so hard that they posed a real danger to the teeth!

Another cake that brings back memories for me is the Almond Cake that was made by The Knotty Pine Restaurant in Cambridge, Ontario. Composed of thin layers and iced with a creamy almond icing, this was my favourite cake for years. I remember it was often served at my paternal grandfather’s birthday parties. It’s teeth aching sweetness was a perfect foil to the flaked almonds that were scattered over the top. Apparently I was not the only one who loved this cake, as some years after the Knotty Pine closed, a local paper managed to find their chef who thankfully was willing to part with the recipe. Not surprisingly, the recipe reveals a cake that requires a great deal of effort and a huge number of ingredients. I have yet to actually make it, but I often take the clipping out of my recipe file and stare at it wistfully!

Later on, there was my wedding cake, a four-tier extravaganza decorated with fresh roses. I saw it in a bridal magazine and was delighted to find that the company that created it were located in London, England where I lived by then. I was able to have the exact cake I had seen in print. I remember I wanted four tiers because we needed two to serve our wedding guests and two to save. It is traditional in England to save the top tier of your wedding cake for your first child's Christening but as I envisaged having two children it seemed only fair to have two extra tiers. In the event, only one of the tiers got used – and the same bakery stripped off the icing and re-iced it, decorating it with a cute blue teddy bear. Much to my amazement it did taste really lovely, although by that time it was almost two years old. The cake that tasted even better than that though was one made and decorated by my cousin to serve at a party to celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary. She made it as a gift to us and frankly, I was not the only one who preferred it to our wedding cake!

But some of the nicest cakes can be cakes that are not made for any occasion in particular. They are the loaf cakes we serve in the afternoon with a cup of tea, or the layer cake we make up one afternoon for no reason in particular. In fact, it is often the simplest of cakes that bring the most pleasure. A plain Madeira cake is one of the most delicious recipes I know, and an easily made walnut cake is a real joy to taste. Squares of carrot cake with cream cheese icing are a cure for almost any ailment of the soul and the iconic “Busy Day Cake” with it’s broiled coconut topping has been the saviour of many a harassed housewife needing a quick dessert.

Cake makes an ordinary day extraordinary. One of my favourite traditions is the “birthday cake for breakfast” tradition following on from any birthday celebration and guaranteed to salve any post-birthday let down. Imagine my chagrin when, after my first birthday in England I discovered that this tradition had not yet caught on there. The morning after my birthday, my husband to be looked on open mouthed as I cut a slice of cake. He could not understand the logic of eating cake for breakfast. As far as he, and most of the population of England was concerned, cake was for tea time. Being always on a diet, tea time was a dietary luxury I could not really afford, so I braved his disapproval and enjoyed my breakfast. Even twenty years later, my husband will only watch my son and I eat birthday cake for breakfast, shuddering slightly as he does so, and still will not partake of it himself. At least he now does concede that the calorie saving of eliminating a meal to enjoy the cake – while not nutritionally sound – is unarguably true.

Actually, the British have many different traditions when it comes to cake. Up until recently cake was rarely served as a dessert – in fact when I served a home-made cake at a dinner party some years ago I got some very funny looks. One guest even took pains to tell me that it was “not the done thing”. Ouch. Thankfully in recent years, some of the more progressive celebrity chefs have encouraged the serving of cake – or even cupcakes – as desserts at dinner parties, much to my intense relief and joy.

I have also made it a personal mission during my years in Merry Old England to convert the population to the serving of ice cream with cake. You see, the British are partial to pouring cream over their slices of cake – a practice which makes me shudder in a way not dissimilar to my husband’s shudders when I eat cake for breakfast. Why pour something over a beautiful cake that will make it soggy? Yuk. Still, the idea of cake served a la mode is something that puzzles many Brits. The first few times I served ice cream instead of cream I was met with confusion and disappointment. However, on tasting the delicious creaminess of the frozen dessert alongside the cake my guests were quickly reassured, and it has become not only a tradition in our house, but indeed an oft requested one.

One of my favourite varieties of cake to make is cupcakes. These mini mouthfuls of gorgeousness are so easy to make and decorating them is such fun. You see, I’ve never got the hang of elaborate cake decorations, and cupcakes allow me to be really creative without the pressure of decorating a whole cake. Although my cakes are famous amongst family and friends, I have never been known for my decorating skills and to this day if someone request a birthday cake made by me they will find it creamily iced and decorated with sweets or candies. I don’t do writing or paste decorations – I know my limits! Having said that, I will never forget the faces of the children (and adults) for whom I have made these cakes – being confronted with that many sweeties pressed into the icing of a cake is never a disappointment!

But finally, and above all, cakes are for me an antidote to the stresses of modern living. Although like all great things, it is necessary to enjoy them in moderation, cakes are a big part of my life. Cake baking is therapy, one that has brought me huge comfort during some very difficult times. The pleasure a homemade cake brings to other people is so rewarding, it makes you feel like all is well with the world, even when it isn’t. Cake baking is also great fun, and something to enjoy during times of celebration as well. Then of course, there is the very best bit – the eating. How an alchemy of eggs, butter, flour and a few other ingredients can create something that gives such pleasure will always be a mystery to me. But it is a mystery I am very happy to continue to try to solve!

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