This week I am baking cakes–six to be exact–for an upcoming fundraising event at my kids’ school. I volunteered for this task despite the fact that I have a long history of making mediocre cakes. My eight-inch rounds are dry and tasteless, my sheet cakes are gooey in the middle and burnt on the edges, and my cupcakes don’t crown. My cookies and breads disappear almost as soon as they hit the cooling rack, but my cakes, my poor sad cakes, sit uneaten and rejected.
Since I also have a long history of relentlessly striving to better myself–my self-help books take up as much shelf space as my cookbook collection–I figured, what better way to improve my baking skills than to have the pressure of feeding a large, paying audience. So, over the past several weeks I have pored over piles of cookbooks searching for the key to ensure that all my cakes exit the oven glorious and delicious.
Per the experts’ advice, I brought eggs to room temperature and then carefully added them one at a time to the batter. I shoved the whole wheat flour to the back of the pantry and broke out the white stuff, measuring precisely instead of just guessing like I usually do. I even dragged out my mixer as opposed to whisking by hand to save on clean up, and set the timer for the exact number of baking minutes. But still, my cake-baking attempts bombed. The Easy Applesauce Sheet Cake failed to rise and had the flavor of sawdust that even an overly sweet powdered sugar frosting couldn’t save. The Lemon Yogurt Cake made with olive oil was tasty, but had an odd and unappetizing appearance. The Best Ever Carrot Cake was so bad my kids wouldn’t even eat it.
As cake after cake flopped, my baking confidence dipped to a new low, and I found myself fed up with the experts and their tips. Still, regardless of my fragile mental baking state, I needed to come up with six cakes for the fundraiser. Panicking, I flipped through my binder of dessert recipes one more time. There were a number of starred pie-like treats and several cookie recipes with “GOOD!” written in the margin, but there were no accolades in the cake section.
Then, towards the back, I happened upon a faded, typewritten recipe for Sour Cream Bundt Cake. It was originally published in the November 1978 issue of Bon Appetit magazine. Throughout my childhood, my mother made this cake for special occasions such as Christmas morning or Easter brunch. When I became an adult, she always had one waiting when I returned home from college or brought my family for a visit. It is a ridiculously rich, dense cake with a perfect ribbon of crunchy cinnamon-sugar and nut mixture running through the center. Each mouthful is a small taste of heaven. As I scanned the ingredient list, I recalled that many years ago, I made half a dozen or so of these cakes to give out as Christmas gifts. Each bundt had turned out moist, fragrant, and beautifully rounded.
I know that bundts are the Plain Jane of cakes, but in this situation, I decided that cake is cake is cake, especially when delicious. On a notepad I listed the amount of eggs, butter, and sour cream I would need to make six cakes. As I did, I couldn’t help noticing that this recipe was pretty similar to other cake recipes I had tried without success. Curious, I began researching bundt cake facts and I learned, to my great delight, that just about any cake recipe can be converted to a cake with a hole in the center. All you have to do is adjust the baking time. Just to make sure, I made a few bundt cake test runs. It was true. Each cake turned out high and proud. The test audiences asked for seconds and there was not a single crumb left on their plates.
There is neither rhyme nor reason why I can make perfect bundt cakes while all my other cake baking efforts fall flat, but maybe there is a lesson in that. As I reorganized my pan cabinet to make room for the two new bundt pans I recently purchased, I realized that maybe it isn’t about consulting the experts and figuring out how to tweak a recipe or alter a personality. Maybe it is about discovering who you are and what you do best, and being satisfied with the answer regardless of what shape that is.
So this week, I will be making bundt cakes. Six to be exact. They won’t be fancy, they won’t make anyone swoon in amazement, but they will be delightfully delicious and exactly what I do best.
(If you are a local reader, I would love to see you at the Bishop Christian School 4th Annual Ice Cream Social fundraiser, which is being held this Thursday, April 19 at 5:30 p.m. There will be wonderful items available for auction, outstanding musical performances, games, and lots and lots of desserts including bundt cake. Be sure to stop by the kitchen, where I will be presiding, to say hello. Tickets are available at the door for $5. The event is being held at the Bishop Christian School located at 730 Home Street just north of Rainbow Connection Preschool.)