The ghosts of cakes past
I don’t bake. Let me clarify that: I cannot bake. I did not grow up in a house where anyone baked. I grew up around spiced curries, smoked kebabs and fried milk but never around the smell of a freshly baked cake.
So, usually when I am upset, I try to cook. When I have a decision to make, I go in the kitchen and lose myself in my spices, in the sizzle of the hot oil, in the smell of the sautéing ginger, in the rumble of the boiling rice. And yet today, as I am faced with a very difficult decision, I decide to bake. A cake no less.
I am not sure what I am doing here surrounding by flour, eggs, butter, brown sugar, vanilla. I stare at them and all the ghosts of cakes past stare back. They are laughing at me. The over cooked and burned cake I made a year ago, the soufflé that never rose, the three-tier cake that ended up in the trash, the cookies that could change the game of hockey forever: edible pucks, anyone? A chill runs down my spine as I recall all the bad decisions I have made in the past. What if this time is no different?
I am torn about what to cook.
I stare at the familiar yellow turmeric. The powder in the small transparent bottle looks like warm sunshine on sunny day. The cumin calls my name. The cinnamon beckons to be added to the lamb in my fridge.
I close the spice cabinet.
I am going to bake a cake. God help us all.
I begin by reading the instructions and I can almost hear cookbook author Nancie McDermott talking to me. I met her at a conference this year. Her vibrant spirit and her contagious laughter attracted me to her. I am cooking from her book. Perhaps I am trying to channel her and have her here with me. She looks like the kind of person who could make hard decisions easily.
I begin by opening the bag of flour. It spills all over the counter and the floor. The fine white powder covers the newly cleaned hardwood floor. I want to clean it up. Instead I simply stand there. It is how I feel. My spirit is covered in dust and I cannot seem to shake it off.
I bend down and clean the flour. But it seems I have just made a bigger mess. Funny how it seems like my life now. I plug one hole to have another one open up. Noah, your ark has nothing on me.
I begin to read the instructions again and it asks to boil some milk and butter. I can do that. I think. The weight of my decision is hurting me so much that I cannot function. I hear the kids in the living room playing a game of carom. It is a fun game, if you haven’t tried it. It is like playing pool except it is on a flat board and there are little “coins” instead of balls and a larger coin called a striker to strike them with (instead of a cue).
The kids, they hear me rattling around the kitchen, and come to see what all the fuss is about. The older one offers to break the eggs in a container so I can proceed with this monumental dish. He looks at the recipe photo, it is stunning, “Wow, mom. This looks amazing. Look at all the caramel on this cake!”
Oh, right, have I mentioned that I have never made caramel icing before?
He breaks the eggs as I stand and watch him. I haven’t created too many amazing things in my life but he is one of the best ones yet. He smiles at me. “You look tired,” he says and then begins to help me clean the floor.
I stand back and watch him. He is cleaning while his four-year-old brother is standing there, quietly, throwing more flour on the floor. They make me laugh, these little miracles.
They run back to their game and I begin to continue my cake or what I hope will be a cake.
As the milk and the butter meld together on the stove, I begin to look for the cake pans. I know I have them somewhere. I begin to look in earnest for the pans. I spot an old plate a friend had given me, a old jar that hosted a shrimp pickle I once made and a broken spatula that holds heavy memories.
How did I get myself into this mess? Why do I have to make this decision? Why cant decisions make themselves? Better yet, why cant things go back to the way they were, when we were all strangers to each other, when there was no familiarity, when there was no relationship, when there was nothing that could hurt.
My husband of eighteen years wanders into the kitchen. I want to go and hug him. He knows I am struggling with this decision. He comes over and hugs me and as gently and kindly as possible whispers, “Don’t worry. Don’t try so hard. Let it be.” I know he is right. But I don’t feel it yet. I am not ready to let it be.
He leaves to watch a football game. I return to my hunt for the cake pans.
Much to my dismay, I find the pans.
This means I will have to go on.
I sift, I measure, I pretend to know what I am doing.
I have been doing that all last year. Pretending.
I cannot pretend anymore, I am no good at it. I am stuck between a rock and a hard place, and only the right choice will help me.
What is the right choice? How does one know when a decision will heal and when it will hurt more?
I don’t know. I seem to be saying and writing that a lot lately: I don’t know.
My four-year-old complains about that. He asks how planes fly, why the wind only blows on our face when the windows are down in the car, how plants eat, how the little people get inside the TV, why the sky is blue, why the grass is green, why butter is so delicious, why rice can be red. I say I don’t know. Then I hug him. I am tired. The choices I have to make have made me tired. But he makes me laugh as he makes up answers to his own questions.
He comes in and stares at the baking cake in the oven, through the little glass window on the door. We smile at each other. A sweet, warm smell has filled my tiny kitchen. A reassurance that there is peace to be found in the small things in life.
He runs off to find his brother.
I begin to make the caramel icing. I read the instructions again. I can do this. The brown sugar, the butter, the milk begin to fall in love with each other in my pan and meld together to become a gorgeous brown crème.
The cake has cooled on the rack and does not look like a volcano exploded. In fact, it looks like a fairly decent pound cake. Nancie would be proud. Perhaps, it is too early to say that. No one has tasted it yet.
I need a spatula to spread the icing. I cannot find it and as I peek in the pan on the stove, I notice the icing hardening.
I sit down and stare at the kitchen. It is a mess. I am a fairly clean cook and yet today I have made it look like my husband was cooking, unsupervised.
I make myself some coffee and sip it as I taste the cake, hardened icing on the side.
Did I really do it? Did I just bake a two-tier cake with almost icing on it?
My eyes are moist. I have wandered through unknown territory and come out the other end. Mostly unscathed.
I still don’t know what I am going to do. But then, perhaps, there is the point. I don’t have to know. It is like my younger son and his questions. My husband and I never seem to have adequate answers and yet he trusts us. He makes up his own sometimes. But more importantly, he trusts that we will guide him to the right answers when the time is right.
I have to trust that things will work out as they are meant to be.
Perhaps some people are only meant to be in our lives at a certain time and not at another. It does not mean that friendships are lost or lives have to be ruined. It is just time to move on.
Trusting in the process is hard; believing that the right answer will come out the other end is harder.
And yet, here I am with a gorgeous caramel cake, a family that is praising my non-existent baking skills, and a feeling that everything is going to be just fine.