Back to the Cutting Board: How I Returned to Cake
A recent floor-sprawl flip through the family photo albums revealed that my cake inklings might tip more to the nurture side of the debate. There were bunnies bigger than baby Q, cabbage patch dolls growing in sheet pans, Barbies suspended in bundt-cake dresses and Dalmatians ready to be a girl’s best friend. My family had a flare for tightly conceptualized themes and homemade responses. It didn’t hurt that my mom might have out-dueled Betty Crocker in an Iron Chef level of competition had The Food Network been scouting in small town Nebraska or the Philly ‘burbs years ago. Can Betty tout homemade graham crackers or does she rush for the pre-fab crusts and Honey MaidTM convenience for abstinent snacking?
Whether or not the family had been slipping me subliminal signals or blatantly instigating my cake outlet, it wasn’t long before I was making Bob the Tomato of Veggie Tale fame (What Dessert Would Jesus Eat?) or Hawaiian beach scenes- the edible products of my new hobby. My last cake memory was a particularly trying night of my evil anal-retentive side battling the gravitational forces of icing on “turrets.” It was my niece’s princess party, and I had volunteered to make [sought creative control of] a castle cake. Apologies to my incredibly patient maternal assistant [for this and several other occasions] because when creative [perfectionist] Quelcy tries to marry vision and reality, there are often ugly outbursts followed by quiet fuming. Nonetheless, the castle served the princesses, and I took a hiatus from cake decorating. It was a hiatus called “Architecture School.”
By “hiatus” I refer to:
Hiatus [hahy-ey-tuhs] (noun): 1. a period of intense work defined by conceptual thinking, peak perfectionism, massive production, subjective criticism, sleepless nights, neck problems, back problems, psychological problems and a 4 am power-sander-to-the-right-knee problem, culminating in a lack of any desire to be an architect.
I re-evaluated the loveless marriage that was my relationship with architecture, reworked my recipe and graduated with a baker’s dozen of degrees and no strong desire to enter a real working world nor to be an “a…a…ad…adult.”
Instead, I signed on to play with a French three-year-old on the outskirts of Paris. Before I could fly the friendly skies with complimentary wine and my preferred compartmentalized Hindu, non-dairy, air-food option, I had to sling sandwiches, soups and salads for the customers of The Red Oak Cafe.
With The Food Network broadcasting on the cafe’s big screen, I recalled for my boss, whom I liked to call “Fancy Schmancy Gancy” (whereas others might just call him Dave Gancy), the only Food Network show I ever enjoyed (due to lack of cable and overall exposure to the programming): The Ace of Cakes, in which “alternative” artist types make extreme cakes. When they had to get the exact shade of tennis ball for three SPHERICAL tennis ball cakes, fire pyrotechnics from a mini Washington Monument and worry about transporting finished masterpieces, I knew I had observed kindred spirits.
While watching the show, not only did I recall (with a slight shudder) my castle cake stress levels but (with painful physical memories) the numerous college instances of what had to be third degree, hot-glue-gun burns and split-second, sleep deprived deliberations: finger safety versus the successful adhesion of intricate bass wood pieces on a model in the wee hours of the night? The bass wood pieces usually won. The icing may not have been burning the artists’ fingers, but the hardship and masochistic levels of satisfaction made us birds of an obsessively iced feather.
As it turned out, my very own “Fancy Schmancy Gancy” had, in his culinary school days, been flocking with the star of the cake classic, Baker Duff Goldman, as his teaching assistant. “Yeah, I could see where you’d be good for something like that Quelc,” Dave said to me, while multi-tasking several sandwich duties. I tried to regain control of my gaping mouth. “You’ve got the design background. You’re creative. You have a unique look.” Still gaping as he continued, “but it’d be good to have something to show or maybe take some pastry classes or something.”
While Dave was suggesting I dip my fingers in batter, I decided to take a plunge, and I began scheming.
Employee plotting had begun. Dave’s approach to the proverbial hill was just around the corner, and there were murmurs of cakes and cards and forty years- oh my! There was the excuse I needed. I volunteered for the cake duties and geared myself for channeling my distant pastime, and so my caking pastime was rekindled.
Quaker Oats Cake
A Transition From Hibernation and Pre-Fab Cake Construction
In many ways, the first stages of the cake design (like the intentional distinction between interior designer and interior decorator) process were not a far cry from my “hiatus” days. I wasn’t about to slap a suburban facade or a McMansion double car garage on a standard cookie cutter frame. I needed a concept! Concept baking was akin to drawing architectural inspiration from the occupant. In this case, I needed to understand the eater: my café boss Dave Gancy. What about Dave would transfer well to eggs, flour, sugar and some type of artistic topping? He ran The Red Oak Cafe. Should I use trees? A leaf? Forty years old? What were the visuals? Then it came to me: oatmeal!
The first day I met Dave he was already pushing a plastic sample-size cup of liquidy oatmeal at me, with an accompanying energy of an explanation, “It’s an oatmeal smoothie! I call it ‘yoatmeal’ (recent copyrights have the drink dubbed as OTY)! It’s a blend of oatmeal made with tea, yogurt, flax seed and wheat germ…real great for digestion! We serve it in coffee to-go cups!” A couple weeks later, I was selling the same spiel and slinging the sample-sized cups at lunchers, snackers and diners. I convinced Dave to convert to a purer yogurt selection to appease my issues with hormone-pumped Holsteins and usually had my own daily sample, with chai- cherry-almond being my rarely occurring, but favorite, selection. “Oh yeah, I met Dave. He gave me that oatmeal smoothie to try,” was a common phrase from customers. Dave and oats, oats and Dave! Now, how to add cake to that blessed union of breakfast staple and portability?
The answer was staring at me in bulk- the tried and true Quaker Oats Canister. From the Giant Eagle (a grocery store, not actually a large national symbol) baking aisle, I gathered my arsenal of supplies and very quickly found myself transitioning from the baking/cooling stage to the hunched-over, face-in-my-work, fixation on detail stage. When my roommate took a peep at the weeing hours of the night and responded, “Oh, but I thought you were going to make an actual canister. Now that would have been cool,” I could have choked him to death with store-bought icing (that is to say “beef lard” mixed with fructose…not the most pleasant way to go).
I carried on my mission even if it didn’t meet Dan’s vision and developed strategies as I went. I had every intention to attempt that rosy-cheeked face of the Quaker man himself, but as the hours came closer and closer to the start of my shift (not quite that close, but the sleep buffer was definitively diminishing), I had to throw in a white washcloth of truce and decided upon a simple grain of wheat instead of an old American.
The next morning, a co-worker spared me the anxiety of walking a cake platter through hoards of college students lacking the perceptual awareness of peripheral pedestrians on a sidewalk, and he drove me to work. With the cake hidden in the car and the employees pleading ignorance in response to Dave’s hinting, Dave began to crack. He finally “subtly” worked into the conversation that it was his 40th birthday. Did we believe it?!?!
“Oh, you don’t say! What a surprise!” we responded with a minimal change in emotion from the gusto we felt for table washing. Dave surrendered and secluded his forty years in his basement office lair.
Scurries here and there and then the big surprise delivery of cake and cheer…Happy Birthday Dave from your workers and your oatmeal inspiration! Clearly, this was more the attention he had wanted. He ate it right up as camera phones captured my re-entry into the cake world drizzled with oats.
By the second and third shifts of workers, there were more crumbs than “Quaker Oats,” and I had iced a new path! The birthday cake had shaken me from my cake decorating hibernation. The rekindled hobby was no longer about the Ace of Cakes. It was about an ephemeral creative process, but one thing had to change: the ingredients! I wanted to slave over cakes that I would feel confident in eating and sharing with the important people in my life. I wanted to satisfy my sweet tooth sensibly.
I would have to bake WITH THE GRAINS!