I am a cake baker. You’ll notice I said “baker” and not “artist.” I do not create eight-tiered culinary masterpieces that stretch four feet high and are decorated with scenes from “Shrek.” My cakes do not have PVC or copper pipes holding them up. In fact, I don’t know the difference between PVC and PCP, which means that if I tried to use one of them in a cake, I might well end up incorporating the recreational drug popularly known as “angel dust” into my batter. The terms “structural” and “architectural” are far less likely to be applied to one of my cakes than the terms “delicious,” “moist,” ‘chocolatey,” or “rich.” I do not sculpt my cakes, nor do I air brush them. And I certainly would never shroud one of my delicious creations under a layer of that flavorless Play-Do-like substance known as fondant – or fon-DAWNT (you see, I don’t even know how to pronounce it).
Although I have been known to tweak another person’s cake recipe, I have never invented a cake recipe of my own. I have a whole library full of cookbooks dedicated solely to cakes. Among my specialties are a Black Chocolate Espresso Cake with Bittersweet Glaze that I found in a book called “In The Sweet Kitchen,” written by Regan Daley, a prominent Toronto pastry chef; an Apple Spice Cake whose recipe I got from a collection of State Fair-winning cakes from around the country; and a Coconut Sunshine Cake that I got from an old recipe collection that my wife inherited from her grandmother. I am perfectly happy to employ other people’s recipes. I bake to bring pleasure to the taste buds not gratification to the ego.
There was a time when my cakes were in great demand at birthday parties, graduations, anniversaries, and other family-oriented celebrations. Relatives of mine used to eagerly request one of my cakes whenever there was an important occasion to celebrate. But not any more. Since the emergence of such TV shows as “The Ace of Cakes” and “Food Network Challenge” and “Amazing Wedding Cakes” my cakes are no longer deemed special enough for special occasions. Oh, they’re okay for potluck gatherings and ordinary desserts, but they aren’t nearly dazzling enough for commemorating personal milestones. My cakes have no words written on them. They have no bling dangling from them. They have no moving parts. They consist almost entirely of, well, cake.
In days past, whenever my wife reminded me of a grandchild’s upcoming birthday or a niece’s eighth-grade graduation, my automatic response was: “I’ll bake a cake for it.” To which my wife would always reply: “That’ll be great.” But about five years ago, my wife began hemming and hawing after I announced that I would bake a cake for an upcoming family celebration. “What’s wrong?” I would ask her. And then she would tell me that the child’s parents had specifically requested that I not bring a cake to this gathering because a special showpiece cake had already been ordered from some trendy new designer bakery. “They’re having a cake specifically designed for the occasion,” she would tell me. At first, my reaction was a slight bit of regret leavened by the relief I customarily experience every time I manage to escape a brush with manual labor. But by the third or fourth time it happened, the relief disappeared and I found myself feeling the way a silent movie actor must have felt back in the dawn of talking movies when he was told that his voice wasn’t suitable for the talkies.
For a while, I was always gratified when I showed up at the celebration and discovered that the professionally produced culinary masterpiece tasted like week-old Twinkies enrobed in Silly Putty. Surely, I thought, no one will ever want a repeat of this wretched assault upon the taste buds. But I was wrong. Substance was no longer important in the world of celebration cakes. Style was now everything. My cakes had very little style – unless, of course, you consider elegant simplicity and traditional form stylish, which almost no one does any more.
June used to be a busy baking month for me. Two of my granddaughters were born in June, as was my stepdaughter, Mary Ann. What’s more, there always seemed to be a June graduation ceremony or two that required my cake-baking services. Not any more. Although there is no longer any demand for my cakes, I still love to bake them. But nowadays, after baking a cake, I generally end up having to eat most of it myself, with a small assist from my wife. As a result, I have not only lost a part of my identity, I have also gained about 20 pounds. So thank you, Duff Goldman and Gerhard Keegan and Christopher Garren and Mary Maher and Ashley Vicos and all the rest of the celebrity cake makers who have nurtured the contemporary notion that cakes are primarily about style and not substance. Your victory over me and my type of baking may be complete, but it isn’t likely to be sweet. You can have your cake and eat it too – but I feel confident it won’t taste as good as one of mine.