The Icing on the Cake

A work of art

This was Daniel’s birthday cake.  In case you couldn’t tell (ha), it was homemade. When we’ve had birthday parties for him, I’ve bought cakes, which I sort of didn’t want to do because as I’ve written many times, I like to cook and I also like the idea of everything I serve at a party being homemade (it just seems to be polite and respectful of my guests.  And maybe I’m showing off).  Of course I break this “rule” quite often, especially when I’m making a big meal like, say, Thanksgiving and decide that while the idea of homemade pumpkin cheesecake or sweet potato ice cream sounds great, enthusiasm can carry you only so far.

We didn’t have a big party for his birthday this year, so it was really important to me to make a cake for him so it would seem like we put some effort into making his birthday special (I suffer from acute guilt in general; my mommy guilt is epic).  I also realize that when he gets older, mommy making his cake will likely seem embarrassing and the allure of the store-bought cake will be something that makes his birthday special. Hmm.

So we made him this cake, and when I say “we,” I mean me and Jimmy.  I made the cake.  I’m embarrassed to admit the cake is from a mix because Daniel wanted a chocolate cake, and the homemade cake I made didn’t turn out right which sort of made me wonder whether my cooking skills have atrophied (see previous post).  I also made the icing.  Jimmy decorated the cake.  Ok, I did pipe the sloppy blue beads around the base.  You may have guessed that while I may enjoy baking cakes, decorating them is not a core competency of mine.

I came to this realization painfully.

Several years ago I took a cake decorating class.  I’m not sure why except I had the time and was bored I suppose.  This was pre-child, pre-grad school, post-newlywed time.  I think I may have signed up for the class because I had concluded I lacked creativity and was taking fun classes like paper making and fiction writing in order to awaken any creativity that might be slumbering.  Learning how to decorate cakes seemed like it would be fun, and I think I was also curious about how those techniques were done.   I bought the Wilton tackle box chock full o’ decorating goodies and prepared to be initiated into the mysteries of torting, levelling, piping and spreading.

In retrospect, taking the class was a stupid idea.  I am very uncoordinated, so any technique involving dexterity was doomed.  I’m also a perfectionist, so anything I could not do well nagged me.  I hit the first roadblock right away: spreading the icing on the cake, the base layer for the delightful decorations to come. I carefully followed the recipe for “Faux-tercream” (we used shortening instead of butter for our practice buttercream).  I plopped a large spoonful of icing on top, picked up my spatula and prepared to achieve the desired smooth canvas.  But I never could.  I spread and smoothed and smoothed and spread but no matter what I did, I couldn’t achieve the smooth look or crumbs contaminated the icing.  Frustrated, I searched sites for techniques and other icing recipes.  I tried using a crumb coat.  I refrigerated the cake.  Nothing worked.  I could get the icing sort of smooth, but it still looked sloppy. After watching my attempts, Jimmy offered suggestions and annoyed, I suggested he give it a try.  He did, and I’ll be damned if his didn’t look better.

Though I hated bringing such a sloppy product to class, I soldiered on, determined to master the borders and other decorations.  The borders were a bit easier to grasp, but again my lack of coordination came back to haunt me.  I could make a few consistent-sized dots or scallops before my hand squeezed the bag too hard or not hard enough, my border taking on a ragged look.  Some border elements would be flush against the cake while others had noticeable gaps.  The next obstacle were icing roses.  Roses are my favorite flower, and I was excited to learn how to make them.  I made very few attractive roses.  While my classmates made crisp, gorgeous buds, mine were flaccid and poorly defined.

I hung in there for the entire 8 weeks even though my poor cakes were the least attractive in the class.  I usually took the finished product to work, and they enjoyed the fruit of my labors no matter how poorly decorated.  I was very frustrated, though.  I didn’t expect to become an expert cake designer, but it bothered me that I couldn’t bend the icing to my will.  I also discovered that cake decorating was not helping me nurture my creativity: the blank canvas of an iced cake was just as daunting as everything else I had attempted.  By the last class, I was tense.

For our last project, we were going to make a two-level cake using dowels.  I brought a 6-inch layer, a 9-inch layer and the dowels as instructed. Unfortunately, our teacher had forgotten to tell us to cut our dowels to the appropriate height ahead of time.  The only tool she had for cutting was a dull cake knife slightly shorter than a saber with which we had to hack at the dowels.  And we needed 4 dowels.  We took turns with the knife and while we waited, we decorated our cakes.  The teacher clucked disapprovingly at my smoothing job.  My roses were wilted. My colors were garish.  It was a hideous cake.

I took my turn with the knife and started hacking.  Perhaps I was taking out some of my frustration on the dowels; perhaps it was the pesky lack of coordination.  Hack. Hack. Hack.  Suddenly, my thumb was bleeding all over my dowels and the table.  I grabbed a paper towel to put around my thumb, but it just was too much and I ran to the bathroom, locked myself in a stall and sobbed.  I sobbed for the icing that would never smooth properly.  The roses that refused to bloom.  The borders that were never even and flush. And I sobbed because I was the moron who thought taking a cake decorating class was an awesome idea.  Did I mention that the class was taught at night at a high school?  I also sobbed because I was humiliated that a cake decorating class had reduced me to sobbing in a stall with lilliputian-sized doors in the girls’ bathroom.

I finally got it together and returned to the classroom.  I finished my cake, managing to avoid adding any blood to the already grotesque monstrosity, and left.

And that experience is why I don’t decorate cakes. Jimmy and I have mutually agreed that we cakes need to be iced, he does it.  It’s galling, but I’ve grudgingly accepted it.

Oh well.  You can’t be good at everything, right?

What is one thing you wish you could do that you have never been able to master?

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2 comments

  1. I took a cake decorating class when I was in middle school; while it was fun, my icing never looked like the Wilton catalogues. I loved daydream-designing cakes in my head though. I still love daydream-designing things – afghans to crochet, sweaters to knit – but rarely does anything come out the way I pictured it.

    I think the cake looks really cool. I’ve only ever bought cake for my kids… just had to let that one go. Entertaining stresses me out too much as it is.

    You write really well. And, Happy Birthday, Daniel!

  2. OK, this post made me HOWL. This would so be me if I ever tried to decorate a cake. And I think Daniel’s cake looks great, for the record. Do you ever go to Cake Wrecks? Hilariously bad baked goods, which will make you feel awesome about your skills.

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