I’m a perfectionist. That may be an understatement, but we’ll leave it there for now.
The times in the kitchen that my perfectionism rears its ugly head the most occur when I am decorating cakes. These can also be my moments of most triumph, but more often than not something goes wrong and I sheepishly carry my less-than-perfect (but always delicious!) cake to whatever destination it belongs.
So this is a tale of anticipation, fear, initial joy and ultimate despair. Not a tragic love story, but my emotions are so tied up in every cake it might as well be.
Today we celebrated my dear friend Daniel’s birthday. Daniel is a Chaniott, and the Chaniott boys are two of my favorite people in the WHOLE world. Also, because they are David and Daniel, they would never ever judge by appearances, so I know I am safe to bring him the ugliest of cakes as long as it is tasty!
Yesterday, I baked a cake based on this flower cupcake recipe by the fabulous Ina Garten. I LOVE Ina Garten. While Ina may be fabulous, she neglected to mention in this recipe just how much cake it would make. THREE 9″ layers. THREE!
Today, inspired by this recipe from Epicurious, I decided to add blackberry filling between the layers and then top it all off with cream cheese icing. I waited ALL day to get home to this cake, excited about the possibility. Would it work? Would it be lovely?
My favorite moment of cake decorating is the first swipe of icing across the top. It’s a moment of joy, of anticipation of the beauty that may be created over the next hour. It’s hesitant … will crumbs mix into the icing? Will it spread creamy and smooth?
The icing was perfect. Not too sweet, not too cream-cheesy. Light, but rich. Smooth and creamy. I was excited! It spread across the cake with ease.
I finished the first layer without a hitch. Perhaps this is where pride gets the best of me … or in this case, as I am apt to be ever-the-perfectionist, a looming sense of dread that jinxes even the most promising of cakes. The second layer was added with a slight hiccup … I have 2 matching 9″ pans and 1 not-matching 9″ pan. This created a problem, which was quickly solved by piping extra icing in the crack. See, you can’t even tell! (Layer 2 has the same problem, and you can see the before-fix on the top layer and the after-fix on the bottom.)
At this point, it was safe to say I was really nervous. Would this really be my prettiest cake yet? I overthink, though. I ALWAYS overthink. I started to think that I wouldn’t have enough icing. I pressed on, but knew I couldn’t make it with the lovely, perfect icing that I was using.
So I made more. And it was lumpy. How can a recipe that worked minutes before all of the sudden become lumpy? Maybe the bowl was too warm, maybe the butter to cold. I don’t know. All I know is that all my hopes for a lovely cake were destroyed by the lumpy icing that sat at the bottom of my bowl.
But what to do but keep decorating? I was discouraged, but not defeated. I’m always discouraged when I decorate a cake, because it’s never as lovely as I want it to be. It’s like a little melodrama played out in cake that plays out in my life everyday … “God, can I be lovely today? Can everything go smoothly? Will I look perfect on the outside, both physically and emotionally?” The reality is my cakes are never perfect, but my friends always think they are delicious. I never think they are (or I am) as good as they (I) really are (am), but I think that’s the curse of crippling perfectionism.
I finished the cake, lumpy icing and all:
We went to dinner. I fought with my husband on the way there because (1) I was hungry and (2) I was embarrassed about my cake. But after dinner, when we were hanging out at Daniel’s apartment, in his tiny kitchen, he and I were the only ones to see it as it was cut. Everyone else got their sliver, their taste of Ina’s brilliance and my humble execution, and I heard nothing but compliments.
Funny, isn’t it? I spent well over an hour decorating a cake that only served to humble me and then remind me that all will be well. No, today wasn’t perfect … baking or not. I made mistakes in the kitchen, at work, and at home. But at the end of the day, life is sweet. And cake makes it sweeter, lumpy icing and all.