January 09, 2005

Have cake will bake

I am no whizz in the kitchen. There, I said it. As much as I’d love to be able to whip up a fancy gourmet dish, the truth is I can’t even successfully boil an egg without consulting my mother.

Unlike little girls whose loving mothers encouraged them to help out in the kitchen, my mother would rather roll down a hill with a ladle drilled into her forehead than let me anywhere near her immaculate kitchen.

My mother’s great fear of me killing myself in the attempt to cook anything remotely resembling food has resulted in my staying in a hostel with a cafeteria when I studied abroad. We were served three meals a day - exactly like those prison camp movies except we didn’t wear uniforms or shave our heads. But my mother’s goal was accomplished. I never touched a stove the entire year I was overseas.

But being a person of equal determination, the fact that I was completely void of cooking skills didn’t stop from whipping stuff up for my friends as little gifts. I baked cakes and cookies for birthdays, special celebrations and as going-away presents. It never occurred to me that I could have bought them useful gifts like socks or packets of cereal. Stuff that wouldn’t kill them. But as always, these things never occur to me.

Once, I got together with Gwen, a friend of mine to bake my specialty chocolate-almond cake for Jackie, who was leaving for the UK. Gwen knew nothing about baking, so I told her not to worry and assured her that I knew what I was doing. She calmed down. For a while anyway.

Later, she freaked out when the cake emerged from the oven - it was all crusty and dry and sooty and black. I tried convincing her that that was how it was supposed to look but I guess she’d been exposed to many chocolate-almond cakes in bakeries because she insisted that they looked nothing like the cake we baked.

To salvage it, I cut the crusty cake up into long slices, wrapped each one in a silver wrapper and I tied them up with red velvet ribbons. By then, Gwen had stopped whining and was looking at me with a strange expression on her face. Hey, they don’t call me creative for nothing.

The cake slices looked gorgeous. "Jackie will be bowled over!" I told Gwen. She refused to have her name put on the card.

We presented the cake slices to Jackie at the airport and as she waved good-bye, she promised to eat them on the plane. I received an email thanking me for the "yummy cake" several days later. It’s been many months since she’s left and she’s still alive and passing all her exams excellently. I’m glad to see that my cake has contributed to her doing so well in a foreign country.

My boyfriend’s birthday came soon after. I wanted to give him something that could never be bought in a store, so I decided to bake him a cake. And we all know that cakes like mine can never be bought in any store - just in those that want to go out of business.

This time, I wanted to bake a white chocolate cake. I bought almond strips, chocolate chunkies and a big bottle of Hershey syrup to add a dash of personality to my cake. I was going to decorate it and make it look exactly like the cakes sitting in the bakery displays.

Baking this particular cake was surprisingly easy and it popped right out of the oven in 30 minutes. There was only one problem: the cake was crudely cracked in the centre, bearing a great resemblance to an erupted volcano.

That cake destroyed every ounce of my self-esteem. I was devastated. My mother was especially worried because she knew that if my cake remained in the throes of ugliness, she might be stuck with baking me another one. This fear drove her to call my aunt who happened to be a baking instructor. Over the phone, my mother animatedly described the condition of my cake - hideous, shaped like a cone with an exploded top. She listened intently as my aunt explained that it was impossible to salvage any form of my cake’s aesthetic value at this point.

I refused to give up and brushed off my mother’s feeble attempts to console me. Taking my cue from past cake-baking ventures, I covered my cake in a transparent plastic wrapper and added a huge bow to mask the unsightly crack. I then wrapped up the packs of chocolate chunkies, almond strips and Hershey syrup bottle in festive wrappers and ribbons as accompanying gifts.

Needless to say, my boyfriend was incredibly impressed and finished my cake in two days, saying it tasted great. I couldn’t tell if he meant it though. Was the packaging so beautiful that it managed to somehow mask the atrocity of the cake? Or did the enormous amount of effort I put into the presentation make him feel sorry for me? Either way, I labeled my cake a critical success.

It was then that I decided to put an end to all baking experiments. It was simply too much work for too little gratification. But for what it’s worth, I do consider my attempts successful because if there’s one thing I learned, it’s never to underestimate the power of appearance.

I think I’ll take up packaging instead.

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