Authors: Erica Bauermeister
Tags: #Contemporary Fiction, #Cooking
“Lamb cake,” said Ian.
“Lamb cake?” asked Lillian, smiling. “What’s that, Ian?”
Ian looked around the room and saw the others waiting, intrigued. “Well, my dad always made it for Easter. White cake shaped like a lamb, with white icing and coconut shavings.” He paused, then continued in a rush. “I hated coconut, and I thought the whole thing was stupid, but after I went away to college, all I could think about was how I wasn’t going to get any of the lamb cake. And then about a week after Easter I got a padded envelope in the mail from my dad. Inside was this thing that looked like a frosted cow patty. I called my dad and you know what he said? ‘Well, we missed you, son, so I sent you the lamb butt.’”
The other students laughed, and then the room quieted, waiting for the next story. The woman sitting next to Carl and his wife shifted slightly in her seat.
“Go on, Antonia,” Lillian encouraged her, and the young woman spoke up, her accent thick and warm as sunshine.
“When I was growing up, in Italy, my family lived upstairs from a bakery. Every morning the smell of the bread baking would come up the stairs, under my door. When I came home from school, the glass cases would be full of little cakes, but they were always thin and flat, not so interesting. Sometimes, though, in the back, they would be making a big one, for a wedding.” She sat back in her seat, smiling at the memory.
“I remember my wedding cake,” said Claire. “I was so hungry—we hadn’t eaten all day. Here was this incredible cake—layers of chocolate and whipped cream and all these curlicues of thick, smooth frosting—and they kept making us pose for pictures. I told my husband I was starving, and he took a fork and just stuck it in the side of the cake and fed me a bite. My mother and the photographer were furious, but I always tell James that was the moment when I married him.”
Carl’s and Helen’s eyes met, sharing a silent joke.
“What was your wedding cake, Carl?” Lillian asked.
Carl smiled. “Ding Dongs.”
The class turned in their seats to look at him.
“Well, Helen and I were on a budget—we didn’t even go home to our parents to get married. We went to the courthouse after we finished spring finals, and spent our honeymoon in a little old hotel on the beach in northern California. The only store in town that was open was a gas station, and all they had were Ding Dongs—they called them Big Wheels back then—and shriveled old hot dogs.”
“We took our Ding Dongs to the beach,” Helen added, “and Carl found some sticks to use as pillars between them and he made a wedding cake tower. It was a thing of beauty.”
“We kept the top one for our first anniversary, too, just like they tell you to,” Carl finished, “didn’t even have to freeze the thing.” They laughed, along with the rest of the class.
“Well, then,” said Lillian, “I think tonight we should make Carl and Helen a cake.”
The class nodded hungrily.
“What flavor should it be?” Lillian asked Helen and Carl.
“White,” said Helen decisively. “For our hair color.” She took hold of Carl’s hand and smiled.
Helen had not Been available the cherry blossom day when Carl sat down next to her—and she wasn’t available for a long time after. Carl didn’t mind waiting, but he didn’t intend it to be a passive experience. He chose the debate team, in which Helen was an avid member and which he saw as a better option than the campus book club or the women’s soccer team, which took up the rest of Helen’s free time. Helen’s current boyfriend was on the debate team as well, and Carl found the prospect of a direct challenge to be more interesting.
In the end, he found he liked the debate team; he was a thorough and steadfast researcher, with arguments grounded in unassailable fact, and he had a passionate sense of righteousness that overcame any of his initial concerns about speaking in public and which not so much later caused him to contradict Helen in the midst of a mock debate. She stopped, stunned, and looked at him carefully. Then she grinned.
One evening in October, Carl walked into the Autumn Social Dance and saw Helen, standing on the side of the room talking with three of her friends. Her dark blue dress swirled out from her waist and clung at the bodice. Her hair fell to her shoulders in waves. The music began and Helen’s friends were commandeered by their various beaus. Helen stood, watching them.
“Where’s Mr. Debate Team?” Carl asked as he walked up.
“He’s out of town. Leastways, he says he is.” Helen continued watching the dancers, her face steady.
“Care to practice some steps with me?” Carl asked, lightly. Helen considered him, a question asked and discarded in her eyes, then turned into the circle of his arms.
It stunned him how easy it was, after all that time waiting, to slip his right hand along her back and feel his fingers fit perfectly into the curve of her waist, to feel her fingers slide along the palm of his left hand and then rest softly in place. She followed his lead like water and his feet moved as if answering instructions from a far better dancer. Without thinking, he pulled her closer to him and felt no resistance, only the slight incline of her forehead toward his shoulder. She was warm, and her hair smelled like cinnamon.
When the dance was over, he kept her close to him, her hand in his like a flower he had picked. She bent her head back slightly to look up at him.
“You’re home,” he said. She smiled and he leaned down to kiss her.
“In MY opinion, a cake is a lot like a marriage,” Lillian began, as she brought eggs, milk, and butter from the refrigerator and put them on the counter. “Admittedly, I don’t have a lot of experience,” she remarked, holding up her ringless left hand with a wry expression on her face, “but I’ve often thought that it would be a great idea for couples to make their own wedding cakes, as part of the preparation for their life together. Maybe not so many couples would end up getting married”—Lillian smiled—“but I think those that did might approach it a bit differently.”
She reached into the drawers below the counter and pulled out containers of flour and sugar and a box of baking soda.
“Now, cooking is all about preference—add a bit more of this or that until you reach the taste you want. Baking, however, is different. You need to make sure you have certain combinations correct.”
Lillian took the eggs and separated the yolks from the whites into two small blue bowls.
“At its essence, a cake is actually a delicate chemical equation—a balance, between air and structure. You give your cake too much structure, and it becomes tough. Too much air and it literally falls apart.
“You can see why it would be tempting to use a mix”—her eyes sparkled—“but then you’d lose out on all the lessons that baking a cake has to teach you.”
Lillian put the butter into the bowl and turned on the mixer; the paddles beat their way into the soft yellow rectangles. Slowly, in an impossibly thin waterfall of white, she let the sugar drift into the bowl.
“This is how you put air into a cake,” she commented over the noise of the machine. “Back before mixers, it used to take a really long time. Every air bubble in the batter came from the energy of someone’s arm. Now we just have to resist the urge to go faster and turn the mixer speed up. The batter won’t like it if you do that.” The waterfall of sugar ended, and Lillian stood, waiting patiently, watching the mixer.
The paddles continued their revolutions around the bowl, and the class watched the image in the mirror above the counter, entranced, as the sugar met and mingled with the butter, each drawing color and texture from the other, expanding, softening, lifting up the sides of the bowl in silken waves. Minutes passed, and still Lillian waited. Finally, when the butter and sugar reached the cloudlike consistency of whipped cream, she turned off the motor.
“There,” she said. “Magic.”
After THEY Were married, Carl and Helen decided to move to the Pacific Northwest. Helen had heard stories about tall trees and green that went on forever; she said she was ready for a change in color. Carl delighted in her sense of adventure and the idea of a new home for their new marriage. He got a job as an insurance agent—selling stability, he called it, giving his clients the luxury of sleeping through the night, knowing that no matter what happened there was a net into which they could fall, mid-dream.
The Pacific Northwest was dark and wet for much of the year, but Carl liked the mist that blanketed the trees and grass and houses. It was liquid fairy dust, he told his children when they arrived, two in quick succession starting in the third year of his and Helen’s marriage. Their offspring were native north-westerners, raising their faces to the damp skies the way tulips follow the sun. Carl marveled at how the rain seemed to nourish them, watching as they sank their roots deep into the soil around them.
Helen found ways to sneak summer into the dark months of the year, canning and freezing the fruit off their trees in July and August and using it extravagantly throughout the winter—apple chutney with the Thanksgiving turkey, raspberry sauce across the top of a December pound cake, blueberries in January pancakes. And she always claimed the shorter winter days with their long stretches of cool, gray light were conducive to writing. Carl had bought her a small wooden desk, which fit as if built for the nook at the top of the stairs. Helen always said, though, that she was a sprinter when it came to writing, composing in quick snatches at the kitchen table, in bed—although after the children arrived, the snatches of time occasionally were marathon distances apart.
Wherever she wrote, whatever she did, she was his Helen, and Carl loved her as completely in the silvery light of the Northwest as he had on the beach in northern California where they had honeymooned. Helen, in turn, filled his life, and just when he would least expect it in those first years, there in his lunch he would find a Ding Dong. On those days, he left work early.
Lillian put a finger into the bowl. “I always think this is the most delicious stage of a cake.” She licked her finger with the enthusiasm of a child. “I’d give you some,” she teased, “but then we wouldn’t have enough for the cake.”
Lillian took eggs out of the bowl of warm water. “So, now we add the egg yolks, bit by bit, letting the air rise into them as well.” The mixer began its revolutions again as the liquid blended into the sugar-butter, the yolks turning the batter darker again, loose and glistening.
“After this,” she noted, “no snacking on the batter. With raw eggs, it’s too risky.”
The Years When the children were small felt like a gift to Carl. He had come from a family that regarded affection with a kind of benign intellectual amusement, and the astonishing physical love of his children filled him with gratitude. Although he and Helen had, without speaking, fallen into the traditional roles of their generation—he left the house and earned the money, she took care of the home and children—Carl found himself breaking the rules whenever possible, waking at the baby’s first noise and picking her up before Helen could rise. He sank into the warmth of his child’s fragile body against his shoulder; watched in awe that a baby, still essentially asleep, could keep a death grip on the blanket that meant the world was safe and loving, marveling at the thought that it was he and Helen who gave the feeling to the blanket, and the blanket to the child.
He didn’t even mind those early Christmas mornings when first one, then another toddler would climb into the bed that he and Helen had so recently fallen into themselves after a night of putting together wooden wagons, or bicycles, or dollhouses. He opened his arms and they piled in, trying to convince him that the streetlight outside really was the sun and that it was certainly time to open stockings, if maybe not presents, when in fact it was usually only two in the morning. Helen would groan good-naturedly and roll over, telling Carl all she wanted for Christmas was a good night’s sleep, and he would pull the children close and whisper the story of the Night Before Christmas until they would slowly, one by one, fall asleep, their bodies draped across each other like laundry in the basket. When the children got older, self-sufficient enough to go on their own midnight exploratory missions among the boxes under the tree (where, more often than not, Carl and Helen discovered them sleeping in the morning), Carl found himself missing their warm intrusions into his dreams.