Wednesday, August 19, 2009

I had my cake. And ate it, too.

This is the story of a girl. And a cake.

The girl, which, of course, is moi, isn't exactly Martha Stewart in the kitchen on a regular basis. I cook a few meals here and there, occasionally some cookies or what have you, but for the most part, I'm not a huge fan of kitchen duty. Every once in a while, I get a wild hair, and off I go, like at Thanksgiving, for example. The last two years I have actually cooked the entire or almost the entire Thanksgiving meal for 8-12 people, all from scratch, including the turkey. (I would be nothing without Ree, the Pioneer Woman and her scores of delicious recipes complete with photo tutorials.) Or at Christmas, when I make batch after batch of my signature item -- homemade marshmallows. Yum.

My mom turned 60 this week, and she threw herself an extravaganza this past weekend. She rented out a beautiful place, hired a caterer, and she and I went to town ordering flowers, making centerpieces, etc. As far as cakes were concerned, she had her mind made up. There would be no bakery cakes. Apparently she is not a fan of bakery cakes. So she got it in her head that we would offer an assortment of her favorite homemade desserts, most of which were made by her, with a cake from my aunt and two cherry pies thrown in from Marie Callender's for good measure. And my cake. I offered up a culinary creation of my own.

Never mind the fact that I'm not the most experienced baker in the world. I've made a handful of cakes, most of which might or might not have involved a box mix, and the occasional easy homemade cake here or there. But I can't recall tackling anything layered before. Until now. And you know how they say it's a good idea to try it out once before you actually need to make it, just to make sure it will all work out just right? Yeah, I'm not that girl either. Slap it together and hope for the best, that's my mantra. But I must add that I had just seen the movie Julie and Julia the weekend before, so maybe I still had some crumbs of that still floating around in my mind, little voices telling me, of course, you can make something grand!

As with everything I dream up in my little head, when it is for someone else, I like it to have meaning somehow. I looked through scores of cookbooks and magazines trying to find just the perfect thing to make for my mom, but nothing was really jumping out at me. Until I forgot about the cookbook I had on my bookshelves in our bedroom, one that my mom had bought me a couple of years ago, and, other than looking pretty, sat there unopened and unused. Perfect.

My mom and I are big fans of Jan Karon, author of the wonderful Mitford books. If you haven't read these little gems, you should stop what you are doing, go get them, and crack them open. Like right now. (Just kidding, I'm not done with my story yet, so you can't leave.) My mom had actually tried to get me to read them several times before I gave them a chance, but the subject of an aging Episcopal bachelor priest wasn't all that intriguing to me, and I put her off for quite a while. Then finally, on a whim, I cracked one open and started reading. I made it about halfway through and was about to write them off completely, when all of a sudden, I was hooked. They really are such amazing little books. You grow to love the town of Mitford with all of its endearing characters, and it's not long before you are wishing you could somehow figure out a way to crawl inside the pages and move there (much like my beloved Stars Hollow, home to those wacky Gilmore Girls). Like I said, along with the series of books there are also a few other companion books, some short Christmas stories, a bedside companion, a book of Father Tim's quotes, and a cookbook filled with all of the recipes talked about in the books.

And the biggest most memorable food item found in most, if not all, of the Mitford books, is Esther Bolick's Orange Marmalade Cake. (The cake is such a big part of the books that Jan Karon even based one of the shorter Mitford Christmas stories on Esther and her cake.)

Bingo. That's the exact thing I was looking for.

I was smart enough to at least read through the recipe several times, making sure I understood it (even if I'd never tried certain things before) and all of the steps required before I tried it out. Then I was off to the grocery store to secure all of my ingredients, including a box of fancy-schmancy cake flour. Ooh-la-la. I borrowed 3 round cake pans from my mom (which had belonged to my great-grandmother, a professional cook for a private family), bought a new sifter (mine was rusted), and was rarin' to go.

The party was set for Saturday night, so I started at 8pm Friday night. Naturally.

It took a good hour and a half just to get the cake mix done and poured in the pans. Yipes. There was double-sifting of things, whipping of things, nine eggs (no yoke, er, I mean, no joke), and all sorts of mayhem involved just in that first part. I was also smart enough to take the time to follow each and every step exactly the way it was written in the recipe, so if something screwed up, I had someone other than myself to blame it on, haha. In the end I got it mixed, poured in the pans, and out of the oven and cooling on racks before midnight. Ha. And I might add that I was prayin' my little socks off that those cake layers were indeed-y going to come right out of those pans in one fell swoop the next day. If they crumbled and stuck to the pans I had decided I was going to cry a river and rip all my hair out. Keep in mind, I had no Plan B.

Thankfully, the next morning, those babies came out of those pans perfectly. Textbook, I tell you. I was whoopin' and hollerin' every time a layer came out and landed perfectly on top of another layer. After mixing up the homemade frosting, I even scoured the Internet for a good 30 minutes to make sure I would be picking the best and most perfect technique for frosting that delicious 3-layer mound of perfection. I hadn't come this far to screw it all up with the frosting!

When it was finally finished (the next day at about 10am, at least five or six hours total that I put into it), I put it in the fridge to set for a few hours before the party. Again I prayed my little socks off that it would survive the journey in the car from my house to the party location, and I made my husband drive (which never happens as I am not a huge fan of his, er, driving techniques) while I gingerly balanced the glass cake pedestal and cake on my lap. A sweet wave of relief washed over me when it finally made it to the refrigerator at the party place, and I could finally take a breath.

That evening at the party my mom told me I would need to speak up and inform our guests about their choice of desserts. We had about 60 people there, most of which were old church friends (both literally and figuratively), so they needed me to explain what their choices were. I got to the part about telling about my cake, and I asked if anyone in the room had read the Mitford books. About 15 or so hands shot up about the same time they all started exclaiming, "You didn't!", already aware that since I was talking about both "desserts" and "Mitford", an orange marmalade cake was indeed in their future. We ran out of my cake before all of the guests had made it through the line, but I made sure that each of the hands that had been raised were able to enjoy a slice. I was happy as a clam that the cake was going to be enjoyed by other Mitford fans!

Too fun. I think I'll try and crack open that cookbook more often and see what other deliciousness awaits...


~Michelle~ said...

Go Martha...err...
Go Julia...errr...
Go Valerie! Sounds like it was yummy :)

Country Dreaming said...

You go girl, more brave that I would be. It looks delish!!


Anne said...


You blew MY socks off and I didn't even taste the cake!

You are a focused and detailed woman.

What a gift to your sweet mother and all her friends.

Phyllis said...

Way to go!! Looks great...glad it was such a success.

Party of Five said...

You have such great, ahem, taste! (pun intended) I love the Mitford books too and have often thought about making that cake, but it always seemed a little overwhelming. Glad yours turned out so well! Oh - and didn't you love Julie & Julia?

Nadra said...

Looks yummy. You go girl. I've NEVER made a layer cake in my life or a fruit pie. One of these days I'm going to tackle them both.

mo said...

That's great! There is nothing like a big beautiful home baked cake. Perfect!