By Allison Glock, September/October 2009
Before I learned how to ride a bicycle, I had baked a cake. A lot of cakes. In my family, feelings were expressed via sugar, more specifically, baked goods. For birthdays, in lieu of presents, my mother would painstakingly assemble cakes shaped like dolls, molded to resemble a hoop skirt, hand-sculpted icing roses decorating the hem. The cakes required hours to complete and lasted only a few minutes, wrecked by the first cut. Breathtaking, but easily destroyed. Such, the lesson seemed, was the inevitable trajectory of love.
My mother baked for her husbands—all five of them. I, too, deployed my culinary wherewithal during courtships. To me, making the perfect dessert remains one of the better ways to share your feelings. It takes time and effort and sustained attention. With baking, you are making something nobody really needs and yet something almost everyone on some level desires. To bake is to summon sweetness into life. And share it.
Then I met T, a vegan with lactose intolerance and celiac disease, a trifecta of eating needs that eliminated virtually every ingredient in any bakery item. Gone was flour. Gone was butter, a food group in my household.
Still, I loved T In fact, I loved T more than I had ever loved anyone. I realized this the day I voluntarily put soymilk into my tea. Being with T made me happy. Healthier. More tofu, fewer ribs. Besides, T loved sweets, and missed them terribly since his diagnosis. Missed them enough to spend $7 per gluten-free cupcake at the specialty bakery, and by “cupcake” I mean desiccated bread topped with beet-colored oil. One bite and I knew I had to bake for him. To show him the depth of my affection.
And what a cupcake should taste like.
I decided I would take my beloved lemon cake recipe and convert it somehow. I started with the curd filling. This was simple enough. Lemon juice, sugar and soy butter. The consistency wasn’t exactly right, and the soy butter made the curd less lemony, more edamame-y, but more sugar and lemon juice helped.
Emboldened, I made the outer icing, a basic buttercream, sans butter and cream. Instead I used powdered sugar, lemon juice, tofu and dairy-free yogurt.
Last was the cake itself. This was more exacting. Rice flour, and corn flour, and xanthan gum. Canola oil. Vanilla. I threw everything I had into the mix, determined to bake a lemon cake good enough to pass, good enough to show my love, to say all the things I couldn’t. The batter went into the pans, it rose, was springy. I let it cool, then bisected the layers with a piece of thread.
I laid them out, then began re-assembling, adding the curd, the icing, more curd. All was perfect, three layers stacked and iced, with only the top layer to go. I lifted it, placed it gently onto the base. And then, almost imperceptibly at first, the cake started breaking, earthquake style. One fissure led to another, all spiderwebbing out like cracked glass. I tried to stop the fractures, plugging the holes with icing, but the fault lines only worsened, the icing languidly oozing into the splits like sinkholes. Soon enough, the whole top layer fell apart into muffin-size chunks, sliding off and plopping indifferently onto the counter. Ta-da!
“This has never happened to me before,” I said, face flushed, when T came into the kitchen.
“It’s not that bad,” he said slowly, surveying the cake carnage. “I could eat it in pieces, like, I don’t know...” He lifted a wedge, but it crumbled around his fingertips. “It’s still, you know, cake.”
I narrowed my eyes. “It’s crumbs. With curd. It’s crumbed curd.”
T licked his fingers. “The icing is amazing. Is it really dairy-free?”
He was trying. But I was in no mood for it: I had failed. At BAKING. At everything baking meant to me.
“I just don’t know how to do this,” I stammered.
T looked at me for a minute, then grabbed a bowl, scooped up the detritus, and started to eat. He sat and he ate a whole quarter of what would have been lemon cake. Then he asked me to join him, and I did.
It wasn’t cake. But it wasn’t half bad. A little corny. But undeniably sweet. “I think you might love me a little,” he said, smiling, wiping his mouth on the back of his hand.
“Shut up,” I said.
A week later, we were engaged.
At the wedding we’re serving pie.
Allison Glock is the author of the memoir Beauty Before Comfort.