A tale of two cakes.
I was recently commanded to make two different cakes for two lab birthday lunches (late March, and then early April). They were greeted with mixed reactions ranging from rapturous (the chocolate cake) to completely disgusted (the rum cake). This is not particularly surprising, as the rum cake (from a recipe that came from someone's mother-in-law) is made with a yellow cake mix, which you doctor with Jell-O vanilla pudding mix, rum, and a sort of rum-butter syrup. Of course, I am notorious for the reckless abandon with which I throw around liquor while cooking, and this cake is no exception. After (or before) you make up the batter, you grease a bundt pan and sprinkle it with finely chopped walnuts (which my lovely sexy food processor can do in about three seconds), pour in the batter, and bake it. Then you poke holes in the bottom of the cake with a skewer and pour the syrup on top before inverting the cooled cake onto a plate.
The person who had requested this cake loved it, or at least said she did, but everyone else hated it. Including me. It was too sweet. It tasted too artificial. There was too much rum. There was not enough rum. It was too rich. I thought it was kind of boring, but then I think all cakes that don't have frosting are boring. I had poured the rum syrup into a fissure that formed around the top during baking (I had probably overmixed the batter) and sprinkled the cake with a bit more rum (I couldn't resist) and it had collected itself into an uneven vein that ran through the cake, giving you a shock of sugar and rum with each bite. I cut myself another piece - actually, it wasn't that bad - and defiantly ignored the ungrateful sods who were verbally pissing all over my perfectly good cake.
But I had to redeem myself somehow. For the April birthday lunch C. requested a chocolate cake, one with lots of frosting. I briefly considered one from the pages of Gourmet, all dark chocolate layers and billowy icing, but my last venture into something from their test kitchens was, how shall I put this? - not a success. (A bourbon-fig-pecan cake had turned out rather dry and uninteresting, unless heaped with a drift of whipped cream or ice cream). I was wary. My reputation was already shaky. So I turned to Amanda Hesser, who has never failed me, and her mother's Chocolate Dump-It cake, which I had made before. (When in doubt, work with what you know). Like the rum cake, it is made in a bundt pan, but this one is liberally frosted with a sour-cream frosting that is basically equal parts semi-sweet chocolate chips, melted, and sour cream. I could do this. I could melt together butter and chocolate and whisk in sugar and eggs and milk that had been clabbered with a bit of vinegar.
As always, flour got everywhere, on the floor, all over the counter, in my hair. I stepped into the spilled flour and left ghostly footprints on the pale mocha of the carpet. The batter looked lumpy and unprepossessing; it seemed too liquid-y to come together into anything like a cake. I set my timer and crossed my fingers. The smell of chocolate filled my apartment; maybe everything would work out ok. I couldn't remember whether I was supposed to frost the cake the night before or just before serving; I called K. in a panic. Bring the sour cream and chocolate chips to work and make it there, she tells me. I tuck a spatula and a measuring cup and the bag of chocolate chips into my backpack, leave a note so I won't forget the sour cream. It worries me that I need to do these things now; what will my memory be like in ten years, twenty, thirty, forty? The cake emerges from the oven, a dark chocolate crown has risen to fill the pan. I let it cool, flip it out onto a rack; it falls out easily with a soft whump.
At work I melt chocolate chips in the microwave, let the sour cream come to room temperature in a small bowl. The frosting is not perfect - it is a little lumpy - but no one will care. I slather it over the cake recklessly, and then add strawberry halves around the top and sides. The recipe suggests piping rosettes and leaves and decorating them with almond slices, but I haven't piped anything onto a cake since 1993 and don't plan on starting anytime soon. It was good cake, moist and rich without being dense, the icing creamy but not too much so, the tartness of the sour cream cutting through the sweetness of the chocolate. I thought of all the things I could have done differently, and then dismissed them from my mind. It was good cake.