When I say I'm not much of a baker, I'm not being falsely modest. I can read a recipe as well as the next gal, but I just feel like I lack the touch for baking that I have for making other things, like really tasty soups and stews. I never feel like I can judge how things are going with baking, and I'm not particularly good at cooking that requires precision or deft handling of ingredients.
But dammit, I really would like to be able to bake an attractive cake. And along came the Halloween Howl Cake Walk.
A Cake Walk, it turns out, is a sort of musical chairs game whereby contestants walk around a line on which there are numbered spots. When the music stops, if the number you're standing on is called, you win a cake.
My children's elementary school was holding a Halloween party including a Cake Walk. I figured volunteering to help out was a great way to get to know other parents and to practice baking. I starting having cake ideas -- something with red velvet seemed apt for the holiday, and I thought it would be fun to ice it to look like a graveyard or decorate it with skeletons, but after that I was fairly clueless. I got a little frightened when one of the mothers at the planning meeting said she was going to have her cake professionally decorated, the kind of thing I'd thought I'd left behind in New York. But other parents assured me that a home-baked item was perfectly normal.
Luckily, I made a new friend, Kim, at exactly the right moment. Kim assigned me to bake my layers the day before she came over, bag of tools in hand. She assured me that though my layers had come out rather flat (more on this later), buttercream covers a lot of sins. Under her tutelage, I learned the tricks of the trade -- put on a thin primer layer of frosting and chill, work on a lazy susan, dip your spatula in hot water for smooth spreading -- and at the end of the day, we had a smoothly frosted layer cake ready to decorate.
This was where things got fun. She suggested I make a cherry compote to use as fake blood in the design, and I ended up dripping and spattering the cake with it, then topping with a skeleton. I was terrified the gory cake was going to get me blackballed from all future school activities, but it seemed to go over very well in a community where virtually every parent showed up at the school party in costume.
Heady with success, I offered to bake another cake. This time, it was my son Lucas who was the client. He'd just read Harriet the Spy for the first time and was deeply envious of the fact that Harriet gets cake and milk served by the family cook every day after school. Well, I couldn't provide a cook, but I could bake a cake, and if he'd promise to down a glass of milk with it, that was a win-win. So while he was in school, I got out the baking pans again and decided to make a simple yellow vanilla cake, promised by the Gourmet cookbook to be almost as quick and easy as making a mix.
And again, total pancake layers. This time it couldn't be a fluke of the recipe, it had to be that I was doing something wrong, but what? I texted Miss Cake, who is a much more talented and experienced baker than I am, and she immediately diagnosed the problem -- was the riser I was using very old. I got out the canister of baking powder and OOPS, three years out of date.
That left me with two skinny, dense cake layers, a bowl of buttercream, and an expectant kid due home from school shortly. I frosted the cake, using the good tips I'd learned from Kim, dotted it with pastel sprinkles, and put it on a cake stand (see above). It passed. The flavor was good, despite the obvious texture problems. I'm looking forward to trying it again with new baking powder.
Sadly the deal is off, though. Lucas refused to drink his milk.