We are currently living in a rental beach cottage on the South Shore of Massachusetts, owned by a lovely woman in her 80’s.  While looking for the Yellow Pages to use as a booster seat for Phoebe, I came across a Betty Crocker cookbook from 1956.

There is something magical about the images in the book: cartoon drawings explaining the difference between a tube-center pan and a fluted pudding mold, special menus with titles like “Jimmy Durante’s Choice” or “Former First Lady Entertains at Bridge Luncheon.”

My in-laws were scheduled to arrive for a visit the next day.  And I was going to make them a cake.  Dammit.

The problem is, I don’t really bake.  Like, at all.  Especially for my mother-in-law, who:

  1. Knows the difference between a tube-center pan and fluted pudding mold
  2. One time spit out my vegan cookies into her napkin.

After flipping through the cake section of Betty Crocker, I realized it might be out my my league.  I don’t have one of those big stand-up mixers…nor did I have a flour sifter….or flour.  And what’s the difference between beating, mixing, and creaming?  Does creaming even involve cream?  And what’s “cream?”  Like, coffee creamer? This was starting to stress me out.

So I called my 93 year old grandmother, who makes an awesome crumb cake that I was pretty sure didn’t involve creaming.  She dictated the recipe, which I proceeded to scribble on a Post-it note. I was thrilled to find it involved a box cake…and a Betty Crocker one at that!  While I may not be doing Betty proud by “tinting my batter a delicate pink” (seriously?) for the Pink Azalea Cake, this felt like the next best thing.

I kept the book open to “Rules for Getting Perfect Results” to use as a guide on my new culinary adventure.

Rule #1: Read Recipes Carefully

Standing in the baking aisle of the supermarket, I studied my crumpled Post-it. “Butter cake mix.”  My eyes scanned the rows of boxes: Vanilla, Pound, Yellow, Spice…no Butter.  The color of butter is yellow-ish…so yellow cake seemed the closest thing.  Plus they were out of Betty Crocker so I had to get Duncan Hines.  Sorry, Betty.

Rule #2: Collect Utensils

Once back in the kitchen, I fished the Post-it out of the back pocket of my jeans.  “Jelly Roll pan.”  What the Hell is that?  I called my grandmother.

“Nannie, what’s a jelly roll pan?  Because I don’t think I have one.”

“It has a lip.  Do you have a baking dish with a lip?”

“Uhhh…probably.  Thanks Nan.”

I fished through the cabinets and the only thing I could find was the baking sheet I use for chicken nuggets.  It had a lip. Sort of.

Rule #3: Measure as Exactly as a Druggist

About half way through dumping the ingredients in a bowl, I realized that I was following the recipe on the Post-it (intended for the Betty Crocker mix) and not the one on the cake box.  And they were different. Yellow cake is yellow cake, isn’t it?  But the Post-it said: “3 eggs, 2/3 cup water, and 1/3 cup oil” while the box said “4 eggs, 1/3 cup water, and 2/3 cup oil.”  So I threw in another egg and some more oil.  As for the extra 1/3 cup of water I had added…well, that ship had sailed.

Rule #4: Mix Carefully as Directed – Cream, Beat, Stir, or Fold in

The Post-it said “Beat ingredients.”  Back to the mix-beat-creme conundrum.  I rifled through the drawers and came up with a contraption that I think Willie Wonka rode like a bicycle.  It looked like it could perform a function that might be called beating.

I would also like to add the direction “Pour On” to the subtitle, which is exactly what I did to Phoebe’s head while trying to transfer the batter to my chicken nugget pan lipped dish.

Rule #5: Turn on the Heat, and Know Your Oven

Know your oven?  What does that even mean?  Talking to it like a plant?  Wearing nothing but an apron?  In my world, knowing that my oven IS an oven = “knowing my oven.”

Rule #6: Bake According to the Recipe

Does that mean according to the box or the Post-it?

Needless to say…..things did not go well.  I am not sure what a cake is supposed to look like before it is officially, “done,” but I am pretty sure it’s not supposed to have a big bubble in the middle.In spite of the burned bottom and the spongy middle, my mother-in-law graciously ate my cake.  On Sunday she said, “You know, I think it has gotten better after it has sat out for a few days.”

Ha! Aged like a fine wine. Take that, Betty Crocker.

So if I suck at baking, why make a cake? In the Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Hours, the character Laura Brown, a 50’s housewife, spends an afternoon baking a birthday cake for her husband with her little boy Richie.  (Disclaimer:  For those of you familiar with The Hours, please don’t read into the fact that Laura was suicidal).

Laura: We’re baking a cake for Daddy, to show him that we love him.

Richie: Otherwise he won’t know?

Laura: That’s right.

So perhaps I made a cake to say I love you.  And by eating it, so did she.





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