The first time I baked a wedding cake, I was in the middle of writing my book. I had been playing the role of a hermit, in fact, up at a writer’s residency in Woodstock, New York. Three days before the wedding I drove to Boston, baked the entire cake at my mother’s house in one go, and then transported it to Maine on my own. (Oy!). That cake was for Ashley and Colin, two of my dearest high school friends. It was four tiers of dense almond cake with layers of lemon curd and blueberry jam, frosted with a swiss buttercream. There were some dicey moments in the course of its construction, but I won’t hold back: it rocked.
The second time I baked a wedding cake was last weekend. I baked this one over a couple of days—kitchen-time found after work, sandwiched among a handful of interviews about my book, and readings done plum across the state. What was I thinking? Who knows.
But I made this cake for the sister of another good friend of mine from high school, who likewise was married in Maine. I used the same almond cake recipe, except this time with layers of fresh strawberries and strawberry jam. I was more careful in my frosting, and used equipment a (tiny bit) fancier than a butter knife and my hands. I had Matt, who was in Afghanistan during my first wedding cake extravaganza, to help me transport the frosted layers north. Boom.
Though it means that I don’t have a new recipe here for you today, I’m glad that I repeated many of the elements of my first cake in my second. Making a wedding cake with limited time and a home cook’s equipment? It’s doable but, man, it’s also hard. Not hard in a heavy lifting or a cost cutting way, really. I struggled more with the volume. A wedding cake takes a lot of eggs, butter, and sugar. It takes a lot of time.
And the trouble with time? With time, I’ve learned, comes attachment. With every additional minute that I spent coaxing 14-inch cakes to bake in even lines, frosting not to curdle, and strawberries to balance just so, I became more and more invested in the life of this cake. And by the time I arrived in Maine, unloaded the layers, cut the dowels, and constructed the tiers, a lot of minutes, hours and days had ticked by. When I finished the second bout of frosting and my consequent painstaking progress in leveling and decoration, this cake felt like more than a cake. It was a living thing, an extension of my body, a 60-pound baby spun from my own hands.
Kind of like my book.
I thought about this a lot last weekend. Because as I baked my first wedding cake, I was in the middle of writing my book. I was buried in outlines and research; I had no idea where it would go. Back then, it was all about the creativity. It was all about forging new paths ahead. I was living in a miniscule studio in Brooklyn, had a boyfriend fighting a war in Afghanistan, and was using 14 pounds of almond paste to create a wedding cake in my mother’s kitchen with nothing but a couple recipes and a half-baked plan. If I could make and transport that cake, then of course I could finish my book. It was all about magical thinking. What surprised me is that it worked.
During this wedding cake experience, however, my book was done. More than done. It launched itself out into the world two months ago, a little living thing that I spun from scratch and then let go. I’ve struggled with the indisputable fact that so much about publishing is luck and circumstance, that way more is out of my control than I’d like. I baked my life into a narrative. I frosted it with reportage, chapter structure, and so many words. Then I put it on a platter and sent it out to be served.
(Don’t get me wrong: Season to Taste has received some wonderful press. The events I’ve done, the responses I’ve gotten, and the people this book has touched leave me both honored and proud. It’s just all outside of my control.)
But when it came time to serve this second wedding cake, a series of circumstances conspired to form a distinct possibility that it would not be displayed at the reception before it was cut and devoured. That no one would see the constructed tiers, the smoothed out frosting, the strawberries balanced around its rim. Normally this wouldn’t bother the baker, as the baker is not usually present at the ceremony and reception. But I’ve known the bride and her family since I was a kid, and it was a delight to be present throughout.
So I found myself standing on the porch of the farmhouse where the wedding took place, thinking about my cake. I could see the White Mountains in the distance, and the falling evening light. Why become so attached to something, some inanimate thing, when its course is left so up to chance? Why did I stress about the structure, the flavors, the timing of each and every piece when it was always possible that it could just languish in the house?
Later, when the sun had set, the temperature dropped, and with mosquitoes suddenly buzzing around our necks, Matt and I carried the cake out on a big wooden plank down to the tent filled with guests. With the help of the caterer, we cleared a spot on the table and let it sit. “The wedding cake!” I heard a little girl yell from across the dance floor. Some things are out of my control, but others, with a little effort, exist completely within.