Christmas Was A Piece Of Cake

January 10th, 2020


(published in The Daily Memphian)

Anyone who has ever used the expression “a piece of cake” in describing a task as easy has never made a cake from scratch.

Our Syracuse snowbound daughter and adventurous cook, Hallie, still looks south for inspiration from time-to-time and this caught her attention in Southern Living, “Cool peppermint-vanilla cake and fluffy pink buttercream make a merry combination. Finish with whimsical dollops of mint frosting.”

She called her mother.

Nora and Hallie wait for the holiday season in anticipation of advent: the arrival of peppermint ice cream in grocery stores. Spring follows winter in the sure sign of peppermint ice cream covered in fudge sauce at Calvary’s Waffle Shop. A bag of York’s peppermint patties hides somewhere in the refrigerator year-round as sure as any medicine is kept for emergencies.

Of course, they decided to make this cake when Hallie came home for Christmas. 

As I write this, I’m emerging gingerly from three weeks of bronchitis – three weeks of fever, a racking, bone-shaking cough, loss of strength and appetite, and a weight loss approaching 30 pounds. Mornings have been so clouded by codeine the dogs were regularly checking me for a pulse and in the evenings, I didn’t even want Scotch, people.

But I didn’t have to make a cake from scratch on Christmas Eve. In my condition, I was relieved from duty and watched the process from the couch.

You see, conditions aside, our 40-plus-year tradition of hosting a Christmas Eve dinner for our family and the family of the people who were our neighbors for 25 years, and their extended family and ours, wasn’t taking a break.

That cake, and even I, would have to rise to the occasion.

Math, exact measurements and temperatures are required in making a cake from scratch. There’s no app to handle it. Your phone can’t stir or pour or taste. Your tablet can’t find that rack you haven’t seen since the kids were little, or the pans, or the cake stand. A linear process of steps must be honored, and steps within steps. This is one followed by two, analog not digital, and if you mess up one, two doesn’t matter. In fact, if you mess up two, one doesn’t matter, not to mention what happens if you mess up twelve.

I watched the two of them wrestle this creation out of midair. Panic and laughter. Order from chaos. Praying over the blender. Breaking the hand mixer. Where the hell are the toothpicks to check the cake? Trying to be relevant, I supply a decorative toothpick – complete with the confetti top for martinis – from my bar. The pink peppermint buttercream goes in-between. The frosting covers. The crushed peppermint candy decorates the frosting. Swirls of frosting from a snipped corner of a zip lock plastic bag on top.

Damn, it’s a cake. 

Mother and daughter dance a dance of millennia, from baking beginnings of the ancient Egyptians, to the Vikings who gave us the word cake, to our kitchen. Sure, we have blenders, and mixers, and sophisticated ovens, but this is not about that. This is about respect for time-honored process in a short-cut world, about pride in completion, about creating something for others, about each other. As chef Hallie said, “Baking is hard.”

This is about doing what you need to do. Every step.

I described the cake to a friend in Austin as a peppermint carpet bomb. He said that was the name of a hot new band in Austin.

I’m a Memphian, and cakes from scratch are an inspiration.

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