“Pastries . . . can only be appreciated to the full extent of their subtlety when they are not eaten to assuage our hunger, when the orgy of their sugary sweetness is not destined to full some primary need but to coat our palate with all the benevolence of the world.“
– Muriel Barbery, Gourmet Rhapsody
Nobody needs cake. But we all need our survival mechanisms. And sometimes, that survival mechanism is cake. Sans doute, I am a pie over cake girl, as concerns the variety of confection that makes my heart sing. Buttery crust and its confluence with tart cooked fruit is my idea of happiness in a bite. Making pie crusts is a love affair for me: I sink my fingers into the dough, disrespectfully, if you will, blurring the lines between where I start and where the butter and flour end, mushing, pushing, giving, taking. There’s a sort of sordid commingling as I exchange the heat from my hands for the cold of the butter to form this amalgamated mass in which the individual elements are no longer intelligible.
Yet, while I relish in the process of cutting and melding butter into flour by hand, there’s something to be said for the refined, even if removed, process of baking and decorating a cake. I took the opportunity of my good friend B’s birthday to bake a cake, something I have not done in over a year. This is no time in my life to be splurging on lavish cakes as I wade through a transitory existence: every minute of the day counts, as does every dollar. In fact, I was chastised by another good friend who, meaning well and well-acquainted with my impracticality, reminded me that I am living a life of survival and cake and survival are diametrically opposed: just ask Marie-Antoinette (which, coincidentally, is what B calls me).
Cake is excess; cake is largess; the revolution will not be frosted. But, sometimes, in hard times, the rhapsody is the revolution of the wrist as one squeezes saccharin swirls of rosettes atop a berry buttermilk cake. Besides, what greater joy than to give a gift? My friend hardly needed me to bake him a cake. Yet to be able to manifest my gratitude for his friendship in physical form, this I needed…now more than ever. Psychologist Robert Ornstein famously said, in sweet oxymoronic fashion, that “the greatest surprise of human evolution may be that the highest form of selfishness is selflessness” while an article in psychology today, characterized benevolence as an act of “self-preservation”. Don’t get me wrong: I wanted to make my friend smile, to candy the feeling of warmth as he was surrounded by his loving wife, beautiful son and close friends. But, I also needed to bake that cake to engender within myself the joy of such frivolous hard work. The proof of this pudding was in the making, so to speak.
So, I walked to the corner store, with sleep still in my eyes, wondering what sort of cake I would make. I left with berries and an inclination to adapt The Smitten Kitchen’s Triple Berry Buttermilk Bundt into a layer cake tinged with cardamom and amplified by the decadence of Italian buttercream. The crumb of this cake melts in the tongue like cottony snow thanks to the grace of acidic buttermilk. Each time I make Italian buttercream, I am reminded of the kindness of my dear friend Keith, from whom I got the recipe and his admonition when I interviewed him for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “Don’t shortchange yourself by not giving yourself the opportunity to experience something beautiful every day.”
The beauty that day came in the likeness of 5 friends and a beautiful baby congregating around cake and a well-selected cava to celebrate one man’s 37 years of life and first birthday as a proud papa. Beauty is the “benevolence of the world”; cake is but one sweet incarnation.