Posted by: Sarah | June 28, 2010

Trick of the eye: A cake tale

While trolling the Internet this weekend, I stumbled on a blog with an array of cake photos so closely resembling some of my very favorite books that I had to max zoom my screen to ensure they were truly buttercream and not ink. I’m still not wholly convinced, but I’ll take the word of the pastry chefs and let myself imagine how good Tolkien tastes.

Who doesn’t love the sight of a gorgeous cake? All that frosting and sugar swirled up in a real-life Candyland Castle confection. Then, to take the old boxy cake form and shape it into something as iconic as a book! Well, I don’t think it gets any better. The whimsy of the artists’ materials plus the magic of these storybook muses equals nothing short of Willie Wonka ecstasy.

Cakes and cupcakes have been on my brain these days. Blame all the summer programming. Between the Cake Boss on TLC and Cupcake Wars on the Food Network, my husband is about to saw off his own head with a cake leveler. I can’t help it. Cake is happy food. It’s the stuff of parties and family, special occasions and celebrations, sugar highs and surrender to younger, carefree days. It reminds me of the 2004 UK study where researchers found that babies prefer to look at pretty faces. As grown ups, I don’t think we change much in our inherent preference for beauty. We’re drawn to things that spark the mind’s eyes. There’s a similar reaction to fireworks, puppies, raindrops on roses, brown paper packages tied up in string… you know the rest. These items entertain our senses and connote more than the tangible. So it’s no wonder we have a global fascination with cake.

On a whim, I looked over the titles on my bookcase, and low and behold, I realized there is a mention of cake in almost every single novel. I don’t know if this speaks to the boundless appeal of cake or to my particular reading taste. Still, it’s quite remarkable. And in every example, cake alludes to emotions and often tangible plot actions that far supersede its sensory gratification. Here’s what I discovered:

Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Chapter 1

“Soon her eye fell on a little glass box that was lying under the table: she opened it, and found in it a very small cake, on which the words `EAT ME’ were beautifully marked in currants.”

Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery

Chapter 21

“The cake did rise, however, and came out of the oven as light and feathery as golden foam. Anne, flushed with delight, clapped it together with layers of ruby jelly and, in imagination, saw Mrs. Allan eating it and possibly asking for another piece!”

The Awakening by Kate Chopin

Chapter 9

“The ice-cream was passed around with cake – gold and silver cake arranged on platters in alternate slices; it had been made and frozen during the afternoon back of the kitchen by two black women, under the supervision of Victor. It was pronounced a great success – excellent if it had only contained a little less vanilla or a little more sugar, if it had been frozen a degree harder, and if the salt might have been kept out of portions of it. Victor was proud of his achievement, and went about recommending it and urging every one to partake of it to excess.”

Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel

Chapter 2 is titled “Chabela Wedding Cake.” This is the cake Tita makes for her love Pedro’s wedding to her sister Rosaura.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Chapter 25

” ‘Could you spare me some of your cake? I really need some, I have so much company, and I can’t make such delicious stuff as yours,’ asked Meg soberly.

‘Take it all. I’m the only one here who likes sweet things, and it will mold before I can dispose of it,’ answered Amy, thinking with a sigh of the generous store she had laid in for such an end as this.”

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Chapter 4

“Above it, on the second storey, stood a castle-keep or donjon wrought in Savoy cake, surrounded with diminutive fortifications in angelica, almonds, raisins, and bits of orange; and finally, on the topmost level of all, which was nothing less than a verdant meadow where there were rocks with pools of jam and boats made out of nut-shells, was seen a little Cupid balancing himself on a chocolate swing, the posts of which were tipped with two real rosebuds.”

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

“It pleased her to think of the piece of blueberry cake she managed to slip into her big leather handbag—how she could go home soon and eat it in peace, take off this panty girdle, get things back to normal…Olive pushes the loafer down inside her handbag, and then, hoisting herself, she does get up, panting slightly, and arranges the tinfoil-wrapped package of blueberry cake so that it covers the shoe.”

*This “blueberry cake” is a slice of Olive’s only son’s wedding cake.

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Okay, so this is more of a reference, still I argue the reference alone ingratiates the character to us by the sweet connotation: Tea Cake (a.k.a. Vergible Woods). Janie’s true love.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

The book is TITLED cake. Publishers Weekly summed it up nicely in their review: “Bender’s narrator is young, needy Rose Edelstein, who can literally taste the emotions of whoever prepares her food, giving her unwanted insight into other people’s secret emotional lives—including her mother’s, whose lemon cake betrays a deep dissatisfaction.”

And that’s just a handful on my shelf! Cake, cake, cake! Everywhere I turn—in the lives of my literary characters and my reality.

A common phenomenon is occurring among many of my girlfriends. A transformation has begun as we enter our thirties. Typical conversations once consisted of our local theater’s seasonal lineup, travel plans, and what we each were reading. Now, I’ve noticed more than one friend shepherding our discussion toward the kitchen. One recently debated vanilla sponge versus chocolate ganache for a two-year-old’s birthday party. Another explained in great detail how to mold the perfect letters from fondant. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy culinary anecdotes. My surprise is that these friends do not know each other and yet, are simultaneously experiencing the dawn of the inner bakeress.

“I’d love to open my own business,” almost all of these friends have confided. “I’d specialize in cakes and cupcakes. I have a knack. A gift. A calling, I think.”

I say the same to each, “Yes, you do! You should! Indeed!” And I mean it sincerely. Because I know I could never make the Very Hungry Caterpillar out of flour and gum paste. I’m in awe that my friends spend countless hours sifting, mixing, constructing, molding, and decorating to include something called “dirty icing,” which I thought at first might be a profane euphemism.

I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t given it a spatula twirl myself. Baking is extremely gratifying. You have a recipe, you follow it, and Voila! There appears a gorgeous, edible thing that you can say, “I made that. I created. That’s all me and mother nature’s ingredients.” Then you get to taste and see others delight in your handiwork. It appeals to multiple senses and stimulates endorphins in the brain—both the act of artistic creation and consumption. The big bonus is that you experience it ALL from start to finish, rising action, climax and dénouement, in less than a day. Simply marvelous.

I’ve done it and understand. However, as I’ve witnessed in the aforementioned TV shows, there is one dark shadow that falls on the happy-go-lucky cake people world: competition. The attitude of “Your cake is not as good as my cake.” This is an extremely human reaction given the carnal nature of the business. It harkens back to the hunter and gatherers. You know that at some point one gatherer looked over to another gatherer’s gathered and thought, “Mine’s better.” So it is in the 2010 pastry kingdom.

This being so, I leave the baking to my friends. They love to do it and have far better skills and patience in forming perfect sugar daisy petals than I ever will. I’m proud of their artistic accomplishments. I encourage them to spread their white chocolate wings and soar to great heights of bakery bastions! Go forth, my friends! I’ll be the first to ‘oo’ and ‘aw’, take photos and stand in line to sample their masterpieces. Meanwhile, I’ll make my not-so-perfect German chocolate cupcakes for my husband— caramel coconut covers a preponderance of sins—and stick to the ten cookie recipes I’ve perfected from years of repetition. I don’t yearn for the pageantry and glory of the Cake Queens. I’ll find my satisfaction in creating characters from figurative sugar and spice. But that doesn’t stop me from being an avid ogler of the great cake craze.

My favorite cake quote is not found in any book but attributed to one of my favorite storytellers, Mark Twain: “Nothing seems to please a fly so much as to be taken for a currant, and if it can be baked in a cake and palmed off on the unwary, it dies happy.”

Amen, Mr. Twain!

Yours truly, Sarah



  1. And my favorite cake line… “Do you want some cake? Oh, that’s right you can’t have none…!”

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