Celebrate the Sweet
by Susan Puciul
In our family, cake has always been big. In my childhood home, around the time I recall asking my mom, “Is this the dress I was born in?” referring to my favorite floral affair, I remember tasting my first angel food cake at Easter. The priest came to our house to bless it along with the colored eggs and it did, indeed, taste divine. Filled with apricots and creamy meringue, it was the very soul of Easter. It also planted the seed of desire for its antithesis: a deep dark devil’s food cake which was my own first culinary creation. To this day, my afternoons of mope incomplete without a daily fix of chocolate.
The ancient Greeks lit a single candle, imitating the glow of the moon, to decorate their flat, round breads sweetened with honey to honor the goddess Artemis. These were the precursors to their own tradition of birthday cakes. Less romantically, the Vikings coined the word kakas to describe the rather flat leaden treats that sustained them after battle.
Growing up, birthday cakes were somehow less memorable than the wishes that hung on the flames’ demise. Having a birthday on the winter solstice, the quelling of the light had particular gravitas as well as hope.
By vegetarian college days, it seemed so original to concoct variations on the earnest carrot cake—coconut, pineapple, walnuts, sunflower seeds. Back then when pals came for dinner we festively shared it along with a butternut squash soup from the old standard hippie cookbook, Victory through Vegetables. We varied things up a bit after two of us started, literally, turning orange.
Fast forward to a Chilmark home shared with a husband and four young mouths accustomed to a steady fare of brown rice and broccoli, where the allowance to “let them eat cake” was welcome reward for minding the Ps and Qs of an otherwise healthy diet. When I became a mother, I didn’t dissuade my toddlers from taking turns making creative chaos at my feet. Clanging around with pots and pans during the witching hour as I tried to get dinner on the table, their concoction of choice was often an oatmeal maple syrup cheerios cake: the spill of ingredients vied with the Legos creating havoc on the floor.
Two winters ago, my daughter and son together made a lavish chocolate Queen of Sheba cake for a special winter birthday reception for 200 people. They spent two entire days making the cake. It ended up being quite the icon: a full moon, solstice, end-of-the-world per the Incas and a “big zero” birthday cake for both their parents. For more ordinary days, Maria still faithfully reproduces her midwestern grandmother’s pineapple upside down cake, made in a cast-iron skillet, edges perfect in a gooey char.
These days my husband has taken to groaning when I happily announce, I think I’ll make a cake. Halfway through assembling the ingredients I invariably find I’m missing a key one or can’t find an arm of the mixer or am lacking the right pan. I make no claims to being an expert, but I am an addict when it comes to this sweet business.
Last winter I became enamored with Middle Eastern desserts, drenched as they are in sunshine and syrup. My favorite obsession, baked no less than a dozen times this past year, is an adaptation from the Jerusalem: A Cookbook made from the zest of organic oranges and ground up almonds, soaked in orange honey syrup with a scrim of dark chocolate on top.
Ah, the Cake. Transient as a dance. Emblem of transformation whose whole is so much more than the sum of its parts. Here we are, alive together and, despite the bitter news on Earth, determined to celebrate the sweet.
After the tumble of quinoa, the plank of salmon, the chard in beautiful green ruins . . . she strides in architectural mode to center table, proud temptress burning for the fire. Suggestive of a temple approached always and by all from the outside towards the core. Flames on top, icing running down her sides: a miraculous glow of sweet nurture upstaging the room.