The Tao of Red Velvet Cake

What does one get for the guy who has everything? How about a dying star?

That’s not technically what this blog is about. It’s about box cake versus homemade and the existential thoughts on the state of things around here that question raises for me. All which were brought about by my getting it into my head that box cake wouldn’t be enough for Jack’s birthday. Just like it wasn’t for Mike’s birthday, when we grated carrots and whipped up cream cheese with butter and powdered sugar for frosting.

That was the day Colin said he was excited about having helped with the cake, and it made me so happy knowing he could be excited about anything, I dug out the bone China cake plate we’ve used maybe three times in the eons since it was a wedding gift.

When it comes to today’s cake, I again ask if Colin wants to help, and he again says yes. I buy new cake pans and decide on red velvet. Not only will this not be a box cake, it also won’t be just a regular cake with red dye. It will be traditional red velvet with ermine frosting.

I say this like I’m big on cake baking, like I know anything about red velvet before Googling recipes and realizing how many versions we can choose from. But what do you get the kid who can and does buy what he wants when he wants it and really doesn’t want anything for his birthday? And what about the other kid who doesn’t have a lot of resources right now, but wants to do something meaningful to help and gets excited about cake baking?

This cake is going to be a thing and it’s going to be real. No fake, red-dyed, half-assing it today.

Not the traditional red velvet cake I’m talking about. Also, not anything like what we ended up with either (photo by Photo credit: Amirali Mirhashemian)

Colin measures the ingredients, and I share what I know about baking: how it’s as much science as art, as well as a healthy dose of mysticism, requiring level teaspoonfuls and quality ingredients and properly aligned planets. I talk about butter needing to be room temperature, neither chilled nor melted in the microwave, even though that doesn’t seem like it should make a bit of difference. Nor should the need for special cake flour instead of regular flour, but I’ve bought cake flour anyway and left the butter out overnight.

I think about smudging the house for good measure, but don’t have any sage handy.

We talk about the need for absolute quiet when the cake is in the oven or else it will fall, and I’m not sure if that’s just a myth but we tiptoe around and keep the dogs out for the next 30 minutes.

The cake falls anyway.

It falls so fast, in fact, I wonder if I’m imagining a bit of gravitational pull toward the kitchen at one point. Toward a little, black dwarf of butter and sugar and cocoa in my oven that will condense over time to become a phenomenon where not even light can escape. Where our home stands will become the Kootenai Street Black Hole.

I feel defeated until we pull out the three pans and the smell wafts across the house. In the flour-bespeckled kitchen with boxes and cartons strewn across the countertop Colin and I talk about cookies next. Maybe as soon as this afternoon; we’re feeling so powerful. Creating a cake that can maybe control the tides will have that effect I suppose. We talk about chocolate chip and about molasses and snickerdoodle. We decree walnuts shall have no place in our cookies.

Neither of us is big on sweets and we’re no more cookie fans than cake fans, but they’re easy to make and we happen to have all the ingredients on hand. Besides which, I’m feeling an urgency to do all the things to capture this moment where there’s the energy and levity and loveliness of right now. A memory to call upon in times when such things are absent.

These days have been so much better than they were, it feels like the sun coming out after a storm. And I constantly wonder if I’m appreciating them enough.

Colin gets a call from friends before we’re done with the cake project. He’s out the door as I pull out materials for a second frosting. A butter crème to fill in the concave cake layers under the ermine frosting and salvage this project. I think about something Mike shared with me this morning about a Buddhist concept that suffering is rooted in the human struggle against impermanence.

As the cake layers cool, and the butter crème chills, I read up on what he shared. I think I’d get it better were my brain less muddled by copious sampling of two different kinds of frosting and the epiphany that there’s a connection between imperfect, hand-crafted cake, quantum mechanics, and the state of our lives right now, all at a time I’m preoccupied with whether I can salvage tonight’s desert.

Later, I apply the butter crème frosting to the cake, first with a knife, then with a rice paddle, then with my fingers, all while trying to keep the layers from slipping off each other and wondering if it’s worth it. Neither Colin nor I will do much more than taste this monstrosity before sending shares home with his brother, my mom, his aunt.

What I think I understand about the Buddhist concept of human suffering is something about the futility of my wanting to hold on to moments where all is well with all of us at once, rather than just being mindful of such times when they happen, and how no one is really going to care about cake is as dense as a dying star nestled between pounds of butter and sugar.

I don’t know if I’ll ever get to a place of enlightenment, building a practice of Buddhism on 30-second spurts of Google research, but I do have a lot of hope a certain several pounds of frosting will somehow hold three layers of a bonafide red velvet cake together long enough for a photo of Jack with it on the 24th anniversary of his birth.

Tomorrow, I think we’ll do ginger snaps.

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