Let her bake cake
Reflections on letting go and whipping up joy.
The ugly cake in question.
When my parents met, my mom was deep in a baking love-affair. In her little black spiraled handwritten recipe notebook, which I’ve borrowed indefinitely, she has scribbled penciled recipes of plátanos dulces (uff), pastel de yogurt, pastel de tres leches, postre de frutas, pastel de nuez, strudels, and more. As a way to express her love to the man who would come to be her husband and father her children, she’d pour herself into these pastries, and gift them to him. Acts of service. Acts of sugar. Acts of joy.
I remember being told this, but not from her, from my dad. I remember hearing it come from his own teeth and tongue, saying that he didn’t like sweets, but pretended to enjoy them. He waited until they were married to reveal this to her, crushing her heart. My mom was twenty-years-old. He was twenty-five. My own tongue and teeth, empty with these pastries that weren’t underscored in my rolodex of taste bud memories. Just sparsely. And he had been the culprit.
This past Monday the blues kicked in, following a swell that had started Sunday. For me, the blues are eternal, though perhaps I don’t express myself that way, I’d rather muster up all my sweetness, and share that instead. I like to give what I felt was missing in my own upbringing, what is missing now from the original wound of lovelessness (thank you, bell hooks).
I’ve been so inspired by beautiful cakes lately; constructed carefully, unorthodoxly, inspiringly––even messily (re: Bettina Makalintal’s ‘The Beautiful Chaos of Messy Instagram Cakes’.). Like Aimee France’s cakes, who are structured so uniquely that they seem as though they sprung out of their own mystical fairy universe. Teresa Finney’s cakes (and pastries in general, and CONCHAS, in particular from her bakery, At Heart Panaderia), whose flavor combinations inspire salivary glands to activate, and sweet concha-shaped clouds to construct imaginary flavors that I can almost taste. (By the way, she has a Patreon where she’s sharing her magnificent creations!) And, of course, there’s Abi Banligit’s cakes––she’s working on a freaking Filipinx dessert cookbook by the way!!!––whose heart-shaped cakes inspired me to desperately want a heart-shaped cake of my own for my upcoming birthday.
I haven’t had a birthday cake since I don’t know when.
One of my earliest memories in the kitchen was with cake. I woke up early, with my best friend and prima-de-cariño, Pamela (whose mom’s delicious cooking and baking I have eternally etched in my memory), and got a little boxed cake mix. We cracked a few eggs, poured out milk, and mixed. I wasn’t allowed to be in the kitchen usually, the reasoning being that I needed to go do homework and get out of the way. But of course, I still got in there when it was still and the kitchen quiet––making half-burnt quesadillas and avocado toast to quell my hunger when it struck. I was a hungry little girl, not much has changed. Outside of the essentials, I didn’t actually know how to cook, much less bake.
I burnt that cake.
But I still have the photo that one of my parents took. I’m laughing, looking at the camera, half pleased with myself, half mischievous. Looking at it, one thing is clear, I was having a blast. I remember asking for an Easy-Bake oven shortly after that, and that was much more my speed. (Thank you Reyes Magos!)
So this Monday, when I woke up with the blues, I said to myself (and to twitter), I was going to bake a cake. Even though the last time I baked a proper cake was probably around high school when I first went vegetarian, using a boxed vegan chocolate cake mix from Sprouts. It was lathered in chocolate frosting and topped with blackberries and blueberries. After that, the most recent cake was a few years ago. It was inspired by Bar Velo’s deliriously decadent date cake in Brooklyn for my boyfriend’s birthday––no frosting, just a coconut sauce. We dubbed it, the ugly date cake. I’ve since stuck to making him birthday cornbread instead.
The artist behind this illustration clearly has never had someone bake them birthday cornbread.
That Monday felt fuzzy and I let myself wallow in the uncomfortable feelings of defeat. But I also found myself being held by my partner and friends. I never needed a gaggle of pals, just a close-knit circle of well-intentioned people I could trust––and those are ridiculously hard to come by. But when you finally do, it really is the sweetest thing.
I’ve learned these days to allow myself the space and grace to feel what’s moving through me, what I’m grieving, or processing, without being too harsh and push myself to be anything that feels inauthentic or rigid when I simply do not have it in me. So I let the day go, but once 4 pm hit, I thought about the cake again. It sounded like fun. And when was the last time I let myself have fun for the fun of it? I thought. So I channeled Holly from It’s Holly, whose wonderful curiosity-fueled cooking leads with, “I just wanted to see what happened if I…” An utmost refreshingly playful approach to cooking. So, I let myself go, I let myself play, I let myself make mistakes, I did not follow a recipe. I turned up Billie Holiday and turned on my oven. I just wanted to see what would happen if I got out of my head, and let myself go.
The result wasn’t perfect, the coconut cream buttercream was melting off the sides, and one of my layers baked totally crooked (pinche horno). But it was fuckin’ tasty.
Writer Leah Kirts told me some ovens are anarchist ovens, I believe them.
My goofy, chaotic, cartoonish cake was the little imperfect reminder I needed that said: some days, the pursuit of joy is enough. Even if just for a slice of orange-maple-olive-oil-tequila-coconut-buttercream cake.