Eleven layers, seven pounds

Or, why you might make your friends a wedding cake

“Come for the weekend,” she said, and her driver picked me up from the airport and drove to the end of the north fork of Long Island. I had left New York to travel in Asia — not with a plan or infinite financial resources, just a resolve to bend what I had toward a singular task: to fill emptied emotional reserves. The last year of full-time work had finally cratered me, and the self-set task was to stare at the Mekong during the rainy season and slurp bowls of noodles until I recovered the woman I had been before the move to the city. The city. It was my responsibility, no one else could find her, the jobs wouldn’t save me, and there would be no grand revelation or great romance (I miss romance) as I traveled, only a slow sloughing off of accumulated armor. Slow like the slow boat up the river border of a landlocked country to Pakbeng on minivan seats drinking the national beer, watching water buffalo chase each other on the banks, tying fabric sashes on windows as the storms blew in. Long like the days near temples trying to release thoughts as they entered, creating memory walls to scale later.

“It is June. I am tired of being brave,” runs the line in the Anne Sexton poem dedicated to her parents and their burial. Sexton’s father died in June 1959 after her mother in March. We often take her line out of context for our own June endings, and my troubles are ridiculous and small — the very pronunciation of the word ‘trivial’ appropriate for my daily concerns last June when I left and this June and all the Junes before that — I have wanted for nothing, and hours of cheery sunlight in summer months make that fact the more banal. Still: bravery. I was tired. And then I was not. A month or so into my Asia travels, I skyped with an old colleague from a Toyko hotel room about a new project. Through Hong Kong, lunch with friends in Paris, dinner with friends in London, skipping along timezone hopscotch, I was grateful for the sign with my name beside the JFK baggage claim. I recognized the face in the the mirror again that went with the name on her driver’s sign, and the weekend ahead was to be a significant one, right before they were engaged. “We could have the wedding here in Greenport,” they dreamed aloud at the backyard table of their summer rental. “I will make the cake!” I spontaneously promised.

A cake is a good date at a wedding, in theory. Tall, delicious, handsomely turned out, admired by adults and whispered about by children. Two Saturday nights ago, someone slow-danced me to “Can’t Help Falling in Love with You,” and asked after my sisters, he always remembers, as the lead singer crooned Elvis after a string of Johnny Cash. That dance partner is great, but I only had eyes for the cake. And when I say eyes for the cake, I mean constant attention, a jealous lover darting looks whenever anyone walked by the white tablecloth skirt flared over the grass, thoroughly distracted and pretending to adjust my earrings while peeking over my shoulder to make sure my date was still upright, turning back to pass the large serving platters of local halibut with crisped onions, steak with chimichurri, grilled asparagus, eggplant, and roasted potatoes with herb butter down the main table filled with the given and chosen family of the bride and groom. There were toasts, there was dancing, I was unsettled. Slowly, the couple walked over and cut the bottom tier, nothing collapsed, the servers carried the cake out of the tent and returned with plated slices. I waited. It was the only dessert on the menu, and I held my breath as I looked toward my newly-married friends. Their guests were finishing cake off each other’s plates. Everyone was smiling. Our friendship would continue. The secret pact I had organized with fellow nomads I was driving back to the city complete with a code phrase (should I need to slink away in disgrace under cover of darkness) could expire.

It’s not really an adventure without stakes, without the possibility that things could go irreparably sideways. Throwing everything in storage, quitting the job and leaving New York to travel alone in unfamiliar places is one kind of adventure — a selfish one of reclamation, in my case — and making a wedding cake is another kind, an architectural gamble in sugar and flour to see whether time and research can yield a memorable, extremely public gift for people you love. Two weeks and three days before the wedding, I flew from Brooklyn to L.A. to housesit and dogsit, leaving twelve layers of cake in the freezer of my old apartment that now belongs to a very close friend.

Frozen cake layers.

Each layer was triple-wrapped in plastic, double-wrapped in aluminum foil to stave off freezer burn, munchie attacks, power outages, and the apocalypse while I was thousands of miles away. The traditional wedding cake is a white cake, delicately made of egg whites and the finer-milled cake flour; my layers were made with full yolks and buttermilk and all-purpose flour, the dairy a nod toward the groom’s kid years in the American South, and the cake recipe one that I hoped would fare well in its frozen holding state and upcoming ride to Long Island. I also wanted the added stability from the protein in the yolks, and a cake flavor that could handle a salted caramel frosting between the layers. Commercial bakers often freeze cakes for days and weeks, the compression can lead to a denser crumb and cold cakes are easier to stack, but this was the only real option anyway since I would land back in NY the Thursday of the wedding weekend.

Before freezing, each layer must be cooled completely (takes a few hours on a cooling rack, I removed the wire rack from inside the freezer and balanced it atop a stack of books for a makeshift cooling station). Because I was using my old mercurial consumer oven, each layer was baked separately in the exact center instead of two or three layers at a time on multiple racks. The twelve layers (eleven and a short) took the better part of three days to bake and cool and wrap. Two and a half 11” layers, five 8” layers, four 5” layers. An extra layer for each tier. The thirteenth layer became a practice cake, and the mistake (the layer that shall not be numbered) did not flip out properly. I felt like crying, but I was freestyling bake times and the lovely friend whose oven this is joined me at the table to eat handfuls of warm cake from the pan and tell me a story. She had a deal with a childhood playmate: her frosting for the friend’s cake. At that moment, I would have bargained anything for assurances this wedding cake would work. We ate more warm mistake.

I grew up in a house of cake. One of my mother’s favorite stories is the time my grandfather responded to her elementary teacher’s note home of concern that my mother was eating cake for breakfast with a note on his prescription pad about the healthfulness of the ingredients. There were box mixes in my mother’s pantry, but she always made the buttercream frosting herself. Most weeks her 9” triple-layer cakes were decorated with flowers and piped stars inside the glass cake dome, birthday cakes were especially elaborate, and she maintains a library of hundreds of frosting tips. The nickel-plated brass tips are stamped in a numerical system organized around shape (star, rose, basketweave, leaf, ruffle, etc.), though tip size varies between the three industry leaders. She sent icing bags and tips and plastic couplers and a good luck note.

I had spent a few hours at a cake store in Manhattan, stacking pans to determine the height and shape — one of the recent trends is for taller middle tiers (four layers instead of three) and I wanted a decent graduation in elevation for the fresh flower decoration, which meant wider variation in pan size — going for modern, I choose 5”, 8”, and 11” instead of the classic 3-layer/tier 6”, 9”, 12”, retaining the three-inch difference and emphasizing the middle tier with one fewer layer at the base. The top tier is usually saved in the couple’s freezer to eat on the first anniversary, so you must plan for enough cake in the bottom two tiers for all the invited guests.

When I landed at 1:06 a.m. on Thursday morning, the first thing I checked at the apartment was the state of the freezer. I counted the layers, all there, no frost on the foil. I slept for five hours and ran to a birthday breakfast in the city, trained back to the upscale bodega near the apartment for seven and a half pounds of quality unsalted butter (thirty sticks) to soften on the counter, enough for two large batches of Swiss meringue buttercream.

First, though, what’s known as ‘boiled icing,’ a shortcut caramel made by melting an amount, let’s say half a cup, of butter, adding twice that of dark brown sugar and almost that of heavy cream. Stir. Boil. Cool. Beat in four times your original butter amount of confectioners sugar and a dash of vanilla. Baking is all about the ratios, I made 1.5 quarts and ladled it into travel cylinders. You salt when you frost.

Back into the city to pick up a rental car, the agency near Washington Square could not find the reservation and all the cars were booked for the weekend. Fine, I said, rent me a car for the day and I’ll have it back in the morning. I would drive the layers out and return to Brooklyn that night to begin the buttercream. Parking in a nearby neighborhood, a text arrived from a talented writer who wondered how my day was and reminded me that her car was to be used for just such emergencies. New plan. I made eight quarts of buttercream in the Swiss meringue style suspending egg whites and sugar over a double boiler before combining in the butter, a stick at a time. The cheap hand mixer was by this point an extension of my arm after hours of mixing, and I just repeated fervently, “Don’t die, don’t die, don’t die,” as the mixture finally became glossy. Swiss meringue is one of those things that doesn’t come together until it’s damn well ready, and this scene was far from the pastel television kitchens, I was sitting on the ledge hugging the only big bowl available with my non-mixer arm in this old Brooklyn brownstone with the a/c hanging out the other window. The icing was exactly the volume of the bowl. Science is exciting.

Dropping off the rental car in the morning, I walked to the farmers’ market and picked up lacy elderflower (“Make a simple syrup!” the farmer called out behind me) and pea shoots for decoration on my way to meet the writer near her garage. “I haven’t started it in weeks,” she said casually, and I crossed my fingers. Twenty-two hours to assembly. In Greenport the following morning after an existential crisis in a chain craft store, I headed over to some new gay boyfriends’ rental house (with no help from any mapping application, the whole weekend was decidedly off-script by this point and their house number seemed not to exist) and quietly removed the cakes and icing from the refrigerator to bring everything to room temperature. As the guys woke and wandered down to make coffee, they sampled pieces of cake carnage as I leveled off each layer for a flat surface to frost, measuring against a ruler on the marble kitchen island and spinning the cake on its rotating stand, trusting colored straws filched from a Santa Monica boba tea stand for structural integrity.

The straws replace wooden dowels, and this is a crumb-coating of icing under the final sheen. Balanced on the straws will be the cardboard under the next tier, and I stacked the four middle layers with the caramel frosting between and the buttercream around the edges. Back into the refrigerator to chill, I started the last, top tier and proceeded to jab the serrated knife into the center of my index finger. While I bled out into a paper towel (decided there was already plenty of protein in the cake), I took a few minutes to return friends’ texts that sure, everything was going just beautifully. At some point I almost remember, favorite people brought me food I tried to refuse in my sugared haze.

And now for the big transfer, one tier at a time from the borrowed kitchen to the venue a few miles away. The last 5" top tier I cradled in a bowl while I steered with my free arm. It was raining and the caterers were inside the tent, directing me to the small round table for the cake. The wedding photographer appeared as I stacked the tiers, snapping away as I gamely smiled and added the final icing. This was the moment for the final dowel pressed through the center of the entire cake, and I took the pencil sharpener out (seems a useful suburban survival skill, to know that a pencil sharpener can make thinner dowels into spears). The dowel went through the top tier, then stopped at the first cardboard barrier. I looked at the band setting up, evaluating my options. The lead singer winked at me. I looked back at him and broke the dowel off. Not today. He played a series of minor chords. Frosting between the layers, I went back to the fabulous couple’s house one last time to follow up on their tip that the blooming hydrangeas in the yard would be perfect decoration. Of course they were right.

Wielding floral wire, I secured each bunch to a tier and dressed the table with more yard blooms. The photographer, tilting her lens to the front of the cake, made me realize that the cake needed some party in the back. I pressed hydrangea leaves into the angle the couple would cut from and ran across the lawn to throw on my dress (‘summer whites’ was the dress code ask) and pinned vintage rhinestones I’d thrifted the day before from a shop in town over a stain from the dress’ previous owner. Grabbed heels, back across the lawn, the ceremony began minutes later. Humbled, I realized this was the reason I went away: so I could return and show up for my friends. Such an imperfect cake, and the absolute best I could present. Happy summer wedding season–

Congrats, Liza and Josh.

Thank you to Nika, Karen, Laura, Dan, Jennifer, Adam, Kat, Kaitlin, Ben, Aleks, Heather, Carlos, Audrey, Cassie, and my mom.