On Friendship and Cake
I had a birthday recently, and celebrated it the way I have chosen to over the past few years: by doing something I’ve never done before and then having a birthday dinner at home with close friends and family.
My friend L is a fabulous baker of cakes. She makes a chocolate cake with ganache frosting that convinced me that chocolate cake actually had something going for it. The coffee cake recipe she inherited from her grandpa’s lady friend is criminally good, rich yet light and endlessly satisfying. And the first baked good she ever made for us, an apple cake with a caramel sauce, convinced us that she was a friend we absolutely wanted to keep. She claims, grinning only a little, that she made that apple cake after she decided that she really did want to be friends with us, and she figured that cake would reel us in for good.
It might have worked a little too well, because we functionally moved in to their house for a couple of nights a week for dinner and conversation. And when we’re lucky and she’s not too tired from work, L makes us cake. Cake is one of her great gifts to the world — well, OK, not the world, because we never let it get past us on the way out the door. But if the world were to have the chance to eat L’s cakes, they would agree that it is one of her great gifts.
It’s also her gift to me. Each year before my birthday she asks me what cake I’d like her to make for me. And each year I go through magazines and cookbooks and choose a cake I’d like to have. These are nearly always complicated cakes requiring multiple steps and specialty ingredients, often liqueurs. They require the weighing of cake flour, because measuring by volume is too imprecise for these recipes. Some have written directions spanning multiple pages and take more than a day to make. Often, far too often for everyone at the table but me, the cake involves Italian meringue frosting, a whipped, silky, sweet, billowy meringue frosting that is airy and creamy and (to me) utterly delightful.
Everyone else thinks it ruins what would otherwise be known as a really good cake.
Yet I love the stuff, and so each year L, against her better cake-making judgement, skillfully and lovingly creates a whipped meringue frosting for my cakes.
To me this sums up a lot about friendship and love. L spends literally hours on my cakes each year, cakes she will never make again because I won’t request them again. She makes them to the best of her considerable ability, and includes in them elements she does not particularly care for. Yet she does even this part well, with love and skill and attention to detail that results in birthday cakes that inspire in me the same feeling of specialness and magic I always got from my Mom’s cakes. The love of the baker is the gift. The cake is just the vehicle.