When the Cake Hits the Compost Pile

Is there anything worse than your kid asking to bake? I dread the question when I see Susanna riffling through her cookbooks. The main problem with the scenario is the cookbooks including pictures of elaborate desserts she’s desperate to re-produce. Unfortunately, at our house, things never turn out like the pictures.

I blame celiac disease and gluten-free flours for that, but maybe it would be the same if we had wheat flours stocked in our pantry. I guess I’m better off not knowing, assuming I was a blossoming pastry chef before antibodies changed the course of my life. For now though, Susanna’s got to live with a grinch when it comes to baking in the kitchen. I’m cheap with doling out my GF flours, cynical when imitating recipes, and a bad sport, in general, with baking.

So, when Susanna tells me she’s working on her own baking experiment, I surprise her–and myself–when I give her permission to go ahead. I usually kibosh this kind of creativity immediately; either I don’t have enough GF flour mix ready, the bowls are too high for her to reach, the kitchen is messy, or I’m simply too exhausted. But this time, despite my doubt and disinterest, she persists enough to win me over. Or, I just give up.

I get down all the hard-to-reach items, plunk them on the counter and vacate the kitchen. With her recipe at hand, one she’d created all by herself, she’s ready to make the cake she’d been dreaming about. Something high and fluffy. Something that might be featured in a Strawberry Shortcake magazine. She’d proudly shown off her recipe to all of us and both Stan and I expressed some hesitation, but she was undeterred. I had surrendered easily because of my own terrible track record with cakes; some of the ratios concerned me but who was I to critique a cake recipe?  Two egg casualties later (one splatted into the tupperware drawer, the other on the floor) and the batter is ready for the oven.

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The finished product, iced and decorated with some help from Belén.

“Doesn’t it look good?” she asks as we sit down to the table. She’s high on anticipation and beams with pride. Belén and I agree that it does, indeed, look fabulous. She raves some more and I start to recognize her apparent need for enthusiasm and compliments. It’s exactly how I feel every time I set my steaming pots down for dinner.

When we start cutting it I being to prepare her for some disappointment, but she brushes it away like a pesky fly. We’re barely finished our first bite when she’s sputtering her review. “I love it! Do you love it, too? Isn’t it delicious?”

I look down at the piece on my plate and calculate how much more I’ll have to swallow. My portion is small. And I’m thankful.

“Belén, what do you think? Mom, didn’t it turn out well?”

“The taste is quite good. The texture is… a little different.” I consider telling her the texture is puckish, as in hockey puck-ish, but I’ve never actually eaten a hockey puck and she’s starting to look just the tiniest bit crestfallen, so I refrain. Belén is trying to be kind but she’s scraping at the icing, daintily avoiding any more cake, and I know she’s not sold on it either.

“What do you think Daddy will say when I give him a piece?” Susanna wonders, still trying to generate a buzz.

“If I were you, I wouldn’t stick around for his reaction,” Belén advises carefully. She’s not trying to be mean, but seems genuinely concerned. And by now, Susanna’s brave front is starting to unravel. There is only so long one can convince one’s self a cake is delicious, when it simply isn’t.

Both Belén and I note that Susanna hasn’t finished her portion either. “It’s so good,” she attempts, “but it’s just that…well…”

“You’re full?” Belén graciously provides.

“Yes! I’m full. It’s such a filling cake isn’t it?”

Because I know how important this project was for Susanna, how much effort she’d put into researching recipes and coming up with her own, and how she’d wanted it to turn out perfectly, I let the conversation keep going the direction that it must. Slowly. Kind of like debriefing after a failed test, or a lost soccer game. Eventually though, after all the icing has been licked and the cake stares back at us–nude and unappealing as ever–Susanna admits it. There is only one option left. The cake needs to be composted. She trudges to the back corner of our yard, through swarms of mosquitoes and overgrown weeds, and deposits her offering on our pile of decay.

Throughout the evening, and especially at bed time, the event is mentioned again. “It’s the price you pay for experimenting,” Belén debriefs, “You have to try and try and try…”

Both Stan and I agree with her.

On one hand, it’s terribly disheartening to think of picking yourself up after every failure, especially ones with more serious consequences than a baking experiment, but there’s still something hopeful about it. Accepting we won’t always get things right at first, or even for a good long time, gives us the freedom to keep at something.

I just read about a successful blueberry farmer, featured in a national magazine, who still can’t grow a decent tomato. After 15 years of producing food (her beautiful vegetable gardens were also pictured in the article) she admits that despite consistently disappointing tomato crops, she plants them every season. I can think of all kinds of examples where I continually fail but I know the right thing, the honourable thing, is to try again. In parenting, choosing to love my spouse, or prayer and meditation, things never go as well I’d like. I’m impatient, selfish and I can’t seem to focus enough. But every morning I have another chance to be the Mom, the Wife, and the Created. The opportunity to try again isn’t deflating, it’s a bit of grace.

And sometimes trying again can even lead to improvement, despite ourselves. People say it works like this with running; I wouldn’t know about that since I like to run once or twice every spring and declare myself done, but I’ve noticed it seems true with writing. The more I do it, the more I sit down and tap at the keys, the easier it comes. Other things, like playing violin or throwing a frisbee fall into this category too. You don’t have to set out to be the best, or even convince yourself you’re going to get better at something, you just have to be willing to do it at all. To rosin the bow and play the song, or throw that silly frisbee again. We don’t have to aim for perfection, success, or fame. We need to plant the tomato seed, face our children, spouses, the blank page, or early-morning silence, and pray for help to do it one more time.

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Susanna’s cake on top of our compost

A few days after Susanna’s experiment the girls go camping with my parents for a couple nights. I call my mom to check in and I hear Susanna clamouring for the phone. As soon as she gets the chance she tells me in a breathy, small-sounding voice (they always seem so much younger when they’re absent) she has plans. “I’m thinking I’ll try cream puffs next, then cinnamon rolls, and oh yeah, I’m gonna do another experiment-cake when I get home.”

Oh boy.

I think I like practise better in theory–certainly when it comes to my kitchen.

All the best to you this week as you try life over again,

Tricia

Update: Just to be clear, there are many things much worse than having a daughter who wants to bake. If you took the first line of this post literally I offer you my apologies; I am deeply grateful for Susanna, even though she can make a big mess.

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2 thoughts on “When the Cake Hits the Compost Pile

  1. I think the best idea is that Susanna comes to bake with me. We share the same affinity for desserts! We will make some yummy stuff!!

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