Monday, April 25, 2011

The Saga of the Lemon Poppy Seed Cake

“I am going to bake him a cake!”

This decision was reached with all the vim the inexperienced often have when setting forth into artistic territory hitherto unknown to them.

Not that I haven’t any experience baking. I’ve baked bazillions of pies, half of those since getting married (my husband is exceedingly fond of pie). I can make some extraordinary-looking scones (Mum says I haven’t the patience for proper-looking scones, but my little ‘scone explosions’ taste just as good as her perfectly round little things, so there!), and I’ve certainly mixed my fair share of muffin batter, lots of cookies, loaf cakes, fresh bread . . . in short, I know my way around the kitchen and am handy with a baker’s tools.

How hard can one cake be?

And it was such a beautiful recipe. The picture screamed, “Bake me! Bake me!” And the title was the last word in scrumptious: Lemon Poppy Seed with Raspberry Curd Filling. Mmmm.

Our “two months married” evening was coming around. I was planning an At Home Date, with a fine supper, complete with wine, and this most perfect of all desserts. This cake, indeed, was the key ingredient to a romantic evening.

Had I but known the turmoil awaiting . . . had some foreboding given pause to the impetuous speed with which I flung myself into the arms of Baking Woe . . . Would I have turned back? Would I have shirked the adventure, the chance for growth and character-betterment?

You bet I would have!

You see, I started the day with a writing session. Not a particularly intense one, of course. An intense day for me is upwards of 7,000 words, and I come to the end of one these days with all the romantic spark of a shell-shock victim. I knew better than to put in a full day, not with a home-date night in the works. Besides, I needed to be certain I left plenty of time for the cake. I only wrote a couple thousand words.

Just enough to leave me with half a brain.

But, seriously, how difficult can one cake be? Half a brain is plenty. It’s just combining the right ingredients at the right time and sticking them in a hot oven. Surely there’s a reason the expression is, “Piece of cake!”

I followed the instructions (I really did!) which said first to beat my five egg whites into their stiff white peaks. Whites beaten, I then moved on to stirring up the rest of my batter. Around this time, I remembered to turn on my oven and thought I might as well grease my cake pans while I’m at it . . . .

Except, I had no cake pans.

How can that be? In the recent combination of both of our well-stocked kitchens, how could be possible that not a single cake pan lurked in the cupboards? But the truth was what it was. No cake pans.

Piffle. Not a problem! After all, I have a deep dish pie plate, and that’s close enough, right? And why not use my 8x8” casserole dish for the other half? I’ll have a square bottom and a round top! A quirky little Frank Lloyd Wright cake, that’s what I would bake, and my Rohan would love it, being a quirky fellow himself.

This solution reached, I greased the pie plate and that casserole dish, and turned back to folding my beaten egg whites into the rest of my batter.

Only, the egg whites had separated and turned into pale slop in the bowl.

Oops. I pulled out my beater and tried to revive them to the lofty heights of foam they had once been . . . but to no avail. They were flat.

Oh, well. I had more eggs. A shame to waste any, but I’d be able use some of the yolks in the raspberry curd, so it wouldn’t be a total waste. I beat up five more egg whites until they were nice and foamy, folded them into my batter, poured the batter into the greased pie plate and casserole dish, and put them in the oven.

It was while I was cleaning up the bowl and measuring cups that I realized . . . every time the recipe had told me to use a 1 cup measure I had used a ½ cup.

I stared at the ½ cup measure in my hand, willing my eyes to be wrong. They weren’t. So the 1½ cups of sugar had only been ¾.


I peered at the cakes in the oven. They were rising. They looked edible. Well . . . perhaps it was best to leave well enough alone? After all, there’d be sweet in the raspberry curd, and the butter cream icing with lemon zest. No one would be the wiser, right?

Oh, yes. That raspberry curd . . .

The instructions said, once you’ve boiled down your raspberries, to strain out all the seeds. At this point, I was head-achy, wanting tea, and sick to death of all this nonsense. Besides, what is so wrong with a few raspberry seeds? They add crunch to life. So I left them in and stuck the whole into the refrigerator to thicken up a bit.

The cakes finished baking. I pulled them out, let them cool the appropriate amount of time, then tried to turn them onto plates. “Tried to” being the key phrase. I had greased that blasted pie plate and casserole dish. Hadn’t I? Hadn’t . . .

Maybe I hadn’t. However the case may be, those cakes did come out eventually . . . in stages. First this chunk then that. I pieced them back together, thinking grimly, “Frank Lloyd Wright after an earthquake cake.” I nibbled a piece of cake crumble.

Bleh. Definitely not enough sugar.

But that raspberry curd would certainly help everything, wouldn’t it? I’d just smear it between the layers—let it sink down into the fissures—and cover it all with butter cream icing! It would be glorious.

I spooned the thickened raspberry curd onto the first layer. It went, “Glop, glop, glop, gluuuuuub.”

Um. Yeah. It looked about like that too.

My jaw ached from teeth-grinding. I probably undid about two years’ worth of orthodontic efforts that afternoon.

“It’s fine,” I told myself. “Just put the next layer on and whip up that butter cream frosting.”

The second layer went on. Actually, it went, SPLAT!!!

And spurted raspberry curd like blood across my white kitchen floor and me.

It was a calm decision. Everything else had been hazy up until then, muddled in my mind, confused. That moment, everything crystallized. A future as certain and perfect as a swiftly-coming dawn. All other recourse was taken from me. Only one remained.

The Frank Lloyd Wright After the Earthquake Cake hit the trash can with a last, satisfying, “Gluuump!”

That’s when the phone rang.

Of course, it was my new mother-in-law.

AE (in hollow tones): “Hullo.”

MIL (cheerfully): “Hello, dear Anne Elisabeth! How are you today?”

AE: “I just tried to make a cake. I killed it.”

MIL: “Oh, no, it can’t be that bad. Surely you can save it?”

AE: “No.”

MIL: “Maybe cover it with a bit of frosting?”

AE: “No.”


AE: “I threw its remains in the garbage.”

MIL: “Oh, you shouldn’t do that! It’s a shame to waste so many good ingredients. You should turn it into a pudding.”

AE: “No.”

MIL: “It’s very simple.”

AE: “No.”

MIL: “All you have to do is steam it . . .”

AE: “No.”

MIL: “. . . and it will be the most lovely pudding!”

AE: “No.”

MIL: “But don’t you want to try to fix it?”

AE: “No.”


AE: “So how are you?”

Following that conversation with dear Mother-in-Law, I sent my husband a single text: My life is over. There is no cake. I can make no supper tonight.

He, long-suffering man that he is, wrote back: Shall I bring something home?

Our At Home Date night became a Take-Out Pizza Night in no time flat.

In the wake of this shame, I had very little courage left with which to face the Christmas season and all its baking. Nonetheless, I struggled through with a handful of baked goodies successfully served. But I did not rush out to buy cake pans . . . and I hid the wretched Lemon Poppy Seed Cake with Raspberry Curd Filling Recipe safely out of sight. On dark nights, I could feel it watching me.

Then, a month before my birthday, my husband made startling announcement: “You know that cake you tried to make for me a couple of months ago?”

AE: “Mmmrrhrrh?” (I can’t be coherent when it comes to that cake.)

Rohan: “I’m going to bake it for your birthday!”

AE: “_____”

Rohan: “Yes, I am.”

AE: “Bhhhh?”

Rohan: “So, if you’ll give me the recipe?”

AE: “Whhhh?”

Rohan: “No, I’ve never baked a cake before in my life. But it can’t be that hard!”

Here, I smiled.

Can’t be that hard? HA! Once upon a time, I too had been that naïve. Once upon a time, I too had laughed. Once upon a time . . .

. . . before the Lemon Poppy Seed Cake.

But I gave him the recipe. I gave it to him and laughed. He read it over in grave silence, his handsome brow drawn together in a stern line. Then he tucked it away.

I heard nothing more of it for some time. My birthday came, was celebrated with much pomp, and went. Still no cake. I began to wonder if he had forgotten his bold declaration of a month ago.

Then, two nights ago, my Rohan said, “The time has come,” and began to assemble his ingredients.

I could not bear to watch. Scoffer that I am, I do love the man rather a lot, and I couldn’t watch him suffer. So I curled up in the living room, finishing the last few chapters of Gone with the Wind. With half an ear, I listened to the clashes and clatters from the kitchen.

At one point, an earnest face peaked around the corner. “Sweetie, are you sure this is a two cup measure?”

I wrenched myself from Melanie’s agonizing death scene, my eyes shimmering. “Wh—what?”

“This?” He held up a yellow measuring cup. “Two cups?”

“Yes. I think so. Yes. Go away! Melly’s dying!”

“Oh, right.”

He ducked away again.

A few minutes later . . . .

“Sweetie? How do you know if your egg whites are stiff enough?”

I pulled myself from Scarlet and Rhett’s heart-rending parting, tears streaming down my cheeks.

Him: “Are you okay?”

AE: “No!” Sniff. “What do you need?”

Him: “Do these egg whites look okay?”

AE: “Yes!” Sniff. “Go away!”

He worked late into the night. At the end, he sent me to bed without a glimpse of his progress. The next day, Easter Sunday, he took me to church, speaking scarcely a word as to his progress. When we returned, he set to again with a will, mixing and stirring, laboring in silence.

At last, as the evening drew toward its end, he called to me.

Him: “Wanna come see?”

I entered the kitchen. I beheld.

The first bite was mine.

I must say, dust and ashes have never been so sweet!

So, all this to say, my husband is scarcely human. I mean, look at the way he prepared his weapons for the assault!

Oh, well. Human or not, I love him. And I love what he does with Lemon Poppy Seed with Raspberry Curd Filling cake!


Thistlefur said...

You (and Rohan) have no idea how happy you make me. I shall need little other entertainment as long as you keep storytelling! ;)

Stephanie said...

Oh my goodness, this story just... well... takes the cake. :D LOVED it (and I could empathize so much!)!

Anne Elisabeth Stengl said...

Hehehe, glad to know you were amused! Rohan and I amuse each other, so we might as well provide some laughs for the rest of the world as well. :)

Julia said...

Can you share the recipe by any chance? I love lemon poppyseed muffins and this sounds awesome!

Anne Elisabeth Stengl said...

We got the recipe here, actually:

It turned out amazing . . . when Rohan made it! My birthday is coming up again soon, and I asked him if he's going to make it again for me! He looked all noble and self-sacrificing and said, "Well, I suppose it's meant to be tradition!"

I do like traditions like this. :)