Child Ballads and Most Horrible Cake in the World

cake!One of the heuristics I’ve developed in my time on earth is to always be wary of things that try to define themselves in terms of what they are not. On that front, the Cherrybrook Yellow Cake Mix was screaming “Stay Away!” louder than the rattle on a six foot Diamondback. Prominently advertised as being Wheat Free, Egg Free and Dairy Free (not to mention Peanut Free, Nut Free and Gluten Free), for all I could tell, the mix could have consisted entirely of sawdust, or half a pound of bacon.

the cake mix is a lieBut it was Devon’s birthday, and I wanted to bake her a cake, even though she’s been working hard to wean herself of egg and dairy for health reasons, as well as cutting down on wheat. And the Cherrybrook Yellow Cake Mix seemed to fit the bill, even if the labeling on the box almost categorically excluded the entire definition of “cake”, which is pretty much a mixture of wheat, eggs and butter drenched in sugar, with just enough leavening to make it chewable after baking. So here come the famous words that punctuate many a Roadtrip: what could possibly go wrong?

Jeremy and I picked up the mix and a pack of “vegan chocolate frosting” during a surreptitious trip to Whole Foods and hid them in the garage until the afternoon of the 12th, after cards and presents had been opened. I warned Devon of the impending attempt and attempted to set expectations appropriately.

Those of you who know me know that I don’t bake, unless you count the pies, because pies don’t really count. Because real baking is a science. Cooking on the stovetop (or making pies), you can finesse things, stirring it a little longer, adding a little more water or a little more starch until it looks right. It’s art – you see how things are going and make course corrections. But baking? No, once you’ve mixed your ingredients and placed them in the oven, you have taken your shot, and you’re just along for the ride. Only time and luck will tell whether your attention to precise measurements was good enough. Mine? Never is.

But I measured out the ingredients, checking everything twice – yes, precisely 3/4 cup of water, 6 tablespoons of shortening, stirred (clockwise, under a gibbous moon) for 2 minutes before pouring into a well-oiled 9 inch pan and allowing to settle. Oven preheated to 350 degrees, in for 28 minutes and check for doneness with a toothpick (hewn of wood from Yggdrasil, the Norse tree of life).

The toothpick came out clean, so I removed the somewhat squat but shining and cake-colored artifact and set it on the counter to cool (10 minutes – no more, no less). Then turned it over and… GLORP – the gooey, uncooked batter at the bottom dripped from the cake pan like some pale imitation of chocolate syrup.

I had failed. But no matter – I’m a survivor, right? I don’t give up. At least that’s what I told Devon and, to her credit, she managed to stifle what could only have been a look balanced equally between amusement and fear.

I turned the oven back on, nursed the inverted cake back into the pan gooey-side up, and scraped all the uncooked batter into the crevasse at its center. Who says you can’t just cook it some more? Another five minutes and the top – née bottom – was now looking as cake-like as the former top had been (which, again, may not be saying much), so I pulled it out and let it cool a second time. Flipped the pan after the requisite 10 minute cooling time and marveled at my resourcefulness.

Still, as cooked as it appeared, the nine-inch yellow hockey puck did not much resemble the hand-drawn scrumptious three-layer concoction on drawn on the cover of the box. I didn’t think I could manage three layers, but I had seen pictures of chefs cutting a cake horizontally to insert frosting. I could manage to add at least one layer, couldn’t I? Except when my knife reached the center of the cake, it fouled on – yes, you guessed it – a gooey morass of still-uncooked batter that oozed out like… I don’t know, something that would ooze out of the center of an undercooked cake.

Sigh. I wasn’t defeated, not by any means, but I was starting to run out of time to get this confection into shape – Devon and I had an appointment to take Jem to his orthodontist in 10 minutes.

Okay, think think think. I could still save this thing (“You don’t have to do this,” she offered hopefully, “It’s the thought that counts.”). But I’m a computer scientist, and if there’s one thing that computer scientists understand it’s recursion: I would reduce the problem of cooking one cake into that of cooking two half-cakes! I finished sawing the cooked halves apart and flipped each onto a sheet of aluminum foil, gooey-side up. Distributed the uncooked bits equally and flopped them both back into the oven – divide and conquer, baby, divide and conquer. But how long to cook? We were out of time so – really winging it – I just left the oven off and figured they’d finish firming up on the residual heat. What else was there to do?

When we returned from the prolonged appointment, the two half-thickness pucks were still arguably cake-colored, but made a sort of a “ka-tonk” sound when you rapped them on the counter top. Devon tried desperately hard not to laugh, even if the laugh she was stifling was one of sympathy. But I was too far in to admit defeat. I slathered the whipped up dairy-free, gluten-free, sawdust-free, bacon-free chocolate frosting around and stacked the disks into a lovely, if mostly ornamental arrangement, complete with candles and rainbow-colored sprinkles.

Even if we hadn’t warned the kids what to expect when we sang “Happy Birthday” and blew out the candles that evening, they probably would have figured it out themselves. Most cakes don’t take quite so much force to cut with a butchers knife, nor do they make a sound like shattering pottery when you finally break through. We managed to break off two slices; I soaked mine in whipped cream, while Devon and Miranda took a polite bite out of the other. “It’s like a chocolate-frosted biscuit,” Miranda observed, as it crunched and cracked in her mouth, “made out something you don’t make biscuits out of.” I don’t think I could have said it better myself.

After a suitable interval, the rest of the erstwhile cake went into the trash, unremarked except for the surprisingly loud “thunk!” it made on the way down.

Honestly, the ignominious end to the endeavor didn’t bother me a bit – it had served its purpose, and that purpose had very little to do with edibility. To explain, let me rewind things a little, back to 1857, when James Child published his first collection of English folk ballads. Child Ballad #2, “The Elfin Knight”, dates back to the early 1600’s and chronicles a series of increasingly impossible tasks that the knight poses to his presumptive love. If she is able to – and this is suddenly going to sound very familiar – make him a hemless shirt, reap a field with a leather sickle and a few other unlikely tasks, then, he says, she’ll be a true love of mine.

Now, I don’t suppose the Brits were particularly concerned with being gluten/egg/dairy free in the early 1600’s – they were too busy dealing with civil wars, gunpowder plots and the plague. But I could be wrong – there is evidence of a lot of lost verses in the Elfin Knight. And even if the early English bards weren’t clued into it, Devon clearly understands that, if you really want to show someone you love them, hemless shirts and leather sickles have nothing on baking them an eggless, dairyless, wheat/nut/sawdust-free chocolate frosted birthday cake.

(Happy Birthday, Devon!)


crunch crunch crunch


9 responses to “Child Ballads and Most Horrible Cake in the World

  1. Love your writing! This is the hardest I’ve laughed while sitting by myself in recent memory. In fact I’m still chuckling as I write this note. Thanks.


  2. Happy B’day Devon!
    My condolences to all involved, if I had to go gluten free, I would probably shoot myself. If I had to go gluten, egg dairy free, I wouldn’t need to, I would probably starve myself.


  3. I can hear you, Steve, chuckling as I am. Sounds like my pecan pie, with chocolate crumb crust, over the holidays. I can mess up a pie and have several times. One was a lemon meringue pie that looked great, but we drank it with a straw. This latest pecan pie, realizing it was not the correct consistency prior to baking, tried to add more of any ingredients until it seemed correct, and gave up and put it in the oven. Well, family loved it and said it was so decadent that it could have been served at the Cheesecake Factory. Your effort was wonderful and end the product looked good. Sorry it was not edible, but think you already knew that before you ever started. And we all support you and thank you for the heads up.


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