Monday, October 16, 2017

Oh, For Heaven's Cakes

Where there is cake, there is hope. And there is always cake.
― Dean Koontz, Life Expectancy

My mother, whose first yarzheit is today, taught me a great many things.
Since this is not a story about my mother, per se, I’m not going to list all the things she taught me; instead, I’ll cut to the chase.

She taught me how, and why!!, to bake.

When I was growing up, about one Sunday a month was dedicated to baking. We would bake for most of the day, from about 11:00 AM (if I was awake), until about 5:00 PM, sometimes longer. We would bake cakes, and cookies, and different kinds of pastries. Sometimes, it would be five different kinds of cookies, 100s of each kind, or four or five different cakes. At appropriate times, we would bake holiday related pastries – most notably, hamentashen at Purim time. We would make so many hamentashen, we would still be eating them on Shavuot. You might be wondering, what did we do with five different cakes? Or 500 cookies? How could one small family eat so many cookies at one time?

Despite that fact that our small family could probably, in fact, polish off 500 cookies within a day or two, we weren’t allowed to touch the cookies, or the cakes, or the different pastries that came out of the oven on those baking Sundays. No. Instead, those baked goods ‘fed the freezer’. 

My mother owned two large fridges – each with its own freezer - and two enormous full-size freezers, all full of cakes and cookies and apple pies. These delicacies were made and stored for emergencies, i.e., if someone ‘dropped in’. In these cases, my mother would run to the freezer, extract some cookies or pastries, and chit chat until they thawed. Then she would exclaim, as if she just thought of it, “Let’s all have some coffee!!!!”. And suddenly, seemingly freshly baked cinnamon rolls would be on the table. 

To my mother's misfortune, she never learned to lock the freezers, and some very despicable children would sometimes go in and steal cookies or muffins out of the freezer and take them into their bedrooms, where they would surreptitiously be consumed. There were times when my mother would go into the freezer to take out some chocolate chip cookies for dear Uncle and Aunt who had 'just dropped in', and find a plastic bag with two cookies and a few lone chocolate chips at the bottom. My mother was not happy at these times. 

Oh for Heaven's SAKES!! At least let me know you've eaten all the cookies!!!"

Just for the record;  I had NO KNOWLEDGE whatsoever of these shenanigans. I just heard about them.

I did, however, gain much knowledge in the baking and storing of cakes and cookies. And the importance of a good freezer lock. 

The truth is, my mother didn’t really want me in the kitchen with her when she baked. She moved quickly, and I only hampered her movements.
She would give me the unglamorous jobs; chopping nuts, peeling apples, washing dishes, bringing the baking trays up from the basement. I wasn’t allowed to actually measure ingredients or operate the heavy machinery. I learned mostly from observation. 
Which were not always as keen as one would hope.

The first time I gathered up my courage to bake a cake solo, my mother was not present. I decided I needed a chocolate cake. Everyone needs chocolate cake. I had seen my mother make chocolate cake countless times. I found the recipe, meticulously measured the ingredients, poured the batter into an oiled pan, and carefully placed the cake in a pre-heated oven. All exactly as my mother did. 

But it obviously wasn’t exactly as my mother did because my cake didn’t rise, it weighed over 25 kg, and tasted like very sweet mud. It was, in a word, a failure.

When my mother came home, she laughed at the sight. “Oh for Heaven's SAKES!! Maybe you didn’t put in baking powder”, she said.
I knew I HAD put in baking powder, and I was determined to try again. The next Sunday that my mother was absent, I tried again. Same results. Another attempt, and still the same results.

What did Einstein say about insanity?

While my mother was becoming rather exasperated at my many failed attempts at chocolate cake and using up all her eggs (Oh for Heaven's SAKES!), my sister thought it was hilarious. She called my cake ‘the doorstop’. “Oh!! You made another doorstop!! I’ll get a hammer and cut a piece.”
She was a real joker.

Finally, my mother allowed me to try and make the cake in her presence so that she could see what I was doing wrong. I did, the cake failed, and my mother could not understand why. ‘Doorstop’ jokes kept flying.

“That door keeps banging! Go make your cake”.
“The lock on the bathroom is stuck. Go make your cake”.
“Neo-Nazis are marching. We need ammunition. Go make your cake.”

Over the course of about a year or so, every few weeks, I would make another attempt at chocolate cake. Doorstop after doorstop were the only results.
And then, finally it happened. My mother, watching me make my millionth doorstop, said “hey, you’re cooking the eggs. Maybe that’s the problem.”
The recipe calls for dissolving cocoa in boiling water and adding it to the batter. However, when the hot water was added, the eggs already mixed into the batter began to poach long before they made it into the oven.
I looked at my mother, and my mother looked thoughtfully at the batter. “Yes, that’s probably it. I always dissolved the cocoa before I mixed the other ingredients, so it has a chance to cool a bit.

This was our eureka moment.

Oh for heaven's SAKES!!!!

Newton and his falling apples were nothing compared to our discovery. Indeed, the next time I made the cake, I first dissolved the cocoa in boiling water and let it cool before adding it to the rest of the batter.
My cake was as good as my mother’s.
Thus ended the reign of the doorstop. And though every once in a while, one of my cakes doesn’t come out as well as hoped (usually when I’m making one for a special occasion, e.g., a visit by my mother-in-law), doorstop incidences are few and far between.

Of course, my sister still tells the jokes. Because, she’s, you know, my sister.

By the way, I make a pretty good lemon meringue pie, also. 

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