Every year since we've been children, my brother and I have baked our Mum a birthday cake. This is a very special cake based on the fact that neither of us are bakers and that we started doing this when we were very small — cooking in the kitchen up at the cottage while my mother lay on the couch in the living room pretending to be asleep.
Key to this cake is a ghastly lemon cake mix which Mum insists tastes great - but we know it's mainly because she so enjoyed the chaos in the kitchen that ensued when the two of us were together in the kitchen.
One year we put sparklers on the cake - not anticipating the resulting molten lava fusing into the icing.
For her 75th birthday party, I baked the cake and my brother and I iced it — in the basement on top of the washer and dryer, because we didn't want her to see us in the kitchen during the party. We almost lost the cake that time because it kept sliding off the top of the washer.
Anyway, this year I thought I’d try something different, still a mix (since that is non-negotiable) but at least, I thought, maybe I could find something with less chemicals in the mix. I was very pleased to find an organic cake mix.
My brother looked at it dubiously. "It's vanilla." Dominic objected. "It has to be a lemon cake."
"We can add lemon," I insisted, "It's organic. It'll taste better."
"I dunno." he said, shaking his head. "Well . . . I guess we'll give it a try."
* * *
You’d think following directions on a box of cake mix would be a relatively straightforward matter. And it is — if you haven’t Dominic or me following, or rather, interpreting the directions.
While I was preparing the cake pans, Dominic got going on the mix: measuring out a cup of milk, a quarter pound of butter, two eggs, and juicing the lemon.
“I don’t like the smell of this mix, it doesn’t seem lemony enough.” He was saying.
“I’m sure after we add the lemon it’ll be fine” I said turing to look over my shoulder in time to see him pour lemon juice into the milk before adding it all to the mix powder in the bowl.
“Oh, no.” I said. “Not yet, you’ll curdle the milk”
Too late. That’s precisely what happened. "See?" I said.
“Doesn’t matter” he said blithely, "It all goes to the same place, it won’t make a difference, it all gets mixed together.”
“Ok” I said doubtfully, being neither much of a physics whiz nor a baker.
“He may know better” I thought to myself.
We mixed the ingredients together and it seemed okay but Dominic still objected to the non-lemony smell, so we decided to add lemon zest.
We scraped one of the lemons that he'd juiced but didn't get enough zest, so we peeled another lemon, chopped up the skin and added it to the mix.
Now to find the electric beater.
"We don't need one," he insisted, "we never used one at the cottage."
True enough, we used to have to count strokes beating with a fork for two minutes. But since I happened to have an almost virgin electric beater, why not use it? Once we figured out how to keep the beater blades from falling into the mix and wedged into the machine we were on a roll.
Soon everything was mixed and we poured it all into the two greased pans, with him holding the bowl while I scraped it clean.
Into the oven it went and the two of us got working on another task - drawing some cards for Mum's birthday.
After a while I thought we should check on the cake. I turned on the oven light.
"Oh dear." said Dominic. "It looks very odd."
The cake had begun to do some very strange things indeed, becoming exceedingly lumpy — resembling something out of a Dr. Seuss story.
"Well, let's wait and see." I said.
Twenty seven minutes later we tested it, and, as per instructions on the box, found the toothpick clean when poked into the centre — as far as either of us could see with our own deteriorating eyesight.
So I pulled the cake out of the oven and put it on racks to cool while the two of us finished off our other project for a few minutes.
* * *
Neither of us noticed the cake.
It started to sink . . .
And sink. . .
. . . lower and lower and lower until it had sunk to about 1 cm high — resembling now a solid, unappetizing block rather than a lovely light fluffy delectable cake.
"Oh dear." said Dominic.
"Hmmm." I said.
We looked at each other and back at the cake.
"Shall we try it?" I suggested, brightly. Dominic made a face. "Okay, but just a tiny bit."
This from the man who has tried both cat food and dog food because he figured it couldn't be that bad. He reported it as being the most disgusting thing he'd ever tasted and thereafter he maintained total sympathy for the dog when it refused to eat its dinner.
I shaved off a sliver of cake and we both tried it. It couldn't be that bad.
"Right then, what do we do?"
"I guess we'd better start again."
The time was 10:45 at night.
"I don't think it was the lemon in the milk that did it." Dominic began, "I didn't like the look of the ingredients on the box, it had guar and locust bean gum in it, what was all that about?"
"Never mind, we'll get the old chemical mix. A real lemon mix this time."
Off we went in search of another mix. As we were driving I said: "We could try the local Value Mart - but they never have anything I'm looking for."
"Let's try it." said Dominic."
We went. They didn't. The section was: chocolate, vanilla, chocolate and chocolate.
Lemon. It HAS to be lemon.
We arrived at Sobeys and found our old staple: Betty Crocker Lemon Cake Mix. I asked a woman working there if she'd ever had an odd experience with a cake mix. She said she wasn't much of a cook but grinned ear to ear when I described adding lemon to the milk.
We bought the mix.
* * *
I greased the pans, measured out the ingredients, poured the dried mix into the bowl and added the milk.
“Would you like me to crack some eggs?” Dominic asked, brightly. We were both extremely tired. No doubt jet-lag kicking in with a vengeance.
“Sure.” This mix required three eggs.
"Oh and we should preheat the oven.” he said.
“Ok” I said, "give me one of the eggs, I’ve just added the milk and I think it’s time sensitive.”
I reached over for an egg saying “just turn on the oven, would you?” — and I turned my head in time to see a look of horror cross his face as he fumbled the eggs and sent all three crashing to the floor.
Hilarity ensued as we mopped up the mess.
The cake made it into the oven and came out looking okay but smelling more of coconut than lemon because I’d used coconut oil rather than vegetable oil.
Since the cakes had to cool we decided to leave icing them until the next day.
Now you'd think somewhere along the way at least one of us would have learned something, but apparently not. Not in this family.
The next morning I set about making icing. Mum's recipe book which she'd typed on her ancient Olivetti with the missing apostrophe and wobbly 8, stipulated: 1 cup of icing sugar with 3 tblsps of butter and 3 tblsps of liquid - either milk, water or orange juice.
Well what's the difference between orange juice and lemon juice? They're both citrus.
So I added 3 tblsps of lemon juice.
And the butter promptly separated.
I mixed like mad. Added more icing sugar. And more. And more.
It looked very strange but since it tasted okay I figured it would do and I'd better start icing the cake.
On I painted and watched with trepidation as the speckled translucent clearly separated icing oozed its way off the cake and onto the plate.
Now, I paint with encaustic, normally — molten beeswax if you don't know the term — so I'm accustomed to watching paint drip and flow, and I've been known to have issues with paint texture, so I wasn't completely fazed and decided to soldier on, regardless.
I mixed up another batch of icing and — just to prove the point or repeat the experiment — I did exactly the same as I'd done the first time.
I was not, therefore, particularly surprised when I achieved exactly the same result. This time however, the "broken" icing was a little thicker and I decided that a few hours in the fridge would harden up the butter and most likely all would be well.
A few hours later Dominic called and said I should decorate the cake without him because he was busy running around doing errands for Mum before her non-birthday party. Somehow all of the friends she's invited were not to know it was her birthday, even though they'd known her since she was fourteen.
Right. And here we were with the cake to blow the secret sky-high.
Okay, back to the cake. Decorating. Well I'd gone all out. I'd found some crazy wavy candles that seemed like fun and I'd picked up some marker pens coloured with food colouring so we could actually paint the cake.
That was the idea anyway.
The markers worked for the first couple of spots and then quickly dried out. The cake began to take on a distinctly kindergarten vibe. A labour of love by a five year old. Or a somewhat addled painter several decades older struggling not to blame the tools.
Dominic arrived to collect me and the cake. As we were driving I asked if he'd remembered to bring the candles that I'd put beside the cake — as candles wouldn't fit under the cover.
So we stopped off at another store en route where I picked up some black olives and some candles that would spell out "HAPPY BIRTHDAY" if you arranged them in the right order.
* * *
Dominic smuggled the cake into the basement while I distracted Mum in the kitchen.
I asked what I could do, so Mum asked me to slice and butter the bread for wrapping in foil and toasting in the oven.
"Here let me show you how." she said.
"I think I know how to wrap bread." I said, thinking: Bread I can handle; cakes not so much.
In due course her guests arrived and the party ensued.
When the time came for us to present the cake, Dominic and I seconded ourselves in the kitchen hurriedly putting the candles on the cake before she realized something was happening.
Candles lit, we entered singing – with a cake cheerfully sporting the message: