I got this idea--who knows why—to make a polka dot cake for Easter. I saw instructions in a magazine that directed the cook to make up some cake batter and bury donut holes of a contrasting color in the batter. Then bake. When the layers are assembled, frosted and cut—voila! Polka dots!
So that was exciting, but my husband wanted a chocolate cake, and I wanted to put the whole project over the top with an Easter theme.
I found a recipe in White Trash Cooking for Resurrection Cake, which calls for dousing the finished cake of your choice with a bourbon and butter syrup.
This seemed like a good idea.
The first red flag came when I noticed the 10 purchased donut holes seemed a bit hard as I was burying them in batter. I wondered if they'd resist the diner’s fork. Actually, they would resist most cutlery, bandsaws included.
And as I was assembling the baked cake, I had to admit that indeed these puppies were like rocks. I stabbed the cake multiple times with a toothpick and poured on the syrup. Hoping everything would soften up.
I put raspberry jam between the two layers and piled them up. More syrup, which soaked in, then I used the mocha frosting from wonderful Dorie Greenspan’s Baking.
To maintain the Easter theme I dyed coconut green for grass, and put colored eggs on top along with a ceramic bunny.
It was one odd cake. The donut holes were still tough, and there weren’t enough of them to give the full polka dot effect when it was cut. Probably they should have been soaked in the bourbon sauce before baking—treated like very big raisins.
The cake was not light and spring-like, green coconut notwithstanding. It was lugubrious and European without the class. It was the kind of cake you serve captives—well intentioned perhaps, but both of you just wanting to get away.
I write about this because it’s easier to figure out what went wrong in a cake than in a novel chapter or an art installation. Easier because there are not so many steps to analyze and also because there is less self recrimination involved. It's just a cake, soon to be a mere memory. I take the failure less personally. And yet a botched recipe affords a good opportunity to think about failure.
Truly, I wish I had this attitude about other creative projects, a good number of which bomb. An artist needs to be calm in the face of failure, because art is usually new territory. There are going to be false starts, wrong turns, offhanded dismissals by people you longed to impress.
I am much more unrepentant about recipes. I figure that if people want my adventurous cooking (which they seem to), they have to face the fact that sometimes I fall off the edge. That’s what adventure is—there’s some danger of some kind involved.
Where we got the idea that everything has to work all the time, I don’t know. Maybe that has more to do with business and product. And we've come to expect that our soap should be wrapped, that things be predictable.
But in the context of creativity, it’s nonsense. You cannot be creative and live in some blandly perfect, no-surprises bubble. Making, doing, and enjoying art is about taking a conscious risk.
I’ll soak the donut holes next year, and maybe make the cake mint chocolate. But then there’s the green coconut….