Adventures in cake baking

I offered to bring dessert for the party, which was predicted to draw about 25 diners. Only later did I realize I was the sole provider of the sweet finale, and it was the unspoken assumption that I would bring something special.

I don't have time in my busy life to make many homemade dishes, so my standards for "special" usually involve takeout without the drive-through. But I know from my old-fashioned upbringing that party-level special calls for more than placing an order, standing in line, and swiping a credit card. It calls for blending and creaming, melting and stirring, whipping and scraping – the kind of caring effort that becomes as much a part of the recipe as a seasoning.

I believe that care and attitude affect the flavor of things. On mornings when the silent, scowling woman serves the house blend, there is a distinct bitterness to the brew. But when the brown-eyed man with the shy smile delivers the same coffee with a wish for a good day, I'm convinced I'm sipping poetry.

For the party, I decided to prepare two cakes – one chocolate and one not chocolate. Deciding to bring something so simple as cake tempted me to cheat. How many times had a box of factory-proven powder and a tub of frosting come to my rescue, often late at night, to yield a respectable cake for a nearly forgotten school party or a charity bake sale.

But party food tends to prompt questions. And I feel compelled to have some special detail about the recipe – an anecdote or an unexpected ingredient. So I pulled out my old recipe box with its faded cards and tattered sheets protruding from it like antique fans.

It was then that I realized it had been more than a year since I'd baked a cake from scratch. I knew I needed recipes that had never let me down – the Walnut Dream Cake and my mother's Chocolate Sheet Cake.

It was easy to find the first, its grease-stained, yellowed photocopy paper was sticking out of the stash. But the chocolate cake recipe – with its three layers of ingredients penciled neatly on a sheet of yellow legal paper, folded into eighths, and filed according to my system of allowing favorites to dangle from the box – was nowhere to be found.

The boxed cake temptation returned, but I resisted.

Instead, I turned to Google. Hundreds of chocolate cake recipes appeared, complete with ratings, reviews, and titles suggestive of chocolate fiction. I finally chose one with a short list of unusual ingredients, stellar reviews, and a long name bearing a lofty claim along the lines of Better-Than-Anything-Else-in-the-World Chocolate Cake. After a quick dash to the store to buy its special ingredients and a pan of the required dimensions, I was ready for an evening of baking.

I turned on music to set the mood for a caring culinary experience. First I whipped up the Walnut Dream Cake and placed it in the oven. Then I turned to the promising new recipe fresh from the ink jet printer. Although I followed the instructions carefully, the mixture was runny. Even with extra beating and a little more flour, it settled into the consistency of a melted milkshake. I considered the raving Internet reviews and tried to have faith in the pan of chocolate soup that I hoped heat would turn into a cake.

I laid it gently in the oven and then turned to the pantry and pulled out my emergency box of chocolate cake. When the oven timer went off, the Better-Than ... Cake had firmed slightly around the edges, but a liquid pool remained in the center. I left it in the oven. It was almost 9 p.m., and my frustration rivaled my fatigue. I decided to whip up the box of cake mix, just in case, using a Bundt pan to make it seem special.

After more than twice the recommended time, the Better-Than ... Cake had firmed to the consistency of gelatin. I set it aside, hoping the cooling process would help.

After frosting the chocolate Bundt cake and boxing it for the party, I revisited my failure. The outer edges appeared salvageable as brownies. So I sliced them into bars, netting a small tier of gooey squares, heavy with chocolate, and bearing a hint of bitterness – spiced, perhaps, by my frustration.

I took all three desserts to the party. The Walnut Dream Cake received several recipe requests. The brownies were eyed suspiciously, but someone asked for the recipe once I revealed that espresso was among the ingredients. The chocolate Bundt cake drew the most eaters, and one person declared it the clear favorite.

I've learned my lesson. Next time I bring dessert to a party, I'll keep it simple. I'll bring my now-favorite chocolate cake, which I've named: Egoless-Ever-Ready-Trustworthy Chocolate Cake. But I'll take care not to reveal the recipe, especially my secret ingredient – faith.

Walnut Dream Cake

1 package (about 18 ounces) white cake mix
1/2 cup cornstarch
1/2 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
3 egg whites
1/2 cup high-quality mayonnaise
1 cup water
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 cup walnuts, finely chopped

Custard filling
1 cup sugar
3 tablespoons cornstarch
2 cups milk
3 egg yolks, slightly beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla

1 cup heavy cream, whipped

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Grease and flour two 9-inch round cake pans.

To make cake, in a large mixing bowl, combine dry cake mix, cornstarch, and brown sugar.

In a separate bowl, stir together egg whites, mayonnaise, water, vegetable oil, and chopped walnuts. Fold into dry mixture and beat at medium speed of electric mixer for 3 minutes or until well blended. (The batter may be drier than you expect. This is normal. But if it doesn't hold together, add more water, a tablespoon at a time, up to 1/3 cup.)

Divide evenly into cake pans.

Bake for 20 to 30 minutes, or until cake is golden and tester inserted in center comes out clean. Cool in pans for 10 minutes, and then remove from pans. Place on cooling racks and let come to room temperature. Then refrigerate for 1 hour, to make cutting easier..

In the meantime, prepare custard filling: In a saucepan, mix sugar and cornstarch. Gradually stir in milk, and blend until smooth. Add egg yolks. Stirring constantly over medium-low heat, bring to a boil for 1 minute, or until the mixture is of custard consistency. Remove from heat and stir in vanilla. Cover surface with plastic wrap and refrigerate until cool.

After cake and custard have cooled, carefully split each cake layer horizontally, using a knife with a serrated blade in a gentle back-and-forth motion. Spread custard over the top of the bottom layer. Top with another layer and repeat until you have a four-layer cake with three layers of custard.

Frost top and sides with whipped cream. Keep cake refrigerated.

Makes 10 to 12 servings.

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