I've always considered myself to be a pretty skilled baker. I'm no Julia Child, but I can whip up a decent batch of cookies when the situation calls for it.
I'm quite detail-oriented (some might even say "obsessed"), and I used to think that was a huge asset in the kitchen. But that was before the Cake Incident – before my meticulous attention to detail landed me on my knees in the middle of my kitchen floor, covered from head to toe in chocolate cake and syrup.
It all began when my roommates asked me to make a cake for a party we were having in our new apartment. I decided to make a chocolate-raspberry ganache cake that I knew would be delicious. I couldn't wait to hear my friends' compliments.
About a week before the party, I started gathering all the ingredients and equipment I needed to make the cake. I even traveled halfway across the city to find a kitchen supply store that carried the right kind of springform pans, which I had to lug onto a crowded subway to the annoyance of my fellow commuters.
Wanting it all to go perfectly, I prepared everything I could in advance. By the day of the party, I'd finished the raspberry syrup, the ganache icing, and the chocolate glaze. I'd even found some gorgeous raspberries at the farmers' market to use as a garnish.
I planned to bake the cake batter a couple of hours before the party so the guests could see me applying the finishing touches when they arrived. It would go like clockwork – or so I thought.
I followed the recipe to the letter, as always, reading over each direction twice. When the timer went off, our apartment was filled with that wonderful baking smell of butter, vanilla, and chocolate.
I carefully removed the pan from the oven and ... uh-oh. My sponge cake, which should have been thick enough to cut into three layers and light enough to absorb all the syrup, was as stiff as a board and as coarse as sandpaper. What had I done wrong?
My heart began to race. The guests would be arriving in less than half an hour, and my plan had left no room for error.
After a few minutes of wallowing in anguish, I decided to see if some last-minute scrambling could salvage my would-be cake. It was silly to waste the creamy ganache, the perfect chocolate glaze, the syrup, and the beautiful raspberries. Those ingredients would taste great in any form, right?
With only a few minutes before the first guests arrived, I picked up the grainy cake and began crumbling it in my fingers over a serving platter. I dumped the syrup over the crumbs in an effort to moisten them. When that failed, I doused them with more raspberry syrup. To cut the sweetness, I squeezed half a lemon over the whole mess.
Things were about to get even messier. I rolled up my sleeves and dumped the ganache and some jam onto the crumbs. My hands squished into the gooey mess to mix it together. When I ran out of elbow room on the counter, I moved the whole platter onto the floor.
At that moment, the first guest arrived.
My roommate's boyfriend found me kneeling on the kitchen floor, elbow deep in chocolate ganache and smelling of raspberries. Before he could say anything, I shot him a look that said, "Back off."
Eventually, I managed to mold the chocolaty blob into a cake shape and pour the glaze over it. After I placed some fresh raspberries on top, I took a step back to survey the damage.
Actually, it didn't look half bad. From the outside, there was no way to tell that my "cake" was nothing more than a mishmash of crumbs, sauce, and ganache.
At least this way, I thought, I could postpone the embarrassment until it was time to taste my culinary creation.
After the party got going, one of my roommate's friends came into my room holding a piece of the disaster. "Emily," she said, "this cake is awesome!"
I couldn't believe it. I went into the kitchen to find that half of my cake was gone! I tasted a slice for myself. Admittedly, it didn't look like any cake I'd ever had, but it tasted marvelous. By the end of the night, there was hardly a crumb left on the platter.
Nowadays, I try to be a bit more spontaneous in the kitchen. I still plan my preparation in advance, but I'm also prepared to roll with the punches.
I've learned the hard way that even the best laid plans can turn into a big mound of mashed-up cake.