Sage has requested that I block out tonight, a Sunday night in late October for another mystery adventure but looking out now I’m already regretting it. The temperature is barely above freezing and it is raining. For me this is “plan-killing” weather. Was I going to go grocery shopping? Oh wait, cold rain? I can go tomorrow. Meeting someone for coffee? Hmmm…maybe we can try for next weekend? But this is a 52 Adventures trip and there is no flaking out on this. I put on a waterproof jacket and out we go into the drizzle. With a jacket it’s not too bad and it’s great to be out in the world on another adventure with Sage.
We get off at Dundas West station and walk north and I’m hit with a rush of memories. We are walking past the apartment where my first Hindi teacher lived. We would also meet on Sunday nights. And sometimes they would be like this. I am sure I had cancelled class before for frivolous reasons like “the idea of going out in the cold drizzle seems positively miserable.” Of course he passed on in December of 2017 and there is no more chance for a lesson or even for me to lose at a game of seep. I resolve to be more thoughtful about when I cancel plans and for what reasons.
We cross the street and cross a big beautiful iron pedestrian bridge and end up in a newly built neighbourhood. Nearly all the buildings are new lowrise condos, some with businesses in them. Sage leads me down a street parallel to the railroad tracks and we stop in front of a bakery.
Now I’m curious. There really is little adventure in eating baked goods so I think this must be a cooking challenge. Are we baking cakes? That could be fun. I don’t usually bake as I don’t often eat sweets but baking is close enough to chemistry that I find it intriguing and interesting.
We arrive and there are about 8 other people there – most are couples. The teacher introduces herself – she’s a pastry chef and does a great deal of cake decorating which is what she’s going to teach us tonight. We have a choice of making two “Unicorn” cakes – one a ‘traditional’ one and another one that is influenced by the upcoming Halloween holiday. Sage picks the Halloween one and I pick the traditional one.
And now I’m unsure. Baking is like chemistry but cake decorating is like art and generally speaking I feel like my hands turn in to hooves when I try to make them create art. But this is 52 Adventures and there’s no path forward but diving in with 100% commitment. And so to it we go.
We don’t have time to bake our own cakes – after all we’d have to prepare the batter, cook them and then let them cool before we could even start the decorating process. So in front of each of us are two small cakes.
I’m already learning something new. Of course I’ve eaten cake before but somehow it never occurred to me that I would want to cut these cakes before decorating them. Why wouldn’t I stack these two cakes on one another and be done? Or maybe even just bake a single tall cake and call that good. The answer is obvious, though. If I did that I would have a dry cake without all the delicious buttercream frosting inside.
And so our first task is to cut the cakes in half. The teacher demonstrates it like a professional, setting the cake down on the cake stand, wiggling the knife quickly, turning the cake and poof! She’s cut them in to two perfectly proportioned halves. I would invite anyone with a precision caliper to come and check. Those are perfect.
And then I start on mine. I should preface this by saying that it is only within the past five years or so that I learned to cut a bagel in half without having my knife come out of the opposite side of the bagel 3/4 of the way through the cut – an almost perfectly diagonal cut made when a straight cut is required. And as I cut this cake, I can feel exactly that happening again. So I wrestle with the knife that wants to make the cake equivalent of the 80’s asymmetrical haircut – long on one side, short on the other. I’m not entirely sure who wins in the end.
The next step is to stack the cakes, being careful to stack the imperfectly cut pieces in such a way that the end result is straight and not like like the Twisted Spire of Chesterfield.
Each layer gets a bit of buttercream on top to stick the next piece on top. If you need to level it you can use a bit more buttercream to make one side higher. You can also trim your cakes further and use the pieces you trim to prop things up. It sounds good in theory but I am struggling. Each thing I do seems to make the cake tilt more. But finally I get it standing relatively straight.
Now, to make it look smooth, we need a layer of buttercream to act like “spackle” – filling in small gaps and covering/removing crumbs from the outside of the cake. I start this process and seem to be in trouble from the beginning. In a few minutes, Sage is done. A few minutes more and nearly everyone else is done with their cakes back in the fridge cooling for the next step. Sage comes over and tries to help and soon even the teacher is helping but for some reason I still have big pieces missing from the sides. And it’s Grade 5 again, and we’re doing a class art project and I’m not keeping up. Kathy does everything perfectly and of course Randy did well at this, he can draw perfectly – he makes Heathcliff cartoons that look like the real thing. I’m playing catch-up and rushing and it shows in the work I’ve done. And really who even cares, like I really want a paper Easter basket with hand drawn paper eggs inside it. Nobody is going to use this for anything. What the hell is the point?
I don’t even eat cake.
The grown-up in my head (you know this grown-up, yes? The voice in your mind who watches you have a ridiculous argument with someone and says “Is this really that important?” or tells you to relax – your cold is just a cold and not pneumonia). This side of me is interested and amused. Why am I so upset? I’m right in one sense. This isn’t that important. So why the huge emotional response at not doing well at it?And so, I finish coating it in buttercream.
And then I have a bit of time to think because the pace slows. These have to sit in the fridge for a while. If they’re too warm when you put your final buttercream on it will run and not look good. And during that time I think back to another baking-related experience I had: Watching Lee Mack on Celebrity Bake Off. His first day was an utter disaster on so many levels. Everything that could possibly go wrong went wrong and nothing tasted good. The next episode started and he joked about going home and crying before deciding to do better the next day. His experience had looked so bad that Sage and I both thought he wasn’t joking. Five minutes further in to the episode he turns to the camera and says, in all seriousness. “No, I really did cry in the car on the way home.” And so he went in to the next day with a different attitude and worked even harder. And though he wasn’t a superstar by any means, he saw much more success that day. Now I like Lee Mack a lot – he’s really smart, is incredibly competent in so many things (He has two world records for darts along with a life as a successful TV actor and stand-up comedian), and has a very quick sense of humour. And so remembering seeing him fail and then turn it around with just an attitude adjustment gives me a new attitude of my own.
I dive in to making the fondant unicorn horn and paint it gold all with no trouble.
And soon it is time to put the final buttercream on. Sage has made hers pumpkin orange while mine is normal colour. And we start spreading it.
I carefully spread my buttercream, no longer caring how long I’m taking, not having some predetermined idea of how good it should look or comparing it to how other’s cakes are looking. I’m just doing it. And I’m actually having fun. And soon the job is done.
We add facial features made of fondant, place our horns using the long stick to fix it in to the cake, and then it’s time to learn another new skill. I’m given a piping bag with coloured buttercream and it’s time to add manes to our unicorns with our newfound piping skills. I’m happy with the outcome.
When we leave the bakery it’s dark outside, colder and rainier than it was when we left. But instead of feeling upset at the idea of rain, I’m paying attention to the reality: I am warm and dry in my jacket. And I’m no longer frustrated with myself for not being an expert cake decorator the first time I tried it – or even as good as I thought others were. I am walking home with a cake I decorated myself that looks better than I would ever have imagined. And, I can guarantee you, it looks much better than had I given up literally or even mentally at the point I put the cake in the fridge to cool. Perhaps the lesson Sage took me to learn wasn’t “How to decorate a cake.” at all.