What’s in a Cake?

Cake.  The word alone can mean so many things.  “That’s a piece of cake” means it’s easy.  Talking about someone who wants to “have their cake and eat it, too” implies greed or unfairness.  Saying something is a “cakewalk” tells you it’s an easy win…you do nothing but walk in circles, and voila, you win!  If something “takes the cake” its better than the rest.  When we “cake it on” it means we lay it on thick.  In the world of illegal drugs, a cakes refer to amount of cocaine.  

But the ones we bake, buy, or order from our favorite bakeries, have special places in our hearts, rituals, memories, taste buds, and bellies.  And these cakes in and of themselves have special meanings and evoke specific emotions.

Take the birthday cake.  Many of us grew up having homemade birthday cakes, two or three layers held together with thick spread homemade frosting.  If we were lucky, we were there to lick the bowl and no one said we couldn’t because there wasn’t a warning about raw eggs in those days.  I never met anyone who knew or heard about anyone who keeled over from licking the bowl, but once the warning went out, all bowl licking came to a screeching halt.  Sigh.  Or, you just took your chances and scraped the gooey batter out anyway because cake batter is so irresistible that a particular ice cream company actually makes cake batter flavored ice cream. 

And I know of no one whosoever who could ever resist licking the beaters after homemade frosting was whipped into its creamy heights of yumminess.  

Birthday cakes were made with the birthday person’s favorite flavors in mind and topped with candles enough to let them know they were either very young or very old.  Somewhere around the age of 21 or so the numeral candles went on and that, my friend, signified that one was too old to have more candles jammed into the frosting.  Of course, none of us had smoke alarms in our homes back then, either. 

Flavors ranged from chocolate to strawberry to vanilla and then blossomed into a smorgasboard of interesting flavors.  Peanut butter caramel white chocolate cake with dark chocolate frosting topped by roasted peanuts.  Decadent carrot cake with thick cream cheese frosting, no raisins please.  Texas sheet cake with fudge frosting and hundreds of pecan chips.  Rocky road cake with marshmallows and chocolate pieces in the cake and more in the chocolate frosting with a few drizzles of fudge for good measure.  Pristine white cake with flaked coconut frosting.  Lemon cake with tart lemon frosting and thin slices of sugared lemon twisted on top.  Deep dark chocolate cake and bright white marshmallow frosting decorated with chocolate curls.  Red velvet cake with real cream cheese frosting and pecan pieces both between the layers and on the sides.  Southern Lane cake made thick with nuts and dried fruits and drenched in bourbon whiskey or rum.  Tomato soup cake with dark and golden raisins and creamy cream cheese frosting topped with nuts.  Even a simple yellow cake with milk chocolate frosting said Happy Birthday, you are special, you are loved, and I made this especially for you.

The bakery cakes never tasted as good as mom’s or grandma’s but they were fascinating in their decor.  Little plastic figures played across the top of a sheet cake with smoothed, flat frosting.  Decorative frosting roses, tulips, and lilies danced across the edges and corners, sometimes up the sides.  Or pressed and molded sugar shapes that formed flowers, characters, words or numbers were used.  The inscription was perfection itself, written in neat, even hand and,  hopefully, the name spelled correctly.  Little plastic candle holder picks held the candles upright and left smaller holes in the cake top.  Everyone wanted to lick the plastic candle holder picks.  Everyone wanted a frosting rose, even it was made with red dye.

Somehow, a birthday just doesn’t seem like a birthday without a cake if you were raised with having a birthday cake.  No matter how many cupcakes, how many cookie “cakes”, or how many candy bars with a candle stuck in the middle come our way, they don’t scream and shout and do flips that say “It’s Your Birthday!”  Only a cake can do that.

When couples get married, one of their most important tasks is selecting the cake that symbolizes…well, everything.  It has to say romance and it has to say “them” and it has to say tradition and it has to say “unique” and it has to match the style of the dress and the theme of the reception and be all things to all people who are there at the wedding.  Oh, and it has to taste absolutely, positively divine!  This cake can have no flaws, visible or otherwise.  It can’t be crumbly and it can’t be dry and it can’t have a little smear somewhere on the cake board and that flower must be positioned at just that angle to create that affect, or it’s a….disaster.  While doing all these things, the cake has to hold the topper, that little something that best represents the newlyweds.  And no one goes home until the cake is cut, sliced, diced and passed.  Only after the cake has had its moment of glory in sealing the deal is it acceptable to leave.

Cakes mark other celebrations as well.  Baby showers, business promotions, grand openings, graduations, holidays and just about any time there is a reason to serve up something sweet to a crowd.   

 But, truly, what’s in a cake?   

The first thing we find in a cake is thought.  Somebody had to think of it, and somebody had to think it was important enough to either bake it or order it.  So not only is the cake important to the one who bakes or orders, but the one who it is for is important to them and others. 

The second thing we find in a cake is familiarity.  Knowledge of the recipient’s likes and dislikes along with the reason behind the cake being needed in the first place says somebody pays attention and that’s significant. 

 The third thing we find in a cake is opportunity to share.  Very few people toss a cake at someone and say “Here’s your cake…see ya!”  Oh, no, no.  The little plates come out along with plastic forks and tiny napkins.  Someone produces a knife and within seconds people gather as if a gong has sounded that calls them to gather around the cake.  Dieters can’t resist “just a little sliver”.  Young and old and in between want to partake of both the cake and the sharing of good wishes.

The fourth thing in the cake is joy.  It doesn’t matter if it tastes like cardboard with a little sugar sprinkled on top, everyone eating a piece of cake seems happy.  Stories, jokes, chit-chat and trivia mingle with laughter and smiles.  There’s just something about enjoying cake with others that brings out the best, even its only until the last crumb is consumed.

Finally, memories of the moments that shape our lives are found in cakes.  Many are captured in snapshots or videos, some zoom around the earth thanks to iPhones and Facebook before the last piece is served.  Cakes mark that time, that place, that event, those people, those feelings, those sights, those sounds, those smells, and that taste.  The next time that kind of cake comes your way, your mind does a little happy dance of remembering. 

A cake is more than its ingredients, more than its flavors, more than the decorations and more than the inscriptions or candles.  It’s love with frosting and sprinkles.  And when you get one, remember it isn’t a gift, but it says you are.  And that is pretty sweet.

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