The Lousy Cook Decorates a Cake


I want a beautiful wedding cake. A gorgeous, opulent, over-the-top, Princess Diana wedding cake.

That I’ve been married for 28.25 years is beside the point.

We had a wedding cake in 1988, a small, heart-shaped carrot cake with real flowers: a lovely cake in keeping with a small budget and a small wedding on a small boat. If memory serves correctly, which it probably doesn’t, the cake was from Safeway. I no longer even recognize the groom I married in this picture, much less the cake.

I have no idea who that young man is, but he sure looks happy.
I have no idea who that young man is, but he sure looks happy.

It appears that the cake was really more of a cupcake on steroids. The Man I Married’s hand and the cake server are almost as large as the cake. Who cared? There was more than enough bubbly, courtesy of my parents, and that’s all that mattered. We had our priorities straight, as far as I’m concerned.

But, along with the size of my derriere, the wedding cake I desire has grown.

I’m not even fond of cake. I’ll choose pie over cake every time. Or mousse. Or a chocolate martini. Or a plain martini.

It’s the decoration I crave. I want epic ornamentation. A monumental masterpiece. Perhaps with the surge in friends’ weddings with the legalization of gay marriage, I’m seeing cakes cut by folks who know a thing or two about how to party and decorate. I lust over those cakes the way I used to lust over rock stars in leather pants. But I can no more afford a fancy wedding cake now than I could in 1988.

The average cost of a wedding cake is $543, according to The Bridal Association of America. If that’s average, then the cake I desire would come in around $30,000, give or take a tryst with the baker.

I’ve thought about a recommitment ceremony to go with a cake. I thought about it at the 20-year mark, and I thought really hard about it at the 25-year mark. But frankly, I don’t have the energy. Forget the dress. Forget the shoes. Forget the venue. After nearly thirty years of cutting the cheese together, all I want is to cut another cake.

Cake is just a different flour recipe, right?

Perhaps emboldened by my recent graduation from the automatic bread maker to kneading dough by hand and baking a loaf in the oven, using my own sourdough starter that I regularly feed with beer, I got a bright idea: I’ll make my own spectacular cake. It’ll be great to learn to make something I don’t even like, because then I won’t be tempted to eat it.

I mean, why not? How hard could it be?

Now THAT'S a cake
Now THAT’S a cake

In the way of kismet, a friend coincidentally suggested for videos when I needed to stay awake for a few hours one night but was too tired to read or work. I stumbled into a peculiar show called The Great British Baking Show. Only the British would try to eke out dramatic tension by a group politely baking together. On the episode I watched, the woman who won the show baked, as her piece de resistance, a wedding cake for herself, since she’d never had one for her own wedding. Coincidence? She made a casual remark to the judges that using marshmallows for a fondant was so much easier. Easier than what, I have no idea, but I thought, well, then! Marshmallows make it easier! Never mind that I’d never heard the term fondant, had no idea what it was, and still can’t pronounce it.

Psshaw, I can do that, I decided after watching a YouTube video of an Aussie woman in a black dress making fondant, never getting a spot of powdered sugar on herself, her accent so cheerfully kick-ass as she kneaded her goo “into submission” that I’m sure she could have taken down Mel Gibson, Russell Crowe, and Hugh Jackman with her fondant rolling pin if they made any cracks about her admonition to work at it with greased hands until  “firm and pliable.” The special rolling pin is an unnecessary expense, I learned from the blue-tongued lady in the next fondant-making video: instead, she used a length of PVC pipe, but either she’d been sampling the icing for Cinderella’s dress or she was a fresh corpse, leading the foolish fondant-making cheapskates into the local Home Depot, better suited for zombie ambush than Williams-Sonoma.

That settled it. If a zombie with poor willpower could manage it with cheap hardware and marshmallows, then I would throw together a decorated cake for an upcoming family party. A wee bit of preparation well before a 30th anniversary cake. A head start, shall we say, to give me another 1.75 years of practice before the Real Cake, on the off chance I might need it. This one would be simple. A warm-up. The Little Man was about to enter high school, so I’d make him a cake featuring his new school mascot. Because even though I’d never written so much as a single cursive letter on a cake, why not start with a mammal? A beaver. Swimming in a pond. No problem.

Shell shock
Out, damned fondant! What! will these hands ne’er be clean?

The clueless Man I Married, who probably wouldn’t notice if I had a compound fracture, understood the disaster of epic proportions happening in his own kitchen. After half an hour, I had fondant stuck everywhere but in the nice flat patty I was supposed to wrap in cling wrap and stick in the fridge. First MIM snapped a few shots, which he hadn’t thought to do on any of the handful of days in the last quarter-century when I’d worked a mascara wand and managed to zip up pants that had mistakenly been run through a hot dryer cycle. Then he went to his toolbox for a cement scraper and put some serious muscle into scraping that stuff off the table, counters, chairs, and floor, but wisely not my face. After scouring what I could in hot water, including myself, I worried that the pipes would plug up, like my cousin’s did during the home-brewing Oatmeal Incident–leading to the sawing off of a foot of pipe under the house, the oatmeal blockage as solid as concrete. I hadn’t felt so traumatized since I realized that tutoring the Little Man in math this past summer meant learning the metric system (but at least I would be better prepared to flee to Canada in November should the need arise). MIM kept reminding me that I couldn’t expect to do it perfectly the very first time. Says who?

Since this wasn’t about the cake itself, but was about the decoration, I used a boxed mix for the cake. Only half the cake came out of the pan. No problem. Frosting = Glue. That much I know.

But about that fondant. Perhaps I’d bitten off more than I could chew, even though what remained after the construction-crew cleanup seemed to be shaping up nicely in the fridge. I’d lower the bar and go for a buttercream frosting and just use that fondant for my beaver. (Seriously, how are MIM and I going to get through the next four years without cracking beaver jokes?) I’d never made frosting, either.

Cake on a pizza pan
Cake on a decades-old pizza pan

But the frosting, remarkably, turned out okay. The beaver, though, required another dramatic rescue by MIM, who singlehandedly designed the ears using the tips of plastic knives, which I spent the party worrying someone would swallow.

Closed Caption for Cake:

Beaver swimming underwater, with his head and tail on the water’s surface, next to his dam.


If I’ve learned one thing, it’s this: the average wedding cake price is worth every penny.



6 thoughts on “The Lousy Cook Decorates a Cake

  1. […] Unlike the Beaver Cake last August, however, I got smart and bought premade fondant. And what to my wondering eyes should appear were two roses that stunned me with their beauty. Wow, I made those? When MIM and I were first dating (before his second head injury, when all of his social skills went out the window), he used to bring me a dozen red and a dozen yellow roses (they were ridiculously cheap at the Navy commissary), so I dyed the fondant for the flowers red and yellow. I left the fondant white for the top layer heart, which turned out lumpy, but a lot about long-term marriage is learning to take one’s lumps, and I’m pretty lumpy, too. […]

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