This is a ridiculously long post about a dessert. But it’s also a eulogy to a dream and rise-from-the-ashes-type of self pep talk for me.
But it’s mostly about a cake.
Recently I was
wasting investing time on Pinterest looking for new recipes for Thanksgiving. We are hosting in our new house this year and this fact has awakened my inner Martha to clean, decorate, and cook ALL THE THINGS.
Then I repeated my new mantra, realized that I cannot do everything all the time for everyone and accepting that will make my anxiety disorder a little easier to manage.
Still, I want this year’s dinner to include warm, seasonal flavors with a mix of traditional and unexpected dishes. Pleasing people with food is what I do and golly gosh darn it, people will be pleased on my holiday watch.
The third was a decadent dessert with a complex recipe but it just screams holiday cheer: an eggnog cheesecake cake.
A spice cake with an eggnog cheesecake filling and eggnog icing. Yeah, baby. Recipes like this are what keep Santa fat and happy.
Click right here and see the link with the gorgeous photo and tell me you wouldn’t want this on your holiday table. Then scroll down and see the list of ingredients and the multiple processes required to make it and tell me you wouldn’t think, damn, can’t we just buy a really good pie?
The answer screaming in my brain was NO PIE!! MUST MAKE CAKE!!
So I made the cake. And? I screwed up a few steps. One mistake was epic (more on that later.) And the resulting pastry was merely “meh.” The flavors were there, but the texture was not what I’d hoped for.
And then there was the “I Love Lucy” type of error that could not be undone and meant this subpar dessert could not be pawned off on co-workers (I’ll ‘splain, I promise.)
Husband and I shared a couple of slices. The rest ended up in the trash.
And this bugged the ever-loving shit out of me all week. Admittedly, I think I was fixating on this cake as a metaphor for what I now see as my failed career in journalism. I took a risk, I gave it a shot, but it just didn’t work out.
Many of my waking (and a few of my sleeeping) hours were
obsessed with devoted to what went wrong with this cake. And I waffled on whether to just give up (like I did at being a journalist) or try again.
Do I say “oh well” and cut my losses, save time and money on expensive ingredients and just trudge over to the bakery section and pick up perfectly acceptable pies?
Or do I say no, I am not a quitter and I can make this work?
I may have bombed spectacularly with my mid-life career change, but I’ll be damned if this cake would reinforce to me that I am a failure at life.
This cake, I decided, needed to be seen as an opportunity to apply my problem solving skills. If I approach it like a college-educated professional and not a self-pitying lunatic, I knew I needed to objectively identify where the missteps happened and design strategies for improvement.
I studied the recipe, which I followed (almost) verbatim the first time. Cooking is an art; you can be recklessly creative. Baking is a science; creativity must be done with with great care. My conclusion is that there is nothing wrong with this recipe. The problem was my execution.
I toyed with using a different cheesecake recipe. But the cheesecake portion of this recipe is perfectly proportioned to produce a thin single layer that will fit snugly between two layers of cake. I’ve baked cheesecakes before (this one is THE BOMB, trust me) but I have never used a water bath like this recipe stipulates.
I considered skipping this step but the purpose of a water bath is to keep the cake from splitting and, indeed, my first attempt at this cheesecake did not split. So I had that going for me.
However, despite wrapping the springform pan with two layers of foil as the recipe indicates, water got into the pan. This resulted in a slightly soggy cheesecake.
To remedy this, I quadruple wrapped the pan in foil all the way up to the top of the pan the second time around. I also made sure the foil was very snug at the bottom of the pan and I used less water in oven sauna.
This time the cake was not cracked AND not water-logged.
I baked the cheesecake yesterday, wrapped it, then put it in the freezer until today, when I finished the rest of the cake.
The first time I made the spice cake, I did make two substitutions in the original recipe. I used ground ginger instead of fresh because that’s what I had on hand. I also used Southern Comfort brand vanilla spice eggnog instead of buttermilk because my Kroger was out of buttermilk and I thought the eggnog would add more flavor. I know I can make buttermilk with lemon juice or vinegar mixed into regular milk but JEEZ-O-PETE why?
Also? We’d drink the leftover eggnog.
Buttermilk? Not so much.
I stuck with my choices the second time and used powdered ginger and eggnog again. Sometimes you have to trust your instincts.
Texture was the problem with the first spice cake. It was a little dense and kind of crisp. Since the flavor was spot on and the inner cake was moist, I think I may have over-baked it. When instructed to bake for 25 to 30 minutes, I opted for 30.
Second time around, I checked at 23 minutes. Cake done and not crusty.
Here’s a photo of the first set of cakes and the second set:
Now let’s talk about the frosting. This is where the EPIC FAIL happened the first time.
The back story: I have a canister of powdered sugar in my pantry, which was full. I also had a partial bag of powdered sugar that would not fit in the canister. For this cake, I purchased Swan cake flour, which comes in a plastic bag stuffed in a box. Cake flour, in case you wondered, is super fine.
To be able to portion out cups of flour without spilling it everywhere, the bag must be removed from the box. This is like releasing smoke from a bottle. It’s never going back in.
So now, I had a bag of super fine flour, which is white, and a bag of super fine sugar, which is also white. I think we all see where this is going now.
As the first set of cakes cooled, I grabbed the plastic bag from the pantry to make the icing. The bag did not contain as many cups as the recipe called for, so I also used powdered sugar from the canister. After adding in the rum and the eggnog and the nutmeg, the icing had great flavor even if it was a little, well, pasty.
It wasn’t until long after I had frosted the cake and we had sampled a disappointing slice that I discovered the bag of powdered sugar was still in the pantry.
Huh. But I used the rest of this bag in the icing…OH HOLY SHIT!
Yeah, I used cake flour in the icing. But in my defense, look at these bags! They are almost identical (and they sort of look like they belong in the evidence locker of a drug bust.)
Anyway, today’s cake was MUCH more successful than the last one, mostly because the icing was flour-free and full of powdered sugary goodness.
This is the glamour shot of the cake after it was assembled and sliced (we had to sample it for quality control purposes, of course.)
Did making this cake successfully after failing the first time redeem my soul? Yeah, it kind of did.
I had to prove to myself that I can learn from mistakes, that taking calculated risks are worthwhile even if they don’t pan out, and that I can look at a failure objectively.
I invested a lot of time, sweat and tears to chase a dream to be a journalist. My timing, however, was off. The profession is in flux and it just didn’t work out for me. My legacy at the newspaper where I worked for seven years isn’t my bylines. My legacy is that I ordered better catering than pizza for election night dinners. But I can make peace with that.
I can also make peace with using my education and perseverance to find a new career path. To use a sports metaphor, I may be in the fourth quarter of my working life, but there’s still time to score a few touchdowns before I retire.
You never know what you can do if you never try. I tried. I failed. But I regrouped. We’ll see what happens next.
And gosh golly darn it, we are going to have a hella good dessert for Thanksgiving.