Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Shark Cake

The July issue of NJ Life & Leisure is devoted to writers and food---and all the memories, fantasies and regrets that are triggered by what we eat in summer. Sort of makes you wonder what Proust could have accomplished, had he ever visited the Garden State. You can check out the magazine on line at My piece is on page 12. Or you can read it below.

I have always admired Marie Antoinette, that vain, chic fashion plate who is known as much for bringing about the French Revolution as she is for saying about the starving peasants, “Let them eat cake.” Poor Marie probably did not say anything about cake, but like Anne Boleyn before her, she went down in history in part for being an aristocrat who lost her head because she liked the good life too much.
I am not an aristocrat, but I do like the good life. And I love rich food. Especially cake – a thick slice of layer cake in the summer with butter cream frosting that cleaves and covers it, a sugary primal mush dissolving slowly and languorously on the sides of your tongue. Since I have high cholesterol, as well as what my sister-in-law-the-therapist calls a “restrained eating disorder,” I don’t eat all that much cake. But when I do, I either bake it or buy it as rich and
fattening as I can. This is a story about cake that begins at the Cake Walk at my son’s school.
The Cake Walk is an event that takes place every June, at an outdoor, end-ofyear, here-comes-summer party that the school euphemistically calls the “Fun Fair.” As we all know, anything that is called “fun” or “fair” and involves children is rarely either.
Last year, I was the cochair of food at the Fun Fair. Of course, it rained that day, which meant I stood inside the humid cafeteria and handed out lukewarm hotdogs for two hours. The fathers flirted with me, and the children
grabbed their hotdogs and ran. I vowed that next year I would still be involved with food, but at a much higher level. I would run the Cake Walk.
I called my friend Laurie, who had run the Cake Walk for a million years, and asked if I could take it over. “No,” she said. “But you can be my assistant.” Laurie said she was holding on to the Cake Walk crown until her youngest child went to middle school, which meant I would never wear it.
When spring came, Laurie emailed me: “We need 60 cakes. I have 40 people signed up. Find 20 more. Seaside theme.”
No problem. I emailed everyone who had ever spoken to me at my son’s school and asked for cakes with a seaside theme.That meant crabs, lobsters, fish, whales, dolphins, boats, waves, mermaids, tsunamis, mercury contaminants, whatever. Offers of cake immediatelypoured in–in two days, we had all the cakes we needed.
The cake I was making was called “White Birthday Cake.” It is a layer cake, divided by a thin sheet of raspberry jam, and smothered with a thick layer of butter cream frosting. The cake involves a bit of planning: You have to bring the eggwhites, butter and whole milk to roomtemperature, buy or borrow metal cooling racks, and set aside enough butter to grease them.The recipe came from my cooking class instructor in New York. He called himself, “Mr. Salt and Mr. Butter.” His cake recipe calls for, among other things, three-and-a-half sticks of butter, a heaping tablespoon of Crisco, and a pound of confectioner’s sugar. Though I don't recommend snacking on this cake before trying on last year's bathing suit, you may get so high from eating it that you'll tell your bathing suit to go to hell.
In keeping with the seaside theme, I decided to cover the frosting with Sather’s Gummalo Blue Sharks–two bags for a dollar, six sharks per bag. Who can resist a shark in summer? I bought six bags. Then, I decided to make two cakes—one for the Cake Walk, one for my son’s fifth grade graduation lunch. I spent an hour mixing the ingredients, put the cakes in the oven, and then started the frosting. Before I knew what was happening, I had eaten half of it. I ate so much frosting there was not enough for the cakes.
I made more.
By the time I was done, I had blown through nine sticks of butter. The timer went off. I was sweating. I took the cakes out of the oven, and let them cool on the racks. Then I laid out 30 sharks so that they circled the cake, ready to go in for the kill.
My shark cake was beautiful. Even my children said so. Of course, other cakes were more beautiful. Laurie placed a Beach Blanket Barbie Doll on her cake. One woman put a plastic pail and a shovel on top of hers, and covered the frosting with brown sugar so it looked like sand. Another mom filled a clear plastic bowl with blue Jell-O and placed plastic sailboats on top. During the Cake Walk, I lost track of my cake. But that night, I found out that the child who had
won the shark cake brought it home to his mother who has been successfully
battling breast cancer. She, of all people, deserved to eat cake.

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