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Danny's Reading: Cake

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Before you settle down to get your teeth into this month’s article, there are three things you need to know right away. The first thing is, I don’t make cakes. Secondly, I’m making a cake. And finally, this is an article about me making a cake.

As I type this out at the kitchen table, there is one-third of a cake baking in the oven. It’ll be done in about ten minutes…

I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned this before at some point, but for those at the back, and those who have recently joined us, I’ll mention it again. Before becoming an English teacher, I used to work as a chef in a big, busy and, above all, noisy kitchen. I’m not entirely sure how that happened, but I was quite good at it, having spent the two years before that at a catering school, getting a diploma in Food Preparation and Production. How and why I left is a whole other article, but suffice to say that I am more than a little bit handy when it comes to tossing random ingredients into a pot and stirring them around into something quite tasty. Give me an onion, a chicken drumstick and a bag of rice, and I’ll give you something, twenty minutes later, that smells as good as it tastes, and tastes as good as it looks. With a sprig of parsley on it.

But cakes… cakes are a different story. I’m no good with cake-baking. Give me the ingredients, give me the recipe, and somehow, somewhere, I’ll manage to botch it up. I’ve no idea why this should be, but I suspect that it’s partly because cakes seem to require exact measurements and specific ingredients, while my general approach to cooking anything is a more ‘keep throwing stuff in until it tastes right’ method. I measure in ‘handfuls’, ‘pinches’ and ‘a bit more’ rather than in grams, kilos or tablespoons. If a recipe requires port, and I don’t have any, then red wine and a drop of vinegar will do just as well. No broccoli? No problem. Use carrots, and change the name of the dish.

Cakes don’t like this kind of treatment, apparently. Cakes are the finicky, anally-retentive, obsessive compulsives of the culinary world. Everything has to be Just Like That.

“No. I said a hundred grams of flour, and you only used ninety-nine. Just for that, I’m going to taste like rubber. So there.”

“No, you can’t just taste me to see if I’m done. You have to stick a toothpick in my middle. Or else you could try tipping me out of the cake tin, in which case I might just decide to leave half of myself stuck to the bottom while the rest of me crumbles in a way that can never be uncrumbled. Deal with it.”

And this is why I don’t make cakes. Although, I have to say, I’ve just taken the first third of the cake I’m currently making out of the oven, and it’s looking alright, despite my misreading of the recipe and baking it at 250C for fifteen minutes instead of at 150C for twenty-five minutes.

Yes, I am making this cake in three separate stages. It’s a multi-layered chocolate mocha cake, and the recipe says to pour equal amounts of the mixture into three identical cake tins. I don’t have three identical cake tins. Does anyone? So I’m using the same tin three times. The second bit is almost done. So far, so good.

You may be asking yourself, at this point, why I’m making a cake, and such a complicated-sounding one, when I obviously have the cake-making abilities of, let’s say, a slightly retarded baboon.

Good question. And I’ll be right back to answer it, just as soon as I find out where this odd smell of burning is coming from…

Okay. The second part of the cake is done, and not looking too bad, now that I’ve scraped the burnt bits off. Although I can’t, for the life of me, understand how the second layer has a smaller circumference than the first, seeing as they were baked in the same tin. Also, I don’t appear to have left enough mixture for the third and final layer of this blasted thing, which means that it will probably end up the thickness of a slightly overweight biscuit.

Oh well. Where was I…?

Ah yes. Why am I making this cake? Well, you see, it’s normally my wife who does the baking in our house. She’s very good at making cakes that look and taste like cakes, while I, on the other hand, am very good at making Frisbees and misshapen sculptures of flour, eggs and butter that you might think taste like cake, provided that you’ve never actually tasted cake before. Or anything else made from flour, eggs and butter, for that matter.

But tomorrow is my wife’s birthday, and while she would be perfectly happy to make her own birthday cake - doubly so if she still remembers what the one I made her last year tasted like – I feel like I should make the effort. And, of course, a simple sponge just isn’t enough… it has to be multi-layered and covered in cream, and chocolate swirls, and whirls, and caraques.

Caraques, just in case you’re wondering, are paper-thin curls of chocolate. You make them by melting a bar of chocolate and spreading it out on a flat surface. Then, when it sets a bit, you grab a knife and scrape it over the chocolate and towards you at a forty-five degree angle, thus creating beautiful long strips of rolling chocolate. The fun really starts if you accidentally hold the knife at a fifty degree angle though, and end up with shards of brittle chocolate snapping off and flying towards you like throwing knives.

Which is what I’ve just done. You see, I’m making this cake between one paragraph and the next. I figured it might be exciting, seeing as I have no idea how this article will end because I have no idea how the cake will turn out. Er… when I said ‘exciting’, I meant for me…

So… third layer is out of the oven, and looking good, although a bit flat. I’ve already made the mocha cream filling, which is easy to do. Easy to clean off the walls too, for when you unintentionally switch the electric hand mixer on at full blast and the bowl of cream, coffee and icing sugar spins around wildly and then flies off the kitchen top and across the room and out of the door.

Right. Cake layer, mocha filling, cake layer, mocha filling, cake layer… and mocha cream over the lot. The cake is now three feet high, and slightly lopsided, but not looking too bad. On to a cake plate it goes. Grated chocolate round the side of the cake. More grated chocolate on the floor and all over the front of my sweater and, somehow, in my hair. But let’s focus on the cake. Caraques on the top of the cake – or as close to caraques as I can get with the cheap, inferior baker’s chocolate that I bought because, in the words of the cheerful shop assistant – “Oh yes, it’s just as good as that over-expensive foreign stuff!” (No. No it’s not. But never mind.) Final touch… candles that spell out ‘Happy Birthday’ in silver and gold…

And it’s done.

And it looks enough like a cake that should a complete stranger happen to wander past and catch sight of it, he’d probably stop and point and say – “That is a cake.”

Which, by my standards, is good enough.

By Danny

Danny's been teaching English at EC Malta English school for 10 years.