When you peel a peach, there’s a color right beneath the peach skin that’s hidden except for that very moment. It’s like there are all these little secrets moments in kitchen, and if you don’t pay attention to that, you’re missing so much in life.
— “In the Kitchen with Ruth Reichl,” New York Times, September 15, 2015
Safeway, as it happens, stocks every color of Jello except blue. The big package I bought earlier at Target should have been enough but half of it ended up on the wrong side of the saran wrap and the rest of it on the floor. The last thing I want to do is visit yet another store. As I stand here in the baking aisle, the kitchen’s engine idles. I can feel its thrum as it waits for my return.
I toss the unflavored Knox into my basket and hold out hope that I can find my stash of food coloring from last year.
Unpacking my groceries at home, I root around in the back of the cabinet and unearth the stained box. I’m relieved to discover the blue tube has a few drops left in it. This leaves me now with the small issue of taste — something I had rather avoided dealing with at the store.
“Picky” and “discerning” may be synonyms, but the palate of your average 3rd grader leans toward the former. These are children who will devour an entire box of stale Chips Ahoy cookies but recoil at the sight of a cranberry scone. A concoction of unflavored gelatin and dye, even infused with a drop of syrup or lemon essence, is unlikely to win me any friends.
I rummage through the cabinets. Seltzer water? Too bland. Kool aid? Too red. I try the freezer.
I bring the concentrate to a boil while letting powdered gelatin dissolve in cold water. On another burner, marshmallows melt into a buttery soup. The steam filling the kitchen is fruit and cream with a hint of vanilla. I fill my throat with it, open my lungs, let the sweet warmth flood the deepest parts and oxygenate my hungry blood.
A wooden spoon in each hand, I stir melting goop and bubbling amber. The dog tip-taps in, stretches her neck and lifts her nose towards the countertop before dropping her attention to the more promising territory at my feet. I pour hot juice into the bowl and froth it up with a broken whisk. Clumps of powder morph into their quasi-liquid state, and I plop in four drops of food coloring. They spin and bend like batik, strands of pectin and heat, gelatin and color all bleeding into one another. When the solution settles on its constant, the shade is more antifreeze than Caribbean sea. It will have to suffice.
Because “edible birthday structure” is a bit of a mouthful, we’ll call this a cake. Once a year, as much by compulsion as choice, I fall through the mirror into the culinary Flip Side. I come to in a tripped-out, toucan-bright world of floating cities and dragon’s gold. Whatever big plans I had for duty and sense are abandoned back in grownup-land. My boy is having a birthday, so here we arrive, me and Kidd Video. Ay yi yi, we look like. . . cartoons!
Within moments of landing, I’m up to my elbows in frosting and fondant. My efforts invariably yield C-grade work, but boy it’s a blast! We’ve been through princesses, pirates, Legos, spy kids, and Pokemon.
For his 9th birthday, it’s Minecraft.
Which means engineering something palatable from blocks of stone, sand, water, and dirt.
My pastry ineptitude is almost as boundless as my hubris. Almost. Luckily (or perhaps unluckily) for my son and his friends, hubris wins every time.
Perfectionism can kiss my floured derriere.
That’s the way it is in the FlipSide.
During our walk this afternoon, my girlfriend and I stopped at Michael’s so I could buy a little gadget called a “grass tip.” Somehow — it’s anyone’s guess how I’ll manage this — I am supposed to glom eight ounces of cream cheese and about a half metric ton of powdered sugar through holes the diameter of dental floss. Meanwhile, the rice krispie treats are cooling on their tray. The double-batch durable cake is trimmed down to an even rectangle and wrapped in the freezer. I have the ruler ready for a scrub and the big knife honed for stonecutting. In the refrigerator, a loaf pan of Atlantic seawater cools into an edible lagoon.
And because things can get a little crazy on the Flip Side, the cabinet next to the fridge is my portal back. Inside, one boring but reliable box of cake mix stands at the ready.
My cartoon hands are, after all, attached to this mom’s sturdy bones.
Before I return, though, I’ll stash caramel sugar into the dark channels that cradle my veins. I’ll sneak in through the window, hide candy jewels in the corners, insulate the walls with gingerbread.
At night, just before sleep and all her monsters come thundering through the gates, I’ll nibble my way through. I’ll even take Bug. Sugarplum visions. Rock candy mountains. We’ll slip down, splashing into those dreams. We’ll follow our noses, swimming in the milk that swims in us, and we’ll drift like lost boys in the light of the night kitchen.