Is there nobility in poverty? That’s probably a stretch. At a minimum there is resourcefulness, and that can look like creativity or innovation. Or something. Please indulge me. If I don’t get to live at leisure, at least I can feel virtuous.
The co-worker whose birthday unluckily follows mine has been subject to my noble projects since we started working together. She will enjoy the delight of yet another DIY disaster tomorrow.
In our office, we take turns celebrating birthdays by each taking responsibility for cake, card, and scheduling for the next person in line. The beautiful, polished team-mate whose January birthday I plan also had the poor luck to draw me as her secret Santa at the holiday exchange. She ended up with a home-made bookmark and a second hand cookbook in December. Now she gets to smile politely at whatever I manage to glom together in my kitchen tonight.
I just can’t abide dropping $20 on the designer cupcakes. How could I possibly justify that to myself given our increased payroll deduction and my impending (inshallah) mortgage payment? Even with the time store-bought pastries would save, I can’t bring myself to do it. I mean, a gal has to spend money on all sorts of things she can’t do herself, like root canals and oil changes (and perhaps she’ll get around to tackling the latter sooner or later), so there is no earthly reason to short the kid’s college fund on something so easy. Baking? Come on. Piece of. . .
Okay. Last year, Beautiful Team-Mate mentioned that she likes plain-Jane yellow cake with chocolate frosting. She is an easy-going Midwestern gal who likes just about everyone and whose smile makes the boys swoon, in no small part because she has no earthly idea of her effect on them. She would never ask for anything fancy, so yellow-with-chocolate she had last year.
So, today on my lunch break, I schlep it over to the supermarket and buy exactly one yellow cake mix (the one with Box Top for Education for Bug’s school, of course. Ten cents right there!) I don’t start on the project until nearly 9:00pm, given bath, bedtime reading, lunch-making, dishwashing, and generally lugging around the weight of the world. When I begin, I realize I have no concept how to proceed. I mean, I want to do something special, right? Something more than yellow-with-chocolate, because. . . Why? I don’t know. Because she’s nice and she deserves a little effort? Because this is my playtime? Because I can?
Because it’s just really fun to learn something new?
While the oven preheats, I poke around the kitchen. All these things I never notice appear in the nooks and crannies, items that go bad or go stale, that we forget we bought in a moment of inspiration. Unopened sour cream. A whole cabinet full of liquor. Powdered sugar, gelatins, puddings and extracts. Nuts, chips, candies and sugars. Oh! And already on the shelf? A yellow cake mix just sitting there. I could have saved $1.29!
I visit a website called Yummly and type in “sour cream cake mix kahlua.” A bunch of recipes pop up. This one for mocha cake is the one I follow. More or less. I mean, who knows why — no one in this house eats pudding or even likes it — but I happen to have a box of chocolate pudding on hand. Not vanilla. Also, coffee crystals seem like a good idea, and anyway, it just play. Glop, glop. An extra egg. Who knew you could just pour alcohol right into the batter? And what’s with the pudding? Crack, whip, scrape. The whole blorp of sour cream. A little extra sugar. A few more chocolate chips? I hope the small ones are little enough not to sink. Beat, fold, pour.
An hour later, the faint aroma of liqueur and scorched chocolate drifts into the upstairs bedrooms. The concoction comes out of the oven looking nothing like mama’s yellow birthday cake. It is crinkled and singed and lop-sided. There is a good chance it won’t make it out in one piece. It actually looks a little tubercular, all wrinkly taupe and sunk in its fluted tube.
On the stove waiting for morning is a double boiler at the ready. Poised nearby are chocolate squares, butter, powdered sugar, and the bottle of kahlua with its lid already loose. Mocha glaze may be a bit ambitious for 6:30 am, but the gal’s got to try to save this poor wretch. Where first aid and a transfusion fail, try chocolate. And a hit on the flask.
Necessity may be the mother of invention, but a deadline is the ultimate inspiration. If disaster awaits on the other side of the bundt pan, there is always that extra Betty Crocker mix waiting patiently on the pantry shelf. It only takes about 30 minutes in a 9×13 sheet pan, and I can pick up a can of chocolate frosting at the supermarket on my lunch break. I think those go for about $1.49. Beautiful Team-Mate may have her simple, happy cake after all. Even then, I can say, “I made it with my own hands just for you.” Bug’s college fund is safe (for now). I even have an idea of how to use all that old rum and Bailey’s taking up precious space in my dining room.
Tomorrow at 3:00 in the conference room, a dozen of us will get our sugar kick one way or another. I can bask in the glow of my secret treasure, that proud nobility of knowing I swung it all — creativity, learning, play, and even, yes, cake — for the price of a loaf of bread.
A loaf of bread on sale.