When I was young, I received an amazing gift that I still use. It is my Betty Crocker New Boys and Girls Cookbook for ages 5+. It is a first edition, first printing dated 1965 so I would have been 5, barely making the cut.
The book has simple recipes with really bad drawings of kids offering advice, enjoying food, and celebrating their successes. The best thing about this book is that it doesn’t assume you have any information about cooking so it shows you how to dice an apple properly (though it says to ask your mother if you can use the knife can opener, etc.) Along with the drawings, diagrams, and recipes, there are some photos. My favorite photo, the thing in the book I wanted to make more than anything, the best page in the entire book, is a half-page color photo of a cake that looks like a castle. It’s called an Enchanted Castle Cake. The photo is staged with a blue background with a cotton cloud. The cake sits on a blue foil reflective surface meant to resemble a moat. Surrounding the moat is green coconut “grass.” The cake is glorious. It is a castle with two round rooms on the ends, two towers, and a cube in the middle. The doors, windows, and drawbridge are made of chocolate bar segments. The tops edges are lined with pink pillow mints, resembling stone merlons. The towers each have an inverted ice cream cone creating a turret. Everything is covered in white frosting and the turrets are also covered in pink decorators’ sugar. Finally, there are 4 construction paper flags on toothpicks flying in the wind over the masterpiece. From the photo, I imagined this as an enormous edible piece of art. It was all I wanted.
When I showed this masterpiece to my mother, she told me that this is impossible to make. No one could possibly make this cake. Looking back, my mother never made a cake. She would bake mandel bread, but that is the extent of her baking. This project not only required baking a cake, but also cutting it into 5 geometric pieces, and even rounding the ends of two of them to create the side rooms. The pieces are then assembled and stacked before being iced. I can think of many reasons why my mother would not want to attempt making this complex but stunning confection. So, this childhood dream remained unfulfilled.
I have housed many friends through the years. It is always temporary, and I am happy to help out a friend when they can use a little support. Around 21 years ago, before moving to LA, my friend Amy lived in my house. During her time, she learned a lot about Jewish holidays and even helped me erect my parents’ sukkah. Amy and I would often eat at Mexican restaurants (since I live near a Mexican neighborhood.) Our game was to each choose songs from the juke-box based on the pictures of the bands. We would predict how long before we heard a tuba. It was great having a smart, quick-witted, game for adventure, partner-in-crime in my house.
I must have shown Amy my cookbook and the castle cake pages at some time. She remembered and, for my 40th birthday, she actually made the cake! She accomplished the impossible! It was a surprise, and I was stunned and completely impressed. The effort to secretly get the ingredients, make the cake, and display it beautifully without me having any idea must have been a challenge. The cake was delicious. It was baked perfectly and decorated exactly like the photo in my book. Because of my history with this dessert, every bite tasted like love. I was so moved by the effort. I felt like the cake was actually a long, tight, meaningful hug that has now lasted for 21 years. I never told my mother this story. There has never been a reason to bring it up. She is a great mom. All mothers don’t have to love the kitchen. Neither do dads. However, nothing says, “I care about you” more than fulfilling a childhood fantasy just to bring joy to a middle-aged person (who generally doesn’t care much about his birthdays) on a milestone of aging. Just remember any time cake is involved you can be assured that there is love.