(Actually, after I composed that title, I had to run over to IMDB and check. I'm delighted to report that the lovely Barbara Billingsley, perfectly coiffed and fluent in jive, is very much alive and well, and was working as recently as 2003, bless her heart. Jus' hang loose, blood!)
My mom is a capable but largely indifferent cook. I mean no disrespect; she kept us adequately fed and everything, but Sis and I have no explanation for our own competitive culinary excesses and kitchen gadgetry...it's some genetic quirk that may have skipped multiple generations, we think. Mom was given detention in junior high for throwing lemons around like softballs in Home Ec, so maybe she missed something that day? At any rate, she was fun, but not at all a cake-baking sort of mom...more the "smuggle contraband candy into the movies" kind of mom, which has its own merits.
This is a lengthy prelude to saying that I can remember my mother baking only two cakes in my entire lifetime. One was for my twelfth birthday: a round layer cake frosted to resemble a giant hamburger, with real sesame seeds sprinkled over the top "bun." I had begged and pleaded and cajoled for this cake, which I'd found in a kids' cookbook, and I'm not sure what aspect of my whining finally propelled Mom to forgo the Albertson's bakery and approach the oven. She entered the kitchen with the grim focus of a Los Alamos physicist; I wasn't invited to participate in the endeavor, girlish bake-bonding be damned. But at the appointed birthday hour she emerged dazed but triumphant, burger cake in hand. She could, it seems, follow an existing template. I was ecstatic, as this was the coolest preteen hipster cake I could imagine. For a brief afternoon, I ruled the sixth grade.
Five or six years ago, Mom endeavored to bake a lemon cake for Sis's birthday. I think there were intimations that she could not do this, and she took umbrage. Over the years, Mom's limited-to-begin-with selection of decent cookware had continued to deteriorate, but the fact that she possessed one round and one square cake pan did not deter her. Maybe I should mention here that in her spare time, Mom is a collage artist? So. Sis received a square bottom layer of cake, with a vaguely starburst-y bunch of irregular cake cutouts arranged on top. Mom had covered this all with a Jackson Pollock motif of different-colored icings, some of which contained alcohol. "Is this the cake from MacArthur Park?" I asked, which made Mom mad. (You can tell when she is mad, because she says "I'm not mad!!" and smiles very very hard.) Anyway, the cake was delicious, if terrifying in appearance.
Last Saturday, we celebrated Sis's 33rd birthday with a plethora of curries at Bombay Grill. I don't know what prompted Mom to attempt another cake...but several hours before the meal, she called me in a state of some agitation.
It was quite the litany of woes. Again armed with a single round cake pan, she'd elected to pour the boxed mix into a sheet pan rather than baking three separate layers in shifts. The oven in her new house is somewhat overzealous, and so the edges and bottom of the resulting cake were...kind of charred. Mom decided to turn it out onto a cutting board, trim off the offending blackened bits, and then cut it down the middle and plop one half atop the other: layers! Sadly, the cake was not as architecturally sound as she had hoped. Increasingly frantic applications of cream-cheese frosting to spackle it all together were, likewise, temporary solutions at best. Martha should avert her eyes here, because Mom is not so much having the revolving cake pedestal, or the offset spatula, or the skillful crumb-coating. At some point in the decorative process, her frustration got the best of her.
Here is the cake Mom presented to Sis, to honor her birth:
Note the shoring up of the foundation, here (and that Mom had run out of the cream-cheese frosting at this point). It appears to be proceeding apace with the NOLA levee reconstruction as performed by the Army Corps of Engineers:
I wish I had photos of us all completely falling out in the kitchen. Alas, these were taken once we'd had time to calm down and catch our breath. We were too curry-stuffed to partake, but Sis brought the cake to her office the next day and it was a smashing success.
"As God is my witness, I am never baking a fucking cake again. I want you all to hear me," Mom announced formally over this production. Which in my mind is a real shame, actually. I am closer to 40 than 30...I kind of want all of my birthday cakes to make this same rousing declaration, for the forseeable future.