Archive for June, 2010

There was a time when I wanted to make my own wedding cake. I was successfully talked out of it by several more knowledgeable friends. (Thanks, Lee.)

But I love baking. And there’s something about a wedding cake.  I love when friends, especially lady friends, come together to create things– baby showers, quilts, trousseaux, wedding petticoats, flowers for prom, casseroles and breads for church homecomings and funerals. When I was in high school, and won a scholarship through the Girl Scouts, some local ladies made a quilt to raffle to help raise money for my additional expenses. The town paper published a story about that, with a photo of me holding the quilt. (A clipping of which is in my hope chest.)

And wedding cake! It seems so Anne of Green Gables to make the wedding cake for one’s dear friend. In the past, I’ve made elaborate themed cakes (for the season premier of LOST, complete with marzipan jungle and Oceanic plane wreckage), birthdays, and baby showers.  But never a wedding cake.

A few months ago, Matt and I went to stay with Jodut and her roommates in Boston, to do a trial run. I first made chocolate and white cakes, and then some fillings, so she could decide what combination she wanted. Then, I did a complete run through. It took fourteen hours, and many pounds of butter. I took notes, and learned a great deal.

Cake Trial 1:

Worshipping at the Altar of the Kitchenaid.

My recipes, covered in vanilla extract.

The cake batter in five of the six pans. Chocolate cupcakes–for sampling–in the background.

After torting the cakes, I filled each layer. Here, I’m filling with chocolate ganache. Note the ring of buttercream to keep the ganache in.

The crumb coat, in buttercream.

The first two tiers.

Frosting the top tier. At this point, the cake was very heavy, and difficult to turn.

Oh, Kitchenaid; you quicken my heart.  Here I’m adding gel food color to royal icing.

Tense!  Jodut looks on as I try to get the orange icing going. At this point, it was close to midnight. I had been attempting to recreate a design we found online.

We discovered that when I “freehanded” the icing (as seen in the light peach tone-on-tone work) it looked better than when I tried to follow another design.

I wasn’t satisfied with the way it looked, but it tasted great. Jodut invited ten friends over, and we ate cake that night and divided it up to take home.  These two slices are from the next morning. You can see the layers– Jodut and Ben chose chocolate ganache for the middle tier, and coconut buttercream for the bottom and top tiers.

For wedding cake recipes that served 120+, I searched Allrecipes.com . I liked their recipes because I could read reviews from others who had cooked and tasted them.  I used my own recipe for buttercream, as well as for the ganache and coconut buttercream fillings.

I used Wilton cake pans that I ordered from Amazon.com , as well as Wilton cardboard cake rounds.  For assembly, I followed instructions I had read on MarthaStewart.com — each layer included four clean wooden dowels, inserted in the center.  Then, I placed the new tier, on its cardboard round, on top of those dowels.  Dowels were cut even with the surface of the cake.

Finally, after the top tier was placed, Matt helped me sharpen one end of a slightly thicker dowel, and then carefully hammered the entire length of dowel through all three tiers, and both cardboard rounds.  This way, the cake would not shift or slide out of place.

What I learned: it took a long time, and by the time I was icing, I was very physically tired from being on my feet and using my arm muscles for so long. I also learned that I needed much more filling that I had originally anticipated, and that my free-hand decorating was much more beautiful.

Also, frankly, I was unsatisfied with the smoothness of the buttercream surface. I experimented using Martha Stewart’s method of smoothing buttercream, and even tried “the paper towel” method, where one uses a smooth paper towel and a fondant smoother to even out the surface.

And yet, fondant isn’t tasty. Cookbooks refer to it as “an acquired taste,” and even though most glossy wedding magazines now feature elaborate, super-smooth fondant cakes, most wedding guests I spoke to described peeling off and discarding the fondant before eating the cake.

Jodut didn’t want anything that wasn’t tasty. I was alarmed by the fact that we could buy pre-made, shelf-stable fondant from the shelves of the local craft store.

I did some researching, and found a recipe for “marshmallow fondant,” again on Allrecipes.com .  Now, marshmallows aren’t halal, but further down the recipe thread, another poster mentioned using marshmallow Fluff.  Fluff!  So I experimented, making a batch of marshmallow Fluff fondant, and covering a normal-sized cake with it.  It tastes like nougat, like the inside of a 3 Musketeers bar. I took it to school, and colleagues and students alike raved about it, ate every bit, and reassured me that it tasted nothing like any fondant they’d ever had.

Cake Trial 2:

Here I’m kneading out the Fluff fondant. At first, it’s really, really sticky, but then it becomes very smooth and fun to work with. Not sticky like marzipan, but more like a sturdy play-doh. I’m working on Crisco on my tabletop.  Later, I soon realized that I needed to work on wax paper, or I wouldn’t be able to lift the fondant off of the table.

I’m covering the cake with the Fluff fondant. It drapes beautifully.

This is the finished surface.

I realized that my tiers were baking unevenly, so I googled “bake even surface.” I found that there’s a tool called baking strips, that insulate the edged so they middle of the cake doesn’t bake so much more slowly than the edges.  I also got myself a real (Wilton) fondant smoother.

The Big Day!

For the wedding, I was ready. I had baking strips, great recipes, a fondant smoother, and much more confidence in my ability to pull this off.

Same Kitchenaid, different kitchen. For the real thing, Ben’s parents graciously welcomed us into their home for two days.

The bottom tier overwhelms the refrigerator. Because our gift to the couple was edible, we also gave them a beautiful silver platter and serving pieces, that they can keep forever-after.

Getting ready to pipe. This is the day of the wedding; my hair is set to hopefully fall out in nice waves later, and my mendhi is covered by blue rubber gloves.

The finished cake!  I copied designs straight from my mendhi, and free-handed it all. I traveled to the reception site with the cake still in three tiers. I did my hair and make-up in the car. Matt helped me assemble the cake (too heavy for me to lift) and I piped icing along each layer, and added the flowers.

Close-up of the bottom tier. We chose fresh flowers to compliment the colors, and tie in the bouquets and centerpieces. Matt prepared the flowers and packed them in fresh water to bring to the reception site.

The happy couple!

I would do it again, for someone I love. I wouldn’t go into it as a business, because I’m not sure I can re-create what each person would want. Jodut wanted a beautiful cake inspired by a color palette, and trusted me to make something beautiful.  I had a really great time the day before the wedding putting it all together. When Jodut and Ben fed a piece to each other, and then to each of their parents, my eyes filled with tears.  Yes, it was much more labor-intensive than choosing something off their registry, but it was–for me–the perfect way for me to show Jodut how much her friendship means to me, and celebrate the love and marriage of two of our dearest friends.

I love you, Jodut!

Special thanks to our original roommates, Tom and Eric, for helping me roll out and place the fondant the day before the wedding. I could not have done it without them– their humor, energy, and hard work buoyed me in those last few hours.

I cross-posted this on our wedding blog because, like, it’s a wedding cake!


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When I was in grad school, I forgot how physically exhausting it is to teach middle school.  Yes, I was exhausted after leading seminars, and doing presentations, and even running panel discussions or Senate meetings… but this is a kind of physical exhaustion where your body is poised at all times–even unknowingly–to respond to an infinite variety of things that might happen, at any moment, and possibly all at once.

There are nine more school days left. Several of those aren’t real days– they are picnic days, “Color War” day, one last trip to the Zoo, presentation/honors day.  My students have their second school play going up next Tuesday, so it’s Crazytown USA in my classroom. Some kids are painting backdrops, some are gluing paper feathers onto the huge set of gryphon wings, some are practicing in the hall, some are doing make-up work, some are building papier mache masks, some are coloring publicity posters, some are cutting class…

Add to my life: a few babysitting gigs, Sunday school, the journal, regular errands…  Here was today:

1. Wake up, send a few e-mails, listen to NPR until they start talking about a new work of fiction. For some reason, listening to the new work of fiction piece gets me wound up and excited, and not in the proper all-is-well-calmly mood I need to get me going to school.

2. In the midst of waking up, see the green, green branches outside the bathroom window, and feel called to pray, from sheer thanksgiving.

3. Stop by the grocery store to get brown paper bags for gryphon wings. Realize I am now running late. Probably because when I switched off NPR, I went to a _Law & Order_ re-run, and got sucked in.

4.  Recognize a guy who’s driven me to work before in his van, and signal to him that I need a ride.

5. Run into the bank to get cash for the kids’ snack after school.

6. Get driven to work, talking about Ecuador, and the things my driver misses when he is there (“real” pizza and lasagna) and the things he does not (the high cost of gas in the US.)

7. During my morning prep, I send another few e-mails, work on a crown for the play, and start on the wings. I also make a packet of fun/compelling work for the kids who aren’t involved in the play.

8. Teach, teach, teach. Help Mohamad draw topiaries on the backdrop, model feather-making to Fatima and Angel and Ashley, run the tea party scene several times, try to ignore Ivan.

9.  After lunch, listen to voicemail, which adds three things to my “To do” list, take forever downloading the packet to print. One server plus two schools equals too much time waiting for things to load.

10. Make it through my worst teaching class by being super strict and awful at first, and then being kind again to individual students, once they’ve settled down. Eventually, all is well and kids are working. Except:

10.5. While grading their notebooks (reading through everything they’ve written from writing prompts I give them each day since last time I’ve graded them, and making encouraging/approving/chiding/grade-like comments), I find a really, really disturbing “red flag” message from a student who never speaks in class.  Uh-oh.

11. I get another teacher to watch my kids for a few minutes, take the notebook to a colleague to double-check that I’m not making too much of it. (It involves hearing voices, and violent things.)  She says, take it to her advisor. I run it down to her advisor, stopping to holler in my door that everyone needs to be seated.  “Seats!  Seats!  Shawn Lastname, this is the fourth time! [glare and pause]”

12. Wait while her advisor reads it. He takes it to the guidance counselor, I return to class.

13. Grade, grade, collect work, manage, encourage, teach.

14. Order Chinese food for the actors staying after school. By “Chinese food,” I mean french fries and chicken nuggets and ketchup, which is what the kids wanted. From the Chinese restaurant.

15. Run play practice: encourage Shuma to “Speak up!!” Tell Klorentin to pipe down. Express disbelief (not really) that Danny lost his script again. Try to push my energy forward at them, to help them rally for each scene. Narrow my eyes at Tashii when he tries to get out of singing. Applaud when they rock the scenes.

16. Run around with ketchup and fruit punch, fielding questions about costumes and grades.

17. Rush them all out after after-school, put up all the chairs, sweep up the room, fill out some PD forms, take two phone calls.

18. Errands: tailor/dry cleaner, discount “department” store, back to tailor, ATM, grocery story, pharmacy, home. Come home heavy-laden (including with a giant umbrella with which I can make a turtle’s shell by adding papier mache layers over top).

19. More e-mails. Weirdness with an Amazon order. Wish the library had been open. Wonder about a Kindle. Make an incredible fritatta with fancy cheese we need to use up.

On the plate for this evening: setting up my report cards template (due next Monday, the day before the play=impossible!) e-mail for the journal, send out fathers’ day cards and do some bills, make program for the play, find song on YouTube that Danelys wants to sing in the play and figure out how to burn it.

It’s a really, really good life. I wish I had Herminone’s clock, where she can turn back hours to take extra classes. I just want to sit like a normal person and answer e-mails one at a time, in a quiet sustained period, like it’s my job. I want to take a phone call while not on the train, or walking from the train to my apartment, or in the last few minutes of my prep period. I want an extra hour before it becomes 9PM and Matt starts heading to bed.

But… as I speak: the fritatta was incredible, Matt is rubbing my feet, the YouTube song is appearing, and Facebook reminds me of all the friends I love. The trees are still green, green.

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“Creative scientists and saints expect revelation and do not fear it. Neither do children. But as we grow up and we are hurt, we learned not to trust.”

–Madeleine L’Engle

If I moved through the world expecting, welcoming, sure that truths would be revealed: _what would I behold_?

(Photos taken in the sculpture garden outside the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, on a street in Philadelphia, and in downtown St. Louis, respectively.)

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Tonight, for dinner, I ate half of a watermelon.  At Fairway, it was marketed as a “personal watermelon.”

For the past seven nights, I have been waking up in a new way. Not in a panic, and not with lasting anxiety, but with an urgent feeling of, “Something is missing!”  Sometimes, what I think is missing is Matt. I sit up, I feel his head. I can’t tell it’s him. So I lean over and smell him.  I recognize his smell, so I am satisfied, and go back to sleep.

Or, I fear that I’ve lost my wedding rings.  I get up, I dart about, maybe turn on the light, until I can see them on my dresser top or vanity table.

Last Monday night, I can’t remember what I thought was missing, but I left the bedroom, turned on the living room light, and unpacked part of my luggage.

The morning after we got the watermelon, I woke up in a panic. Matt was already up, grinding coffee. I believe I said to him, “Someone took my watermelon! Where is it??”  Confused but reassuring, he picked up the watermelon (where I had left it on the counter) and held it out, saying, “It’s right here.”

I would rather have these nightly sensations of loss than full-blown panic attacks, but I am curious about why they’re happening now, and what they might mean.  I think that the phrase “personal watermelon” has something to do with my internal possessiveness of that particular fruit item.

I love watermelon. Until this week, I’ve never purchased it for myself. It always seems to heavy to carry home, to bulky for the fridge. Whenever it’s at a party or BBQ, though, I will eat as much as possible.  I try to be covert about it, getting only three slices, for example, for my plate, but then going back throughout the evening for more slices. It’s delicious!  I have loved it forever.

My Grandpa used to grow watermelons, among other veg and fruits, on his farm.  It’s nice to eat watermelon cold, but there’s something to be said for eating it warm, hot and ripe from the sun.  The heart is the best part– before adulthood, all watermelons had seeds, and the heart is always seedless.  Sun-warmed, cracked open, the heart is red, pulpy, seedless, and so sweet.

There were rumors that “Posey County boys crack open all the watermelon they want, and only eat the hearts.”   They grew watermelon there, and that idea of excess was so appealing to me as a child. I imagined marrying a Posey County boy and eating watermelon hearts to my content, luxuriously.

One of the local towns used to have a Sweet Corn and Watermelon Festival.  In addition to rides, and a parade, and probably a pageant (I personally was 1st Runner Up in my own hometown’s Little Miss Peanut Pageant, as well as competing in a neighboring town’s Little Miss Old King Coal pageant), the festival featured all of the sweet corn and watermelon you could eat, for free.

Various tents, put up by local politicians, and the city council, and the Rotary, Kiwanis, Knights of Columbus, unions… all of the small town organizations had tents.  Farmers brought in huge wagons of the produce, there was live music, and the tents had paper plates, forks, butter, salt, and napkins. You could eat, and eat, and eat. Hot and cold: buttery or sweet.

When I was little, food was a huge part of how I looked forward to things.  I spent many years in Sunday school, imagining heaven. In my elementary school mind, heaven looked like this: There were many long, endlessly long tables, covered with white table cloths and beautiful silver bowls.  Delicious mashed potatoes filled each bowl. This image of comfort [food] sustained me for many a prayer and long sermon.

Looking forward to the Sweet Corn and Watermelon Festival had a similar fantastical feeling–it seemed too good to be true, and I looked forward to the watermelon all year it seemed. Plates of it. Red and super sweet. I could imagine the water running down my chin, even onto my feet.  And in a festival–it’s very nomination provoking excess–one could have exactly as much watermelon as she wanted.

I’m not a wealthy woman. I have student loans, and work three jobs, and do my best to save and budget and be thrifty. When I have an entire watermelon to myself, though, I can saw without any hyperbole at all that I feel as wealthy as a princess, as luxuriating as an empress.  I saved half of the watermelon for breakfast; half of a watermelon is nearly all I can ask of the world tonight.

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Jodut before the wedding ceremony.

I just came back from Jodut’s wedding. I was a bridesmaid (my first time!) and also made their cake.  I’ll be writing a post about the cake itself, and that whole process, with tons of photos, separately.

It was a beautiful, beautiful weekend. We spent time with Jodut’s family, and got to know Ben’s families, and Tom and Eric arrived just in time to help me wrangle the fondant.

On Friday evening, Jodut’s incredible sister-in-law Alvina did mendhi on my hands, and I sang with the aunties while Jodut had her mendhi done. (I was just learning the sounds of the Urdu words, and singing along by reading transliterated text in a song book, but Jodut’s Mom told me what the songs were about.)

Saturday, we got up very early so I could start the cake baking process. Matt helped me make the cake itself, and I made the fillings (coconut buttercream and chocolate ganache). While the cakes baked, I made the fondant–with marshmallow Fluff, so it tastes good, like candy, not like regular fondant usually tastes.  I took a brief rest in a hammock while the cakes were cooling, but then got to work torte-ing and filling them.  Finally, by seven o’clock, we had rolled out the fondant, covered each tier, and rearranged the refrigerator to house the cake for the evening. We cleaned up, returned to the hotel for a quick costume change, and headed to Jodut’s family home for the mendhi.

Tables of delicious Indian food, a pile of shoes by the door, flowers and ribbons lining the room, music, and dozens of people greeted us. I got to participate in a lovely ceremony: the groomsmen walked Ben out into the shared space under a yellow shawl–they carried it over him, and walked in front of him. Then, we bridesmaids carried small plates with candles centered in mounds of henna paste–behind us, Jodut’s Mom and aunties escorted her out to sit next to Ben, under the same yellow shawl.

Then, beginning with the oldest family member, guests stood in line to give Ben and Jodut money, and then to feed them each something sweet.  After the sweet eating, the men all went downstairs, and the dancing began. Groups of Jodut’s friends had choreographed dances to perform for her.  Unfortunately for me, it was nearly midnight, and I had been on my feet all day baking, and didn’t last long once the dancing began.

We escaped to the hotel, soon followed by Tom and Eric. We reminisced about our years as roommates, and joked, and giggled ourselves to deep sleep.

The next morning, I slept in until eight o’clock, and then Matt and I headed back to Ben’s parents’ house. I made batches of royal icing, and Matt set off to do errands: escorting Jodut to a make-up appointment and picking up a tunic for me to wear with my shalwar (the chemise I had ordered from India didn’t fit perfectly).  I decorated the cake, and Matt arrived back in time to help me load it up into the car. I changed clothes, into my dress shalwar chemise and scarf, and we followed Ben’s Dad to the ceremony site.  We were running late (I was due for bridal party photos), but luckily everyone was. I had time to assemble the three layers on the table, add some final piping, and finish the cake with fresh flowers.

The ceremony was deeply moving.  It was held outside, and the greens of the grass and blossoming trees were the perfect foil for all of the bright dresses, beading, and gold threads.  As soon as Jodut started walking down the aisle, I started to cry. I was so moved by how beautiful she looked, and how having her as a friend has influenced my life, and how happy I was for her.  I got it together until she and Ben read aloud the vows they had written: I’m mostly not a fan of self-written vows (haven’t seen it work well very often), but Jodut’s and Ben’s words were perfect. Beautiful, inspiring, and harmonious.  Jodut’s voice broke as she read, and I really started crying, then.

I looked out into the assembled group and saw Matt, and fell in love with him a little bit more. One lovely thing about weddings (and why all couples should have the right to participate in marriage ceremonies) is that those of us bearing witness are also participating in joy, and in relationship-making.  The grace of the couple, and their love, gilds us a little, too.

Eric played violin, and watching him play in the open air got me crying again. I’m apparently going to be one of those old women who always cry at weddings.  I struggled to hold it together, but was brought to near-audible sobbing when one of the readings was from _The Velveteen Rabbit._

I was so happy to stand at the end of the procession, and watch Jodut and Ben walking back towards us, beaming.

More incredible Indian food for dinner, more than you could imagine, and fantastic music.  It was so fun and gratifying to see people taking photographs of the cake, and ooohing and ahhing over it. It was peculiar, because I had spent so many hours up close to the surface of the cake, working on piping, so it was strange to see it as a whole, glowing on its own table.  After Jodut and Ben each fed one another a piece of cake, Ben fed Jodut’s parents each a bite, and then Jodut did the same for Ben’s parents. I loved the symbolism of the new couples offering something sweet to their parents, and the fact that they used my cake brought tears to my eyes (again!)

Jodut and Ben did a fantastic salsa for their first dance, and then we all joined them on the dance floor.

Once again, Matt, Tom, and Eric and I laughed our way to sleep. One of the last things I remember is singing “Kookaburra” in a round with Eric.

This afternoon, we celebrated the walina with Jodut and Ben, and their families–it’s a meal, a BBQ in this case–hosted by the married couple, as the first gesture they make as a couple–hosting their friends and loved ones.

It was a wonderful weekend. I am tired and happy, and the mendhi on my hands is fading. We just finished looking at the hundreds of photos Matt took, and have remarked to ourselves several times what a gorgeous wedding it was, and how happy we are to have been there.

Alvina at work.

The henna before it dried.

Me recessing after the ceremony.

My bouquet.

Jodut and Ben cutting their cake.

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