My grandparents arrived in America two years before my mother, father and I joined them in 1979. My grandmother was good at hustling to make a buck. She was also a phenomenal cook and baker. In her new American life, she christened herself a baker. For 7 years, (until my family of now 4 moved to Staten Island in 1986), my sister, cousin, and I spent countless after school and weekend hours around my grandmother’s tiny dining room table mesmerized by her baking.
She had two standup mixers which rotated continuously, the ever-present white noise of her house. The wooden rolling pin, always covered in flour was out, and either she was making the batter, baking rounds and sheets, making cream or ganache or decorating the tops with pastel colored little flowers and stars. I never liked cream, which seemed to be abundant in the composition of most of her cakes. But my sister and cousin loved it and they would open their mouths as she piped that cream into their mouths until their cheeks were full. Since I was the oldest, I “made the boxes.” This meant I put them together 3/4 of the way so they were stackable and ready for her to use.
She only made one cake I enjoyed. It was called, “Mister X” and she labeled the white cake box with “X.” Coated in a dark chocolate ganache, this cake was composed of several thin layers of a harder dough (like a thin softer version of a cookie) and the goo keeping the layers together was not buttercream, but a sour-cream base mixed with nuts.
The other cake she was famous for was the “Kievsky,” (translating to “From Kiev”). This was her crowning glory and best seller. Eventually, she sold dozens of both Mr. X and the Kievsky to the big Russian stores in Brighton and Queens. She even dabbled in cakes for Bar Mitzvahs and weddings.
When we moved to Staten Island, my father bought a business, a donut shop. A year later, it was a second donut shop, which served as the backdrop to my adolescence. I tasted every variation of donut (which didn’t have cream). My thick dark curly hair smelled like sugar and often felt stiff from some sort of syrup. My oversized t-shirts were oil-stained. I had my share of cake and donuts and I was over it.
I’ve often wondered if I’d like cake more if it was completely guilt free? I can’t pretend I’m not put-off by the unhealthy ingredients which often comprise a cake. But the true root of my distaste for cake is butter. Butter is my antithesis. I don’t like the texture or the flavor, and if it’s in something, I will taste it. I will not ruin my delicious bread with it. I won’t dare pollute my eggs with its foul taste. I don’t ruin my corn on the cob with it (vinegar and sugar into the boiling water are the way to go) and I certainly wouldn’t dip my lobster in something called “clarified butter,” which is actually just smellier melted butter. I stay away from French cuisine and The Waffle House entirely.
I’m not dessert-proof, though. I love ice cream, preferably gelato (avoid flavors like butter pecan and caramel because those are just butter) and very dark chocolate. And nuts mixed with the dark chocolate.
Let them eat cake, I’ll take mine in frozen form.