The Most Important Cake I’ve Ever Made, Part 2

(or: Cakes. Why did it have to be cakes?)

In my baking life I can honestly say I’ve made three truly successful layer cakes. A cake with a hidden checkerboard design and this one…

…which I made twice (once for my 30th birthday and then for my first wedding). Every other layer cake I’ve made has been meh at best and disastrous at worst. Most of the time I’d rather make double batches of puff pastry than bake a cake and that should tell you exactly what I think of my layer cake skills. But I’m always up for a challenge, and succeed or fail, I am what I dare. And I dared to be a celebration cake baker.

But what kind of cake to bake? I rifled through my recipes, interrogated the Internet, and mulled over my memories and very quickly came to the decision that I hadn’t a clue. Okay. I did have a clue but only about what I didn’t want to bake. Despite two successes with the above cake (decades ago) I wasn’t confident I could, or even should, recreate it for Steven. It just didn’t fit the tone and mood I began to envision for what I wanted to make for him. I knew that I wanted it to be multi-tier. Something large enough to be special, but small enough to feel somewhat intimate. I figured 8″, 6″, and 4″ tiers would work; those sizes would make a good visual presentation, but also be easier to transport from NYC to South Jersey.

I knew it needed a topper of some kind as well, but nothing schmaltzy or trite. Messaging with my friend Grace in London put me on the trail of what eventually became the perfect topper for this cake. She really got me to thinking about how it needed to be a loving representation of my two friends. I let some ideas percolate on the back burner.

Eventually I decided on a lemon cake because I loved how lemon can bring an aromatic brightness to a dish while also delivering a sharpness of taste that excites a palette. (Listen to me, sounding all chef-like!) Lemon Drizzle is a cake I’ve wanted to make for a while, and I found Mary Berry’s recipe online. Though it was actually for a tray bake I gave it a go in my round pans, estimating how much batter I’d need and how much to fill each pan. It was a disaster. And no, I don’t have pictures. Straight into the bin. Not that this truly bothered me, mind you. I expect it because, – say it with me now – I suck at cakes.

What I needed for this special cake was inspiration, and a lemon drizzle recipe for round cake tins. I knew exactly where to find both: Nadiya Hussain. Watching Nadiya’s trials, tribulations, and triumphs as she progressed through each episode of season 6 of The Great British Bake Off (2015) was an amazing roller coaster ride. And when she won, I couldn’t have been more thrilled. Until I saw her speech, that is. It never fails to bring me to tears, not only of joy but of determination to be like Nadiya – to surmount challenges and become the best baker I can be. From the heart of a woman in England to the soul of a man in New York. And just like that, everything fell into place.

Nadiya’s lemon drizzle recipe, which she used to win the Bake Off Final, was perfect as a foundation for my Remembrance Cake

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1 british-bake-off-nadiya
2 nadiyaicake-z
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To make this cake, I learned quite a few skills, including making fondant from marshmallows! If ever there was a project that stretched me to my capacity and beyond, this was it. I’ll write about the actual bake in a few days but I overcame more than one disaster on the way to presenting Steven with a cake I was not only proud of but knew he’d love.

It’s filled with love (and lemon curd) and reflects part of his life with Eric, and incorporates my connection to them as well – which a good celebration cake should do, I think. They traveled a lot over the years, so that’s what I used as a unifying theme for the three tiers. The silhouette for their joy in going new places, tiny suitcases because, yes, why not?, and the puzzle map of the U.S. for the road trips they’d done. I made the leaves and sunflowers out of brown sugar from molds I have at home (I love making brown sugar “cubes” to drop into my coffee), and procured and styled some hemp rope to accent and help bring everything together with color and to symbolize the ties that bind us together as friends and family.

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3 Steve's Remembrance Cake - 09-29-18-1
4 Steve's Remembrance Cake - Six-inch - 09-29-2018 - Tiny Suitcases2
6 Steve's Remembrance Cake - Four-inch - 09-29-2018 - USA Puzzle2
5 Me At Steve's - Time To Get To Work - 09-29-2018
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Steven loved the cake, and all weekend long kept pointing out how the elements of it truly did reflect aspects of his life with Eric. I couldn’t have been more pleased with my efforts.

And then we ate several slices over the weekend!

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7 Steve's Remembrance Cake - Eigh-inch - 09-29-2018 - Sliced1
8 Steve's Remembrance Cake - Eigh-inch - 09-29-2018 - Sliced2
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I can honestly say that in addition to being the most important, this is the best cake I’ve ever made in my baking life. I was proud to place it in front of a friend that I’ve known for more than half my life. I think Steven knew that asking me for a cake would not only provide him with a way to help resolve some of the emotions he has about Eric’s death but would also give me the opportunity to work out some of my own feelings via the baking process. My friend is such a delightful little sneak.

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10 Steve and Me - 09-30-2018
9 Carlton in NJ
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To one of my oldest friends, with love.

Currently listening to: Ottmar Liebert – Samba Pa Ti and Soul II Soul – Back To Life and Sounds of Blackness – Optimisti

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Phoebe Berg

    If I ever get married, I would want you to make my wedding cake. This is the most beautiful cake I’ve ever seen. And what a wonderful occasion. You are a master, sir, a master.

    1. Carlton Baker II

      Thank you for saying so, Phoebe. It truly was an honor to ply my baking trade for my friend. We’ll have to see what the future holds for your nuptuals. 😉

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