Usually in western Washington people emerge bleary eyed at the first sign of summer and basically go apeshit with excitement. After being cooped up for the past 9 months, we break out our pasty legs, throw our responsibility out the window, and generally swim and day drink for as long as the weather allows until we are ushered, hungover and exhausted, back into our homes and onto our creative projects that the dismal atmosphere encourages.
It’s all just part of the routine, but this summer’s been a little different. When I left for the Grand Canyon trip, it was still dreary and wet, and when I came back ten days later, it was full force summer time. I was writing my mental list of activities I could now enjoy (oversize margaritas, hula hooping, oyster consumption on patios, etc.) when I found out that my dad has cancer. Suddenly nothing sounded very fun, and then the quarterlife crisis that had been on a gentle simmer on my mind’s back burner boiled over into a giant, starchy, hard to clean up mess. Then it went unnoticed and escalated into a full blown kitchen fire, but luckily a few key people have been routinely dousing that thing in baking soda, so it’s just a small, controlled yet still alarming fire at the moment. Side note: Did you SEE that metaphor? They don’t teach those things in college. Oh, what, it’s kind of janky? GIVE ME A BREAK I’M SAD.
Three days after his prognosis it was his birthday, and even though he hadn’t felt like eating I forced him to consider what kind of cake I should make for him (since grief translates well into I-Love-You food). He chose a classic chocolate with buttercream, and I loved every moment of making it. Normally I don’t care that much for baking, but if it’s for my dad I’ll bake anything he asks for.
So then, two weeks after the news broke about my dad, it was suddenly my sister’s birthday and she had another cake request entirely. I’ll tell you it’s absolutely impossible to say no to my sister, who told me over the phone that
all I want is a train cake!
And I’m like, wait, what? Ok…?
I like to bake cakes… but I’ve never tried to make one that looked like anything EXCEPT A CAKE, but since it was allllllll she waaaaaaanted, I decided to give it a whirl.
After watching this insanely misleading video about how TOTALLY DOABLE and VERY, VERY EASY making a train cake is, I was all “Oh, I can definitely do that. I can do that so well ALREADY that I’m going to make it from scratch, too, and blow all these mom-commenters out of the water!” Said mom-commenters were all, “I couldn’t believe how fast and easy this cake was to make!” and “My three year-old just went cah-razy for it!!!!111!!!” Nevermind that my sister was turning 28, and there was no mention for train cakes appropriate for adults, but damn it, BETH WAS GONNA GET THAT CAKE.
Then off to the grocery store where I spent approximately 45 minutes assessing various candy shapes for the train decorations, carefully picking up and setting down every kind of geometric candy and weighing the importance of taste versus aesthetics when I finally bought it all and came home to make the damn thing. And holy mustard, I needed a bigger kitchen counter for a cake that required so many pans.
I probably shouldn’t have picked a recipe I’d never tried before, and I DEFINITELY shouldn’t have picked a recipe that called for 6 eggs. Failing to notice that is a big, red flag that I DON’T KNOW HOW TO BAKE WELL and obviously shouldn’t be left in charge with the task of assembling an engine and three trains cars with what turned out to be the flattest, stickiest, and richest cake I have ever produced in my life. Suffice to say, the cake was far too difficult to work with, and though I managed to carve some shapes that, when stacked and terribly frosted, approximated the general shape of an engine car, I did have to bite the bullet and buy a box mix for the rest of the cars.
Thus began the arduous process of frosting. I seriously can’t believe how effortless that Betty Crocker video made it all look, because there was lots of swearing and definitely some crying during the creation of this cake. After watching the video about 6 times and then attempting to replicate the results, I was left with some very serious questions:
1. After “crumb coating” the cakes you’re supposed to refrigerate them before your next frosting layer. Where are you supposed to find space in a normal functioning refrigerator for two cutting boards covered in precariously frosted cakes? Also, by this point I was finishing up the project at my parents’ house, and their fridge is always crammed with ten thousand condiments and every manner of leftover. Which is more important- curried chicken salad or smoked salmon? SOMETHING HAS TO MAKE ROOM FOR THE CAKES.
2. Ok, so I crumb coat the damn things and they are not ANY easier to frost the second time. In fact, they are even a little harder, as the fridge didn’t seem to help the frosting set at all, and now I’m just smearing gooey frosting on top of gooey frosting AND IT’S MAKING A DAMN MESS. How are you supposed to keep the boxcars looking like, I dunno, rectangular!? Because by now the boxcars look like tiny, colorful footballs and I’m about to lose my shit for real.
3. After frosting the things and begrudgingly accepting the fact that they’re just gonna look like tiny, colorful footballs, I am forced to relocate the extremely fragile, sticky, cake crumbles onto a surface with a train track of piped frosting. In the video, the baker just reaches down with her bare hands and gingerly plops the cars onto the track with no resistance whatsoever from the frosting. Seriously, RIDDLE ME THAT. I carefully try to transfer the cakes with a flat spatula and not only to I maim the frosting even more, but I drop one on it’s side and totally ruin the train track frosting while simultaneously collapsing an entire boxcar. So, how on earth are you supposed to fix this? WHY, BETTY CROCKER, WHY?
It was about at this point that Beth came home and started squealing with delight about her train cake in the works, and I am covered in frosting and cake, bewildered at what potential she could possibly see on that terribly-piped train track, but I try to swallow my frustration because she looks excited, and dad is telling me that I’m doing a great job. Ha!
Anyway, I finally pulled my shit together and started plastering a bunch of candy to the thing in an effort to
a) Cover up as many failed frosting jobs as possible and
b) Distract people altogether
Which left me with one more question: Is this supposed to taste good? Because I know very few adults who enjoy eating an enormous pile of frosting and cake and candy all at once… so maybe THAT’S why this cake is typically relegated to the world of three year olds. I get it now. I tried to pick candies that would go with the lemony flavor of that scratch cake I used for the engine, but it was still a weird eating experience. Luckily Beth seemed to like it, and my brother is basically a hummingbird so he was pretty excited about frosting covered peachy rings.
So, she was happy. Good thing I love her so much because that entire thing was worth it and I’d do it again (though hopefully a bit better this time…) if she asked. It doesn’t even need to be her birthday.
This whole month has kinda felt like making the train cake. I’m upset, I cry a lot, everything’s pretty messy and weird looking. It’s been hard for me to care about food when I’m preoccupied with family stuff and I’m trying to grab at some form of control to make my life feel more manageable. I’ve missed it this past month though, and sometimes I forget that making food and talking about food brings me a lot of joy and energy. I’m pulling myself into a better state of mind this week, today, right now. I’m starting with this post. And then I’m going to make a big, delicious dinner for friends this evening, like old times.