By: Jo Edmondson
The first thing you should know about me is that I work in a kitchen at a gourmet farm-to-table restaurant in one of the smallest towns in America. The second thing you should know is that while I have always been a passionate home cook, I am not a chef by trade. This small restaurant kitchen in Boulder, Utah is where I really learned to cook, and it wasn’t always a piece of cake. In fact, last summer, it was a cake that nearly sent me over the edge.
About a week ago, my boss Jen told me there was going to be a cake auction in town to raise money for a new sound system for the library. How exciting... a SOUND SYSTEM! My first instinct was not excitement. It was fear. Total fear. Immediately my head started chanting the mantra of, “You can't do this, you don't know how to bake cakes, can you even make a good frosting?”...and on and on and on. I didn’t sleep for a week leading up to this cake auction. I looked at recipe after recipe, waiting for the perfect cake to find me. Strawberry seemed too childish, chocolate seemed overdone, lemon seemed too old lady, and mocha... well, the Mormons in my town would never go for that cake. I finally settled on a sprinkle buttermilk layer cake. Simple, playful, and just plain special. I had made this cake once before for someone's birthday and although I was missing some key ingredients and did not adjust for high altitude at the time, that cake ended up quite nice.
While the cake auction was on Saturday, the journey really began Wednesday night. I had the day off and came to the restaurant to bake off the layers that would make my masterpiece. Three... four... six hours later, and I was finally done. The first sheet I baked EXPLODED in the brand new oven at the restaurant... whoops. I was making my own cake flour which is simply done by adding 1 tbsp of cornstarch for every cup of all purpose flour. Me... being me.... accidentally put in baking soda... the canisters are right next to one another… so about 6 tbsp of baking soda later I had what looked like a sprinkle vomit birthday circus gone wrong in the oven. The worst part was that I was not in my own kitchen fucking shit up like a three-year-old. I was in one of the best kitchens in Utah surrounded by talented cooks and bakers and, of course, my two bosses. I took the cake out. Tried to stuff the majority down my throat (to hide the evidence) and scraped the SHIT out of the brand new oven. I held back the tears, tried to cover it with jokes… hahahahahaha… cake explosion! Hahaha! And attempted the layers once again. The second sheet came out perfect, praise Jesus. I left the cake to cool for the night.
A sleepless night later... visions of exploding cakes, watery frosting, colorless sprinkles dancing in my head... I wake up at 5am. I want to face this cake, make it perfect before 7am when Jen shows up to give her approval. I really had to pump myself up just to get out the door to go to work. I had a terrible stomachache, thought I was going to throw up... maybe I actually did throw up. In any case, I arrived at the restaurant, thinking I would be the first one there, but no. Brandon my co-cook at the restaurant is there, finishing his ever-so-perfect chocolate espresso blah blah blah perfectly decorated magical cake. He was moving around the kitchen with such ease, making baking seem so effortless. Within seconds of my arrival he’s done with his cake.
I take my sheet cake out of the fridge and get started, ready to cut circles, make the layers, and frost the shit out of this cake. As soon as I release the cake from the sheet pan, I start to panic... and cry. I convinced myself in that moment that I did not know how to make circles. I had one sheet pan, from which I needed to cut four circles. This was going to be impossible. I made two perfect circles and then tried to take the remainder of the cake scraps to piece together two more circles with a spring form pan. We didn't have a spring form pan that was the right dimensions. FUCK. This led to more tears. At this point I go into the walk-in fridge, shed some tears, and decide that I am not going to finish the cake. It’s going to be fed to the chickens. I was too embarrassed to go forward, people were starting to show up for work, and after the cake explosion last night, I could not face another major fuck up. I take the cake, throw it in the fridge, hide all evidence of cake making, shove my tears into a hanky and start making potatoes and polenta.
A couple hours later Jen shows up and wants to see my cake. At this point I could not speak, I just looked at her, and then stared down at the countertop. I could not face her. She came close to my face and said, "Josephine, I want to see your cake. Tell me where it is." I was speechless. It was as if someone had wired my mouth shut. I was not going to say a word. I look up and a slow constant stream of tears begins to flow out of my eyes. If you know me well, you know the stream I speak of. She takes my hand and walks me to the office. We sit down and I just let it out big time. Crying like a small child who has just disappointed her parents in the most severe way. I went on and on about how I don't know what I am doing, I don't know why she hired me, I have no skills, I make cakes blow up.... and on and on and on.
After taking a breath and calming down I said, "I'm not having fun anymore."
I looked at Jen’s face, and we both burst out laughing. She grabbed my hand and told me about the first "big deal" cake she ever made and how she was afraid she ruined someone's wedding because it was so ugly. She said that halfway through decorating the cake she locked herself in the bakery bathroom and just sobbed. She assured me that I was not only capable of finishing this cake, but I was going to "kick this cake’s ass.” She then showered me with candy and kava extract, the tears faded away, and it was back to the kitchen.
I abandoned all the other baking and cooking projects for the day (sorry Brandon) and focused solely on my cake. It took everything I had to try and infuse that cake with love instead of anxiety and anger. Jen was by my side encouraging me as if I were her child, giving me helpful hints and feeding me chocolate the whole time. A few hours passed and the cake was complete.
I never really knew I could learn so much about myself by baking one cake. I bake cakes all the time at the restaurant, but this was MY CAKE and I wanted it to be perfect. I learned that I can be so hard on myself and the way that I talk to myself in those stressful moments is so cruel. I would never say the things I say to myself to anyone else. And when I am so caught up in what a failure I am, all of that energy just goes into the food... and it blows up in the oven. I can't wait for the day when I feel confident making cakes and proud to show my cakes to the world. Who knows if that day will ever come. Jen says that she is still embarrassed of every cake she makes (and her cakes are fucking breathtaking).
There were several beautiful cakes entered—Boulder people take their cakes really seriously. Shit, they weld their own cake pans, grind their own flour, grow their own sugar cane, blah blah blah. In any case, while my cake certainly didn’t have the best start, you would never know it from looking at the final product. My sprinkle cake was auctioned off with the best of ‘em, and while I don’t think I am ready for a career as a cake maker, I was pretty proud of what I accomplished that day in the kitchen.
Josephine Edmondson is a yogi, artist, and the original babelord who is currently traversing the deserts of Southern Utah.