Friday, January 28, 2005

The Wedding Cake Disaster


If some clairvoyant or anyone, really, would have told me, when I was a kid, that I would one day grow up to be a cake decorator, I would have deemed them certifiably nuts. As a child, though I always showed musical aptitude, I couldn't draw for shit. It was a bit frustrating, seeing those other kids, one friend in particular, who was just so talented at drawing.

But years later, after serving my baker's apprenticehip, and then opening my own store, Richard's Bakery, of Tualatin, Oregon, that is exactly what happened. I did not intend on learning how to decorate cakes, although I had taken classes in Seattle. I thought I would bake the cake, make the icings, etc, but have someone else do the decorating, some artist person.

And I did start out that way, hired a cake decorator, and that's the way it was for awhile. But twenty years in business is a long time, and over that time, through people quitting, lay-offs, and firings, well, sometimes I just didn't have anyone else to do it, but myself. At some point, I had a professional come in for a week, and give me lessons, sort of a crash course on how to survive as a cake decorator. He taught me how to do a decent job, not piss too many people off. And over time, I could fake it pretty well.

Sure, figure "piping" a complex scene of, oh,"my blond daughter riding the waves on a surfboard holding a diploma in one hand and car keys in the other" was never something I could effectively do. But man, I could crank out roses.

It takes a certain amount of strength and technical skill to be a cake decorator, which most people who have been decent at first or third base can probably pick up. And when you are facing maybe 30 or 40 birthday cakes on June 21st, maybe a wedding cake or two to boot, as time passes, you learn how to do them fast.

Somewhere in the '80's, I had been holding down the cake decorating department in my bakery with an assistant. I had several bakers to make the cakes, icings, rose icings, and fillings. We were in the middle of a busy summer month, and this particular weekend was a big one for wedding cakes. I was in the habit of doing most of the wedding consultations myself, so I would be as certain as possible that the client and I had a meeting of the minds regarding the order, how it was going to look, what flavors, where to deliver it, etc.

It was a hot day when we finished this particular cake, which was one of those huge, rather gaudy versions with a real working fountain and plastic staircases that span top layers to bottom layers. I put it in the walk-in cooler to firm up, for a drive to the suburbs outside Wilsonville, Oregon. I grabbed some extra supplies, we loaded all the parts into the van, and off I went.

I arrived sometime later, to a brand new church, with a brand new blacktop parking lot, in the middle of farm land. There was not a car in the lot. I found a door on the back side of the church, and drove the van into a parking space near the door.

When I opened the door, I was surprised to see a few ladies in there, since I had not seen a car, but it was just one of those things, i dunno, they had been dropped off I guess. They were all busy as heck, putting nuts and mints on the table, working in the kitchen getting food ready, the usual. The reception would take place immediately following the wedding in this new and sparkling clean church social venue.

"The Fountain Cake" as we called it, had lots of parts, everything from the fountain, to extension cords, stabilizing parts, etc. I mean that thing is huge and heavy, and one needs to assemble it properly, or fear the fate of a toppling cake at just the wrong moment, say, when the bride and groom are getting their photo taken by their humongous cake.

So I opened the van and began taking in parts. First trip, the box with all the plastic stuff in it. Second trip, a couple of the smaller cakes that sit beside the larger cake, which holds the fountain. Since there wasn't even a car in the parking lot, I just left the van doors open.

This is the part that hurts. Upon arriving back at the van for the third time, I nonchalantly go to the rear to take more cakes, and find.......disaster. The largest part of the cake sits before me, with one entire side badly damaged, as if someone has taken a 2x4 or a small rake to it. About a fifth of the cake is gone. After the initial shock, I look around. There is not a soul, not a car, not an animal to be seen, anywhere in this entire, huge, new asphalt church parking lot, clear to the tree line, nothing.

I close the van doors. I gotta think. Luckily, I had brought along some icing and a pastry bag full of icing too. And a couple of small spatulas to help with a problem, like, repositioning one rose, to get the fountain to fit, something like that. For a little patching up. But I have a bit more of a problem. And just then, several cars full of young people, the bride and groom's friends, enter the lot.

They park near the van. I smile at them as they enter the church. The second they are in, I swing open the van doors and get to work. I am not sure, but , I think my arms are moving like when spiderman walks really fast. I add all the icing i can to the cake side. I use my spat to make it as smooth as possible. I don't know if this is going to work or not, to me it looks pretty bad. On one hand, I know I am cheating, but, on the other hand, I know I have no choice. It's almost party time. I redo the shell borders, and match the piping on the cake sides. Ugh, time to take it into the building.

I go in the church and wash up first, splash some water on my face. I return to the van. I grab the cake, and take it to the cake table, which has been adorned with a silver cake cutter and server, embossed napkins, the works. I position the cake such that the bad side is to the rear. I get to work setting up the fountain, adding the plastic stairs, the extension cord, putting the water in the fountain, etc. One of the matrons asks me all the usual questions like what flavor the cakes are, what the fillings are, "oh my isn't that a big one", that sorta thing.
But now, the moment of truth has arrived. I turn on the fountain, which has a light in it, pretty flashy. Lots of people come over to the table.

After a couple of minutes, I figure I have pulled it off. Except I know that most likely, on Monday, I am gonna hear from the mother of the bride from hell, who "paid good money for that damn thing".

But I never hear nothin'. I get the plastic parts back in their box, extension cord, but no comments or requests for refund. Whew.

Over the years, I have wondered though, how no one noticed. Surely they did. Like the lady whose piece of cake was, well, all icing. And the lady she was talking to whose piece of cake was well, all icing too.

There are lots of other bakery blunder stories, like the time one of my apprentices used all salt instead of sugar in a huge batch of cookies, yum. Or the time I, myself, left a few hundred dollars worth of pumpkin pies in the oven and went home. But the memory I have from that parking lot, and the mystery of what or who got in the back of that van, takes the cake. After all these years, I still feel a twinge of guilt for leaving that sub-par dessert at the church, and walkin' away smilin'. It was my fault for leaving the van doors open. But then, who knew poltergeist dig buttercream?

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