Sunday, May 23, 2010

Losing my touch

In another life, the life I had before the children and seizures and The Husband, etc., I was a pastry chef. I was also married before, too. Have I ever revealed that on this blog?

Wowza. The lady has a past.

One fine summer day in Nashville, TN where I lived with Husband Number 1, I decided to quit my job writing financial reports for the research department of a small, regional brokerage firm. I had fallen into this job, post college, because there was nothing else to do with my Bachelor of Arts in English and French Literature. I didn't want to go to law school and didn't want to be a teacher. I fancied myself a writer, I guess, but I needed to earn a living, so when this very prestigious brokerage firm hired me to write financial reports for its retail brokers, I jumped. I think I negotiated a $16,000 a year salary which seemed fantastic at the time.

Aside from the excitement of being sent on two business trips to Chicago and New York City, where I stayed in giant, luxury hotels (The Drake and The World Trade Center), I was bored out of my mind. I typed out my reports, went shopping on my lunch breaks in downtown Nashville and otherwise whiled away my days, yearning for something different. The stock market rose and fell, rose and fell and then finally fell deeply and cataclysmically and everyone grew depressed and morose and the job was really no fun at all. When my boss called me into his office and recommended that I study and get the CFP (certified financial planner!) accreditation AND take on the utility/railroad stocks as my expertise, I said, You know what, Ron? He said, What? I said, I think I want to take my two week vacation in cash and quit. He said, That would be a mistake for your career which could be promising. I said, No. I don't want to work here, anymore. It was a revelation to me, and as I spoke angels were beating their wings, the air outside the cubicle sparkled, beckoned, and Joni the receptionist with the teased blonde up-do filed her nails and placed another pink sheet in a slot of the revolving black message holder. I stood up. Ron said, Don't you think we know best for your career? And I said No and backed my twenty-six year old self out the office door.

And that was that. I packed my picture frames and favorite pens in a brown cardboard box. I walked out of there and never, never looked back.

I became a waitress in a small restaurant on Music Row, a famous vegetarian place run by a nutball Korean woman who insulted everyone at one point or another but loved us fiercely. Eventually, I asked to work in the kitchen and was slowly trained by Paul, a convict on work furlough (he'd murdered his wife). There's a whole blog post -- maybe even a short story -- about that.

But I digress. I made my way to New York City and actually became a bona fide pastry chef. I worked in a luxury four-star restaurant and a 1600 room hotel. I learned to pull sugar and make chocolates. I learned to decorate cakes and bake French pastries. I got up at three in the morning and made danish dough with the early shift (another short story). I hung out in the kitchen with the likes of Staten Island Italian boys and Chinese men with names like Riccardella and Kwok and Chung. It was glorious, for the most part.

And when I quit my job and had my first baby, Sophie, I wasn't sure if I'd ever go back to the often back-breaking work, but when she developed her seizure disorder, I knew that I wouldn't. I did continue to make cakes free-lance for friends and sometimes strangers, and I got pretty good at it. A few years ago, I gave that up, too.

Apparently, I've lost my touch. I recently told one of my very best friends that I would love to make her husband's birthday cake. She said that she'd let me but only if I accepted payment. I told her that was fine, thinking that maybe I'd get back into it. Make a little money. Especially because my friend Laura of Piece of Cake is sadly moving from Los Angeles. She's the cake lady around our neighborhood, and while I could never do some of the stuff she can do, maybe some of her clients would come to me?

I set to work making a white cake with ganache filling and French silk buttercream frosting. I used nine egg whites for the cake and filled three nine-inch pans. They came out beautifully and sat cooling on the cake rack. I chopped up 12 oz. of bittersweet chocolate and put it in a bowl, poured boiling heavy cream over it and stirred until it was silken smooth. I set the ganache aside to thicken and began the laborious process of making the buttercream. It, too, came out silky smooth, tasting of vanilla and sweet butter. I remembered, again, how good I am at making real buttercream and how good it feels to succeed at it. I decided that two cake layers would be sufficient and cut into the third layer for a taste. I drizzled a bit of the still-liquid ganache on it and popped it into my mouth.

The faintest metallic taste lingered, burned on my tongue and I thought, slightly panicked that I might have forgotten the sugar? But, no, I remembered putting in the sugar. I took another bite and let it sit on my tongue and, still, it burned slightly. Shit, I thought, Was the cake flour old? Is that possible? I took another bite and this time spat it out into the garbage can.

I opened the cupboard door and gazed at my cake-making shelf, at the flour and vanilla extract, the sugar and the baking so--holy shit. The baking POWDER that I used was actually baking SODA. Baking soda is usually in an Arm and Hammer box, right? For some reason, we have a round can of soda and I just grabbed it and used that. And because The Husband (the Second) makes pancakes each and every Sunday morning and used the baking powder ALL UP and didn't tell me -- well, I don't want to blame him.

The fact is: I've lost my touch. My skills are clearly rusty, and now I've got to get busy and make another white cake.

Wish me luck.


  1. Great post! You'll be fine. It's like riding a bike you know.

  2. What a wonderful post.

    I hope you get opportunities to write now and forever.

    I could not stop reading this here. Your writing has such a powerful narrative flow and so much energy.

    I'm not surprised you were bored writing financial reports.

  3. WOWZA!
    Good luck with your white cake, and good luck with your writing, because what this post says is that you're unquestionably a writer.

  4. Thank God you quit that job! Lord. Mis-fit.
    And you'll get your cake baking skills back. You can't just jump back into the deep end and expect to execute a perfect swan dive. A little practice, honey. All will be well. You have the muscle memory. And it's not your fault that the baking powder container held baking soda.

  5. I don't think it's rusty skills, maybe more like fatigue. I've done the same, or even just forgotten the leavening altogether. The cake and icing does sound amazing though.

  6. I don't think you lost your touch ..... the fact that you could figure out what went wrong proves that!

    I only recently discovered how baking soda can RUIN the taste of something. It works great for chocolate chip cookies ...... but in some other things it has that horrible metallic taste. That is just so weird! You should add chemist to your background because half the time baking is just one big chemistry experiment.

  7. I'm sorry you had to bake another cake, but I'm sort of glad, too. Otherwise I wouldn't have had such a fun post to read and chuckle over on a Sunday morning. Who needs baking skills when you can write like that?

  8. We MUST talk, at length. We must. There are so many overlaps, and I'm not going to make this about me, but just want you to know that we've taken some very similar paths...And I want to say, You haven't lost your touch. You are distracted, perhaps a bit rusty, and don't have your work station set up for your own benefit and convenience. But you never lose the gift for an art - you can't. It's part of you.
    Perhaps you need practice. It would be heard to let go of judgment if your "practice" baking is for someone else's birthday party! Could you just do it for fun sometimes? XOXO

  9. oh dear, but you know as well as I do that once you learned how to do it you just need to jump in feet first and you everything will be the same as it always was.

    I have my money on you, with or without leavening powders.

  10. I love a woman with a secret past! Weren't you a brave 26 year old!

    I say practice and grab all of Laura's clients since she's so cruelly abandoning us!

  11. I absolutely loved reading this post!

  12. Okay, so here's the "more" I was looking at. Rusty is to be expected. One soda/powder mix up and now you're good to go! (And yes, the soda should be in the box. Only place for it.)

  13. Well that's just great. You get a brilliant blog and I get a shitty cake. Thanks a lot. :)

  14. oh shucks (reading backwards), I'm so glad you tasted it! That was an honest mistake. Yes round for powder, box for soda. Everyone knows that. You haven't lost your touch. Everything else sounds divine. Sorry you had to start over though. Loved hearing about you adventures. Really cool stuff (looking forward to those other two stories you hinted at). You fancied yourself a writer, because you most certianly ARE.

  15. Yes, what B said: I want to see what comes after the tease on those two short stories. You can even start them as short shorts, which take no time at all.

    Loved this dip into your past and I'm sure the Cake Take Two turned out great. x0 N2

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  17. Sounds so great. I am jealous of your skills, and glad you're writing about the new blog color, too.

  18. Elizabeth,
    I loved hearing about your past, about your discovering, your becoming.
    and the baking . Which I'm certain you could do again .

    But don't do it to such a degree that you leave us... stop writing or some crazy notion, okay?

  19. This seems to be the story of my life some days. I think I am simply pulled in so many directions that even with the best intentions to live a mindful life I get VERY distracted. And here's a story of something my husband did recently. He was making chocolate chip cookies. As he set the trays in the oven to bake, he came and got me to ask why they were so wet and melty-looking. I looked at the remaining batter in the bowl and said, "You are missing the flour." He said "No, no way, I put it in." I glanced about the kitchen, and there on the counter I found his bowl with the dry ingredients that he forgot to add to the wet. Oh well.

  20. Oh my gosh I am cracking up. I feel badly that you feel like you lost your touch...but this is just far too amusing not to laugh. And you're right...there's like at least a half-dozen other blog posts in here, and a short story or two!

  21. I think you should teach a neighborhood class for women who would like to learn how to bake such a cake - ganache and all.

    And let them drink wine (or if it morning they could sip on really good french press coffee, with a splash of heavy cram) and discuss poetry & books while you do it. They would be thrilled. i know I would be.

    Writing financial reports sounds like an absolutely horrid job; I'm so glad you had the good sense to escape it.



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