After a Year of Pandemic Living, I Baked a Wedding Cake (Just for Me)
“If I ever remarry, I will make my own wedding cake,” I told a friend who I had known since we were teenagers. It was a spur-of-the-moment statement, made in jest, while we were sharing a slice of chocolate layer cake that I had made.
Three years ago, I became obsessed with making layer cakes: a ginger-cardamom layer cake, filled with strawberry jam and frosted with rose strawberry buttercream; a chiffon layer cake, frosted with vanilla crème Chantilly and decorated with candied rose petals; mini two-inch mixed berry and cream layer cakes. My friend looked at me askance, and smiled. She knew I had recently ended an unhappy marriage, and that I wasn’t even interested in dating, let alone re-partnering. She served herself another slice, much to my joy and satisfaction. “You should practice,” she teased. “So I can eat your kitchen tests.” Food had become my love language, in an unexpected and intense way.
Until recently, I had a complicated relationship with food. I went through so many periods of disordered eating, and I was also deeply influenced by a certain brand of second-wave feminism that eschewed the trappings of domesticity. I rarely cooked, for myself or for others. Despite claiming the feminist label, I viewed labor as a capitalist — that paid labor was worth more, that unpaid or underpaid labor was less than. Urban living as an adult, first in New York City and then in Singapore, allowed me to avoid sitting with this contradiction. I depended on takeout and, in Asia, a domestic worker.
Shortly after my 38th birthday, I separated from my husband. I and my then-4-year-old daughter moved in with my parents. I didn’t have a job and I had emptied my bank account to pay for lawyers. I was angry, depressed, and anxious, and, late at night, when I couldn’t sleep, I found myself in the kitchen — a space I’d deliberately avoided entering for decades. I riffled through the hundreds of cookbooks that I’d accumulated over the years (not for use, but for decoration). One night, while listening to opera arias, I made Ligurian focaccia for my mother, who loves all things Italian. With olive oil pooling in its dimples, it was salty, crisp, and fruity. I took a bite when it was still warm, and it was as if I could breathe again. My family also loved it, too. I don’t think I’d fully understood the joy that comes from cooking for others until this moment.
Every night after this revelation, I baked bread for breakfast the next morning. To mark the day that I appeared for the last time in family court, officially ending my marriage, I made croissants, using Julia Child’s recipe, from Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume 2. As I hurtled towards mid-life, I had discovered new talents and a new sense of who I was. I learned to enjoy the freedom that came with doing something I loved simply for the joy of it. I found self-worth and self-nourishment, in the most literal way.
Domesticity, which I had once recoiled from, became my refuge and relief. When the pandemic forced us indoors, baking, especially, was a balm. Once again, in the middle of the night, after chaotic days both working and schooling from home, I made sweets — cakes and brownies and cookies — and loaf after loaf of crusty sourdough. In these moments of solitude, while kneading or rolling or piping, I thought about friends whose romantic relationships had either withered or blossomed under the uncertainty of the pandemic. It made me reflect on my own situation. I ricocheted between feelings of grief, for my marriage, and longing, for partnership, if only as a distraction from everything else. For the first time since my divorce, I fantasized about a wedding — more rooted in the desire to see and touch and be with my family and friends than in the want of a man. I also fantasized about a cake: sumptuous, rich, superb. As death and sadness engulfed us, I decided that I didn’t want to wait for a wedding which might never happen to make the spectacular cake that I was now capable of. For our life, our health, my skills, for me, for living a full life outside the parameters of patriarchy — we needed a cake.
A couple of weeks ago I turned to Julia Child again. Baking with Julia, based on the 1990s PBS series of the same name, has a recipe for Martha Stewart’s three-tier almond cake, brushed with apricot jam, layered with almond dacquoise, frosted with rum-laced buttercream, decorated with hand-sculpted marzipan fruits. The cake called to me: It was towering and impressive-looking, featured favorite ingredients (apricots and almonds), and its aesthetics were exactly mine (minimalist, but with exacting details and organic elements). Child had also become my constant companion in quarantine. I often watched episodes of The French Chef with my mother, an avid food TV fan, before bed, and this cake was a nod to those moments of comfort in tumultuous times.
The cake was very complicated. It was doable, but elaborate and time-consuming. An entire chapter was devoted to the recipe, and it took many days to make. The sponge and the buttercream were easy, but my first attempt at almond dacquoise was a failure — egg chemistry often confounds me. I persisted, and while the second attempt at meringue cracked in parts, it was delicious — light and slightly crunchy. Assembly was utterly terrifying. Stacking large layer cakes requires a steady hand and strong arms, and I had heart-stopping visions of frosted cake all over the kitchen floor. My final product leaned to the left and was off-center, but only slightly noticeable after I piped decorative beads along the edges and arranged the marzipan fruit over the cake. “It’s your cake,” Stewart advises at the end of the chapter. “And it’s finished when you say it’s finished.” It was my cake, and it was perfect.
I sliced it immediately. The sponge had a fine crumb, the dacquoise had bite, and the buttercream was silky and rich. My parents, my daughter, and I ate much of the middle tier, froze slices of the bottom tier, and froze the entire top tier — the tier traditionally eaten on the first anniversary of a wedding. I look forward to thawing and serving this tier when I can once again invite loved ones into my home and to sit at my table without regard for masks or social distancing. It will be an occasion worth celebrating as any wedding.