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A Take on Cakes: Not Everybody is Cake-able

Monday 12 December 2016 at 01:00 am.

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for December 8, 2016, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

            Every Sunday, during our fellowship time at the church, we serve coffee and cake, with folks taking turns bringing a cake. People bake their favorite cakes and bring them, and by the end on a typical year, we have eaten and enjoyed a wide variety of cakes.

            Special occasions call for special cakes, so this past Sunday when we celebrated the dedication of a Texas historical marker at our church, my wife undertook to make a checkerboard, two-level cake for the occasion. Like a trophy on top of a pedestal, a model of the old 1901 church building was placed on top of the cake. You could eat everything except the church. For this cake, design was more important than taste, although the cake did taste delicious.

            Why do we endanger our health by eating so much cake? Because cake is so good! It’s a worldwide problem! No history of cake-making has ever been written as far as I know, but the basic cake was “invented” in ancient Egypt, -- though it’s more likely that, rather than “invented,” the first cake “evolved” so to speak from yeast bread. Somebody got the idea of squirting some honey in their yeast bread dough, and, voila, you have cake! The Chinese have had moon cakes and sun cakes for centuries; the moon cake is made of flaky dough filled with lotus seed paste, and the sun cake is a flaky round cake filled with condensed malt-sugar. I’ll stick with American cakes myself.

            Some say that the Pawtuxet Indians taught the Pilgrims at Plymouth Colony how to make what could be considered the first truly American cake. The Indians made them with ground corn, and they looked rather like pancakes; the sweet version was sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon by the colonists. I’m not sure what the Indians called them, but over the years, they came to be called by New Englanders, Johnnycakes, ashcakes, cornpone, hoe cakes, journey cakes, and mush cakes.

            A very brief online research indicated that in today’s world the three cakes Americans like to bake the most are Blueberry Buckle Cake, Carrot Cake, and German Chocolate Cake. More exhaustive research might disprove this, but, hey, what difference does it make?

            My mother taught my brother and me how to cook before we were ten years old, but for some reason or other, she never taught us how to bake a cake. Maybe it was because, as long as she baked cakes, she did them from scratch, never using a cake mix, and probably thought making cakes was too difficult a feat for two little boys. In any case, her cakes were highly praised and sought after for cake walks and bake sales in Dime Box. In later years, she switched from making cakes to making cobblers, who knows why.

            Like my mother, my wife makes excellent cakes, but in my entire 82 years of life, I have made (no, attempted to make) only two cakes. The first one almost burned to a crisp in the oven, and the second one broke into a hundred pieces when I dumped it out of the baking pan. The recipe had said nothing about greasing the pan or waiting until the cake cooled before ejecting it. It’s amazing how recipes make the assumption that basic baking knowledge is known by everyone.

            After that baking catastrophe, I never attempted to make another cake again ever. Some of us just weren’t created to make cakes!

            During Mama’s cake-baking heyday, my favorite cake was Black Forest Cake, though, at the time, I did not know it was called “Black Forest.” My brother and I simply thought of it as the cake with the cherries on top.

            It was many years later, when I went to college, that I learned what it was called, and also that my father’s ancestors came from the Black Forest in Germany, where the cake was known as “Schwarzwaelder Kirschtorte” (literally “Black Forest cherry torte”). Germans add sour-cherry spirits to the cake batter to give it a little oomp-pa-pa. In America, it is usually made alcohol free, or with a little rum. In Germany, it is actually illegal to sell a cake labeled “Black Forest Cherry-Torte,” if the sour-cherry spirits are omitted. In America, some people would never make a fruitcake unless they fortify it with bourbon or brandy.

            My take on cakes is that not everyone is “cake-able.” By that, I mean not everyone has the talent or the patience to make these delectable edibles of decadence.  

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             Ray Spitzenberger serves as pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Wallis, after retiring from Wharton County Junior College, where he taught English and speech and served as chairman of Communications and Fine Arts for many years.

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