I begin writing this post suffering from jet-lag; four hours into my slumber, I wake up suddenly, not sure where I am or what time it is. The sleeping pill I've taken has only worked for half its promised life and I'm awake and ready to start my day.
Only problem? No one else is. I'm in Berlin, Germany, in a chic apartment in Mitte in the former East Berlin, and everyone else is asleep.
And then I remember yesterday: the cake day to end all cake days.
I have come to Berlin for a single reason. My sister is getting married and I promised to make the wedding cake. I'm not sure whose idea it is. During good times, we each claim the idea as our own. During stress, we each blame the other for suggesting that I make the cake.
Its been one of those days when neither us wants to take credit for suggesting that I make the wedding cake.
Everything was promising enough at the outset, at least superficially. After wrangling over the cake and the cake flavors, we finally arrived at a combination that both the bride and the baker did not find objectionable. She knew better than to request red velvet (I have made it three times in my life, under duress each time, for people affiliated with Coca-Cola) or a combination of chocolate and raspberry, regardless of how well it is liked by "everyone". Because it was to be a smaller wedding - I would need to bake for no more than 60 people - I would not be baking a mile-high cake with more internal complexity than a car engine. A blessing, I thought.
For days leading up to my departure from the US, I collected things I thought would be helpful in making the cake in Germany and would save money on ingredients, priced in the unfavorable Euro. I collected chocolate, knives, equipment, bottles of vanilla, cheap bags of confectioners sugar, baking pans, gum paste, dowels, an oven thermometer in Fahrenheit, vanilla beans, more chocolate, cardboard cake boxes, cardboard cake circles, a variety of piping bags and tips - anything to make shopping a less prominent feature of my work. The bag weighed 48.5 lbs at the Delta ticket counter. I checked it in.
My sister and her fiance met me at the airport and drove me first to the grocery store to buy ingredients ("Germany's Supermarket of the Year, 2007) to the home where I would be baking and assembling the cakes, a gorgeous modern home in a comfortable suburb about 1 hour by subway from my sister's place. The kitchen was huge, with an American-style refrigerator, a two-compartment restaurant style sink, and the feature of the room, a retrofitted American Viking stove with four burners and a center grill.
The host showed us where to store the things - a basement pantry full of specialty baking items and an outdoor storage room with its own refrigerator. It was guest baker paradise. I was ready to bake.
The next morning my sister escorted me on the S-Bahn (the subway) to the 'burbs. Though she had a lot to do to get ready for her wedding, now only 3 days away, she helped me with some of my mise-en-place.
When we arrived our host was just returning home after dropping his kids off at school. He showed us around the kitchen. And then he showed us the Viking Range, which proudly anchored the kitchen.
Pointing to it, he says, "This oven is a piece of crap."
"We had to get it retrofitted in Holland. It hasn't been the same since."
"It is illegal in Germany for a stove to just automatically light when you turn the knob. So we had to have it altered to code."
"The burners can be difficult to light. This one takes 45 seconds to catch and hold"
OK. The oven would be a challenge. But I had my oven gauge that would help me ensure the oven would stay at the correct temperature for baking my cakes. I was confident. I got to work, my sister at my side.
The first sign of things to come was The Dropping Of The Buttermilk. In Germany, some buttermilk is package like yogurt, with a simple foil lid over a paper cup. For some reason, as I tried to move the buttermilk from the store room to the house, it slipped from my grip and fell to the floor, making a sickening thud and spilling its contents. My sister kindly cleaned it up for me while I got the rest of my cakes organized. Not a good start.
I whipped out two cakes in rapid succession: Grandma's Chocolate and my 'famous' Banana Bread (I'll add here that none of my output was gluten-free or dairy-free). When I was checking one of my banana breads, it too slipped from my grip and landed upside-down on the oven door.
Oven 1, Linsey 0.
The chocolate cake was a semi-disaster, too. The heat in the oven was too intense, the pan too thin and it rose inconsistently. I lost half of it to an unwanted cake dome (middle rise 2x-3x higher than rest of cake). I whipped up more banana bread and some cheesecake to make a filling for the chocolate cake. And started measuring out the next set of ingredients. I lowered the temperature and put on the convection.
I checked the items in the oven. Slow. Very slow. Time to turn up the oven.
Nothing at all. I checked everything. Twice. Three times. Panicked, I realized the temperature was falling rapidly. The oven had stopped working.
My sister called the host who was now running errands. Nothing like this had happened before. She flipped switches, turned knobs. Nothing.
The ignition had died. The electricity in the gas range had died. And with the electricity, so went the oven.
I started to panic. Why had I agreed to do this cake? Why here? Why this oven?
I was intensely frustrated. When I bake, I get in the zone, and anything that presents an obstacle is removed without ceremony or politeness. A broken oven was more than an obstacle. It was an impossibility. I was screaming mad. So much wasted time and energy and ingredients.
I paced. I washed dishes. I fumed. Could our host repair the oven? Seemed unlikely.
And then we had a deus ex machina moment. My sister's best friend Anna walked through the door, a few requested ingredients in hand, and began ordering us around. We would clean up and move the entire baking operation to her house. The pans in the oven? Yes. The pre-measured flours and ingredients for the other cakes? Yes. I would come back to the home the next day to use their KitchenAid to make icings and fillings, but otherwise all baking would continue at Anna's.
She helped organize me, my things, and calmed me down. My sister left to get errands done. While we cleaned and got ready for the cross-town move, the host returned and started taking apart the oven.
It was toast.
The electrical system had failed.
Apologizing for our possible complicity in its death, we thanked our host and dashed back into the city to capture what remained of the day.
I prayed I would not have to remake the cheesecake. The anemic looking banana bread was not going to make it. But i had three more cakes all measured out and ready to mix. It would be quick.
And then I saw the new oven I was baking in. It was a gorgeous Miele. That fit one cake at a time.
And the first cake would be the slow-cooking cheesecake.
Here it is getting moved in the lift at Anna's building. Sad, sad cheesecake:
It was going to be a long day.
Eight hours after arriving at my second destination, I placed the last cooled cake into the freezer. I hadn't quite as many cakes as I would have liked to have completed, but it would certainly be enough for 60 people. I was still panicked - was there really enough cake - but I had to let it go. I had just completed a thirteen hour day, which included two cross-town subway rides, a car ride, and two ovens (one broken). For such a long day, I felt remarkably unaccomplished.
Because I still had a ton ahead of me: making fillings and a vast amount of buttercream. And then I had to actually decorate the cake, another ordeal without a cake spinner, that lazy-susan-like wheel pros use (and I have, in storage unfortunately) to create even cakes.
To say I was anxious is probably understating it.
The next day I went back to the house in the 'burbs to use their KitchenAid. I spent three hours making icings and fillings as my host tackled his oven, pushing it back from the wall and unscrewing all necessary parts to reduce the labor he'd be charged by the tech coming over later in the day to fix it. Smart man.
Anna arrived with her car and her baby in tow just as the oven repair guy showed up. We packed my things, including every ingredient I had hauled to the house and stored in their basement pantry, their refrigerator, and their freezer, into a couple bags and returned to the city where the rest of the cakes were stored.
There wasn't much time. That evening my sister's fiance was celebrating his 40th birthday and I had to get home early enough to make it before the party started. My mother and my sister's future in-laws were going to be there and there was no way I could be late for the event, which started a mere 4 hours from the time Anna brought me back to her house.
Anna had cleared out a few shelves in the refrigerator for me. I moved the cakes from the freezer to the refrigerator to thaw overnight and I placed the fillings that needed refrigeration, such as the pastry cream for the banana layers, in there as well. I said my good-byes and ran to the S-Bahn and made my way back to my hotel across town in Mitte.
Day 2: complete. Linsey 1, Oven 1. Moving on to the next round.
The third day was also going to be slightly abridged. My mom and I woke up around 9 am, ate a leisurely breakfast, drank espressos, and waited for the imminent arrival of one of my best friends, Ed, who was flying in from New York that morning. I would take Ed with me to Anna's house, and he'd try to work in a nap while I filled the cakes.
By the time Ed arrived, unpacked, and ate, it was after noon. We rushed across town to Anna's place in Charlottenburg. While Ed chatted with Anna and a few other friends who had also just arrived, I frantically sliced, filled, and iced cake. I had only a few hours to get everything done before the rehearsal dinner that night. My goal was to get everything crumb-coated before leaving for dinner back in Mitte.
Because the outside temperature was unusually warm for this time of year, I would not be able to complete the cake and store it outside until it was needed the next day. It had to stay in pieces until the last minute. This made working ahead impossible.
I was still putting the finishing touches on the crumb-coated cakes as the rest of the crowd was cleaning up for dinner. As I pushed the last cake into the refrigerator and finished making the white gum paste decorations for the cake, everyone else was headed to the car downstairs. I grabbed my jacket and joined them, just in time to make it back to Mitte for dinner with the extended family and friends.
Day 3: complete. Linsey 2, Oven 1. Things are starting to turn around.Here's a map of Berlin with markers to show the locations where I either baked or commuted from to get the baking done:
View Where I baked in berlin in a larger map
Friday was the day of the wedding. We spent the morning getting ready and drove to city hall with the soon-to-be-weds for the ceremony. After taking many hundreds of photos of the wedding party, I took a long walk with Ed, Anna's husbard Joerg, and David, a friend of my sister's around Berlin, which was enjoying a spectacularly lovely day with a bright blue sky. We fortified ourselves with glasses of spiced Gluwein offered at the Christmas market. By the time we arrived back at Anna's house, where I was to ice and assemble the cake, we had only three hours until we were expected to deliver the cake to the restaurant where my sister was holding her reception.
Three hours seemed doable. But 2.5, which I actually had...maybe not.
In a frenzy and still without a cake wheel, I set to work icing each layer of the cake, seven in all. Four layers were part of the actual wedding cake, and three layers were for back-up, in case the guests became voraciously hungry and attacked the wedding cake. According to my sister, at Sunday cake and coffee, a tradition during the advent season, guests typically take a slice of each cake offered. She wanted me to make sure that each guest would have the option of trying each flavor of cake I put together. So seven cakes it was.
We put the three extra layers of cake into boxes to bring to the wedding for backup. I labeled them with the flavor and set them aside.
I then began stacking the layers of cake, which I originally intended to do at the wedding venue, then changed my mind when I realized it would be easier to take the finished cake across town in one piece than carry it in too many boxes that weren't quite the right size. The chances of the cake slipping inside a too-big box and having one of its sides smashed were too great. I kept to my plan b and assembled it in Anna's kitchen.<
My sister wanted traditional and austere. Though we discussed possibilities, she decided a white cake with white decor would better suit her Berlin wedding. After the four layers were stacked, I enlisted Ed and my sister's friend Katie to help apply the white decorations.
It was now 5:30. The cake was expected at the wedding venue at 6:30. I had no time to chill the layers down to make them easier to move; the buttercream was still plastic and soft. I couldn't protect it with plastic or a box so I packed up a bit of buttercream, a piping bag, and an offset spatula just in case something went wrong. We called a taxi, told them we were transporting a wedding cake across town, and waited. I kept on my apron as we hustled downstairs carefully, the cake precariously balancing on the Crate and Barrel stand Anna was letting me borrow.
My heart pounded.
Linsey 2, Oven 1, Cake 1. Were we going to get across town in one piece? Was the cake going to make it? Was I going to make it?
Ed held the boxes and opened the door for me. I rested the cake on my knees and in my head kept reciting, "I am a shock absorber, I am a shock absorber," as if it were a mantra. The taxi went over bumps, my heart skipped a beat. The taxi took a turn too quickly, I gasped. My legs were shock absorbers. Oh yes.
I'm not how long our taxi ride took. It was the longest ride I had ever been on. Even Ed was worried, though he didn't express it at the time. It may have put me over the edge. Maybe.
And then we were there. In front of the restaurant. And I had only a few feet to go until it was inside. The cake was there. The bride had yet to see the cake, but it was there.
Here I am trying to get out of the taxi to deliver the cake. Yes, I'm wearing gold lame.
I dropped it off, explained things quickly to the staff and my sister and her husband, and ran back to the hotel to change. In 30 minutes the party would be starting.
That's my sister pointing at the cake.
And the cake was done. Four days of commuting, making do with tiny space, and remaking the banana bread recipe three times were finally over. In a few hours the guest, properly sauced and sated, would dig into the cake without knowing the story behind it. But they didn't need to. Because they would have cake on their plate and they'd judge it good or bad based on what their palates told them, not what I had to say.
While we were eating that night, my sister's niece-in-law and her friend slipped over to the cake and made a significant alteration: they added a tacky blond wedding couple to the top. It made the bride laugh.
They cut into the cake and the guests dove in. The most popular flavor was the chocolate cake and cheesecake layer at the bottom, followed by the orange chiffon cake with white chocolate orange mousse, chocolate orange mousse, and Grand Marnier. The distant third was the banana cake: banana cake layered with vanilla cream, chocolate ganache, and banana caramel.
At the end of the night the three extra cakes were left over. A few people took cake home, my sister brought home a layer to serve at a post-wedding brunch the next day.
Will I ever bake a wedding cake outside of my own kitchen again? Probably not. The back-and-forth commute, the lack of control over equipment, the inability to work ahead took a big bite out of me. I was more stressed than I had been in a long time. I was satisfied with the results - it looked good, considering I didn't have a cake wheel, and tasted better - but the days of preparation and frustration took some of the joy out of the wedding celebration for me. It was hard to be in the moment and enjoy the company of my friends and family, knowing that when I was done I'd have to get back to the cake and make it work.
But all the same, I am thrilled I could do this for my sister. Happy marriage, Amanda, and may you and Olaf enjoy your lives together. I'm glad I could provide you a little sweetness that night.