This month I received an assignment to make something to bring to a potluck. The catch: it had to have a story behind it (i.e. your dad’s famous chili or the tamales you eat every Christmas).
Now, the people in my family have many talents and skills, but cooking isn’t one. When we go to potlucks, my mom brings chips and napkins, Thanksgiving mornings never go smoothly, and most Sunday dinners are FFY (fend for yourself).
I wracked my brain trying to think of what I could possibly bring to this potluck, and I finally thought of something.
In 10th grade, I had a similar assignment for my geography class—we had to do a report on some region of the world and make food from that place. My report was on the South— Old Dixie, the rebel states, the Bible belt, whatever you want to call it.
I remembered in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Scout ate Lane Cake, so I decided that was the perfect southern dish for me to try.
Then, like any 14-year-old, I completely forgot about the assignment. The night before it was due, I suddenly remembered I had this extravagant cake to make and bring to school the next day.
I panicked! After telling my mom, she ran to the grocery store, bought the ingredients and stayed up all night with me to make a beautiful, three-layered cake with nutty, buttery filling.
We were exhausted by the time the cake was done, but we didn’t care because we had spent the whole night laughing and talking. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship with my mother. And the cake was a smashing success.
Here I am, six years later, a senior in college, graduating in eight weeks. You’d think I’d have my shit together by now. But, no. I completely forgot about my potluck assignment until the night before it was due.
In a panic, I looked up a recipe for Lane Cake, gathered the ingredients together and started on my project at 10 p.m.
I thought to myself: “How hard could it be? You just follow a recipe, right?”
Turns out that when you’re making layered cake, you’re supposed to use something called cake release to get the cakes out of the pans so that you can stack them and frost them on the sides.
I didn’t know this even existed. So, when the first cakes came out (I only had two circle cake tins, and the cake has three layers), I set them to cool, unwittingly setting the stage for an abysmal failure.
As the cakes cooled, I started on the filling. Dissolve sugar in butter, add vanilla and then stir in the nuts. Sounds easy enough. Turns out, dissolving two cups of sugar into a cup of butter takes a really long time, and patience isn’t one of my virtues.
After I was sick of stirring sugary butter, I dumped in the nuts, gave it a good stir and set it aside thinking that it would be fine (it wasn’t).
The cakes were cool by now (I’d stuck them out in the garage to cool because our refrigerator was full, and I’m impatient), and I was ready to take them out and assemble my masterpiece.
I scraped around the edges of the first one, turned it upside down and played drums on it for a minute to make it loose, gave it a good shake and …. Nothing. The cake didn’t budge.
I scraped the cake out of the pan into a chunky, crumbled mess and used my fingers to stick the pieces back together into a shape that resembled a circle.
After spreading the filling across the first layer (and discovering it was a grainy mess), I swallowed my frustration and panic to begin the second layer.
The second cake did the very same thing as the first. So, again, I pushed the pieces of it together into a circle.
During this time, I was supposed to be making the frosting: dissolve sugar in water over medium heat and use a candy thermometer to monitor the temperature.
I didn’t even know we owned a candy thermometer, but I thought, “How hard could it be?”
Six minutes later, I turned around to discover a raging boil of bloody gore in what was supposed to be my sugary sweet frosting base. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen sugar burn, but it is frightening as hell.
I immediately took the pan off the stove to run it under water, but then science happened and the sugary substance hardened and exploded under the cold water. I screamed and jumped back as bits of burning sugar landed on my arms.
It suddenly became very clear to me: this was not a job I could do alone.
At 1 a.m., I woke my mom up to come help her frazzled daughter with a cake that by now, let’s face it, was beyond all hope.
She started making regular frosting while I tried to get the third and final cake out of the pan.
The edges plopped out with a gaping hole left by the middle that was stuck to the pan, which I scraped out and pushed into its edges.
I took a cursory glance at the cake before getting ready to frost it with the new frosting my mom had made (the easy kind that doesn’t require any witchery like candy thermometers).
It leaned so far to the right that it looked like the cake on “Sleeping Beauty”— like I needed a broom to prop it up before it toppled over completely.
After frosting the cake and adding the last of the filling, I put the cake in the freezer to take it to school the next day. As I closed the freezer door, I watched the frosting fall off, like even the frosting knew the cake wasn’t worth it.
My mom and I looked at each other as we silently admitted our defeat.
As I tried to get a few hours of sleep that night, I agonized over what to do with that awful cake. As I tossed and turned, it struck me that even though the night hadn’t gone as planned, this cake was still a story I wanted to tell.
All night, while we were fighting to keep that stupid Lane Cake upright and trying not to think about the grainy filling inside, my mom and I couldn’t help but acknowledge that the level of baking failure we had reached was a new record for us. It was so ridiculous how horribly wrong this endeavor had gone that we were soon collapsed on the floor, wiping tears of laughter from our eyes.
Okay, so my mom and I can’t cook, or bake for that matter. But trying and failing with someone who can laugh with me at my desperate attempts to fix something so laughably pathetic is an experience I actually cherish.
I don’t think it really mattered whether I made a dish that everyone raved about for years to come—I made a memory that will last me forever.
Six years ago, my friendship with my mom started over a Lane Cake in the middle of the night. Last night, I hilariously failed at something with her—my best friend.