i’m working through the kitchen cupboards, piling the tables high with ingredients and sifting through them to find the right combination. it was originally intended as a birthday cake, but then i realized i had got the month wrong – now, it’s going to be a “just because” cake.
actually, on reflection, cupcakes might work better. this is a new recipe, one i’ve not yet tried. i came up with it a few months ago in a fit of insomnia and staring into the pantry trying to find a new combination which would surprise social media, be the magical formula to promote some new cookbook idea i’d had.
it was a rather half-baked plan, but i dragged on with it anyway. after a few months of chasing myself in circles trying to do something, i’d conceded defeat ungracefully, trashing the entire recipe folder on my computer and emailing my would-be business partner a fevered quitting email at 3 a.m.
i’m mixing the ingredients with half a mind on the music playing through the tiny speaker of my radio, dusting the entire kitchen surface with a light layer of various powders, spices drifting through the air and settling in the fibres of my clothing, dusting my hair a shade lighter than it normally is.
eight cupcakes in all, if i measure the mixture right. two left over for me, and six to go in a cake tin with a ribbon. it shouldn’t be too hard from here.
vanilla. vanilla is the last ingredient, a tiny little bottle of extract poured liberally over each cake before sliding them into the oven. the vanilla will work with the almonds i’m planning to chop up, add to the icing for decoration.
i wander outside with a coffee while the cakes bake, and the vanilla scent is heavy in the air. maybe i was a little too generous with the extract, but i can’t undo them now. besides, i’ll keep the icing plain and tart, cut through the sweetness of the cake. it’s my favourite way to bake, lay two clashing tastes against each other. half the time, people never notice when i do it, because it’s subtle – they always focus on just the one, not the other that makes it work.
still. this habit will work for this batch in particular.
i pull the cakes from the oven and they’re perfect, gold and once they’ve cooled they will be a little crisp around the edges. it’s one of the things i like most about doing cake, feeling the texture of crisp and soft all within the next millimetre of each other on the knife. two of them, i set aside for myself – no sense in letting these two go to waste.
six cakes remain in an almost-exact circle on the plate, and i haphazardly hammer the knife over the almonds, breathing in the fumes of vanilla that’s two inches from my hand. impatient now, i yank off the wrappers, remembering how the coloured ones tend to bleed dye off into the cake, turning pale cake into something tinged with green or blue not meant for human consumption.
in my haste, the last cake crumbles as i tug too sharply on the paper, tearing off a piece of cake with it. the icing in the bowl is thick, i can use it to spackle the cake back together – though it might look odd.
reluctant, i replace it with one of the two i reserved for myself, and find a pair of gloves to finish handling them while doing the icing. two are sprinkled with thin sugar, and once i mix them into the tin it’ll be very difficult to differentiate which is which. it’s sort of a gamble, but one i like to take.
i infuse the last of the icing for my cakes with lemon juice, swirling it with pink dye and applying it in a marbled effect. the sunlight’s faded as i do so, and it looks like there will be fog coming in. it’s almost winter, and it’s not odd to get stray clouds of fog hanging so low as to slow traffic, grind whole airports to a standstill.
when she visits the next day, i’m eager to hand over the tin. the flavours will have had time to settle, to develop further, and she takes it with the politest smile in her repertoire. i watch as she scrutinizes them before replacing the lid, sliding the box into the carrier bag she always keeps stuffed in the bottom of her handbag. i know from experience they’ll go into the fridge at home to keep the icing good, and they’ll slowly disappear over the course of the next two weeks.
well. maybe two weeks.
she assures me there’s no hard feelings about the abandoned book project and i promise her i didn’t really mean it when i called her an unoriginal creature with the personality of a cabbage. it’s an awkward promise to make, because i don’t remember my state of mind from a month ago, but i was always taught it was the thought that counts.
i squint through the fog as she drives off, watching through the kitchen window and tidying the plates into a neat stack, lightly tucking the bag of almonds and the sugars into their normal containers. my hands work quickly, steadily, and i pour out the dregs of the now-cold tea, brewing a fresh pot of coffee. it really is nothing personal, i think to myself, catching myself from murmuring the words aloud. you never quite know when a nosy flatmate will appear, after all.
the sugar-heavy icing disappears, dissolving as the hot water hits it, and I run the brush absently around the glass. if only all problems were as easy to clean up. i wonder how long it will take.