Monday, January 23, 2012

Work Worth Doing

At Yitzchak's Bar Mitzvah Kiddush, our guests oohed and ahhed over my baked goods. For one thing, I had every other baker in the world licked for sheer quantity. Together with my sons Moshe and Yitzchak (the Bar Mitzvah boy), I spent the Friday afternoon before the Kiddush putting together a total of 25 well-packed trays of goodies.

I had baked double recipes of all my favorite bar cookie recipes starting two months before the bar mitzvah. I carefully double-wrapped each item for freezer storage as my mother had taught me: one layer of plastic wrap followed by a layer of aluminum foil. I marked the name of the item on the top of each package with a magic marker and over the course of time, filled my free-standing freezer to the brim.

Dov came home in the middle of our tray-making and stopped Moshe from throwing away a piece of aluminum foil wrapping. "Wait!" he cried. "Take all the foil and make a ball. It'll make a great photo."

Unfortunately, quite a bit of foil had already bit the dirt by then, but we still ended up with a sizable-enough foil ball for a Kodak moment.

The best compliment I received at the Bar Mitzvah Kiddush was from some guy whose name I didn't catch (we are new to our congregation). He said, "My wife never touches home-baked goods at Kiddushes [sic] since we moved to Israel. I told her she had to taste your cakes. But she was like, 'Oh God, do I HAVE to?' and I told her, 'Look, would I mislead you??? You have to taste something. NOW."

The man who told me the story continued, "She took a cake. Her eyes got HUGE. She said, 'OMG. You were right! This is fabulous.'

I have to tell you: you are the best baker in the entire State of Israel!"


I still get all aglow when I think of him saying that to me. After all, aside from honoring my son with what I know how to do well, this is the kind of praise that keeps my spirits high long after such events.Whenever I have a bad day, I pull one of these praise memories out of my head and top up my tank of self-esteem. It works for me.

Guests and friends at the Kiddush kept telling me, "You should do this for a living," and the discussion turned to practical means of how I might accomplish this feat of baking professionally.

It IS something I've done before. I even made a wedding cake, once upon a time, though the wedding didn't last much longer than the cake. Good thing I don't believe in karma.

With the Bar Mitzvah accomplished (except for buying thank-you notes for Yitzchak *making mental note to self*), things have settled down with me back into my usual daily routine.

But last week a dear friend called, asking if I would make two cakes for his daughter's Bat Mitzvah! One for her Shabbat Kiddush and a larger one for her party. I said I would.

Thus began my torment. What type of cake should I make? What color icing should I choose? There were a gazillion decisions to make.

When I make decorated party cakes, I tend to opt for either my yellow cake recipe or my chocolate mayonnaise cake for dyed-in-the-wool chocolate lovers. These are both cakes that are sturdy enough to hold up well for decorating.

The wheels in my head were turning. My chocolate mayonnaise cake is the easiest cake in my repertoire.

I spoke aloud to Dov. "Easy does it, right? I should just make my chocolate mayonnaise cake."

"Righto," said he.

But just because the question has been asked and answered, doesn't mean I'm done with my decision-making process. Just ask Dov. He will roll his eyes at you.

While Dov is rolling his eyes at ME, knowing I will NOT take his advice, I thought about how our friends really like chocolate. Once I brought an applesauce cake for dessert when they had us over for Shabbes lunch and they wouldn't touch it: "Why waste the calories when it's not chocolate?" they asked.

Besides being chocolate, my mayonnaise cake recipes uses almost no bowls and utensils. BIG PLUS. BIG TIME.

I don't have a dishwasher. I AM the dishwasher. There are numerous recipes I will never try simply because they use up too many pots and pans. I kid you not. Lots of dishes to wash are not a good thing in my book.

But something nagged at me. The chocolate mayonnaise cake was easy all right, but it wasn't the most flavorsome cake. Good fillings and frostings must be employed to make up for the paucity of cake flavor.

Here's the part where the good angel and the bad angels come and whisper in my ears.

"How can you make them such a boring, flavorless cake? You think you can maintain your rep as best baker in the State of Israel with THAT recipe?" asks the bad angel rhetorically, who wants me to be all obsessive in the kitchen, fuss my brains out, and make a million dishes to wash.

"Varda, your chocolate mayonnaise cake is MORE than acceptable and you are the only one who finds it even remotely tasteless. Why do you make things hard on yourself. It will only make you nervous and tense and you'll end up taking it out on your family," says the good angel who worries about the state of my mental health and wallet.

In this case, as is so often the case, evil did triumph over good, I am (NOT) sorry to say.

I knew that the only truly acceptable cake for this particular occasion was my marble cake which has subtle nuances of cinnamon, cloves, and vanilla along with a rich, moist, and tender crumb. I had no CHOICE, I cried to myself inside my head where no one could hear me. I  MUST make marble cake. And not only MUST I make marble cake, I must make 8 recipes of marble cake to make enough tiers for the two cakes.

If you are getting the idea that I am certifiable, you are not far off. I, who hate washing dishes, set out to make 8 recipes of a cake requiring no less than TEN mixing bowls alone. Not to mention 3 measuring cups 2 measuring spoons, 2 spatulas, and 3 sets of beaters. I am crazy. Truly.

But I have to say that I am taking great pleasure in making these cakes with extreme exactitude, a recipe at a time. I love leveling cups of cake flour and crouching down to eyeball the liquid in my measuring cup at eye level. I love the lovely figure-eights I make while folding the egg whites and the smell of the spices. I love checking the cakes for doneness and feeling certain about the signs of same as yielded by my beautifully-swirled cakes.

I continue to wrestle with my own idiocy over choosing the more difficult path. I tell myself: "Any work worth doing is worth doing well."

In spite of all the dishes.


  1. Hashem should continue to give you strength!

  2. I'm sure your cakes were delicious! Not to detract from your story, but simply as a point of learning and even better writing, the expression is "dyed in the wool". Best wishes.