When I was growing up, we always spent a month of the
summer on the North Carolina coast, in a house my mother's parents
built the year she was born. It was an eight-hour drive from
our home in the western part of the state, and we would always arrive
famished, hot and sticky and cramped. Those first few moments of
release from the car were sweetest. We would race through the sea oats and grass down to the water's edge, picking up sand spurs as we
went. The Bogue Sound, with its familiar smells of rotting fish, salt and mud, was truly welcoming. Then we would race through the cottage -- its musty, closed-up smell gradually blown out by the sea breeze from all the
windows my mom was opening. Everything we touched that summer was sticky -- sticky
from the salty, dense air and from my mother's vacation from housekeeping.
All that I remember about those summers was lovely and desultory -- the laid-back attitude of the parents, who would sit around drinking
daiquiris or gin and tonics in the cool of the
evening, while we were given the freedom to ride our bikes up and down
the street, abandoning them on the sidewalks to run in and out of houses.
Or the way we felt coming home from the beach, sunburned and tired, but happy. Sometimes we would go fishing off the pier or sit on
the porch and watch the boats go by. But my favorite memory of all
from those summers was of the Cake Lady's caramel cakes. Within minutes of our arrival, my mother would be on the
phone placing her order, her slim, not-yet-tanned
legs crossed beneath her chic little Lily Pulitzer skirt.
"Better send me two," she would say, sitting by the hall table. "You
know how Tommy loves your caramel cake." The Cake Lady made many cakes -- wonderful chocolate and yellow cakes by the
dozen; strawberry, lemon and spice cakes; German chocolate
and coconut and applesauce cakes. But her caramel cake was her true achievement -- and was probably the most important factor in my love of cooking besides, of course, my love of
eating. The caramel cake was sublime, rhapsodic: a moist yellow butter cake with a thick, candylike
layer of caramel frosting. I remember my mother begging the Cake Lady
for her recipe, waving a $100 bill, down on her knees, promising never
to give it to another living soul, promising to still order her caramel
cakes during our summertime visits. My mother would have kept her word
on this, undoubtedly, though the Cake Lady couldn't have known this.
She has never given or sold it to my mother or to anyone else, as far as I
know, and 30 years later she is making them still.
The first time I tried to duplicate that caramel cake was when I was
seven or eight months pregnant with my first child. I had to pull a
chair into the kitchen so I could sit down while beating the frosting, which
never did come together properly. I was using an old Junior League of Charlotte recipe for hot milk cake, which had been handed down and adapted over the years. For the caramel icing, I was working with the recipe from
"The Fannie Farmer Baking Book" on page 405 (I know this
by heart), and I am working on it still, though I have tried other
recipes as well. I know all about the components of caramel frosting -- no
moisture in the air, fresh cream, an accurate candy thermometer. But
the most important thing about caramel frosting is this:
When you have mixed together the ingredients, washed down the sugar crystals from the side of the pot with a
pastry brush, reached the soft (not hard!) ball stage, beaten the frosting for what seems like hours -- when you have done all this and the frosting comes together with
a distinctive "glug" sound in the bowl -- then you have 20 seconds, no more and no less, to set that mound of frosting on
your cake. If you don't move quickly, the frosting will harden into
candy and you will stand there eating it, with tears running down your face, because at that point you have invested so much into it that there is really nothing else to do.
- - - - - - - - - -
My first child is now 9
years old, and I have made the cake successfully maybe a dozen times.
I have made that cake unsuccessfully three times as often. Sometimes my
husband will come home and see a caramel cake on the counter, and he is
visibly relieved. "Dodged that bullet," he will mutter. For I am known
to curse, scream, yell and particularly to jump up and down when I
am making caramel frosting. On occasion, I have thrown things. Woe be to the
child who falls or needs help in the bathroom, woe be to the UPS man
who rings the bell or the person who phones, for I am a monomaniacal witch during that 20-second interval that I have to frost the
I went back to the beach last summer for the first time in 10 years.
We arrived in the evening, hot, sticky and cramped as usual. My mother was
on the phone immediately, ordering up our caramel cake. At 10 the
next morning, we put our money under the duck tureen on the kitchen
table, like always, and then went out for a bike ride. We returned
to find a caramel cake, still warm, on the counter and the change
from our $20 bill under the duck's feet. Still warm, I mused, is that
part of the trick? I thought you were supposed to let your sugar syrup
cool before beating it. Maybe you are supposed to beat it warm! Of
course, it's probably more complicated than that: Let it cool slightly --
to lukewarm or "warm to the touch," or one of those other authoritative and ambiguous cookbook phrases.
I learned other secrets about the Cake Lady that summer. That her name, for instance, is Liv Wurst (could Dickens himself have made up a better one?) and she is something of a
controversial figure in our coastal town. There are those who believe
she uses a cake mix. I don't -- I feel
sure that by now she has her cakemaking down to such a science
that she can do it from scratch more quickly and cheaply than with any mix. I do think there is something artificial in her cakes,
though -- maybe imitation vanilla or butter-flavored Crisco.
Undoubtedly this is a cost-saving measure she thinks no one can detect,
but I think this is where the cake-mix contingent comes from.
Other things were whispered to me as well last summer. My mother's
friend Harriet told me, over shrimp cocktail at the Beach Club, that
Mrs. Wurst was living with a man "without benefit of clergy." The Cake
Lady shacking up! She also is rumored
never to eat her own cakes, at least not lately -- she has lost 30
pounds in the past year. But Mrs. Wurst told me herself that she doesn't
abstain: "I had me some cake for lunch today," she said one day when we were chatting on the porch after a cake drop-off. Instead, she says, her dramatic
weight loss is the result of cutting back: "I take only one
package of half and half, instead of two, when I go out for coffee," and
"I switched from whole milk to 2 percent to 1 percent, just as easy as you please." Could it be that the
naysayers are just jealous? After all, Mrs. Wurst has a slender new
figure, a new boyfriend and a
thriving business. Certainly her cake production hasn't fallen off any.
Last year during Easter week, she made 63 cakes, she told me. She
took off all of the next week, but by the end she was antsy to get
back to work.
This summer we have already made our pilgrimage to the coast. We
ordered three cakes while we were there and I finally realized why it is that I cannot replicate the taste of the Cake Lady's caramel cake. Her cake is for me the taste of summer on the North Carolina coast, interwoven with the sultry freedom of riding bikes over
hot tar, catching fish from the end of the pier and clamoring up and
down the steps with a pack of sunburned
cousins. I can make a decent cake these days, one that is fine for celebrations and family dinners and birthday parties, but
it will never be the Cake Lady's cake -- even if she gave me her recipe. And looking at my children the last night we were there, I saw that she was now an inextricable part of their beach vacation too. Sitting in front of the television, balancing huge slices of caramel cake on their plates, they were cross-eyed with the
pleasure of it all -- the cake, lightning bugs in a jar, sand between their
toes, staying up late -- and I knew that I could never re-create all that for them outside this house. And with
that thought in mind, I had me some cake.