Creative Thinking: A flawed cake teaches a lesson

June 1, 2013 

The other day I walked into our kitchen and started to do something I’ve done many times before. I pulled out my mixer, gathered the ingredients I needed and took a deep breath. I was about to bake a chocolate cake from scratch as a birthday cake for a good friend.

Even if I tried, there would be absolutely no way to ascertain how many of these cakes I’ve made over the years. But I do know without a doubt that the total would be high enough that I should be able to bake one in my sleep if need be.

Those of you who know me already know that a cake mix wasn’t involved. No, not in one of my cakes. I’m pretty much set in my ways where that’s concerned. I began to cream the butter and sugar and started to grease and flour the cake pans. Everything was going as planned. The cake layers baked perfectly and came out of their pans without any struggle. Allowing them to cool on wire racks, I began to make the cooked sugar chocolate icing, which is definitely a process that doesn’t always turn out as planned.

I watched closely as the rich brown liquid bubbled up on the sides of the pot. First, it was just a bubble here and there and then the bubbles surrendered to a rolling boil. I never leave my icing at this point because the temperature is critical to the icing’s success. Being a little obsessive-compulsive, I checked the temperature with both a candy thermometer and the old fashioned way of dropping a tiny bit of the icing into a bowl of water to see if it forms a soft ball. Everything looked perfect as I removed the bubbling concoction from the heat. I smiled because I felt like the hardest part was behind me and the look of the shiny icing seemed to agree.

I began to assemble the layers of the cake, spreading some of the still warm icing between each layer. From how everything was going, it appeared I was going to have a chocolate cake that tasted and looked perfect for my friend. Then, without warning, the layers started shifting and the icing puddled along the edge of the cake plate. “What!” I yelled out loud. “This can’t be happening!”

For the next 15 minutes, I frantically worked on the cake. Like a sculptor, I chiseled, patched, reapplied the icing and almost cried. Finally, there was nothing left for me to do. At that moment in time, that was how the cake layers had stacked up and I had to face it.

For at least 10 minutes, I stared intently at the cake, first up close and then squinting from far away. I rotated the plate to see it from all angles trying to decide what I was going to do since it was a gift. Complicating my decision was that I could tell from licking the bowl and pot that it was going to be a delicious cake,

But I was horrified and disappointed by how it appeared with the uneven layers. I knew I could do better.

Since I was a small boy, I’ve always known when something I produced was the best it could be.

When it is, there’s no doubt. It just feels right when completed. Whether it is a craft project, a wall color, a painting, a cake or even one of my columns, I always know when it is the best it can be and when it is not. There’s just a little voice inside that says, “Job well done!”

Because of that little voice, I never had to rely on a teacher or anyone else to tell me something was wrong because I knew it long before I turned it in.

But, as humans, when something doesn’t come out just right, we try to get other people to convince us that it’s all right even when we know it’s not. The plan is if enough other people tell us something is acceptable, it will convince our inner voice.

But most of the time with me, acceptable doesn’t get it. So, being tired and indecisive, what did I do? I immediately snapped a photo of the misshapen cake on my phone and sent it to my wife and a few very good friends hoping they would say it was all right even while knowing deep down inside it wasn’t. I thought it was at the very least worth a try.

Their votes came rolling in via texts and the general consensus was, as I suspected, unanimous. To them, it was fine.

I stared back at the cake. And, maybe it would have been fine if it wasn’t a gift for a friend to be consumed at a party where others would know I baked it. Back and forth I went between something having to be perfect and accepting it for what it was.

Then some of my mother’s wisdom came to me just when I needed it most. As clear as a bell and in her own voice I heard, “Mark, if you can do something about it, do it; if not, let it go!” The fact was I could do something about it.

I decided not to start over but also not to keep the cake as is. I opted to mix up some more icing and pipe decorations all over the cake that not only disguised its imperfections, but sweetened it at the same time. It was a hit at the party and one of the best chocolate cakes I’ve ever baked.

Looking around the table at the people inhaling it, I knew I made the right decision.

Every one of the people who had seen the cake via text and then saw the same cake at the party in its slightly altered form had the same reaction that made me smile.

“We knew you weren’t going to leave it as it was!” each one said. “We just knew you would either start over or attempt to make it better.”

That day I was reminded of an important lesson from the shifting layers and puddled icing of that cake. Layers don’t always stack up perfectly and that’s all right.

Look what we would have missed if I’d thrown away the cake. We would have missed an imperfect looking cake that tasted delicious.

After all, a cake is supposed to be eaten and enjoyed and not just looked at, right? But the most important thing I learned from the whole experience is that I’m still a work in progress.

Sometimes, it’s hard trying to keep all the layers of my life lined up. All I can do is to be the best I can be, and that’s enough.

More with Mark

• Check out Mark’s website at www.markballard.com, for current projects, recipes and lots of other fun stuff. Spring merchandise is available now as is his 2013 Vidalia Onion Plate!

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Mark Ballard’s column runs each week in The Telegraph. Send your questions or comments to P.O. Box 4232, Macon, GA 31208; call (478) 757-6877; email to markballard@cox.net; or become a subscriber to Mark’s Facebook page.

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