Mother helped me bake it

Mark Ballard
Mark Ballard

I learned so many things from my mother. She shared many life lessons that I depend on every day. Many times they come to mind when I most need them. Loud and clear, I still hear her voice. I was blessed to learn by her example.

I was in a situation recently in which I had to rely on Mother’s wisdom more than once. It certainly didn’t involve a life or death situation or even one that required a moral judgment. It was a relatively simple issue. Or, at least I thought it was.

I committed myself to bake a caramel cake for a group of friends. During the last 35 years, I’ve made hundreds of caramel cakes. If I’m known for any single recipe, it would be this one. I’ve lost count of how many kitchens I’ve entered to prepare a “from scratch” caramel cake. From California to the tip of Florida, I have baked my way across the nation.

In live demonstrations and on stage, I’ve baked more caramel cakes than I can remember. I watched them literally disappear before my eyes in a matter of minutes as samples were offered to the audience leaving them a little dazed from a sugar high. So, actually making one in my very own kitchen didn’t seem very daunting until ...

Everything was going just great until I began the cooked sugar icing. I only prepare caramel icing that begins with white granulated sugar being caramelized in an old iron skillet. To this day, I can immediately taste a caramel icing using brown sugar.

Sugar caramelized: check. Real butter and cream boiling nicely: check. Like clockwork, everything seemed to be coming together. Then something happened and things took a sharp turn to something far less than creamy.

This is the point where I needed Mother to assist. She appeared vividly in my mind saying, “Mark, always hope for the best.”

Hope I did, but with each stir of the spoon, hope began to leave the kitchen. A decision had to be made. Since I didn’t want to waste my beautiful layers, I opted to toss this icing aside and begin anew.

Mother once again appeared in my mind reminding me nobody is perfect and saying, “If you can do something to change the situation, then do it and move on!” Pots, bowls, pans, beaters and measuring cups were washed by hand as I took a deep breath before beginning again.

Like entering a boxing ring, I declared war on my opponent. If I’m completely honest, this is not the first time I’ve faced a rematch with a caramel cake. My son will be happy to share those “Mark not at his best” stories of baking. I’ll be the first to admit I’m far from perfect — and not just in the case of caramel cakes.

The second icing appeared to be coming together nicely. I cooled it a little longer for good measure — a decision I would later regret. I began to ice the cake and then it happened. The icing turned the grainy texture of mortar and was just about as hard.

I stood there in disbelief waiting for Mother to pop into my head. Without fail, she arrived. Still in disbelief, I remembered what Mother would say when facing this kind of situation. “Mark, apparently I wasn’t holding my mouth just right!”

Her lessons of perseverance began to flood my memory. “You can’t allow this to lick you, Mark!” she would say at various points in my life. But, two back-to-back failed attempts at a caramel cake were about to!

“Mark, you are tired. Just go to bed and start fresh in the morning,” Mother would say. So, that’s exactly what I did. I flung the cake into the trash, washed the dishes, turned out the kitchen light and never looked back! The morning sun brought with it a trip to the grocery store for more eggs, sugar and cream.

The third time’s the charm, I suppose. With Mother’s help, I ended up with a caramel cake to take to the gathering. The entire process just about got the best of me but, when I needed a shoulder, I leaned on the wise words of my mother for help. It still wasn’t the best caramel cake I’ve ever baked, but no one else seemed to notice. In my mind, I could see Mother give me a wink and smile. I still miss her after all these years! Happy Mother’s Day!

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; follow him at; or become a subscriber to Mark’s Facebook page.