Cake-baking is disaster-prone, and that’s why mixes are so popular.
Even these don’t guarantee success, though. I’m one of those rare bakers who has failed with a mix. The occasion: a friend’s birthday party. The recipe: a composition of cake, wine and nuts that had worked beautifully for the person who gave me the recipe. My result: catastrophe.
But the moral of the story is, don’t throw that awful mess in the garbage. There just might be a way to save it. By the time my failure came to the table, it actually looked gorgeous.
This is what happened: When the cake came out of the oven, it was scarred with a hideous, lumpy growth, as if the leavening had collected in one spot and burst through to the surface. If I had used a Bundt pan, the cake could have been inverted, hiding this flaw and presenting a nicely fluted exterior. But the recipe specified an angel food cake pan, and I didn’t want to take a chance.
After the cake cooled, I sliced off the protuberance with a sharp knife. Now the cake was level, with a broad yellow path slashed across the brown top. To cover this, I would have to frost the cake, which I had not planned to do.
It’s easy to make powdered sugar frosting, only I did not have enough on hand, and no time to go to the market. So I checked the vintage cookbook that was my mother’s kitchen bible and found a recipe that called for granulated sugar. You cook the sugar with milk to the softball stage, then cool it and beat it to spreading consistency.
I used a candy thermometer so I would know when the mixture reached the soft-ball stage. Only the thermometer didn’t work. So I did a manual test, dropping a bit of frosting into a cup of water until it formed a soft ball.
What I had hoped for was a frosting that would coat the cake with a thin glaze. But when I beat the mixture, it seemed awfully thick. And when I spooned it onto the cake, it congealed on the top, forming a hard, rough crown that looked like a coral reef. Only this coral reef was brightyellow, because I had added food color to make it pretty.
My solution was to melt the glob until it flowed nicely down the sides of the cake. How would I do this? With hair dryers, of course. My nephew, who volunteered to help, and I worked side by side with two dryers set on high. But the frosting was stonily impervious. Not a drop softened.
There was still a bit left in the pan, so I remelted that and tried to patch the cake, only the color had changed, so now I had concrete topping in two shades of yellow.
Perhaps if I put the cake in a hot oven for a few minutes, the frosting would soften enough to spread. Instead, it began to burn, and some of it dribbled off. The rest turned sugary, dry and very hard.
When I tried to transfer the cake from the baking sheet back to its serving dish, a big chunk broke off. I pushed this back into place. Now the cake looked really terrible. But it would have to do. The guests would arrive in moments, and there was nothing else for dessert.
Camouflage was the answer. First, I sifted powdered sugar heavily over the top. Then I rushed out to the garden and plucked sprigs of pretty green leaves. Arranged like a wreath, the leaves would cover part of the bare sides. A bouquet of daisies would fit in the hole formed by the tube pan.
Dinner went smoothly. Now the embarrassing moment had arrived. It was time to serve the cake.
Unfortunately, the wreath of leaves had started to wither. So I turned off the dining room lights, leaving only the candles in the centerpiece for illumination. When I brought out the cake, the guests gasped appreciatively. It looked so snowy and pretty, with its daisy centerpiece, the yellow birthday candles and the hint of a wreath, barely visible in the dark.
When the honoree blew out the candles, the powdered sugar flew off the dry surface, stenciling designs on the tablecloth around the flatware and glasses. Keeping the lights off, I quickly whisked the cake back to the kitchen so the guests couldn’t watch the brittle frosting chip off as I sliced it.
The cake itself was just fine, fortunately. One guest commented, not unflatteringly, on the interesting, crackly texture of the icing. Three asked for second helpings, and after giving the honoree a slice to take home, I had only one left for myself.
The guests never learned what happened. When I tried to tell them, I laughed so hard I couldn’t talk.
The ill-fated birthday cake was based on a recipe from Beringer Vineyards. The original called for Malvasia Bianca, a sweet wine that Beringer no longer produces. Wine writer Dan Berger, who provided the recipe, likes to use a medium-dry sherry, and it was his idea to mix sliced almonds into the cake. Instead of sherry, I added almondoro, a very rich, sweet almond wine made by San Antonio Winery, and served the same wine alongside the cake. Incidentally, the recipe worked perfectly in the Los Angeles Times test kitchen.
1 (1-pound 2 1/2-ounce) package yellow cake mix
1 (3 3/4 ounce) package vanilla instant pudding mix
3/4 cup oil
1 cup almond-flavored wine or liqueur or medium dry Sherry or half wine and half water
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 (2-ounce) package sliced almonds, toasted
Powdered sugar or frosting
In large bowl of electric mixer, combine cake mix, pudding mix, eggs, oil, wine and nutmeg. Beat about 5 minutes at medium speed. Stir in almonds.
Pour batter into greased 10-inch tube pan. Bake at 350 degrees 1 hour, or until wood pick comes out clean. Cool in pan 5 minutes before turning out on rack.
Serve plain, or sprinkle with powdered sugar, or frost as desired.
Yield: 12 to 14 servings.
Nutrition information per serving: 435 calories, 358 milligrams sodium, 106 milligrams cholesterol, 23 grams fat, 44 grams carbohydrate, 5 grams protein.