I woke up early this morning. I took a run in the park, breathing in gulps of cold fresh air. Sweating it out feels extra good in winter weather; leaving the warm cocoon of my bed for a bracing chill is like conquering a battle.
Then there’s a hot shower waiting. Comfortable clothes – fleeced pants and a soft, oversized sweater – and a walk to get a big milky latte. I pick up some groceries. Back in my kitchen, I fire off a few work emails, feeling sharp and witty and organized.
On my to-do list today is baking a simple vanilla cake (with two kinds of vanilla!). First you melt some butter, and set it aside to cool. Then you whip eggs and sugar into airy, pale ribbons, then fold in your vanillas and some flour. In goes the melted butter, then you slip your cake into the oven and inhale the fragrant, sweet scent as it bakes.
Lovely right? Such a romantic image: me, baking confidently, the ingredients assembled neatly on my counter? Correct so far.
I mix together the batter quickly, thinking to myself (as my sister would say), “I am so ON today”. Each step looks perfect.
The batter tumbles into the pan in frothy, thick streams. Flecked with vanilla bean, redolent of sugar.
I put the cake in the oven and go fold some laundry. Could I be more productive?
Some minutes later, I walk back into the kitchen. I glance around at the clean countertops…but wait…what is that bowl doing there? Why is there a bowl of melted butter on the…OH MY &^#$&*#^$ GOD. I FORGOT TO PUT THE BUTTER IN THE CAKE. SWEET BABY JESUS.
Crisis mode! Only five minutes of baking time have elapsed, so I whisk the cake from the oven. It has just barely begun to set on the sides. Should I just leave it? It looks so peaceful and fluffy! I tell myself, in the wise words of Rupert Everett: “no, pumpkin, no”. Do this properly.
I pour the steaming, still-liquid batter back into the mixing bowl (which I have just washed). I quickly scrape the baked bits from the side of the pan and re-grease and sugar it.
I fold the melted butter into the batter with rapid strokes, pour the batter into the pan (again), and back into the oven it goes. Second time’s the charm, isn’t that what they say? (HA).
The cake bakes away in the oven as I type this. Perhaps it will be perfect: a golden, tender-crumbed marvel which I will smother in Chantilly cream and feed to my loved ones while wearing an apron and pearls. Perhaps it will be a terrible flop, a disastrous half-cooked mess of crumbly batter streaked with melted butter.
But I will tell you one thing: I will probably never again leave the butter out of my cake.
This is just to say: My minor crisis didn’t ruin an otherwise calm, quiet, and happy morning. I banked that string of positive moments (until cake meltdown), holding them within me, ready to be debited by lesser moments. Rainbow Rowell (a novelist I love) says we should “let our pile of good things grow”, and this reminds me that we must.
With a pile of good things at the ready, you’ve steeled yourself against tough times ahead. They can’t shake you or hurt you, they just pull a little joy out of your good things pile.
All the more reason to embrace the good stuff in the easy, unfettered, happy moments. Bank those things! The cake baking, the late night phone call with your sister where you discuss the relative merits of Goldfish v. Wheat Thins as a midnight snack, the hushed moments of fresh snowfall. Those will serve you well.
UPDATE: The cake is amazing. I will post the recipe this weekend for you all, and I hope to God that none of you forget the butter! In lieu of giving it to you today, here is another very excellent vanilla cake that I made earlier this week. What? You think I bake too much cake? No such thing, don't be silly.
This recipe makes a very airy, extremely light vanilla layer cake. It's almost like a chiffon or sponge cake in layer cake form. I iced it with a lemon and tahini buttercream, because I was experimenting with some recipes, but considering how delicate it is, I'd recommend using a less sturdy icing, like a seven minute frosting or this malted milk chocolate icing.
Vanilla Layer Cake
Adapted from Nielsen-Massey; makes two 9" layers
3 cups cake flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup buttermilk
1 cup very soft butter (2 sticks)
1 cup sugar, divided into 1/3 cup and 2/3 cup
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
3/4 teaspoon almond extract
6 egg whites
2/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F. Grease and flour two 9" round cake pans. I use parchment paper to line my pans, and suggest you do as well to prevent sticking.
Whisk together the flour, baking soda, and salt in a bowl. Set aside.
In a large bowl or stand mixer, beat the egg whites on high for one minute. Add the cream of tartar and 2/3 cup of sugar and beat until you have soft peaks. Set the egg whites aside.
In the same bowl or stand mixer, beat together the butter, remaining 1/3 cup sugar, vanilla, and almond extracts. Add the flour mixture and buttermilk, alternating between the two. Mix until combined.
Add the egg whites to your batter and gently mix until combined. This can seem a little tricky because the batter is quite thick, so just keep at it until the egg whites are fully incorporated and the batter is loose.
Divide the batter between your two prepared cake pans and bake for 30-35 minutes. The cake should just be pulling away from the sides of the pan and should spring back when you press lightly on the surface. Let cool for a few minutes in the pan, then turn out onto a cooling rack to finish cooling.
Frost to your heart's desire.