The fabulous baker girls

My husband is not home. It is 3:46 a.m., truly an unholy hour even by my standards, and I am in the kitchen frosting a just-cooled-but-freshly-baked malted chocolate cake. Juliana, my wide-eyed eight-year-old, is awake, too, the sound of her little feet and busy chocolate-smeared little hands belying the obvious fact that dawn will break soon. If I did not know any better I would have thought it was just another yellow morning, bright and sunny and busy. I almost feel like apologizing for the fact that we are still awake, and I can almost already see my acupuncturist shaking her head in disapproval ever so solemnly, as if to tell me for the nth time that if I really want to get pregnant I have to please be in a state of deep sleep in that blessed window from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m., the time when the organs of the body regenerate. But I digress. And with apologies to my wonderful acupuncturist for now, it’s all about the cake — baking it earlier in the night and falling asleep right after, only to wake up again because a little girl insists on frosting it so that her daddy can see it when he arrives later after a four-day trip away from home.

Really, what could be a more valid reason than that? I think that as we layer the cake with butter cream frosting in between. It is good, except that the cake is not as moist as I had hoped it would be. I think we over-beat the batter. That or it could be because we had to substitute some of the required ingredients with what was available in our pantry. Or could it be the size of the eggs? Maybe I should have doubled it as Richard always tells me to because our local eggs are much smaller than the ones specified in American cookbooks. The peaks of the beaten egg whites were too stiff perhaps? Whatever the case, the frosting is good and the cake pretty, in a lopsided and messy kind of way. The fact that it is homemade makes all its little imperfections even more acceptable. And the kitchen smells lovely.

I always say I like baking because it is an exact science, and if something I baked comes out fantastic it is because the recipe was good to begin with. Aside from little baking tricks learned along the way — like how over-beating or over-baking can make any pastry tough (and for that matter how wonderfully moist it can be when you take it out a tad earlier than the procedure calls for); or how adding double the amount of chocolate chips heightens the pleasure, without necessarily endangering the integrity of the recipe, however precious it is; and how vinegar or heated and melted vegetable lard can weigh in on a truly decadent chocolate concoction — I believe baking is only 30 percent baker-dependent. The rest passion, common sense, and an honest recipe. By honest I mean a recipe that does not withhold any vital ingredient or tip. I don’t quite understand the shroud of secrecy surrounding most bakers’ ways (unless it is the heart and soul of a business, of course) — and offhand I really think they should be shared in good faith so they can just live on and on, entering kitchens and lives, being added to and modified here and there and taking on new forms until they become personal kitchen treasures. Is that not a nice thought?

Yesterday we baked fragrant banana cupcakes with absurd amounts of chocolate chips drowning in them. That one was very good, not to mention very fast and easy to make. It’s so easy you don’t even need a Kitchen Aid! The cupcake comes out moist and when you bite into it the chocolate chips are all a bit squishy and molten. I had a feeling they would be very good so I doubled the recipe. I’m happy to know that was a good call. They now nest serenely like little cushions inside a big clear cookie jar, peering at us and almost begging to be eaten. On Richard’s desk in our room, Juliana has placed a tray of the same banana cupcakes but these are in heart-shaped molds. There are nine hearts: six little ones in one red silicone tray and three individual but bigger ones in Teflon tins, all cling-wrapped. The recipe says it will keep fresh that way for about three days. It is endearing how this little girl loves her daddy so. Everyone else is allowed to devour the cupcakes except for the heart-shaped ones that she has decided are solely for him.

While I continue frosting the cake Juliana is scraping the bowl clean. I wonder how she will go back to sleep with all that sugar in her mouth. But I let her be. She is scraping the last few days of summer break also, that last stretch of total freedom from the routines of school kick in. She now moves on to the clear glass cookie jar, checking to see if what I told her was true; that the flavor of the banana cupcakes intensifies a day after it has been baked. She closes her eyes, nose in the jar, and tells me I was right. She is delighted. I like that she is happy and smiling about something as simple and beautiful as the scent of bananas baked in a cupcake. She wonders out loud if it could be available as a room scent, please. I tell her someone will think of that for sure, if no one has yet. She turns her attention back to the cake and declares that she is proud of what we’ve accomplished. She says we should send our cake to Goldilocks; maybe they will like it.

The idea makes me chuckle, and at that point I remind myself I should really record all these little thoughts that my little daughter throws my way because one day I just might forget all about them. They will hide under newer ones, and unless I write them down I will not remember them all. Heaven knows how many I have already forgotten. I should record them really, if only to capture the pureness and exuberance that comes uniquely from a child. One day she will be all grown up and will be too busy acting like grownups have to, so she just might forget how funny she was as a little child. And how much she always made me laugh. I have old childhood photos and a pair of red tiny bakya that I wore as a baby and I have misty memories of my childhood. My mom has told me what my first words were and the things I used to blurt out, but really, there are just a handful of them. And we lost a lot of pictures and our baby books during the nasty flood in the early ‘90s. I would very much want to present Juliana with more than just a handful of her little thoughts. I know she will appreciate them when she is all grown up. It will remind her of how much she has changed and how mush she has stayed the same.

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My thoughts are interrupted by a plop of frosting that drips from Juliana’s spatula onto the table. It looks like the beehive hairdo sported by the stars of that old, old movie entitled Valley of the Dolls. But Juliana says it reminds her of Margaret Russell’s hair (she knows Margaret from Top Design, a show she loves to pieces). Then she looks at me, changes her voice, and giving her best effort to sound and act like the editor in chief of Elle Décor, she says, “I’m sorry, we cannot live with your design.” (For those unfamiliar with Top Design that is the standard line they use to boot out competitors.) We burst out laughing and she admonishes me to please not tell anyone she just did that. “You’re so daldal, Mom, you tell everyone what I do.” True to form, of course, here I am telling you all about it. Forgive me, Juliana; I am your mother, I just can’t resist. You are my little girl, my little best friend who loves sugar and milk and you always make me laugh even without trying to. What I would I give to have more, more, more just like you, my little round bundle of joy.

But to get a step closer to achieving just that, my acupuncturist says I must sleep early. After all this frosting and when all the sugar has settled lazily in our bodies we will get down to that, Juliana and I. Because we air live on Shall We Dance every other Sunday and Juliana loves joining me there (she enjoys watching the ballroom dances) when my husband comes in later, we will not be home. But he will have homemade choco-chip banana cupcakes and a layered malted chocolate cake to welcome him back.

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