When you gotta get into a deep, heavy topic with lots of underlying baggage, and you need a good metaphor, most people turn to onions: Onions are layered, they say. Peel off the layers and reveal what’s inside.
But when I go deep, I turn to cake.
I love cake. The smell. The presentation. And the possibilities. You can go from an unfrosted concoction with cream-and-fruit filling to a three-tiered behemoth lined with fondant and edible gold leaf.
In restaurant work, pastry production is often a relay. One person mixes a batch of dough. Another cuts it up and portions it. And a third fries it up and makes doughnuts. Who picks up the baton depends on the shift, and the one who ends the race is typically the cook working service, plucking off orders from the kitchen printer as they plate up desserts.
When I worked production, my favorite thing was to tackle cakes. I suppose the prettiest part was finishing the cakes, decorating them for display. But I also really liked to stack and fill them, because cutting into someone else’s product was often very revealing.
I could tell the cook before me was running behind schedule if the cake was underbaked. (Usually, I could cut around unusable parts.) Or if there were a lot of uneven holes in the crumb, that also meant someone was rushing things along and not mixing ingredients properly.
Maybe the cake was too dry, which meant someone was distracted. Or if a sheet cake was really uneven, it was likely that the intern had been practicing that day. In time, I got to the point where I knew who had made what simply by looking at it.
I felt like little clues were being left behind and I was deciphering their meaning like tea leaves in a cup.
Meaning is important with cooking. You’re on your feet all day, sweating by an oven or a steaming pot, picking up 50-pound bags of flour and constantly washing your hands raw. If all this doesn’t mean something to you, it isn’t worth it.
Sometimes the meaning was the end result. The perfectly level cake with the pretty frosting.
Sometimes the meaning was in the process. Taking someone else’s hard work and making it just a bit better so that the next cook could come in and turn your efforts into something greater.
It can be lonely in a kitchen sometimes. Either it’s a tiny place and you’re the only pastry cook around, or it’s a big circus and everyone is busy with their own projects.
That’s what I loved about cakes. Whether I was just baking off the batter, finishing it with frosting, or doing something in between, I knew I was one piece of a bigger picture. I felt part of something.