Scattered: Cakefail. Why Baking From Scratch is Best

I don’t know when I last felt this scattered. We’re getting ready for a big family weekend, celebrating three milestone birthdays. So yes, there’s some packing, ordering, wrapping, and so on.

But it’s not insurmountable. So why does it feel that way to me? Normally I can pick a path and go. I always make lists as a way to focus.

This time, no list. I can’t seem to settle down long enough to. But there I am folding laundry tonight, thinking, “Bake a cake. Make cookies. Wrap presents. Return suits.* Write thank-yous for the preschool yard sale donors. Bike trailer? Which bike for Ben? I need to pack Max’s lunch!”


I gathered the Amazon boxes and discovered that not only had I ordered the wrong thing for my father–and the right thing won’t arrive in time even if I order it tonight–but I also ordered the wrong thing for Max. I sat there with C, cringing, thinking, “Great. I have my sitter tomorrow and will have to spend the time careening from Sports Authority to Barnes and Noble to Target. So much for work, exercise, or packing.”

Oh, and the cake!

I used to bake a lot. I baked for fun. I baked for entertainment. I baked to explore.

Today, I realized I haven’t baked a cake in almost a year. Wow.

Fortunately, for his birthday Max just wants a round 2-layer cake, white frosting, rainbow sprinkles, a “5” candle. Whew. I’ve seen Facebook albums and live results of friends who pulled all-nighters constructing fire truck cakes and dump truck cakes and such…by hand. And also from special-order bakeries. Max has seen and eaten many such cakes.

But bless his lovely heart, he wants a simple round cake.

If you think I couldn’t possibly f*ck that up, you’re wrong. I had bought two boxes of Trader Joe’s Madagascar Vanilla cake mix. That’s right: I was going to cheat my child by using a mix. Better a calm mother than a stressed one, right? Trader Joe’s mixes at least are fairly natural, not having any of that nasty unpronounceable crap found in conventional cake mixes. And I could just add shortening (instead of butter) and lactose-free milk. For heaven’s sake, Max shouldn’t have to take lactose pills to enjoy his birthday cake!

I greased the nonstick pans, as instructed by the box. What a time-saver using a mix would be!

I melted the shortening (happy organic stuff from Whole Foods, of course) in the microwave. I was nervous about what would happen when I mixed it with the cold milk and eggs. It immediately hardened again, of course, in clumps.

Whatever. Mix and pour into prepared pans and bake. Cool 10 minutes. Remove from pan.

Um, no. These things weren’t coming out. I finally got the first one out with only a few major cracks.

The second cake? It had somehow caramelized to the greased nonstick pan. Yes, yes it had. I ended up ripping it out with my hands.


I’m done with you, cake-from-a-mix.

And then I pulled out my trusty Bittman book and my sifter and my remaining clean measuring cups and bowls (I used some to make spiced nuts earlier, so they were in the dishwasher) and I mixed a proper cake from scratch, which included buttering the pans, cutting rounds of parchment to put in the pans, buttering the parchment, and flouring the pans. I even beat it all by hand, with a wooden spoon, instead of using a mixer as Bittman suggested.

It’s late, after all, and everyone’s asleep, and our apartment is small.

Remind me how much time I saved using a mix, please?  I’m not anti-Trader Joe’s by any means, but this mix just failed tonight.

So yeah, I used regular butter in the cake I made, but that’s OK. At least my child will have a birthday cake instead of a birthday crumble.

And now what do I do? Print return forms? Wrap presents? Pack clothing?

Once again, I don’t know where to start.

….Oh, I do. The cake layers came out kind of short (due to using 9″ pan instead of 8″?), so guess what? I just made my third batch of cake batter for the night, and the second one from scratch! It is after midnight. Let’s hope I am still awake when the timer rings.


*Bathing suits, Athleta. This year I made the big switch from bikini to tankini with swim shorts, mostly because a lot of our swim/beach time takes place with my brother, mom, etc., and I’m sick of worrying about being half-naked in front of them–I mean, I’m striving for a more modest look to fit in with the general tone of things. Also, SUNSCREEN. So much less skin to cover!

I’ll save my bikini for my immediate family/friends and cover up when I am with my mom/brothers/father/etc. Oh, right, so to that end I ordered a zillion suits from Athleta to try on at home, found the right combo, and will return the rest. It’s a great way to shop if you don’t have time for stores and don’t mind shipping returns.

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