8/7/11

Guest Attempt: To Catch a Leprechaun

Dear Readers: Let it be known that I'm not solely interested in guest posts from friends making rainbow-centric cakes. I swear, it's just a coincidence! In fact, as you'll see, the impetus behind these various rainbow-themed cakes couldn't be more different. In short, I'm so very excited to bring you this guest attempt from my good friend Kara who happens to also be the author of one of my most favorite blogs.

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The Envy
When I first saw the Leprechaun Trap Cake on Not Martha, I made brutal fun of it. Boy, does someone need to get laid! I thought. I joked in this way to Amelia, and thought more and more about the cake.

photos via Not Martha

And then it happened—that thing that always happens when I am making fun of someone else's creation: I realize that I am envious. I want to make Leprechaun Trap Cakes. I want a job where I can make anything I want. I want to play so abundantly, detailishly, and colorfully, especially in my kitchen.

The Humbling
It happened on a trip to Alaska with my husband. We were traveling with his parents for two weeks, joined by his brother and brother's wife for one of those. We stayed in exquisite summer cabins, zapped mosquitoes with electronic wands, goofed off with sea otters, and generally explored all you have heard about Alaska: its wild, pristine loveliness, its lack of supermarkets, its mountains-meet-the-sea, Holy Bananas, This Is Our Country?-ness. It was epic—in a quiet sort of way. The way you know when you've met someone you will love forever, but it will be months or years until you can tell him so.

I am not finished with Alaska. I just don't know when we will see each other again.

That is neither here nor there, except that, sometimes, you DON'T know when you've met someone you will love forever. They sneak up on you. Like a leprechaun.

On a particularly stormy-inside, drizzly grey-outside day in the middle of our trip, we drove through a valley called Hatcher's Pass. Hatcher's Pass made everyone think of Ireland, though none of us had been there before. It looked just like the Ireland we all carried in our souls, from a combination of National Geographic photos, mysterious Celtic lineage, or, perhaps more truthfully, Far and Away.

In any case, I was bored and cranky, crunched up in the backseat. I was typing on my laptop—in Alaska! I know, I know, but I can only ride in a car for so many hours without absolutely going out of my mind. It has to do with private head-space, I think. Or control. It's not totally attractive. But I have learned over the years, and dozens of road trips with my husband, to accept it, to plug in the headphones, and go to work. It is better to deal with looking like a workaholic, or to actually be a workaholic, than to throw a tantrum.

So there I was in the backseat, typing away. I was hoping to stay sane, and also, record different ways to develop my creative ideas when I got back home. (One of the biggest boons to vacation, which should be put into Amelia's commercial, is getting fresh ideas for stuck projects waiting back at home.) In the middle of all this brainstorming, I looked out the window at a rain-slick rock nestled into a bunker of moss. I knew then and there that I could not deny my fascination with the Leprechaun Trap Cake any longer. The message was clear, taunting me from a nook behind that glistening rock: I must heed the call and attempt to catch my own leprechaun. And I must do it swiftly, upon my return home, and I must do it with cake.

The Reality (Or, My Continued Struggle To Make Sense of My Desires, And Respect the Wisdom of Their Spontaneous Appearances)
Once I decided to make this cake, I had to confront two issues:

1. I radically cut sugar from my diet in July, after a three-week cleanse that eliminated indecision, depression, and melancholy from my life entirely. Was I really about to dedicate a day or more to crafting something invented to house sugar; voluntarily make electric green icing without the excuse of throwing a child’s birthday party; and serve this creation to myself and others I love, knowing how sugar sucker-punches the digestive system?

2. I did not own an Angel Food Cake pan, nor did I want to own one. But a Bundt Cake Pan was clearly not going to suffice—I had seen the wobbly rainbows produced by such a pan. And if catching a leprechaun is the goal, the integrity of the rainbow inside the cake could not be compromised. I was obsessed by its vibrancy in Not Martha's version. And rainbows always remind me of the chakra system—one color for each of the chakras, starting with red at the root.

With issue Number 1, I decided that anything themed around a vibrant rainbow could not be all bad. Besides, I didn't have to eat it. I could just make it and celebrate it—freaky icing and all—and go about my merry way, tra la la.

With issue Number 2, I had to confront the weird thing I do when I pit creative urges against practical reasoning, which in this case manifested itself in price-comparing the varieties of Angel Food Cake pans for a week, trolling thrift stores to find a cheap one (thus justifying my weird urge to make a cake I do not want to eat), and poll relatives and neighbors (who I don’t know) whether anyone has an AFC pan I could borrow.

What a surprise! They did not.

I knew they would not. I knew I needed to buy one, if I had a chance of making such a perfect rainbow cake as Not Martha’s. But first, I had to struggle. I think this relates to a perverted attachment to drama, at least, Home Economically-leaning, Kara versus The World drama, which plays itself out in unnecessary ways a hundred times a day. I also think I get confused by my husband's upbringing, which prized frugality. I grew up in a different way—a way I think is fair to say prized aesthetics as much as anything else. When I try to play by the Midwestern customs I married into, I get poor results, like the time I borrowed my best friend's sneakers to run the mile in fourth grade, because they were supposed to be more aerodynamic. If I had just stuck to my own ways, I might have been fine. But I like to experiment. And sometimes, that creates confusion and a little discomfort. And then sometimes, it makes me finish dead last.

If we could all call this habit to explode little details into paralyzing life decisions a facet of the novelist in me, that would be awesome. Thanks.

The Reckoning (Or, How I Discovered For the One Millionth Time That Recipes Are Cool, and, How I Discovered That Sugar Is A Hot Lover, Good For Occasional Romps, But I'm Looking For A Better Man)
When I purchased the food coloring for this cake, my mouth went dry and my palms itched. I was so close to the rainbow, my adrenaline started pumping. Next, I looked up recipes.

Because I had invited my vegan friend for dinner, I decided to bake a vegan version of the cake. How hard could it be? I had baked vegan things before. They were all edible. Some were even fantastic. So I plunged ahead with flippant confidence, forgetting one thing about vegan cakes.

Naively clearing just one afternoon for this cake, I began. The vegan recipes I pulled from the Internet were so mediocre that I hesitate to include them here. Instead, I say: pick your favorite vanilla cake recipe, and Magnolia Bakery’s frosting recipe, and go to town. Double the cake recipe for a taller, possibly more rewarding cake.

I sifted flour with the other dry ingredients, and combined liquid ingredients in a separate bowl. As I prepared to add the liquid ingredients to the dry ones, I realized with a sinking feeling why I should have dug further into the website for a proper cake recipe. That was, simply: vinegar. Vinegar, often the final ingredient to vegan baked goods, catalyses the rising agents in baking powder and soda, standing in for the job eggs normally perform in veganless baking. Ideally, one adds vinegar seconds before putting a cake in the oven. But I had to separate the batter before pouring it into the pan, in order to create the different rainbow colors. Shee-it.

Luckily, I have vague ambitions of having a home apothecary someday and snatch whatever eyedroppers cross my path. I added all the ingredients I could without the vinegar, then separated the batter and created my rainbow colors. (The cake recipe I used called for 1 tablespoon of vanilla extract, which I happily added, not thinking of how it would make my batter beige, and thus affect the coloring process. After all, what painters start with a beige canvas? I suggest keeping the extract at a strict teaspoon if your recipe calls for it, or substituting seeds from a vanilla bean, and amping up the food coloring until the colors of your various batters really pop.)

Finally, I added the vinegar by drops to whatever color I needed to pour in next, moments before I poured it. It was sort of tedious, but also sort of the most exciting part of the whole day. Excitement around eyedroppers bodes well for a future apothecary, no?
I baked the cake, took it out, and stared at the hot pink blob that should have been blood red. I was slightly disappointed but since Rome was not built in a day (something I sadly often forget), I moved on. I cooled the cake on a rack and made the icing. I was both mesmerized by the bright green possibilities for the icing, and certain I needed a way around using a pastry bag. I settled on the old coconut trick my mom used for our birthday cakes growing up and dyed a bowlful of shaved coconut by soaking it in tinted water. (This water leered at me from the corner of the counter, growing scarier and blobbier by the hour, by the way. I only had the courage to use it because of my husband's assurance that it would not, in fact, bite me.)
Making the icing proper, I lamented the gobs of powder sugar required for icing and felt how permanent—or grave—the changes in my diet had become. I was actually dreading eating this cake.

I set cake efforts aside and embraced making real food for my friend who was coming to dinner. I was beginning to regret spending so much time on something that was going to turn my mouth weird colors, and not even really feed me. I hesitate to write this on a food blog at all, because I believe in all food as nutrition, and am uncomfortable labeling anything as bad. But balance is the goal here, for me anyway. After many decades of being somewhat addicted to sugar, I am taking a step back. So that I can return to our relationship someday, with appreciation and see all the ways we were there for each other. Remember all those slushies? Fourth of July cakes with fresh blueberries? What about that night you went skinny dipping with friends? Surely that was a sugar-addled decision! Etc, etc. However, I am in my Please-Don't-Call-Me phase with sugar right now. I just need a break.

There is this incredible essay in a collection called (somewhat ludicrously) Roar Softly And Carry a Great Lipstick: 28 Women Writers on Life, Sex, and Survival. The essay, by Anne Lamott, is about drinking and getting sober. The essay's main action takes place on a day that the author was still drinking and follows her mind as she justifies all kinds of drinking as part of her plan to get sober.

I think that making this cake might have been my flirtation with that same kind of thinking: how far do I want to take this new resolve towards health? What are the ways I can tempt fate?

After a satisfying dinner (toasted walnut mushroom burgers, corn on the cob), my friend and husband and I assembled the rest of the cake. At this point, I needed serious reinforcements, because I was in a spiritual tailspin and our un-air-conditioned house hovered around ninety degrees. Our one box fan whirred behind us as I delegated every task I could, yelling out encouragements like, Come on, team! Almost there!
My friend wrapped gold foil around quarters that my husband had reluctantly lent for this project and only agreed to do so if I returned them upon completion. My husband took photographs of the finished cake, growing as obsessed with this task as I had been with recreating the vibrant rainbow. I carpeted the cake with coconut. The ladder was ready (built out of pretzels and—cheat alert!—craft glue). Finally, I drew the crucial sign, advertising the gold a leprechaun might find in the center of our cake.

Presto! A Leprechaun Trap Cake. Nothing to it. I swear.
The Wrap-Up
In the end, I believe that all situations are neutral. It is our relationship to them that defines them and empowers our relationships to ourselves. I was once introduced in a lecture on Buddhism to the idea that everything we experience right now builds on what has come before it. I thought of this often, when I met my husband. I was in a draining relationship I desperately wanted to end at the time, and did not know how to do it. Whenever I am tempted to curse the days I spent in that dead-end, I am able to see the blessings of its occurrence: the ways that being unhappy prepared me for my recognition of profound love and the ways that I was still becoming the woman my husband was to meet in those times I felt unhappy.

Making this cake was a little like that. Over the past two years since finishing graduate school, I have simplified my ambitions in profound ways. Spending so much time on this cake, something I didn't really believe in—other than ironically, or competitively—was a gift of awakening, highlighting what activities I do care about and showing me that I don't enjoy messing around anymore in areas I don't care about. It was also a way to rediscover the happiness that I have built without loads of sugar in my diet. I missed the emotional equilibrium and mental clarity I had come to depend upon and recognized its departure as soon as I finished a solitary piece of the (somewhat oily, too-sweet, but very colorful) cake.

It feels a little weird to report on the experiment in this way. I feel a little traitorous, especially imagining all the beautiful treats that you, talented readers, are making. All the berries going into festive pies. All the birthdays celebrated with cake and skinny dipping. But I feel like I need to tell the truth, as soberly as possible, in order to come to terms with the social culture around certain foods and my own relationship to that culture, or those foods, and learn to accept that something beautiful in my mind may not feed my body as well. Sometimes a picture works as well as the real thing. Like in love, sometimes it is healing just to flirt for a night, or a season. (This is one of the miracles of fiction.) Other times, it is good to marry that love—to play games through its grace for as long as possible. The gift in this life is the chance to discover that knife's edge of difference, to navigate by our own gut reactions. Literally. Profoundly. And, ultimately, without remorse.

To your own awakening,
Kara
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26 comments:

Matthew said...

Really awesome post Kara! Weird how impractical leprechaun traps were before this.

Brock said...

So, you're saying i can't eat that pretzel ladder?

Meister @ The Nervous Cook said...

Oh my G-d, I loved this post. Every lucky-charming word of the thing. Delightful!

amelia said...

There's so much I love here: "Presto! A Leprechaun Trap Cake."; Anne Lamott; the fact that you made a leprechaun trap cake; that you made a VEGAN version; that by the time you have made it, you don't even want it, and what's more, as a reader, I found myself not wanting you to eat it! I thought: No, don't ruin the sugarless clarity you've found!! Speaking of that, I'm very curious about this cleanse you did... more questions to follow via email.

But for now, thanks so much for sharing this. As always, I love your writing. xo!

Alex said...

Wowwowow. That's real dedication.

MEGGY said...

This cake is adorable, however your doughnut pic at the top of the page has got me craving some tasty homemade doughnuts like nobody's business lol!

Krista said...

As an Alaskan, I found this really funny. I know exactly the kind of days you're talking about and how you can't help but think what you're going to make next. Love the blog!

www.cucina49.blogspot.com

Mary Anne said...

Wow, what an epic post! Love your writing, love your ambitious cake-attempting! I would never have had the cajones to take on the Leprechaun Trap!

McKenna said...

Oooo. Cool. :D I love the cake! ;D Cool post!

Heather Taylor said...

Sugar is a hot lover! Great great post.

Kara said...

RE: Everyone, Thanks! So glad you liked it.

Debjani said...

BEST POST EVER.

penelope said...

Can you talk a bit more about this cleanse? What do you mean by no sugar? Did you eat fruit? Everything seems to have sugar in it!

Thanks!

Jessica said...

WOW! What a beautiful post. I imagine everyone's personal journey should include some version of the leprechaun trap cake.

-Jess

Anonymous said...

This has inspired me to try to cut a lot of sugar out of my diet, not including the occasional leprechaun trap cake. I've been thinking about this for a while, but it sounds like you had great results from your cleanse.

Anonymous said...

Nice work Sis! It reminds me so often of when I cook dinner, that by the time I put it on the table I have lost any desire to eat it. And from your description I can feel that sticky sweetness from the cake with the oily cocnut and the frosting in my mouth now and my taste buds are saying "not in here Missy". I am very impressed and can I borrow the AFC sometime?
-Anna

Emily said...

Wow! Amazing - I love the ladder and such attention to detail! Truly fantastical

Megan Taylor said...

FUN!!! Makes me think of "Darby O'Gill and the Little People." Ever seen that movie??

Banana said...

I LOVE THAT MOVIE!!!

Ms.Nožisková said...

a) how do you work on a laptop in the back of a car and not get sick?? I WANT THIS POWER

b)kara - you are lovely! you write in a way that wonderfully combines wisdom with whimsy. (that alliteration was unintentional, i swear). i totally understand why your blog is one of amelia's favs

c) oh boy. i've got a rainbow cake attempt story (drama) that happened a few months ago. this past week or so it's been niggling at me to write up an account of it. think this was the impetus i needed to make that happen. i'll be back.... x

-Whitney

elposta said...

Nice blog

Anonymous said...

;) thank you

Kara said...

Wow! I am addicted to all these comments. Thanks for writing everyone! Now hop on over to Sut Nam Bonsai and post something there ;)

RE: Penelope--Great question, about what kinds of sugar I cut. It was raw sugars, white sugar, brown sugar, etc. I still ate honey and agave (which, if you're not being honest with yourself, can add up to all the other sweeteners quickly). I still had berries in my morning smoothie, and spots of honey in occasional teas.

The cleanse was an amazing experience. I recommend it in any dosage--to just take a step back and get real with yourself. I followed Dr. Alejandro Junger's book, Clean, which is informative, user-friendly, and above all coaches gentleness, persistence, and being sweet to yourself.

As Kris Carr says in her book, Crazy Sexy Diet, "In your original state you ooze magic honey. Unicorns want to lick you." Okay, that is gross, but I like the implication that we are sweet enough as we are. And sometimes instead of that ice cream, what we really need is a sudden dance party. But I am no saint. I still like ice cream AND dancing. It's all about awareness, i.e. "WHY am I eating this? Is it to hide from something uncomfortable I don't want to look at or feel?"

To put it another way, as Reese Witherspoon says in the somewhat silly, very terribly-titled (I am such a title snob!) movie, How Do You Know?, "Never drink to feel better, only to feel EVEN better." If we turn to sugar to solve our problems, things can go from bad to worse in 15 seconds.

Ok, this comment has turned into its own blog post. But I wanted to say to Ms.Nožisková, I grew up riding in cars with dogs! and brothers and parents and tons of Christmas presents. My family lived in Connecticut when all our relatives lived in North Carolina. Commuting to Easter brunch was sometimes common. So I can do just about anything while riding in a car. Except relax :)

amelia said...

@Kara: Thank you for this info and for the kind, thoughtful, funny way in which you explained it! As for me: I made it three nights without ice cream. Then, I caved and had the tiniest scoop in the world. Also, I'm very curious about the Junger book! Will have to check it out asap.

ina may said...

yummy ! :)

Simone said...

Pretzel ladders lead the way to my heart. Great post.