The Cake

When cooking for friends, I make a point to find their sweet spot. My address book is filled with basic contact information...and copious notes about allergies and favorite foods. No wheat for Shauna. Desiree loves lemon. You get the idea.

More often than not...when we get together...I might have a little treat for you.

And if you swoon and sing my praises? Well, I don't even think twice about it. Baked goods for life!


But nothing compares to this....


First, I must preface this story.

When you know a lot of people, eventually bad things happen to people you know. This year, I've been dealing with that a lot. Death, suicide, murder...That stuff in the news? It happens to real people...and unfortunately, in my inner circle, it's not only chefs who have been in the news.

And sometimes...people do stupid things.

Really stupid things.

A friend of mine was arrested on drug-related charges, and ended up going to jail. Did I say it was really stupid? Oh yeah. A product of the technology boom...G retired by the time most men are hitting their stride. He was young and ridiculously wealthy. And with one very bad lapse in judgment...he had nothing to gain, and everything to lose.

Off to jail he went...

So when G got out of jail, I wanted to let him know I was still in his corner. "A lot of things have changed...you've learned your lesson...now let's move on."

I made arrangements to meet G about a month after his release from prison. He was gaunt, with a dead look in his eyes and hair that had drifted from silky blonde to a wiry riot of grey. I tried to stifle my reaction, but a gasp escaped. The difference was profound.

Anxious to welcome him back to society and prove he was okay in my book, I baked some brownies. They were still warm when I arrived. G's teeth sunk into the chocolate, and little flakes of brownie skin fell like snow at his feet. The expression on his face was priceless!

I don't know...there was something about those brownies...and that warm, gooey chocolate...for just a moment, it seemed like G was back.

Rather matter-of-factly, he said, "This is my first 'get out of jail' present."

It broke my heart.

And he quickly lapsed back into a pool of uneasy calm.

The next time, I brought my signature cake. It's so unbelievably good...naively I thought, "This will do the trick for sure!"

G was still on work release, so I met him at the office. Awkwardly exposed, we sat a small conference table in the center of the lofted space. I served up a thick slice of cake...and waited for that expression again.

A deep smile spread across his lips.

And slowly, he began to talk.

We discussed his experience in prison (2 years) and what it was like to be out. It was a difficult adjustment…going from complete structure, to a life with choices again. Over the next couple weeks, he’d be able to move from the half-way house and return home. Although he would be on house arrest…there's nothing like being home.

Then he mentioned the daily drug tests.

G picked at the towering chocolate cake and said, "There's no poppy seeds in here, right?"

I laughed, dismissively. "No, of course not!"

"Good, because they're testing me for everything."

G rose to grab a drink of water…suddenly, something in my brain snapped! My face went flush and my throat went hopelessly dry. I nervously fingered the fork that rested precariously on the plate.

My voice quivered as I worked up the nerve to ask, "Are they testing you for alcohol?"

G replied nonchalantly, "Yep...they test for everything. I don't even eat poppy seed muffins. I know it's crazy, but I don't want to take any chances, you know?"

I was crushed.

"G, I have something to tell you."

Between gulps of water, he murmured, "Huh?"

"There's beer in that cake."


The color washed from his face.

Panic settled in his eyes.

In an instant, my offer of baked goods...went from the highest high to the lowest low. Like a movie trailer, visions of him returning jail ran over and over in my mind in 10 second shorts. Inside, I screamed a litany of "Oh my God, Oh my God, Oh MY GOD!"

G was calm...and far too polite.

Finally I blurted, "Go...PUKE! Stick your finger down your throat and get it out of your system." (It's funny what enters your mind at times like this. I remember thinking, "Those high school days of scarf and barf came in handy after all...")

G stood, frozen. Unable to move.

I gave him a push, "GO!!!"

As he slipped out the door, I eyed the cake. My mind tracked back to the trial, G’s time in jail, and how much he was looking forward to going home. I thought of his boyfriend and how the world would stop when G called from prison. After that ugly time, somehow, they made it through.

And I changed the course of those events.

It was just too much to bear.

Like a criminal, I fled the scene. Paper plates, half a cake, and an empty glass.

Back in the refuge of my car, tears erupted. Deep, gut-wrenching sobs followed. I couldn't catch my breath. And sloppy tears dripped on to my lips. The salty liquid was a steely reminder of my shame. Pleading with no one in particular, I wailed, "I didn't know. I didn't know...."

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, I regained my composure and called my friend Rocky. After trying to assure me that alcohol cooks out of food, I made him look it up. Contrary to popular belief, all the alcohol does NOT bake out. (And when freedom hangs in the balance, it's not worth the risk.)

Next, I called G's boyfriend and confessed my guilt. A second wave of tears stifled my ability to speak further. He hung up and called G.

The hours wore on as we tried to do damage control. G called his parole officer and let her know what happened. (The term "parole officer" brought a whole new wave of tears....)

Back at the half-way house, G was tested. And we waited.

Sometime later that night, I received the call.

The test was negative.

Just when I thought I couldn't cry any more...a wave of relief flooded throughout my body...and tears found me again.

I don't remember falling asleep that night, but when I woke the next morning, there were dirty baking dishes stacked in the sink. They served as stark reminder of the previous day.

As I mindlessly filled the sink, a lacy web of bubbles formed on the surface. I ran the water as hot as I could stand it. My hands tingled and grew red from the heat. Scalding hot water could not remove the memory...but it could erase the bittersweet evidence.

***

If you're looking for a fantastic cake, this recipe comes highly recommended. Out in bloggerland, check out Smitten Kitchen's take on it here and Pip in the City's version here.

But if you know any newly-minted felons, seek out another recipe, okay?

Chocolate Stout Cake 
Bon App├ętit September 2002 

2 cups stout (such as Guinness)
2 cups (4 sticks) unsalted butter
1 1/2 cups unsweetened cocoa powder (preferably Dutch-process)
4 cups all purpose flour
4 cups sugar
1 tablespoon baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
4 large eggs
1 1/3 cups sour cream

Icing
2 cups whipping cream
1 pound bittersweet (not unsweetened) or semisweet chocolate, chopped

Preparation
For cake: Preheat oven to 350°F.

Butter three 8-inch round cake pans with 2-inch-high sides. Line with parchment paper. Butter paper.

Bring 2 cups stout and 2 cups butter to simmer in heavy large saucepan over medium heat. Add cocoa powder and whisk until mixture is smooth. Cool slightly.

Whisk flour, sugar, baking soda, and 1 1/2 teaspoons salt in large bowl to blend.

Using electric mixer, beat eggs and sour cream in another large bowl to blend. Add stout-chocolate mixture to egg mixture and beat just to combine.

Add flour mixture and beat briefly on slow speed. Using rubber spatula, fold batter until completely combined.

Divide batter equally among prepared pans. Bake cakes until tester inserted into center of cakes comes out clean, about 35 minutes. Transfer cakes to rack; cool 10 minutes. Turn cakes out onto rack and cool completely.

For the icing:

Bring cream to simmer in heavy medium saucepan. Remove from heat. Add chopped chocolate and whisk until melted and smooth. Refrigerate until icing is spreadable, stirring frequently, about 2 hours.

Place 1 cake layer on plate. Spread 2/3 cup icing over. Top with second cake layer. Spread 2/3 cup icing over. Top with third cake layer. Spread remaining icing over top and sides of cake.