When I was growing up, every Thursday night in my house was cooking night. Ovens running, music playing, pans spattering, my sister, mother and I would gather in the kitchen to prepare the Shabbat meals. The rest of the week my sister and I could do whatever we wanted as long as our homework was done, but Thursday nights we belonged to the kitchen. Singing, cooking, chopping, arguing, laughing. We’d stand over our dishes and unite — and fight — like the modern Jewish version of the sewing circles of yore, with knives in place of needles (both tools that could second as weapons if need arose).
I learned how to cook those Thursday nights, and I grew to love baking, especially cakes that I could frost in different ways. My mom is famous among my friends for her excellent cooking, and I inherited that acclaim as I learned to make my own dishes and shared them with friends and guests. Reading recipes off well-worn cards with hand-written edits or finding new recipes to try in papers and cookbooks, the experience was as much about spending those hours with the women in my family as it was about measuring ingredients, mixing, and ending with a personal edible creation. My sister specialized in cholent, while I would spend hours perfecting a cake recipe and decorating it just so.
When I was 16, my first summer job was serving ice cream at Coldstone Creamery. Pretty quickly after starting the job, I moved myself into the kitchen and took up decorating ice cream cakes, a job I would rarely let anyone else do. I would design my own creations and buy them for friends, just for the practice and fun of frosting a cake. One cake was covered entirely in the leaves of a gigantic sunflower, another covered with the symbol of the Miami Dolphins for a sports fanatic.
I would snap a shot of these cakes and send it to my sister and mother, the two women I associated with my baking. The love I have for baking is always associated with the warmth (literally; two ovens and a stovetop running all at the same time can make for some sweaty business) of those Thursday nights, cooking with them.
Today the three of us are scattered, my sister to Israel and me to college in Manhattan. As a middle- and high-school student, missing out on my friends’ Thursday night activities seemed treacherous. I sometimes resented the time spent away from them. But in retrospect, I spent that time in a way I don’t regret in the slightest. There’s something about spending hours on end with only women in an over-crowded, over-heated space that leads to one of two outcomes: homicide or relationship-building. The three of us are alive and well, so we seem to have chosen the latter. And on those rare holidays that all of us are gathered in one kitchen, it’s just like the old times. Especially when I insist on baking the cakes, and leaving my sister to chop all the vegetables.
This is one of the simplest cake recipes, and also the tastiest. The best part about it is how fancy it can be. Since the top is just an expanse of whatever frosting you want, decorative icing is practically made for this cake.
2 cups of flour
2 cups of sugar
2 eggs, beaten
1 stick margarine, melted (or ½ cup of vegetable oil)
1 1/3 cups of milk
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons vanilla
½ teaspoon salt
Melt the margarine. Add sugar, flour, salt and baking powder. Add to this the milk, vanilla and eggs, and start mixing. (Like I said: simple!) Mix until all lumps have disappeared and consistency is smooth.
Pour into 8x8 pan (or a shaped pan—one of my favorite pans is a giant teddy bear, which also lends itself to decorating) and bake at 325 Fahrenheit until top is golden.
Baker’s Notes: Make sure the cake has cooled completely before you frost it, and make sure the frosting has set before you begin to ice it. This will give you the easiest foundation for decoration.
A simple but pretty design involves taking an icing tube with a decorating tip and making waves to trim the cake on top and along the outline of the cake on the plate. Hold the tube a few inches from the cake, and slowly follow the edge of the cake, doubling over your line every ½ inch or so to create the waves.
For a delicious chocolate frosting recipe, try the Hershey’s classic frosting. As for icing, unless you have professional equipment, the best type of icing is available in tubes at your local supermarket. Try these ones. Buy various tips for differently-shaped lines on the cake.