Did I mention how much I love frosting? Because I don't think I can emphasize too much how much I love frosting. I think part of it is because when I was a child, my mother rarely baked and frosted cakes; we made bundt cakes from mixes and drizzled them with the accompanying packets of chocolate glaze, or sifted powdered sugar over the tops of cakes. I remember piping whipped cream in swags and rosettes, and once, just once, there was a flat sheet of genoise cake spread with mocha buttercream and rolled into a fat log that fell in spiraling slices. I still think of that cake with longing, and I still love those roll cakes for their high frosting-to-cake ratio. While eating my afternoon snack after school I would read The Cake Bible, with all its descriptions of lavishly frosted and decorated cakes, glossy photographs of elaborate wedding-cake confections.
But in our house dessert (at parties) was usually something else, brownies and cookies and cheesecake and later tiramisu and still later bread pudding (made by me), or flaky tarts from our favorite French bakery, or dense espresso chocolate cake from Fran's, cloaked in a glossy skin of ganache and decorated with chocolate-covered espresso beans. When I was older I did most of the baking and somehow I never learned to bake cakes with confidence, make buttercreams and frostings like frothing clouds of snow. Instead I made cupcakes filled with cream cheese and chocolate chips, marbled shortbread spread with melted dark chocolate and swirled with lines of white chocolate, and, of course, brownies.
A frosted cake became a rare thing, perhaps at someone else's birthday party. For many years there was a woman in my father's lab who was legendary for her cakes (I remember with a certain longing, one chocolate cake filled with fresh cherries and whipped cream, decorated with rosettes of cream and shavings of chocolate). Perhaps there might be a slice of cake from the bakery in Chinatown, white cake with layers of whipped cream and fruit - cantaloupe and honeydew and strawberries - with more fruit decorating the scalloped edges of the cake.
Years later, in college, we sometimes went to a so-called European-style bakery for dessert, or for whole cakes for someone's birthday. To us students it seemed incredibly expensive, a luxury, but here in the glass-fronted cases were the cakes of all my dreams, Black Forest cake with cherries and whipped cream, chocolate cake with mocha frosting, chocolate-raspberry torte, fluffy white coconut cake like a pile of freshly fallen snow, and some kind of otherworldly creation of meringue and strawberries and whipped cream interrupted by layers of cake which almost seemed like an afterthought. They were fantastical, beautiful things, four inches high at least, iced with as much frosting as my heart could possibly desire. All of that belongs to another time, long since gone. I have not thought of it again until now.
But today is a co-worker's birthday, and there is cake, the chocolate sheet cake of K.'s childhood, frosted with her sour-cream frosting, the kind that ever-so-slightly hardens as it sits on the counter, so you feel that slight give as your teeth bite through the creamy frosting, into the dark, moist depths of the cake below. It is someone else's childhood memory, the cake her mother used to make for family picnics along with oven-fried chicken and potato salad, and for a brief moment, I almost wish it had been mine.