Linda: I wanted each tier of the cake to have alternating layers, chocolate-yellow-chocolate-yellow, raspberry filling in between. For the chocolate, I adapted a recipe for Martha Stewart cupcakes and figured out the necessary ingredients for tiers with diameters of 8, 12 and 16 inches. We called it "Yum." It was extremely moist and dense, nearly impossible to work with. It never came out even and always stuck to the knife. But it was so damn yum it was worth it.
We knew we needed something simpler for the yellow layers. All the recipes we'd tried had turned out boring as a scone. For expedience one night, we used a boxed mix, and it was perfect -- smooth and even on top, yummier than Yum. We'd still have a lot of construction to practice in the months ahead, but at least we'd have consistent building material.
(Photo Illustration by Francisco Caceres)
Straight from the box: This is what many professionals do, we'd heard. It was immediately obvious that we had to give in for the yellow layers. Equally obvious was that nobody needed to know.
* * *
Hank: By winter, we'd established Cake Night at Linda's, once or twice a month, where we would force ourselves to confront a single issue: a baking strategy, theoretical or actual flavor, or a wild decorating scheme. Later, as our test cakes got bigger, Cake Night would expand into two nights -- one to bake, one to decorate. Cake Night was sometimes a hassle, with work looming, or ingredients we forgot to pick up at Giant. The mixing and baking and gabbing would always calm me down.
Linda: When you grow up and grow busy, you never get chunks of time like this anymore with your friends. And when you are single, you never get it with anyone, and I hate that. Hank and I got to talk, a lot. On Cake Night we talked about the important things: reality television, sex, movies, our odd childhoods.
Somewhere along the way Cake Night added a new, exciting topic: Michael, the cute photographer, who was becoming what one could officially call a boyfriend. Hank would tell me how they raced each other down the Mall, explored museums, and I loved that this story was so different from all Hank's other stories.
We talked about the guys I was meeting -- Why would someone keep asking me out but never kiss me? Why would someone want me one day and not the next? -- and Hank would try to answer these questions, but he couldn't.
Hank: A cake with a 16-inch diameter is many years beyond the Easy-Bake Oven or after-school brownies. It's ugly. The cracks, the blisters. The frequent, unwelcome hump in the center. We learned about Magi-Cake strips, which are long, narrow insulation pads that you moisten and wrap around the outside of a cake pan, slowing down the baking time but making your cakes more even and perfect. Magic, indeed.
Months went by, and we had made some pretty lackluster cakes, plain, with nothing so bold as frosting yet. The beautiful cake books were beginning to seem useless and almost like fiction -- the cakes in the picture were fantasy compared with our reality.
Linda: My kitchen is small, the kind that never, ever gets a wondrous transformation courtesy of a home magazine. Once we laid out the ingredients, there was little room to work. There were pounds of ingredients, piles -- butter, eggs, Softasilk flour, Hershey's cocoa, various sugars, Crisco Sticks. (There was something odd about seeing so much Crisco in an otherwise Whole Fooded kitchen.) Sealed bags of raspberry filling from the cake store stacked like sandbags. Boxes of Duncan Hines lined in a row.
Hank: I was getting worried about how much we didn't know. We still hadn't baked and frosted an entire tier, and knew nothing of building sturdy multiple tiers. We needed a cake Yoda. On the Web, we found B. Keith Ryder, a baker who also taught decorating classes at a little cake shop in a strip mall in Alexandria. We signed up for wedding cake construction in March, four months before the July 26 wedding. In the days leading up to class, Linda made up a song about B. Keith Ryder, the lyrics to which consisted entirely of "Beeeee Keith Ryyyder . . ." He was our hero before we even met him.
Cake class made everything seem suddenly more real, more scary, but also more manageable. B. Keith Ryder turned out to be a tall, bearded teddy bear who very calmly taught Linda and me (and about 10 other women -- I was the only male student) in one Saturday afternoon how to horizontally slice, or "tort," cake layers. Torting is both practical (you don't have to bake as many separate cakes) and artful (once you get the hang of it). After torting, you spread filling between the layers, stack them, frost them and mount them on plastic plates. You then cut plastic dowels with a small power saw and build the cake like a parking garage. B. Keith was the first person who didn't think it was strange or impossible that Linda and I could make a wedding cake for 150 people.
Linda: In March, Cake Night talk all of a sudden took an intriguing turn. I had actually met a man who wanted to kiss me and didn't want to leave me. With John, I quickly realized that a man could be clever and worldly without benefit of a subscription to the New Yorker, that in the right company, even a trip to Ikea could be transcendent, that romance could be easy.