Butter, sugar, 3 eggs….what kind of eggs?…what in the world was self-raising flour?…cocoa, baking powder, vanilla extract…exactly how much salt is in a ‘pinch’?…dark chocolate and butter for the icing.
Marceau was beginning to understand what that annoyance of a foreigner said: baking, not easy, even simple cake, something wrong happen, is possible.
“Is alright you can’t bake or cook,” Soji said a few days ago. “I no do what you do, write paper, sign paper, yes?”
“I CAN bake, I learned how!” she protested. “I can cook a few dishes, too!”
“But you no practice, not like enough to do it, no reason.”
“What do you mean?”
“Scholar, read books, not have to do it, no reason, just like to,” he explained in his halting Pendika. “Master Beika, find ways do better with heal program, no reason, just like to. Same thing. Peach cake make Master Beika happy. I try make best peach cake, no reason, just like to, because Master Beika is friend. Understand?”
She sighed. Here he was singing the praises of Beika again. He really was better suited to Beika and her ways. They got along splendidly, whenever Beika was around. She really should not be entertaining the insane thoughts in her head. It would never work out. Besides, she would never be allowed to be in a relationship below her status.
She snapped to attention, and quickly made up her mind. “I CAN bake. A cake. A chocolate cake, even. With icing. I’ll prove it.” He will not look down on her again.
“No need, Marceau, really, no need…”
“I WILL. Give me two days.”
He gave up. He smiled, warm and encouraging….and ingratiating.
She was not completely out of her mind, though, and knew her limits. She hunted down the simplest how-to-bake book in the grand library, and copied down what looked like the easiest recipe for a chocolate cake. After all, it did say “Put all the ingredients in a large mixing bowl and beat with a wooden spoon”. That should not be so hard.
But she did not know her way around the shopping district, did not even know her way around a general-goods grocery.
She had to buy eggs in a dozen, she could not buy just three. She had to go through many shelves to find cocoa powder, baking powder, and flour. She spent too long deciding what type of each to get, did not know which brand was best. She despaired that she did not even know what ‘caster sugar’ was; she just thought it was either brown or white. Until she asked, she did not know that vanilla extract came in little bottles she had to be careful in carrying. She forgot to check if the kitchen of their large and capable house had most of these ingredients already.
But she was going to do this, and no one will stop her! So much for Soji lecturing her on what she could not do!
She got home and hunted down their kitchen oven while she laid out all the ingredients on the work station. She spread out the copied recipe and pinned it down with two apples.
Heat the oven to 180°C. Lightly grease an 18cm (7in) round cake tin with a little extra butter or margarine and cut a piece of greaseproof paper or non-stick baking parchment to fit the base of the tin.
She squinted at the oven and found that it did not have a precise 180-degree setting, stupid oven! She had to guess at it while she fiddled it into something lower than 200-degrees. Then she had search around for a round cake tin…and realized she forgot to buy baking parchment paper. She wailed for a servant to bring her some and a pair of scissors. She grumpily drew out and cut out a circle.
Put all the ingredients in a large mixing bowl and beat with a wooden spoon for 1 minute, or until just combined. It’s important not to beat the batter too much – just long enough to make it smooth.
But, as she despaired to know, she still had to measure out the butter, dirty her hands with egg yolk as she cracked them into too many pieces, get all white and dusty while sifting the flour, and several other little annoyances. She took a little scoopful of salt and hoped that was what a ‘pinch’ meant. Simple cake, indeed! The understatement of the day!
And how was she supposed to beat all the ingredients? Beat them into submission, whack them into shape? Stir them around? But it was hard to stir, the parts took so long to combine! How would she know if it was smooth, anyway?
Pour or spoon the mixture into the tin, smooth the top and bake on the middle shelf of the oven for about 45-50 minutes. The cake is cooked when it looks well risen and golden; the top should spring back when lightly touched with a fingertip. Another test is to insert a skewer into the centre of the cake – it should come out clean.
Finally she managed to create a mess of goo that looked like the cake mixture she made in basic learning. She poured the sticky, lumpy mass into the cake tin, shaking it around until it looked the most even she could make it. Argh, why did this cake not obey her! Everything should obey her, even cake mix!
She plopped it into the oven, and stared at the cake tin, willing it to bake like the cakes in the best restaurants, or else. Unfortunately she was already seeing the bumpy lumps.
She stared at the clock, she stared at the hot oven, stared at the clock, stared at the oven. She was not sure when a cake looked well-risen and golden. Once the clock told her that forty minutes had elapsed, she kept opening and closing the oven, poking a finger into the warm brown mess.
And still she did not bring out the bumpy cake…until she smelled something getting overcooked, then singed. At which time she quickly put on oven mitts and dropped the cake onto the work station.
Let the cake sit in the tin for 5 minutes, then gently run a knife around the edge and turn the cake out onto a wire rack to cool.
She hacked at the edges. The cake did not turn out exactly circular; it looked more a shaggy round bumpy mass on the wire rack.
For the icing, place the dark chocolate and chopped butter in a heatproof bowl and set over a saucepan of very hot water until melted. Cool for 15 minutes, then spread over the top of the cooled cake.
She did not even know what had to be done first, heat the water or heat the chocolate and butter. But she had seen Soji do this part before, once when he made something while chatting with all of them. She calmly boiled a little water, then hunted out a smaller saucepan, wherein she stirred the chocolate and butter, as the saucepan was placed over the pot of water.
She poured the mixture over her disaster of a lumpy shaggy mass, hiding as much of the disaster as she could.
In the end it looked like a woebegone rounded brown mass, covered in darker lumpy saucy something. She hated everything about it. But she had to show Soji this monstrosity, if only to prove that she had done it at all.
In all this time, she did not taste the batter, or the completed cake, or the icing.
With the help of a reluctant servant, she managed to put the chocolate cake into a box. She then marched off to Beika and Soji’s quarters in the programming quadrant. The box was covered, anyway. Nobody else needed to know what was inside the box.
She rapped on the door loudly. The situation was embarrassing. She wanted to be out of the hallway as quickly as possible.
He opened the door. He gasped and smiled. “You do it really.”
She tossed her head. “Of course I did. I told you I can.”
“How it taste?”
“Taste?” How was she supposed to know that? She just followed the recipe!
“You not taste batter?”
Her jaw dropped. That had not been part of the instructions.
“No matter,” he said, taking the box out of her hands.
He opened a box with chocolate icing splattered all over the inside. In her resolution to get to the programming quadrant quickly, she tilted the cake box a bit too much. She slammed a hand onto her forehead.
He said nothing about the icing on the box lining. He got two saucers, two forks, and a knife. He made two slices, one for each of them.
But she could not eat her own cake. She kept watching him. His eyes darted from the icing, to the cake itself. She knew it, she felt it, that all his experience judged every aspect of that simple chocolate cake.
She squeezed her skirt as he spooned out a portion of cake and raised it to his mouth…and a part of her wondered why she was staring so much at him!
He munched thoughtfully for a while, looking up at the ceiling, as if the next words in either Selati or Pendika were there. He munched a little more. She squeezed her skirt so hard that juice just might come out of it.
He lowered the fork onto the saucer. “Too much butter,” he finally said. “Too much salt. Sugar too little.”
Her hair fell over her shoulder in a stream as she sunk her head. She knew it. The cake was bad. She did not get it right. She admitted defeat.
But he put down the saucer and patted her shoulder. “Is good, Marceau,” he grinned, licking the icing off the fingers of his other hand.
“Cake not burn,” he placed the hand under her chin. He gently raised it, to face him. “I burn many cakes. You do good, for first time.”
He smiled. He spoke slowly, deliberately, checking his grammar. “Marceau. I like you, the way you are. No reason. Nothing to prove.”
“It’s not as simple as that…” she muttered.
She hastily grabbed a fork and munched on salty, buttery chocolate cake before she blushed redder than the tomatoes on the table.