I love cake. It’s a little slice of joy. Whether one’s tastes run to the simplicity of a perfect piece of pound cake or the extravagance of a multi-tiered, multi-filled wedding cake, the pleasure is the same. Sweet, satisfying, dare I say soulful.
And while I have baked my share of cakes — everything from brownies (they do so count!) to ganache-topped chocolate sheets, from Boston cream pies (again, they count as cake) to glazed pumpkin bundts, from chocolate chip sour cream loaves to angel food and devil’s food layers — I have a confession to make. I really prefer when someone else — that is, a bakery — does the baking.
There’s just something about bakery cakes. And here’s another confession — I’m not talking about chic bakeries overflowing with croissants and opera cake and fruit tarts, whose menus offer a gourmand’s selection of pastries almost too beautiful too eat — and too complicated to love.
I’m talking about the kind of bakeries I grew up with — Jewish-style bakeries — whose fare included cakes and cookies and danishes and rye breads and challahs. There’s one located about a half-hour from where we live — too far to make the trip just for the sweets (thankfully, or I’d be eating them every single day), but close enough to visit every couple of months when other errands take me in that direction.
Bakeries like this don’t just spring up — they’ve been around for decades. And in their glass cases, which you can peruse as you wait for your “take-a-number-ticket” number to be called, is a treasure of treats. Golden, braided challahs just calling your name; warm from the oven, caraway-seed-scented rye breads just waiting for the request to be sliced. There are the by-the-pound cookies — small gems dipped in chocolate with raspberry filling; or green, pink, and yellow layered bar cookies topped with chocolate; or tiny almond-paste-filled horns — as well as large single cookies covered with multi-colored sprinkles. And the danishes — chocolate or custardy sweet cheese — are enough to make any cup of coffee rejoice. All redolent with that unmistakable aroma of sweetness and deliciousness and love.
Lest you think I exaggerate, visit a bakery like this for yourself. Start by giving in to the epitome of the classic cookie — the black and white. A vanilla cake-like disk that measures probably five inches across, iced half in chocolate and half in vanilla. Each bite (and getting a bite of both flavors is the best) can transport you for just a couple of minutes to a place where goodness reigns, where comfort abounds, and where pampering one’s self is not only permitted but encouraged.
But what about traditional cakes, you ask. Because this particular bakery sells most of its cakes either whole or in slices, I can have my favorite without overdoing it (is it overdoing it if I buy five slices of five different cakes?). There is the marble checkerboard, the cinnamon babka, the birthday cake topped with pink buttercream roses, the light-as-air sponge, the German chocolate, the lemon poppy seed loaf (I’m starting to sound like Tom Cruise in Cocktail, rattling off his list of specialties). And, my all-time favorite, the seven-layer cake.
Seven layers of yellow cake separated by fluffy, light-chocolate frosting, iced in sweet, rich, dark chocolate. I’ve loved it since I was a kid — especially the chance to separate the layers and eat each one individually. All for me.
And so it was, yesterday, when I finally made my way to this bakery after more than a year, that seven-layer cake (one perfect slice) was my choice. I couldn’t wait to bring it home. While I waited for the person helping me to wrap it in its cardboard box with string (from a hanging dispenser, in the spirit of all bakeries like this), an elderly woman approached me.
“Did I hear you ask for seven-layer cake?” she asked. “Where do they have that?”
I showed her and she smiled at me. “It’s my favorite,” she confided.
“Mine too,” I told her.
She nodded. “And it’s my birthday,” she went on. She looked around to be sure no one else was listening and whispered, “I’m 85 today, can you believe it? I think that’s deserving of a piece, don’t you?” She giggled.
“I absolutely do,” I said. “Happy birthday!”
I wished I could hug her but, things being the way they are these days, I couldn’t. So I did the next best thing. While she was still waiting to be helped at the other end of the counter and I was paying for my slice, I paid for her cake too.
“Please tell that sweet lady ‘happy birthday’ when she comes over to pay,” I requested of the person at the register, who responded with a smile and a nod. “It’s her day to be celebrated.”
And that, I decided, is the power of cake. It makes you feel good — and do good things.
Two forks up.
©2021 Claudia Grossman