Jessie Raymond: Baking experience takes the cake

For a while now, I’ve needed a break from reality. Obsessed with the news, I find my moods swinging between “disgruntled” and “despairing for the future of our democracy.”
I found my escape Saturday, when I baked my grandson’s birthday cake, an annual tradition.
Granted, he just turned 2 last week, so it’s not a longstanding tradition. At this point, it’s more of a coincidence, really. But it’s a start.
I am not, however, a great cake baker. To begin with, our oven isn’t level, so my cakes typically list to one side. And my aggressive frosting technique gives a result that is best described as “crumb-flecked” and “lumpy.” I generally find the process more stressful than satisfying.
But last week I watched a dozen or so cake-making videos on YouTube. I’m an expert now.
The theme of my grandson’s party (because it’s 2017, and “birthday” is no longer considered adequate) was dinosaurs. My daughter-in-law, half-joking, texted me a typical over-the-top Pinterest picture of a two-tiered, Crayon-colored, elaborately decorated cake, studded with toy dinosaurs and tiny plastic palm trees. It looked like a scale model of Jurassic Park (before things went south).
“Can you make this?” she asked, with a laughing I-dare-you emoticon.
“Yes, and then some,” I replied, looking for, but not finding, an emoticon of an overconfident baker.
I’d make mine even taller. And I did: on Friday I baked three graduated tiers, six layers in all.
Until this month, my entire cake-baking toolkit had consisted of two mismatched cake pans, a butter knife and — well, that’s about it. So I invested in not only pans, a rotating turntable, a pastry bag and icing tips, but also in cardboard circles and dowels for supporting the weight of multiple tiers. Until my YouTube binge, I hadn’t even known such things existed. Cake bakers are full of secrets.
The decorating would keep my hands busy, but what about my racing mind? I needed something to act as the mental equivalent of a birthday cake — sweet and enjoyable, but devoid of any nutritional value.
I knew just the thing.
On Saturday morning, I set my laptop on the counter and queued up a series of original Christmas movies. I mean the Hallmark or Lifetime kind, which are “original” only in the sense that they are produced by the network that airs them.
The typical storyline goes as follows: A pretty, all-American interior designer/baker/Christmas tree farmer in the northern village of Snowflake Falls/Christmas Hollow/Wrapping Paper Junction finds herself inexplicably falling for the handsome but callous/sad/widowed developer/CEO/lawyer who has come the week before Christmas to make a hostile takeover of her family’s struggling inn/farm/candy cane factory.
On rare occasions, the setting is urban, and sometimes there is a sleigh ride. But in every case, there are snowball fights during which the bickering but meant-to-be-together love interests end up falling on top of each other. Shocked, they lock eyes for a moment in what is considered, for this genre, scandalous physical proximity.
The sexual tension would heat up the screen, if only the actors had more depth than a pair of Barbie and Ken dolls.
Later, after a misunderstanding that threatens to drive them apart forever, their true feelings are revealed, and, under the mistletoe/on the floor of the spared factory/in front of all the kindhearted townspeople, the guy drops to one knee and proposes. The girl, knowing that it must be true love because they only met four days ago, says yes. Yes!
These movies are hokey and dumb and predictable. And I cry every time.
While cake decorating, I watched three of them back to back. Not only did I not think about politics, but I also entered a weird flow state in which — exceeding my normal abilities — I crafted a towering, dinosaur-bedecked, lush tropical paradise of a cake. (Seriously, I think I won Pinterest.)
On Saturday, I lived in a magical world where a T. Rex and a stegosaurus were buddies hanging out by a lagoon of blue frosting, where all improbable romances had happy endings and where, for over five hours, I forgot to despair for the future of our democracy.
It was the best day 

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