Buddy Valastro, star of the TLC reality show Cake Boss, can rest a little easier today.
He has one less person on the planet aspiring to slap him off his pastry pedestal because I’ve officially eliminated Cake Boss from the list of things I want to be when I grow up. I don’t even want to be the Cake Executive Assistant, for that matter.
I’m not sure how bossy the Cake Boss is. I don’t know if he rubs his accountant’s face in vats of Crisco, or plants Exlax in the muffins or laces the apple tarts with strychnine, but my chef’s hat is off to anyone who can make a living baking cakes.
It took 50 years of life to get to the point where I was first faced with having to actually bake a cake. I could have happily gone another 50 cakeless years if not for the annual Cub Scout Pack 42 Fellas Cake Bake held last month.
The Fellas Cake Bake is a father-and-son activity where the guys are supposed to create a designer cake together with no outside assistance. In this case, the guidelines specified that everything had to be edible and the cake had to have a sports or Scout theme.
Seemed simple enough. Bake a basic yellow sheet cake, following the instructions on the back of the Duncan Hines box, and use an icing applicator to sketch out a picture of a baseball on top. No sweat.
Well, it got a little more complicated when Austin decided he wanted to make a cake in the three-D shape of a baseball cap, which had to be electric green, flat-bill style, with the Fox logo (the sports apparel manufacturer, not the TV network) on the front and dropped in the middle of a motocross track diorama.
That’s when I started to feel the pressure. For several days prior to cake bake day, my brain was on high heat (Fahrenheit, not Celsius) trying to figure out how I was going to pull this off. The stakes climbed when I realized Austin and his Paw Paw B placed in this event the two previous years as work obligations prevented me from participating.
Even so, I had to redeem myself as a worthy father after the unfortunate Pinewood Derby disaster. In last year’s Derby, my son decided he wanted a cool looking car and wasn’t worried about placing first. So, we made him a NASCAR style racer that looked slick but finished well out of the running.
This year he decided he wanted to go for the checkered flag and I soon discovered there exists on this orb a secret realm, a parallel Pinewood Derby dimension. In this strange and spooky space you can find anything you can name – entire series of books, videos, specialized tools and gadgets, tips and tricks for success, pre-fab body modifications, lengthy discussions and debates on aerodynamics – all designed to shave micro-seconds off a car’s time so that little Junior can go home with a two-bit trophy in his hands and won’t get his self-esteem completely crushed for life.
I reluctantly decided to dip my little toe into this mysterious netherworld and applied a few tricks of the trade, spending more time than is reasonable lathing plastic wheels and polishing metal axles. But the results were the same – no hardware. So, the Cake Bake was my shot at redemption and an opportunity to earn back my pops props.
Similar to the Derby, the odds were stacked against us in the baking arena as well because every Scout pack has one or two families that go whole-hog on any project placed on the calendar and usually emerge the winners. I figured we’d probably finish last, but we’d go down swinging our spatulas as hard as possible.
After getting some tips off the internet, the baking process began. I promptly became lost at “grease and flour pan.” I mean, how much grease? Do you slather that stuff on? Is more grease better than less grease? Can you use butter, or canola oil, or Pennzoil 5W-20 instead? Oil is oil, right? How much flour? Why do we need flour in the first place? What’s that do for the cake? I thought flour was supposed to be inside the cake, not on the pan.
But once we navigated through those initial steps, we found our stride. We whipped up the cake batter, poured it into three lightly greased and floured pans and popped them into the oven.
Of course, the idea of all Scout activities is to spend some quality time together – away from any kind of screen – learning how to work as a team and collaborate to achieve a specific goal. But as it usually turns out with these father-and-son projects, once the real work gets going the son starts looking for his nearest escape route and the father gets stuck with all the work.
There’s a legendary tale of the Scout and his dad arriving at a Pinewood Derby race. The kid is carrying a box with his competition car inside. Just before the race begins, the kid opens the box, takes a gander at the car and complains, “But Dad, I wanted a red car this year!”
The more complicated the process became and the more dexterity required, the more latitude I gave Austin to go outside and play with his buddies – and the more my competitive instincts kicked in. Soon, cutting corners was not an option. I used a special gadget to carve in the threaded seams of the cap, got a wicked triceps pump rolling out the fondant, took care to make the vent holes on the top look realistic as possible, fashioned a realistic logo, carved out the curves of the bill just right.
As it turned out, the cake took first place honors at the banquet and Austin walked away with the winning trophy, though I threatened to wrestle it away from him.
He learned a little bit about baking. After all, if he finds himself stranded out in the swamp late at night with dangerous creatures all around and a storm moving in, he may want to whip up some petit fours. And I learned that you always hold the electric mixer beaters at a right angle. I’m still picking dried butter cream bits out of my earholes.