There are few things more satisfying than the perfect slice of cake. You know the one: layers of velvety chocolate cake surrounded by a fluffy Earl Grey buttercream. That’s my perfect cake, at least. Maybe yours is the pecan-carrot cake that Grandma bakes every year and slathers in decadent cream cheese frosting, or the oversweet cookies-and-cream ice cream cake found in every creamery window.
Regardless of flavor, however, there’s one thing all cakes share: connection. The memories of baking with others are critical to a cake’s success. A well-baked cake brings people together unlike anything else, because without a loved one to share it with, the only thing remaining is a stomach ache from devouring it all. The cakes created with others are usually the most delicious and memorable ones.
Flavor combinations range from sweet and simple to wildly complex and sophisticated. While a pink champagne cake filled with strawberry coulis and enrobed in shimmering mirror glaze is absolutely delectable, many do not need something so intricate. To them, the best cake is almost deceptively simple because it tastes of nostalgia.
Remember. Your seventh birthday. Your cheeks hurt from smiling for the last two hours and thirty-seven minutes. That was when your best friends arrived to celebrate with you and nonstop laughter ensued. Soon, Mom walks through the kitchen doorway, and a gasp escapes your lips when you realize that the sprinkle-covered masterpiece in her hands is for you.
Really, you pay little mind to the out-of-tune birthday chorus surrounding you. All your attention lies on the three-layer slab of golden sponge and silky icing in front of you. The room lets out a collective sigh of pleasure with the first bites. A buttery, rich sense of calm washes over you as crumbs stick to the left corner of your lips. And so, you smile at the curly-haired girl on your right, and take another mouthful. This is what yellow tastes like: satisfaction and cake the color of dandelions and shared smiles.
As Mom tucks you into bed late that evening, you ask her how she baked magic into your birthday cake. With a chuckle, she kisses you gently, and murmurs, “I had a little help from Betty Crocker.”
We can all agree that a box of Betty Crocker Super Moist Yellow Cake Mix™ is not remotely gourmet. Sorry to burst your bubble, but if it comes in a box, a box is where it belongs. Yet, for so many, that is the epitome of cake. Boxed yellow cake is what they request every birthday. That’s not because it has a stellar taste—likely you can infer my thoughts on the matter—but because it allows us to reminisce on the purest of moments. In effect, the cake is as much about the people as about the celebration.
The same magic occurs even without a special occasion. Anyone who’s ever baked with a friend understands. There’s something unique about creaming butter and sugar that ties souls together. Some of the deepest heart-to-hearts take place in the kitchen. For those of you who find emotional conversations nauseating, don’t panic. Cake-making doesn’t need to be profound or heartfelt. While cakes layered with trust are quite delicious, there’s nothing better than one infused with laughter. Moments of sheer dumbassery—though that is a given when spending time with friends—tend to create more scrumptious memories than deep talks or birthday parties.
Now, I’d like you to take a moment and imagine. Today is one of the dog days of summer. You stand in your best friend’s kitchen. The brightest red velvet cake in history rests among towers of dirty dishes and forgotten teaspoons on the tan granite island in front of you. Already, it is leveled and filled, but not frosted. Neither of those things should have taken as long as they did, but you both were terrified of making the first incision. And for good reason: it is lopsided and half-heartedly beginning to lean. Your taste buds don’t mind, however, because of the sweetness lingering on your tongue from devoured cake scraps.
Slowly, you work together to frost the cake. As you smooth the buttercream, he explains for the third time today why chocolate is superior to cream cheese icing. Both of you crack up, but you know he’s right. The cake looks perfect. The two of you share a smile before you tease him about the buttercream on his nose and get back to work.
Twenty minutes later, neither of you are sure whose brilliantly horrible idea it was to crumble the leftover cake trimmings and sprinkle them on top. Originally, the intent was to create a mosaic: instead, you have what looks to be raw ground beef crumbled onto a dried cow. With eye contact comes heaving laughter over your monstrosity. To this day, that is the best cake you’ve ever eaten. Even now, you can still taste the elation-spiked buttercream.
Now, I hope you envisioned this cake properly in all of its hideous glory. It should not have been anything remarkable. Truthfully, it was quite revolting to look at, though still delicious. Yet, that cake remains my favorite because of the memories.
That, my friends, is the true purpose of a cake: to bring people together. If you’re a cake hater (I sincerely hope this is not the case) or simply dislike everything I’ve said, at least try one thing for me. Gather up three of your favorite human beings in the universe and share a good ol’ devil’s food cake with them. By the time you’ve gobbled down a slice or two, your friendships will be stronger. If not, I recommend you find yourself some new friends who are more appreciative of desserts. If all else fails, at least you will still have cake. It is a well-known fact that a moment with cake is always tastier than one without.