Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Have Cake, Will Travel Part 2

I'm thinking I should have made this a 3 parter, but oh well... :)

We arrived in Tuscany on Saturday afternoon, and were instantly in awe of the gorgeous villa and the lovely little apartments within. It was everything I could have ever imagined it would be like, times about a hundred. Incredible views, majestic building, perfectly quaint interior. In short, it was perfect. :)

Kitchen/ living room of one of the apartments

Saturday night was glorious, with a superb welcome dinner given by the innkeeper and lovely weather inviting us to enjoy the food and company outside.

Unfortunately, by Sunday morning a front had moved in, and cold rain was the order of the day. As we prepared to go to nearby Montespretoli for a festival, the moms warned us all to dress warm so no one got sick. I scoffed at their advice, and reminded them that sickness was caused by viruses and bacteria, not a little inclement weather. *shaking head* Those old wives’ tales are for fools – I didn’t go to four years of college as a science major for nothing, thank you very much.

Rain-drenched festival in Montespretoli

By Monday, I was eating my words. I felt dreadful. Sniffly, achy, out of sorts—I couldn’t believe it! But after my little self-satisfied rant the day before, no one, but no one, was going to know that I was sick. I sucked it up, pasted a smile on my face, and endured a trip to Sienna with everyone, all the while pretending I was fine.

Me in Sienna pretending I am fine. Notice, however, the scarf and cardigan this time.

I wasn’t. I could only act normal for so long, and then I begged off from the group, saying that my husband and I wanted to do some sight-seeing on our own. Truthfully, I just wanted the opportunity to feel wretched in peace. By the end of the day, I was drained, and happily fell into bed at the first opportunity.

When Tuesday dawned (the day before the wedding), the unfamiliar presence of sunshine jarred me from my short-lived, fitful sleep. As I awoke, I wondered how it was possible for someone to have taken me out back and beaten me with a baseball bat without me having any actual memory of the attack. Not cool, I tell you, not cool at all.

As I lay in bed, I had only two thoughts in my head: Must make cake, and I am going to die. Preferably in that order.

My back ached ferociously, with pain radiating through my bones and shooting lasers out of my fingertips and toes. Okay, perhaps not actual lasers, but invisible pain-waves of misery, to be sure. I lay there, pitifully, wondering if I had pneumonia, or bronchitis, or some other icky, awful virus/bacteria that required doctor attention. That thought, which led to another of me stranded in a foreign hospital trying in vain to communicate with an Italian speaking doctor, had me rallying to actually stand up and face the day.

My sister’s wedding was tomorrow, and it was too important to let a little misery ruin the mood. I dragged myself out of bed and decided to get on with the business of making a cake.

After showering, dressing, and shoving my pockets with Kleenex, I rifled through my luggage and extracted the perfectly packed wedding cake kit. *Rocky music in the background* I could do this!

I cleared out the kitchen, unearthed a giant bowl, and placed on the table everything that I would need. Butter: check, Cake mix: check, Eggs: Check. I then turned to the oven.

And stared.

What the…? There were no numbers, or instructions, or obvious little switches. It was basically a little black box, with a little dial that had no clear markings on it what-so-ever. Right.

We turned the knob, and opened and closed the door, and searched for hidden instructions. Nada. After an ominous whiff of natural gas, I sent my dad scurrying to get the innkeeper. Thankfully, they returned quickly, and with a spin of the knob and a wave of his magic wand, the oven was on. Super. I literally had no clue how he did it, but I was happy.

The innkeeper went back to his office, and I started combining ingredients. In my slow, disease-ridden brain, it soon occurred to me that there was no way two 10-inch and two 6-inch pans were ever going to fit in one little oven. Sheepishly, I called for the innkeeper a second time, and he returned (with a somewhat more strained smile) to turn on the oven in the adjoining apartment.

I thanked him profusely, and got back to work. As I sluggishly measured and dumped the water, eggs, and butter into the mix, I was suddenly inordinately grateful for the cake mixes. The thought of making a cake from scratch at this point was akin to climbing Mount Everest. Blindfolded. With ankle-weights…think Jane Fonda circa 1985 in a parka.

I pulled out my trusty hand mixer—coincidentally given to me by my mother 8 years earlier as a wedding gift (did I mention that it was our anniversary?)—plugged it into the adapter, and turned it on. Sparks promptly burst from the unit, cracking and popping and smelling of destroyed dreams. Two seconds later it was dead, a victim of a crappy adapter and my own faith in hand-held appliances.

“Nnnooooo!!!!!” I cried. Actually, that’s what I thought. I think the actual verbalization was akin to the keening of a beached whale. It’s hard to say—a lot of this time is hazy in my memory.

With a sigh and a sniffle, I set aside the murdered appliance, and picked up a serving spoon, which was the closest thing to a spatula I could find in the cupboards. Steeling my resolve, I set to work beating as vigorously as I could muster. After a few minutes it was ready, and I called my husband to hold the bowl—which had somehow become too heavy for me to lift—while I spooned the batter into the cake pans. After a gentle shake and a tap or two, they were split up and put into the two ovens.

Panting from the effort of staying alive, I set the timer and collapsed on the couch in a boneless heap. Two seconds later, the timer went off, and I blinked in confusion. Had I actually fallen asleep? I blamed the medieval torture device that the innkeeper was passing off as a bed. That, combined with being sick last night, resulted in about 2 hours of sleep the night before.

I stumbled up and checked the cake: not done yet. I started to sit back down, then thought maybe I should check on the cakes in the other apartment. I shuffled next door and peeked into the oven.

Yikes! The cake wasn’t golden—it was already brown! Well of course, why on earth would two identical ovens, both set at half moon past dash, cook at the same rate? That would be way to logical and simple.

I fumbled around looking for potholders, but couldn’t find any (again—way too logical to have oven mitts next to an oven), so I yanked down the damp tea towels next to the sink and extracted the pans. Within about two seconds, the heat from the metal vaporized the water in the towels and steam quickly singed my fingers. Without thinking, I threw them both none too gently on the stove. Thankfully, since they were both slightly overcooked, they didn’t deflate on impact. Thank the Lord for small favors… I guess.

I managed to not kill the second set of cakes, and soon had them cooling beside the crispy brown set. Thank God, I was over the first hurtle. And, miraculously, I was starting to feel better. Things were going to work out after all. *humming* Grey skies are going to clear up… put on a happy face!

After they cooled for a bit, I had to get the crumb layer of icing on the cake. I pulled out the powdered sugar, the butter, the shortening, the vanilla, and the milk, plus a bowl to put it in. About this time, I remembered the untimely death of my mixer.

Darn it.*

*Not actual phrase. This blog has been edited for content (i.e. language) in deference to the sensibilities of my dear readers.

I could hand mix the cake, but there was no way I could hand mix the icing and end up with something smooth enough to cover a wedding cake. So I sent my husband downstairs to find the innkeeper (again), and beg the use of his hand mixer (assuming he even had a hand mixer, which I was fervently hoping he did). I was immensely happy to learn that he did indeed have a mixer, and he brought it up to me. I tried to ignore the worried glance he threw my destroyed mixer, as well as his flared nostrils, no doubt detecting a hint of appliance death mixed in with the smell of cake. He nodded his head in acceptance of my thanks, and backed out of the room, looking as though he very much wanted to snatch his mixer and run.

Before I whipped up the icing or uncovered the flour-cloth covered cakes, it occurred to me that, in the immortal words of Eddie Izzard, when people were given the choice of cake or death, they took cake every time. (You there! Cake or death? Um, cake please.) I was very much afraid that if I did not take precautions, the unwary guests might walk away with cake and death. Though I was feeling somewhat okay at this point, I didn’t want to take any chances. Not having a surgical mask, I did the next best thing I could think of:

I hair-clipped a towel around my face.

Sexy, no?

That is state-of-the-art, 21st century, disease-prevention gold there, my friends.

As crude as it was, it did the job, and it wasn’t long before the cake was filled, assembled, and crumb-layer-frosting-ed. Deciding I was feeling much better (I felt like as spry 65 year old, as opposed to a disease-ridden 90 year old—quite the improvement), I decided to head to Pisa for the day, followed by a few hours at San Gimignano. Since it was the day before the wedding, we also went to a rehearsal dinner in a nearby village.

That was about the time I started to crash. As the family ate and feted the happy couple, I concentrated on not ending up face first in the bowl of spaghetti. I needed to get home and get to bed, stat. As the Monty Python “Bring out your dead!” refrain echoed through my fevered brain, I did my best to smile in a half normal fashion, so not to upset the family with my impending death (it does tend to ruin a wedding, don’t you think?). I played it off as exhaustion, and managed to escape back to the villa.

At this point, I was heartily regretting my decision to leave the house that day. Yes, I had felt good at the time. Yes, I had gazed upon the single most recognized engineering screw-up in history. Yes, the sun was shining and the temperatures had risen above freezing for the first time since we arrived, but my sick, sleep-deprived body was starting to shut down. As I crawled up the stairs, wheezing for breath and praying for the sudden advancement of teleportation technology, I suddenly realized the truth.

I had contracted the bubonic plague.

I ruled out mad cow disease since my brain at least seemed to be functioning, and bird flu was so last year. No, the only thing wretched-sounding enough to possibly describe how I was feeling would naturally have the words ‘plague’ and ‘black death’ associated with it.

The next morning, I awoke to my husband taking my pulse. Alright, so not really, but it’s what he should have been doing, instead of shaking me and saying all chipper-ly, “Time to get up! You’ve got a cake to decorate!”

As much as I wanted to burrow under the covers and pass out, he was right. It was my sister’s wedding day (hooray!), and it was going to be the best darn wedding day in history, by Jove! And I had a cake to decorate.

Earlier in the week, before I had contracted the black death, my mom, my sister, her future sister-in-law, and I had decided to use fresh flowers to decorate the cake. Kara wanted a simple, Tuscan-inspired design that would reflect our surroundings. It had sounded like a good idea at the time. Now, as I dressed and prepared for the outing, I was wondering if anyone would notice if I simply put my sunhat on my hubby and sent him in my stead. I sighed and accepted that it would never work… his accent is a little more southern than mine.

So I gave myself a bit of a pep talk, pinched my cheeks, stretched my lips into an over-bright smile, and headed out into the countryside to collect flowers. Being half dead at the time, it is all rather dim in my memory, but I do recall beautiful yellow flowers, bright sun… and shotgun shells on the ground. Oh, and a hasty retreat from the property we were trespassing on. Thank goodness we got some lovely pictures of the day:

Me, my sister, her sister-in-law. Shotgun shells at our feet.

We made it back to the villa in one piece, but we all agreed that the flowers needed a little supplementation. Kara and I went off in search of the innkeeper again, who warily regarded me as we approached his office. We begged for some of his fresh lemons from his vast on-site gardens. After some (Italian-accented) hemming and hawing, he agreed to give up a lemon. One lemon. And he stood over us as we nervously clipped the chosen fruit from his tree. We thanked him and beat a hasty retreat. He watched us as we left, making sure we didn’t rob him of any more of his precious produce. I don’t blame the man—I had become quite the bother.

Back at the apartment, I clipped the towel back over my mouth and set to work on the icing for the cake. Surprisingly, it actually turned out quite nice, with the design matching up exactly with the one my sister requested. I’m not sure exactly how I did it, but I was immensely relieved when it was finished. After the icing was done, I set to work placing the flowers and lemon (singular). After arranging and rearranging, I knew that it needed a little more oomph. So I called in the big guns, aka, my husband.

“I need a yellow rose and another lemon. Whatever you do, don’t let anybody see you. Got it?” He saluted me, grabbed the kitchen shears, and set off into the yard. He was gone for almost an hour before he finally came back. Apparently, the innkeeper sensed his nefarious purpose, and kept walking back and forth across the gardens, showing up each time just as my husband reached for the scissors. Hubby had persevered, however, and managed to smuggle a single, perfect yellow rose bud and one baby lemon.

With trembling hands, I placed the final touches on the cake before stepping back to view the final product. I couldn’t believe it: it was beautiful!

Tada! The final product.

How had that happened?

Honestly, it was a miracle. After everything that happened to get to that point, I had somehow managed to produce the perfect little cake I had envisioned for my sister and her new husband. It looked good, it tasted great, and the wedding truly was perfect in every way. And as a bonus, I learned a little something about perseverance along the way:

It was only later that I discovered that the malady plaguing me that trip was probably swine flu (and not brought on by not wearing a jacket in the cold rain- see moms? I knew it all along), and I had inadvertently passed it to my brother and sister. In short, I may have ruined my sister’s honeymoon, but the wedding—and that cake—couldn’t have been more perfect. Mission Accomplished.

Happy Anniversary, Kara and Ryan!

AND THE WINNER IS... Janice Sweasey Zimmer! Congratulations, Janice!!

Chocolate Buttercream:

1 pound powdered sugar (1 box or 4 cups)

¾ cup unsweetened natural cocoa

½ cup butter (1 stick)

1/3 cup shortening

1 tsp vanilla extract (use clear for wedding cakes)

¼ tsp salt,

3 – 4 Tbsp whole milk


  1. Erin,
    You should add actress to your list of talents because while I remember you being slightly under the weather, I had no idea the extent to how badly you felt or how sick you really were! You hid it beautifully, and that cake...well, that cake was a piece of heaven. I can still remember the taste one year later. (and I'm glad a farmer didn't add shotgun shells to his collection as we 'illegally' picked flowers that morning in his grove!)
    HAPPY ANNIVERSARY to my brother and my KS. Hope you're enjoying the trip up the coast!

  2. This is a hilarious read, Erin. Thanks so much for sharing it with us. (And yes, I've had the swine flu. It's miserable. I'm shocked you did anything more than remember to breathe, let alone baked and decorated a cake.)

  3. Great story Erin.

    Sorry you lost the mixer. And I'm glad you survived the disease and angry farmer's.

  4. Janice Sweasey ZimmerJune 1, 2010 at 7:08 PM

    Congrats to Kara and Ryan! Beautiful cake Erin and what a husband to risk life and limb for the lemon and rose:) Looking forward to cupcakes, you are too sweet.

  5. Lindsay, I'm so glad I was able to pull off my impression of 'well Erin' - lol! When I look through the pictures, I only have a few that show the horrible yuckiness behind my eyes.
    It does my heart good to know that the cake made such an impression on you :)

  6. Catherine, I'm so happy you liked the story... and so sorry you had to suffer the swine flu, too!! Thank goodness it's behind us both. Thanks for stopping by :)

  7. Thanks, Beth! Luckily, I was able to replace the mixer with the exact same brand, so alls well that ends well :)

  8. My hubby is quite a guy, indeed, Janice ;) Congrats on the win, I can't wait to hear what you will be ordering. Thanks for dropping by!

  9. What a fabulous sister you are...I'm afraid I've have been looking for the first panificio I could find ;)

  10. LOL, Heather! Don't think it didn't cross my mind ;) I'm glad it all worked out in the end, though - it sure made for an interesting story, if I do say so myself!

  11. well told ek :) and i love the perseverance picture! happy anniversary to both the mac sisters! love-andi

  12. Why, thank you, andi! It's funny how all three of us have anniversaries so close together... it does make it convenient for remembering, don't you think?

  13. HAHA! Amazing how misery makes for such hilarious storytelling:) I totally forgot about being watched over as we were allowed to have ONE lemon...too funny. And the image of you slapping a hat on Kirk and sending him in your place to pick flowers with us made me laugh out loud. Thank you for all you went through to make the most perfect cake ever...even if it did become a disease delivery device, it was still worth it!!

  14. So true that misery generally makes for a great story, Kara :) And I am convinced you and Andy got sick from proximity, not the cake. Otherwise, everyone would have fallen ill! That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

  15. Brava!! Your death certainly would've ruined the festivities... especially if you'd kicked the bucket before the cake was done! Thanks for toughing it out -- it put a beautiful (and tasty) exclamation point on the event. It almost made our three deliriously sick honeymoon days okay. Almost...

  16. But see, Ryan, you guys got a good story out of it, too! Boo to sickness, but yay to cake and Italy!!

  17. Courtney Menzel-JordanJune 8, 2010 at 5:56 PM

    Erin, you make my heart happy. And when I have children, you will tell them bedtime stories (not me). No, I'm going to kidnap you. Easy solution.

  18. Lol- Courtney, that's what iChat's for ;) I'm so thrilled to hear I can make your heart happy, sweet cousin. Now go bake something wonderful!