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The Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Thing

August 15, 2011

I could blame the landlord for propping a ladder against the back of the house and leaving it there for two weeks. Or, I could blame the universe, or the other neighbour for feeding the local raccoons out her backdoor and putting ideas into the heads of squirrel onlookers. I could blame bad luck, or my recent post wherein I promise to reflect the nasty bits along with my culinary triumphs and quest for perfection. Really, I  blame myself…for baking such top notch cake.

In real life, when it happened, I first blamed my cat. I arrived home from work, primed to put the finishing touches on cupcakes for a party of 140, after which I had three or four hours of medical textbook editing ahead of me before my evening would be done. I offered to prepare birthday treats for a friend’s annual pig roast which this year coincides with his wife’s fortieth birthday, never anticipating that I would also have a freelance deadline five days later, or that the three preceding weeks would be so hot that butter turned to oil at “room temperature” and cakes popped into my oven refused to rise or set. My best laid plans of baking everything well ahead of time, thus freeing up endless hours in which to place commas, revise footnotes, and spell-check obtuse medical credentials and residency programs tanked as the July heatwave bled into August, and with five days in which to do it all, the heat was…ahem…on.

So, I’m home, I’m tired, I’m out of my office clothes, I’m feeding my cat, and I notice…something isn’t quite like it was when I left for the office that morning. In fact, something is not only “not right”; something is very, very wrong. The peaches were the give-away, stinking up the place with a sweet and slightly rotten fragrance. Left in a bowl on the counter, they were about 24 hours away from attaining perfect preserving ripeness, picked a bit green to ensure they remained sturdy and didn’t bruise or blemish on the bicycle ride home, these peaches were going to team up with two pints of red currants to form the ultimate summer jam. I blamed the cat for two reasons:

1. I sure didn’t trash my kitchen and eat a half-dozen pieces of fruit that afternoon.

2. a couple of years ago when I first invited the cat into my home, our first lesson about not going on the kitchen counter, ever, under any circumstances, took place the day she ate a quart of cherry tomatoes, leaving perfect little fang-bites in the tomato flesh, not unlike the ones marring every one of my so close to perfect peaches.

As much as she behaves like “our” apartment is a lawless frontier, though, the one lesson that actually stuck was the kitchen counter thing, and besides, eating cocoa, flour, three varieties of sugar, a handful of coconut, a sack of oat bran (unrelated to the cupcakes, just to be clear) and a stick of butter just isn’t her style. When offered, she won’t even take chicken or pork as a table scrap, and if I drop a bite of food on the floor, she bats it around like a toy then walks away without taking so much as a lick. And then, I noticed the sprinkles and cocoa nibs on the window sill. The outside part. And, the shredded screen blowing in the breeze.

The squirrel returned three times while I cleaned my apartment, tossing everything it had sampled, bleaching everything it had peed on, and pretty much throwing out half my pantry and all 140 cupcakes on the off chance it had transferred its rabies or its fleas or the crud from the underside of its paws, crud picked up through a summer of foraging in the alleys, trash bins, and compost of west-end Toronto. I confess to a crying jag and a temper tantrum, and to calling my mother and shouting things like, “give me a break” and, “come on, really?! What the fuck!” And, while pitching this tantrum and swearing those swears, I bustled around the apartment erasing any trace of the ruined sweets and by the time I calmed down and realised this was good “nasty bits” blog shit, it was too late to document the worst of the destruction. If you have any doubts it went down like I claim, you can ask my landlord, who was curious why he stood up from the table after enjoying dinner on his patio, to discover a chunk of vanilla buttercream smeared across the seat of his pants. Looking up, he saw my vacuum hose poking out the window, and probably heard a handful or two of my hearty “what the fucks”.

Like I said, the squirrel returned several times while I tidied, an expectant and pissed off look on its face. As though it didn’t understand what my deal was, locking it out by shutting the window glass. As though it were insulted I was so greedy and was denying it the very treat it hoped to stockpile its nest with for the long winter treat drought. In fact, it’s been back, knocking at my windows, every day since last Thursday, despite my cat chasing it away, despite the windows that remain consistently, diligently closed, despite the vacuum hose I turned on then poked through the ripped screen at its sniffing button-sized nose.

In the end, I culled a lesson from what began as a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad thing: perfect is not always required. With no time remaining to fuss over chiffon cakes and slavishly adhere to a tried and tested recipe, I tossed all the ingredients into a bowl, instant-mix style: self-rising flour, sugar, cocoa, eggs, softened butter at once then whizzed with the electric mixer on “high”. Once uniform and airy, I added the milk (just like a box would instruct, if a box were there to tell me what to do next) and once the milk was combined, I folded in the melted bittersweet chocolate without making things too bubbly. Ok, so that’s not quite what a Betty Crocker box would include, but letting go of this pursuit of culinary perfection is going to take more than one blog post and one home invading squirrel to let go completely. Plop the batter into paper cups and bake till they seem done. Cool, frost, freeze, move on. I felt like a jelly donut, glazed in a dusting of icing sugar that settled then turned to a shiny crust on my sweaty upper lip and my arms while I sifted, blobs of the plum jam I used to flavour the frosting and turn it a pig-roast shade of pink missing the bowl and landing like sticky bombs on the floor.

Baking and transporting of cupcakes accomplished, the bourbon was uncorked, and in keeping with the nasty bits, limes were sliced on a stone in the hay field where we parked our car.

The pig roast was incredible, as always. And, recruiting a team of assistants to help me decorate the cakes (beers in hand, straw hats on heads, sweat on brows), it was particularly liberating to tell them, “do whatever you want. Take the frosting and put it on, then put some of the other stuff on, then pick another one, and do whatever with that one too till there’s none left in the box and all the platters are full.”

I watched the moon rise from the my perch at the end of a hay wagon, while stuffing bourbon, pig cracklin’ and three varieties of dessert into my face. Everything smelled good, even the mosquito repellant on my shins and feet, even the weird aroma of confectioners sugar that followed me like a cloud.

And, nastiest of all? The duo of cupcakes and fist-sized hunk of pork packed up as leftovers and stowed together in the trunk, sweating up the plastic pastry box window on the ride home.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Jesse permalink
    August 15, 2011 8:03 pm

    ‘What the fuck!’ indeed. What a cheeky little bastard!

    • welltailored permalink*
      August 15, 2011 8:13 pm

      No joke. Though, I suspect that in the style of a bathroom stall “for a good time, call…” graffiti, there is a tree somewhere in my neighbourhood with a description of my balcony and a list of services a squirrel can hope to obtain if it comes calling. A ceiling in which to burrow and pass the winter, a kitchen screen to rip open and pass through in order to get some candy. In the five years I’ve lived here, there have been at least a half-dozen nesting in the space between the roof and my actual indoors, and this is the second time one came into my house and ate sweets. The first time was the Sunday of a weekend when Amy W. and I spent about 72 hours totally drunk, and when I returned from the hotel where we’d been passing out since Thursday, I discovered a squirrel had home invaded me, eaten all the chocolate and cookies and granola from the counter, run around and knocked over all my plants, tracked mud in my bed, then left through a second exit it tore in the bathroom window screen.

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  1. My Apartment the Jelly Donut « Well Tailored Cakes and Neckties

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