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Cake-Baking and Connecting With People

A Personal Perspective: A pandemic distraction was a bond with my autistic son.

Like so many of us, I got into baking during the pandemic. It started as a way to engage my autistic son Nat who was living at home with us for the lockdown. Nat is a man of few words and even fewer social interests. But baking has always been our common denominator. So during Covid we baked every day and gave most of it away to neighbors. To make the baking thing even more interesting for me, my son Ben, a professional illustrator, created a logo for us: a cartoon version of Chef Nat. My husband made stickers, and bought a bunch of mailing boxes, and he and Nat became experts at packaging. We started sending them out to friends and family as a way of cheering everyone up — and not eating it all ourselves.

These days Nat visits us on Saturdays and we have continued our baking tradition together. In my tiny kitchen, tall Nat reigns over all. He has become so swift and sure around the kitchen, from measuring to separating eggs to operating our stand mixer. I’m just the “Sue" Chef. We have logo-bearing hats and aprons. Although incredibly messy, my Saturday afternoons are full of joy, not just about being able to share this complicated activity with Nat, but also because I love being surrounded by gooey batter and mushy sweet frosting. We feast until we are sick, and even that is a bonding experience.

Sometime during this past year I started taking baking seriously, doing it even when Nat wasn’t visiting. I got hooked on baking shows. I fell asleep dreaming about cake. I talked about cake. Just the word “cake” felt good in my mouth, the way the C and the K close around the A like a big bite. The urge to try new techniques would come over me and I would just have to make something. It was like letting a genie out of a bottle; suddenly I could have any treat I wanted.

Recently Nat and I decided to try cake-carving. I thought we could make a mountain out of cake, maybe four thick layers, because Nat is into rock climbing. We would make a yellow cake with gray frosting. I was excited to use my new three-inch cake pans, the professional-looking ones that have a springy clasp that releases the cake from the bottom. I poured out two little pans and two eight-inch pans and set them into the oven.

And that’s when everything went to hell. I smelled something burning and I opened the oven door and smoke poured out at me. Two yellow continents of batter pooled at the bottom of the oven, with still more dripping from my new fancy pans. I pulled them out and tried to think but I was starting to panic a little. There was no way I could wipe up the spill — the oven was too hot. I didn’t want to just give up and so, foolishly, I decided maybe it would just burn itself out and we’d still have the bigger pans.

Nat stood still, just watching. I have no idea what he was thinking, but at some point he just sat down in the living room. “It’s okay,” I kept saying, even though it wasn’t. The burning smell was getting worse. And our kitchen, a glorified butler’s pantry, has no room for a hood. I opened windows but I knew the smoke detectors were going to go off — and I could not reach them. Tears in my eyes, I called the fire department.

Two trucks and a police car howled down our street. Suddenly my tiny kitchen was filled with maybe 10 huge firemen, and more pouring into the house. They set up an industrial-size fan, and within a few moments they’d cleared away a lot of the smoke. As they were leaving one of them said to me, “I think there was some cake batter in there that was causing the smoke.”

Tell me about it. I cleaned everything up, so sweaty and exhausted and smelling like smoke that all I wanted to do was nap. I took Nat back to his group home, promising him that next time we’d just bake cookies.

But I woke up the next day feeling that cake lust and I knew I was going to have to bake. I was a little afraid of the stove but I knew I had to get right back up on the horse, so to speak. And then it hit me, the best idea ever: I would bake a cake for the firemen! This way I could thank them but also show them that I could make a cake without burning down the house. After all, I am a professional, and I have the apron and toque to prove it.

Four hours later I had a delicious four-layer devil’s food cake with raspberry cream cheese buttercream frosting. It was oddly sloped and the frosting was dotted with brown crumbs, but it was delicious (I had eaten many excess bits). And then, the pièce de resistance: I piped a black fire hat on the top, and the words “Thank You.” I got out one of my new baking toys, an actual silver cardboard cake box with a plastic window on top, and slid the cake in, marveling at my work. I carried it down the hill to the fire station and worried that maybe this kind of thing wasn’t really done anymore, maybe firefighters don’t just take a cake from some strange woman.

But wow, I was wrong. They swung open the door and shook my hand, smiling and laughing. One of them, Pete, took the box and said, “Whoa!” and he pantomimed holding a heavy load. “Feel this, it’s really dense!” The others were thrilled. We went over to the firetruck and took pictures, and Pete said, “Ha! Look at the fire hat on the cake!” I was so glad they could tell what it was.

I walked back home, crazy happy. The only regret I had was that Nat hadn’t been there to make it with me. But there will definitely be a next time because now we have actual customers.

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