Monday, May 10, 2010

THE HOUSE OF USHER: Great Was the Fall Thereof

(with apologies to Edgar Allen Poe)

In my late teens, I aspired to produce a cake in the shape of a house. Such a thing is supposed to be assembled out of rectangular sheets of cake, gingerbread or cookie, nailed together at right angles with toothpicks and further glued with frosting. That approach left me entirely cold. I had taken it into my head that I wanted a solid house-shaped cake.

I actually found a pan for producing such a thing at the local hardware store. It was in two pieces, constructed so as to stand on its roof and be filled from the bottom. Such directions as it came with didn't tell me how much batter I should use or how to adjust the cooking time and temperature. With next to no information to go on and with the misplaced confidence of youth, I forged ahead.

Anything that thick baked at the 350o usual for cakes would turn black and crisp on the outside and fill the kitchen with smoke, while retaining a raw liquid center. I set the oven low; but a more serious problem, as it turned out, was that I dramatically misjudged of the amount of batter appropriate to this large and odd-shaped object. Ten minutes after the house-cake went into the oven, the unmistakable odor of burnt cake filled the air as the batter expanded, rose, and overflowed. Knowing better than to open the door on a cake prematurely, I put off the evil moment as long as I could restrain myself.

When I declared that the cake was as done as it was going to be and took it out, batter had spilled all down the sides of the pan and formed big, charred cookies on the bottom of the oven and stalactites dangling from the oven racks. The center of the cake had collapsed into a five-inch Great Depression.

My father, a foodie's foodie, never met a dessert he didn't like. He enjoyed dense, heavy, pudding-y concoctions and actually had a certain fondness for fallen cake -- but even he wouldn't eat this one. The house-cake may have been the only dessert our family ever threw away.