My Divorce Cake—Too Sweet By Half
As a pastry chef I found happiness by dishing it up—until the divorce cake.
“Ours is the only profession that exists just to make people happy.” How many times did I hear those words during my midlife adventure at the French Culinary Institute? Almost as often as I heard, “More butter, more salt.”
I avidly embraced the upbeat ethos. By nature I’m a happiness-monger, and my career as a novelist had suffered from too many redemptive endings: wives embracing their husbands’ mistresses, villains turning saintly. But even lovers of bitter literary truth swoon over my hazelnut semifreddo: chilled vanilla meringue with toffee crunch and dense chocolate streaks. As a pastry chef, private chef, and caterer, I found happiness by dishing it up—each meal a story building to a happy ending.
Until the divorce cake.
The ad in the French Culinary Institute job bulletin read: I’m having a divorce party to celebrate my independence. I want it to look wonderful…want funky out of this world…not an average looking cake…$100.
Immediately I replied: I hope your new independent life brings you joy & fulfillment. Please let me make the cake to celebrate your great spirit…I want you to be happy & I want the cake to help.
While waiting for Marina (not her name) to answer, I hit Google. I vaguely remembered an Internet flurry of snarky divorce cakes. Was this what my putative client had in mind?
Yikes. Forget snarky. Hello, hateful.
Bride pushing groom off the cake. Bride topper with smoking gun; groom supine on the plate in a puddle of blood-red icing. Marzipan male genitals awaiting the celebrant’s knife.
Call me sentimental. These cakes made my stomach hurt. It’s not just that I wish my ex-husbands well. And that I don’t relate to the vengeful-victim model of womanhood. It’s about the chef’s oath of office. Could such cakes deliver happiness?
I half hoped Marina wouldn’t call.
She called. She said she liked music and partying. The cake would be served in a nightclub. Her favorite colors were red and purple.
She sounded young—younger than the daughter whose wedding cake I joyfully made five years ago. I heard determination and a lilt. I wanted everything good for her. An idea blossomed.
“It’s cherry berry season. There’s your red and purple. I’ll knock out a sample and send you a picture.”
Two decades ago I bought a semi-circular cake pan for my daughter and son’s half-birthdays. Halfty birthdays were a big small deal in our family: paper plates and napkins cut in two, glasses half-filled with milk, an agreeable absence of gifts and candles. Might this pan yield a cake to celebrate life post-divorce?
“You don’t want it to look as though she’s only half of something now,” said my daughter, when I sought my kids’ okay to use the cherished object.
“Half but complete!” I said. “Isn’t that the point?”
I could see it now. A deeply vanilla semi-circle slathered in confectioner’s icing flavored and stained with red wine. Instead of guns or daggers on tops, heaps of ripe fruit, glazed to ruby and amethyst brilliance, promising Marina fresh passion post-divorce.
While the cake cooled on my kitchen counter, I foraged for the shapeliest, juiciest strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, and cherries, plus a precious pint of local red currants—to offset the sugar with a half note of regret.
I was spending too much for a sample; never mind. The fruit-mongers were happy, I was happy, Marina would be amazingly happy.
I glazed the currants. Reduced some leftover Bordeaux to a smudge, whisked in confectioner’s sugar, heated it to pouring consistency. I iced the cake, smoothing it with an off-angle spatula dipped into the currant syrup.
I glazed the berries and went wild with them. Heart-shape strawberries first. Mysterious blackberries here and there. Shiny cherries filled the interstices. Then I carefully piled on the fragile raspberries and currants. I happened to have edible purple pansies in the refrigerator, bought last week because you never know; I refreshed them, dried them, and scattered them over the effulgence.
My darling Ricardo said, wow!, he’d never seen such a cake. Marina had to love it. I emailed her two images.
Ricardo and I stared at the cake all afternoon.
Should we have a party? Give it to the film crew up the block.
I emailed an image to a friend who admires my way with fruit. “Interesting,” she wrote. “Looks bloody. Is that what you meant? Sorry, can’t come, reflexology appointment.”
Bloody? Stupid camera.
Next day, still no word from Marina.
“We have to eat it before the fruit mildews,” I told Ricardo. “Doesn’t mean we’ll split up. It can be our bedding cake. The antioxidants!”
By the time we cut into it, the glaze had dribbled down and soaked the bottom. Add custard and whipped cream, and you’d have a divine trifle. But complete unto itself. Breaking up never left a better taste in the mouth.
Marina—thanks for making Ricardo and me happy. I hope whoever creates your divorce cake returns the favor.
Nancy Weber is writing her 23d book—a thriller set in Greenwich Village about swinging senior chefs who arouse the wrath of a puritanical food blogger.