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Let's Panic: The Book!

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How to Endure and Possibly Triumph Over the Adorable Tyrant
who Will Ruin Your Body, Destroy Your Life, Liquefy Your Brain,
and Finally Turn You
into a Worthwhile
Human Being.

Written by Alice Bradley and Eden Kennedy

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Sleep Is
For The Weak

Chicago Review Press

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Let's Panic

The site that inspired the book!

At LET'S PANIC ABOUT BABIES, Eden Kennedy and I share our hard-won wisdom and tell you exactly what to think and feel and do, whether you're about to have a baby or already did and don't know what to do with it. → 

« The Cake. | Main | Preschoolers can be fun! »

Oh, and: Happy Birthday, Henry.

I spent most of last week preparing for Henry’s birthday party. I had all sorts of wild ideas, like how it was going to be fun, and I wouldn’t want to die at all.

Note to those around me: if you ever catch me musing, “You know what I think I’ll bake? A three-layer birthday cake. I mean, I don’t really have time, but how hard could it be, am I right?” I give you permission to slap me to the ground, shove me in a closet, lock the door, and then stand on the other side and berate me for my silly and pointless housewifey notions.

Something along the way went wrong. Not with the party—with me. I spent all week cleaning and preparing and thinking, thinking, thinking. Thinking about the cake! The damn cake! Which was going to be blue, and have an R2-D2 on the top (courtesy of my Star Wars-loving artistic husband). And for some reason, it had to be homemade, because to have it any other way would mean my son would hate me for the rest of his days. Also, I would bake cookies for Henry’s class. If I didn’t, his teacher would ship him off to an orphanage, for a mother who brings Entenmann’s is surely a mother who has no love in her heart.

The cookies were not a problem, because when are cookies a problem? How hard can they be, really? Unless you forget the sugar or use motor oil instead of butter, you’re in good shape. But the cake, I think, was possessed. I see no other reason for the events that followed. I think the cake needed a good exorcism.

By the time I was ready to begin the baking of the cake, I was a little out of my mind. I had spent all week buying birthday-party notions and paper plates and streamers and banners and all manner of festive shit. I had wiped down every surface in the house, including the dog, and I had mopped the entire apartment not once but several times because I decided I had to keep mopping until the water was clear. Because we live on the first floor of a building that is alongside a busy thoroughfare, where our windowsills are blackened with soot and god knows what effluence on a weekly if not daily basis, this is a challenge—but not if you’re insane enough.

(It’s not that I’m a clean person. My mother and husband and anyone who’s every lived with me will tell you that I am not. It’s that once I get started I have to do an utterly perfect job. This is why I try to avoid doing housework; I can lose days just cleaning the grout, and I prefer doing things like interacting with my loved ones and eating food and breathing.)

But back to the cake! I baked the layers while Henry was in school, congratulating myself all the while for my excellent planning. The layers would be completely cooled by the evening, at which point the frosting would begin. And the frosting, as we all know, is a piece of cake HA HA HA HA HA HA HAAAAAAAAHHHhhhurrrk.

So. The cake was baked, and it looked good. (I stress “looked.”) I was the perfect mother and my son would be happy and successful and he would never use the F-word at me as he grabbed the keys to our nonexistent car and took off with his slut I mean girlfriend. That night I began preparing the frosting. Only I was so harried by this point that I used twice as much milk as the recipe called for, and somehow it didn’t dawn on me until I was done that frosting was not supposed to have the consistency of applesauce. Whoops! I sent my husband out to buy confectioner’s sugar. And then I sent him out again, because I said two boxes, not one. Only I didn’t say that at all, I just THOUGHT IT and he should know what I am thinking. While he was out at the store, I wondered what to do with an enormous bowl of frosting soup; I concluded the only thing to do was immerse my hand in it, because when else do you get a chance to stick your hand in a bowl of frosting? The decadence of it!

It wasn’t as much fun as I thought it would be. Mostly it was sticky, and then, oddly, it burned. I rinsed and rinsed but the burning continued. I don’t know what to say about that. (The next day I told my husband about putting my hand in the frosting and he looked at me like I told him I put it up my ass. “Why would you do that?” he kept asking. “What were you thinking?”I think he was just jealous. Until I told him it burned.)

Once my second enormous batch of frosting was completed, I added so much blue food coloring to it that one taste dyed my tongue, but it still wasn’t as blue as I wanted. No matter, it was good enough. I arranged my slightly lopsided cake layers and began to construct my masterpiece. Only the layers kept… sliding. And the frosting was looking a little puddley. In fact, it was oozing off the cake. But I was in denial. I kept going, kept slapping the frosting back up on the sides of the cake and watching it make its way back down.

By then I was weeping and cursing and demanding that God explain why this frosting wasn’t working. I have never before experienced an unsuccessful frosting, as I am the Anal Baker who follows every baking rule and instruction to the letter. To the letter! And still the frosting would not obey me! We had the air-conditioning on because the humidity level was rainforest-level, and I was frosting the cake about two feet away from the blasts of arctic air. And yet my cake looked like a bucket of melting blue crap. I had to give up. I threw the whole thing in the refrigerator, and went to bed.

Because Scott and I had tasted numerous generous spoonfuls of frosting, we were far too wired to sleep, so we laid in bed bitching about the sorry state of our lives while millions of tiny bugs scurried hither and yon underneath our skin (at least that’s how I felt) and I obsessed about the cake the cake THE CAKE. Finally, as dawn threatened to approach, we managed to sleep, and then a few minutes later somehow we got the kid to school and I presented them with the damn cookies. And then went home to regard the state of the cake.

It was now well-chilled, and looked like it had a terrible disease. Blue frosting was smeared across the top and the primordial ooze was stuck to the sides. I turned the air conditioning back on to Kelvin Cold, scraped every inch of frosting off the cake, whipped it back into spreadable consistency, began the re-frosterizing, and then watched in horror as it melted all over again. I was by now incoherent with rage. There was no reason this frosting should be doing this; obviously it had some sort of personal problem with me. I tossed it back into the refrigerator and then I calmly paced the living room and threw some things at the wall. Then I returned to the cake, scraped the frosting off again, put the bowl of frosting into the freezer, let it set for a while, and then re-frosted, this time even closer to the air conditioner. And lo, the frosting did stay put. And I was happy.

Then I went to pick up Henry from school, and when we returned, I checked on the cake, which was now safe in the fridge, sure to not have incurred any more harm. Except it had.

When I was out, Scott had taken the cake out to draw the R2-D2 on the top, and despite taking every precaution (setting the cake up less than an inch from the air conditioner, etc.) the frosting had melted. AGAIN.

I tried not to scream. I called my mother and sister for frosting advice and moral support. “Why does it keep melting?” my mother asked. Good question, Mom. They both agreed I needed to add more confectioner’s sugar. Now I had a plan. Okay. I scraped the sides of the cake (AGAIN), added cupfuls of sugar, blended the damn frosting (AGAIN), and applied it to the sides. Again. This time it seemed to want to stay. Finally. But I was exhausted, and on edge from the cupfuls of sugar coursing through my veins (I don’t know about you, but I can’t not taste frosting), and there was no joy left in me. The cake had won.

By the time the party rolled around, I knew I had achieved a new level of insanity. I could think of nothing but the cake. The cake should be out of the refrigerator, I kept thinking. A chilled cake is not ideal. Room temperature, that’s what it should be. But if I put it out and it melts! Our friends were arriving and everyone was mingling and laughing and all I could think was that damn cake better taste good or I will punch it.

Then it was cake time, the moment of truth, and the cake came out of the refrigerator, and everyone oohed—I must say, it did end up looking impressive—and I cut into it and immediately knew, as I had to put all my weight into it, that the cake had the consistency of a brick. Fuck it, I thought, and hoisted leaden slabs to everyone around me, and we all attempted to digest forkfuls while I stared at the hateful, hateful dessert. Five minutes later, I pointed at the three-quarters of cake remaining and shouted, “THERE. NOW DO YOU SEE?” Because, yes, the frosting was running down the sides and oozing all over the table. “Do you see that?” I said, as my guests muttered to each other, “And she thinks she’s ready to go off her meds?”

Reader Comments (81)

I have two things that I have de-lurked to say.1. Betty Crocker makes a very nice white frosting. In a can - which can be colored.2. Now I have to take a Xanax.

Happiest of days to Henry.From Tuvalu.
October 12, 2005 | Unregistered Commenterblackbird
I recommend cake mix and canned frosting, and saving your energy for the decorating. That's the part that really impresses the kids anyway. And it makes great blog material:
October 12, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterNed Batchelder
I wish you'd mentioned your plans before, so I could have told you how hateful the homemade cake can be. I made a small, lovely-tasting birthday cake from (I think?) a Julia Child recipe. Baked it, split it, let it cool for not-long-enough, then decided the buttercream frosting I'm made needed festive rainbow jimmies to break up the butter color. What could go wrong?

End result: a small, pathetic cake that slid apart when it reached the table, revealing raspberry guts; frosting that looked like it was being eaten by multicolored ants; and a husband who laughed so hard he was unable to speak, with tears rolling down his face like Niagara Falls. I stuck a lit match in the mess and took a picture, which my mother printed out life-sized and we placed in the dining room. It's a sure-fire trigger to get him laughing again. Every. Time.
October 12, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterVictoria
OH, too funny! I love when you make me laugh outloud like that! I'm an actual pastry chef, went to school and everything. I order my kids birthday cakes from the bakery....Its just too much. I gave birth too them, now they want cake too? Forget it.
October 12, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterStillheidi
I could barely read that out loud to my husband who crushes on you. Too many tears and out-of-breath pauses. Someday these here words will be the best birthday present. Happy day to your boy. And may the cake rest in peace.
October 12, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterMeredith
Now THAT takes the cake! (couldn't resist)...

October 12, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterSusan Senator
Oh... I... ah... ummmm... just... oh dear. Oh, honey. *patpat* Here, put your feet up, and I'll just make you a nice cup of (herbal, decaffeinated) tea. You just... rest. Please.
October 12, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterMir
Wow. I could not have survived that. You deserve a day off now. Hope the stress from the cake has now lifted.
October 12, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterJessie
that's me with pie crust.

but where, pray tell, is the photographic evidence?
October 12, 2005 | Unregistered Commenterhonestyrain
how could it burn? were you using ajax instead of blue dye?
October 12, 2005 | Unregistered Commentermathew
I resent the crack about the cookies...I put a cup of salt in the mix instead of a cup of sugar! Who the hell keeps BAGS of salt? I'll tell you ex-mother-in-law! The biotch!
October 12, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterNicole
I'm with mathew - why on earth would it burn? I had to read that over and over and I still am not sure about the burning. Did you maybe use Windex for the blue color? 2000 Flushes? Weird.
October 12, 2005 | Unregistered Commenterjoaaanna
Nancy Drew and the case of the burning, melting icing. Maybe Bess could solve this one?
October 12, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterKO
I made a good carrot cake with cream cheese frosting ONCE. Now every year my friend's son asks that I make him a carrot cake for his birthday. It is always a nightmare. Last year I had the runny frosting.
October 12, 2005 | Unregistered Commentergeeekgirl
Frosting totally burns if you have cuts on your hands. I'm not sure why. Most food stuff is that way. Squeezing out potatoes? Totally stings.

I've never had a runny frosting, but I just whip soft butter and/or cream cheese with sugar and vanilla, so nothing to make it runny. Them fancy frostings are just bad news.
October 12, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterBrooke
Oh. My.

You get an A+ for effort on that cake.

Freakin' cake. Didn't it know that the FORCE was supposed to with it?
October 12, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterJenny
Hi! Somehow found your journal and I am so glad I did! You are hilarious!!!! And baking a cake from scratch on a deadline? WOW!!!! I bake cakes from scratch, but not for anything, just when I have all weekend to do it (gnashing my teeth and renting my clothes takes an extraordinary amount of time and interrupts the soundtrack of curse words I need to shake my bake thang).
October 12, 2005 | Unregistered Commenterscribblesnbits
Yay for brick cake!
October 12, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterCandice
Next time remember to use the Force to ice the cake. It is strong within you Alice-wan.
October 12, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterLetterB
Always, always always buy three times the amount of confectioner's sugar and make twice the amount of frosting. I am not brave enough to bake anything other that things that are round, even then frosting is a pain in the keester. None of those dippity do whorls only seen on the front of a betty crocker frosting can.

You were a super mom to make a cake from scratch for Henry.

Happy birthday Henry!


October 12, 2005 | Unregistered Commenternazila
This is so true to life it is scary... and oh so funny... when it's not your cake
October 12, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterChristel
I'm trying to type with tears in my eyes. Can't make up my mind whether to laugh or cry. It sounds so familiar.

I learned the hard way to omit the milk in frosting (2 years ago and I'm 67) and go with conf. sugar, soft margerine (or butter if you must) and vanilla. My mom used a combination of margarine (or butter) and Crisco. Claimed it was less greasy. Hershey's cocoa if you want chocolate. I have made a gallon of frosting at one time because of the stupid milk. It leaps out of the carton. Blue food coloring never seems to be blue enough and red is always pink no matter how much I use. God forbid I should ever try for purple. Green isn't too bad. I wonder what noxious chemical the bakeries use to create their vivid colors. Better not to ask.

My idea of decorating is sprinkles and more sprinkles. They cover up the flaws in the frosting. When I'm totally inspired, I trace the birthday kid's initial (just one) in the frosting with a toothpick and trace down it with more different colored sprinkles. Sort of like those color blindness tests they have. One color for the initial surrounded by other colors for the background. Find the initial and you pass.

I grew up making "scratch" cakes but I'll probably never do one again. Betty Crocker has earned the star in her crown as far as I'm concerned.

When my SIL made her first attempt at gravy many years ago, I think she ended up with a pasta pot full of gravy. First too much thickener, then too much liquid then and then and then.

Truthfully, most kids could care less. If they can shove it into their little faces, they're delerious.
October 12, 2005 | Unregistered Commenterann adams
Blue always melts. Seriously.

Beware the blue.
October 12, 2005 | Unregistered Commentergrudge girl
I don't want to reduce teh possibility that you will post further stories as hilarious as this one, but . . . .

I always make frosting from cream cheese:

Milk is too watery;

Store-bought cakes taste like ass (unless you buy a $70 cake from an upscale boutique bakery, and they don't do blue frosting with Star Wars action figures);

Butter is too stiff when it solidifies and too slick if you heat it;

Crisco and margarine will harden your arteries before the kid reaches his 4th birthday.

October 12, 2005 | Unregistered Commentervictoria
I had a childhood friend whose mother would allow us to cook (not my mother - no way in hell). We tried to make the Quick White Icing using the recipe in The Joy of Cooking. It was awful. I have never attempted icing again. You are a better woman than I.

My mother did make cakes for us, including a camouflage cake and an Izod cake for my brother. It did nothing to prevent his delinquency.
October 12, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterJulie

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