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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
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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)

ok: to reiterate other commenters' comments (but I know you *dig* repetition, because you have a three year oold.)

Start with creamed butter and cream cheese. Then add vanilla and almond if you feel like it. THEN add confectioners sugar. I do not mess with boxes: I buy it by the bag.

But this is the thing-- don't stop adding the sugar until the frosting is so stiff it does not run off the beaters-- fall off in large and leaden clumps? YES.(because it has a lot of air in it after all that beating in of confectioner's sugar.) But nothing resembling viscosity. Don't worry-- it will spread and a hot knife/ knife dipped in hot water helps.

Also-- if you *do* make a recipe with milk in it, sub in heavy whipping cream, instead. The additional fat content makes a HUGE difference in the stability of the icing.

October 12, 2005 | Unregistered Commenterlacalda
I've made all of my kids' cakes except for my oldests first, and I'm still dealing with the guilt.

Buy the cream cheese frosting and tint it. You can put that stuff on CARDBOARD and it still tastes good.
October 12, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterAmy
You are not to be blamed for the cake. It was obviously posessed. Also, I'm laughing so hard right now that I'm almost incoherent. Thanks for making my day. If you want to feel slightly better about your cake, check out in my LJ what happened when we tried to install a refrigerator all by ourselves because HOW HARD COULD IT BE?
October 12, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterSquirrelly
My dad is an amateur gourmet, a really excellent cook, and demands to make our cakes from scratch just because he can (he's got plenty of events - 5 kids and a grandkid). Thing is, Dad's cakes kind of taste like ass. Of course, we would never, ever say this to his face, but all of us prefer cakes-from-a-box over cakes made from scratch.

I heard once that this is because they use special ingredients to make the cake moist. Dad's cakes are always dry.

I had a coupon for a free birthday cake for my son's first birthday, but my dad made the cake for his second birthday. I had resigned myself to a dry cake, but then my sister told me he'd ended up using a mix because the soccer ball mold didn't cook his homemade cake correctly.

There was much rejoicing.
October 12, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterLisa C.

you are cracking me up not 3 seconds after i shouted to my husband while he was on the phone with the grill hot line or whoever the fuck it was since it was apparently an emergency that he puzzle out the grill mystery that instant even though as far as i can tell, the TANK IS EMPTY and meanwhile i am meant to be going out for MOMMY'S NIGHT OUT and my son is leaping from the crown molding on the ceiling and onto spindly wooden chairs, i yelled "WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS NOW?? WHY NOW?? I DON"T APPROVE" and then promptly hissed in my 4 year old son's direction, 'why is he STILL on the FUCKING PHONE?" to which my son nervously laughed and ran away, far away from me and then i came into my tiny office and read about the cake! the cake and howled my head off.

thank you.
October 12, 2005 | Unregistered Commenterkyra
Maybe the damp air messed with the consistency of your icing. It's been so wet and gray for so long that I'm surprised I'm not melting.

Blue icing, blue mood...

Anyway, happy birthday to Henry, and congratulations to you as you pass your third year of being a mom!
October 12, 2005 | Unregistered Commenterroo
Thank you, thank you, thank you ... I laughed so much (and I really needed to laugh).

Thank you for writing your blog and a big happy birthday to Henry!

October 12, 2005 | Unregistered Commentermme.p
I loved your cake!

Regarding proper icing color - the only thing that works for deep colors are professional icing colors. I use Wilton's, which you can pick up in craft/hobby stores or high end food shops. The liquid food color cannot cut it. Wilton colors are a paste instead of a liquid. Warning! Those suckers STAIN!

In case you ever need to, never EVER try to "make" black icing. It's a nightmare. Wilton's has black.

Yeah, I make cakes from scratch. Every birthday, including for my own, every year. My SIL hates me and NEVER asks me to make a cake for my nephew. I wonder why?

Yay Henry! Yay Alice!
October 12, 2005 | Unregistered Commentertek
Sister, I feel your pain, for I too have succumbed to birthday cake madness. My daughter is obsessed by the Australian Women's Weekly birthday cake book. For months before her bithday she will pore over that cursed book choosing a cake for me to attempt to recreate. I say attempt, because it NEVER works. I don't understand it because I really do know how to cook. I did a year at technical college doing professional cookery. I can make a gateau, a torte, fancy pastries, you name it. But make a cake that looks like bunny? You gotta be kidding! I usually end up spending a fortune of special icing food colouring, lollies and stuff and produce something that looks like a child made it and is largely inedible. It is acutely embarassing, happens without fail every year, yet still I continue to try!
October 13, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterSharon F
oh come on, after all that? ya gotta share a picture of the cake from hell? purty puhleeze?
October 13, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterAnnejelynn
Apparently I am blocking some horrific childhood memory about cake. Every time I make a cake, I end up throwing a terrible emotional fit about something and the cake ends up a) thrown on the floor b) dumped into the garbage c)in my fists as I shove them into the cake in preparation for flinging said cake at someone or something.

But the odd thing is, the bits I end up liking off my hands taste pretty good...but I just can't take the emotional trauma.

Go figure.
October 13, 2005 | Unregistered Commenternot-that-Andrea
that would be "licking off my hands", not liking off my hands
October 13, 2005 | Unregistered Commenternot-that-Andrea
Bravo on your masterpiece!

I don't know what it is that drives us to work so hard for baking perfection. I, too, recently struggled with baking simple brownies. Baking requires such concentration, so when we try to do a million other things at the same time, it's no wonder we have snafus!
October 13, 2005 | Unregistered Commenterdivinecalm
Wow, you have officially cured me from ever trying that crazy adventure. All that and it didn't even taste good.....gah.

Happy Birthday to Henry!
October 13, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterA
Holy crap woman.

here are a few hints. Freeze the unfrosted cake FIRST. Keep adding icing sugar until it's too thick, THEN ice the cake. When it all warms up, it should be just about right.

Or, pay another mom to bake a kick ass cake from scratch, kill her, hide the body and claim the cake as your own.

October 13, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterJennifer
I think the cake in the photo is wonderful.And now you have all of this useful advice from friends.My mother and grandmother always were making layer cakes for all manner of occasions. I never considered the challenges that might be involved. Then again, I could always phone my mother for advice or supervision. I should let you phone my mother for advice. Or Alton Brown. He probably has a DVD on that somewhere...

- Jules
October 14, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterJules
I had a Frosting Fiasco myself last month! I, too, generally can blithely whip up a gorgeous dessert in no time at all, so I was not at all concerned that I had to make the frosting at 11:30pm the night before said party.

"No problem", I said, "20 minutes and we're done." I was making a beautiful meringuey frosting, that my daughter had requested be pink. I look for the red food dye. Hmmm...none left. I think to myself, "what can make a suitable colour frosting?" I decide that I can use the tube of purple icing stuff that I bought to make the words on top of the cake to tint the meringue. Experienced merignue makers are now shuddering in fear.

I made a beautiful meringue, and added the pruple frosting. Immediately the entire contents turned into sticky, purple soup.

I did not have enough sugar to make a new batch, as was overarrogant about my frosting making skills.

The next day was Sunday, of course, so stores don't open here until noon. Party was at 2pm. Managed to go shopping, picking up sugar, food dye, and possibly a little fortifying drinky, made the frosting and exhaled with about 10 minutes to spare.
October 14, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterKaryn
It's almost eleven pm and that's the first time I've laughed all day. Cheers for that.
October 14, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterAlcatone
Betty Crocker is a whore. I am having an affair with Duncan Hines. Really.
October 14, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterLaura
When I saw that picture, before I read the story, I was thinking of my own daughter's upcoming 3rd birthday (the 20th), and I thought, "Dang--she is a domestic goddess!" and how I will plan to bake a cake but will probably wind up buying a Dora cake from the bakery anyway, because I couldn't make a great Dora cake if my life depended on it.

I hope Henry had the greatest birthday ever.
October 14, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterBelinda
Actually, cookies can be quite problematic- especially if you forget to add the flour and then accidentally use the special chili-spiced walnuts your stepfather made last Christmas instead of the normal ones. Your cake looks fantastic though. Am veteran of many a baking disaster though so I can relate to your pain. Next time get one of those Pussy Cookie things from Carvel(are they still available?)
October 15, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterAnna Dilemna
I didn't even know you could MAKE frosting. Like, from a recipe? The frosting I "make" comes from a plastic tub and has Betty Crocker written across the front. But then this is coming from someone who had her mother make her sons birthday cakes and still went insane at the birthday party.
October 17, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterVery Mom
i couldn't bother to read all to comments so if this is redundant, pardon me.

1. put the layers of the cake in the freezer to firm them. don't freeze -- just so they're not floppy.

2. trim the tops so they aren't domed. an electric knife is great for this. it's good for making the edges perfect. dust off the crumbs.

3. after you frost between the layers stick a couple of drinking straws through the layers. snip just below the top of the cake. no sliding.

4. ALWAYS do a skim coat -- ie light layer of frosting. then put the cake in the fridge let it chill, apply second coat. also if you coat the cake with jam first, it doesn't get soggy.

i don't know what's wrong with your frosting -- sounds like maybe your house was too warm. buttercream is wasted on kids anyway. just whip confectioner's sugar with butter (for kids i'd use marg) and a few tablespoons of warm cream. supermarket dye is a waste of money. for decent color use only dye from bakery supply places: ny baking on 22, broadway panhandler. in bklyn i'd try that place on atlantic what's it called sahoodis or something.

when i was a professional baker i baked a giant PERFECT dinosaur cake -- prob. 1.5 x 2.5 feet or something like that -- for a kid's party. my husband tripped while bringing it to the fridge. i did it all over again. took me 5 or 6 hours all together. it was still worth it.
October 19, 2005 | Unregistered Commenterla_depresssionada
The birthday cake that mocks you...that's why our family has birthday pie!
October 20, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterClaudia
All right, la D, that's it, you're baking the cake next year.
October 20, 2005 | Unregistered Commenteralice

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