The Devil is in the Details

Updated: Apr 18


Gods bless essay exams. If not for them, I’m fairly certain I would never have passed a single test. And I certainly wouldn’t have gotten into college, seeing as the following essay was the only reason a guidance counselor decided my otherwise unimpressive application was worth a second glance. 


Okay, I don’t actually have a copy of the essay in question any more. After multiple moves, the death of a few hard-drives, and a trip to Africa in preparation for which I gave away nearly all my worldly possessions, I don’t have much in the way of my pre-graduate school writings (aside from my journals which, trust me, are in no way fit for public consumption). I have, however, recreated the essay for your edification and enjoyment, as faithfully as my memory would allow. 


And so without further ado, I bring you the essay that got me into college: How (Not) To Bake A Cake.

***

For my thirteenth birthday, my father gave me forty dollars to go buy myself the birthday cake he had forgotten to order for me. This was hardly unusual. In fact, it could loosely be considered tradition by that point. But that year, in honor of becoming a teenager, I decided to do something different. Instead of buying the usual Albertson’s Bakery German Chocolate Cake, I hatched a plan to buy a cake mix, bake my own birthday cake, and pocket the remaining cash. 


There was only one flaw in my plan. I did not bake. Too much measuring and… math. But I figured, it’s a cake mix! How hard could it possibly be?


After stuffing one of the twenties into my jewelry box, I stuffed the other into the pocket of my parka and ventured out into the blustering chill of a mid-December day in Colorado. Though the temperature was only a few degrees below zero, the wind chill factor pushed it well into the negatives. And since our subdivision was relatively far from the nearest shopping center, I had ahead of me a forty minute trudge through the crunchy, grit-speckled drifts left behind by the snow plow. 


To distract myself from the cold, I made up new lyrics to “Happy Birthday” as I walked:

“Happy Birthday to meI deserve that twentyThis cake will be AWESOMEJust like my party”

I pictured the amazed expressions on the faces of my friends as my self-styled masterpiece was unveiled, and propelled myself forward with renewed determination. 

Once inside the Albertson’s, I hit the party aisle, selecting a roll of streamers and a small bag of balloons. Then I took my time perusing the cake mix aisle, allowing my face and hands to thaw a bit. 

Vanilla? Blah. Angel Food? Nope! Confetti? Nah. Chocolate Fudge Supreme? Now we’re talking.

I did a quick spot-check of the additional ingredients needed. Water. 2 eggs. Oil. I had all of those at home. No problem.


But then another mix caught my eye, the bright red boast of “EXTRA RICH” splashed across the box. Devil’s Food cake. Of course.


Torn by temptation, I looked back and forth, from one box to the other, like something out of a cartoon.


“Excuse me,” said an elderly woman behind me, not even trying to disguise her annoyance at how long I was taking to decide. 


“Sorry,” I said, and took the excuse to let temptation win out and re-shelve the Chocolate Fudge Supreme. Devil’s Food mix in hand, I snagged a container of Chocolate Fudge icing and, patting myself on the back for having found a way to have my cake and eat it too, was on my way to the checkout counter faster than you can say “Wait–did you check the ingredients list on the second box?” 


Spoiler alert: I did not.


Outside, the weather had turned ominous. Enormous, flat-bottomed clouds the color of weathered steel were rolling in at a threatening pace, and the air smelled of sleet–my least favorite form of precipitation. To shave some time off my return trip, I decided to cut through a large, snow-covered field. Normally I avoided this option since wading through deep snow was as unpleasant as it was exhausting, but I knew it would get me home faster, and the sooner I got home, the sooner I could take a nice hot shower and change out of my frozen sweatpants.


About halfway through the field, it started to hail. “I take it back,” I grumbled under my breath, now taking hurdle-like jumps through the crunchy snow, “sleet is my second-least-favorite type of precipitation.”


Safely inside the house at last, I opened up the grocery bag to discover, much to my horror, nothing but a gaping hole. The heavy frosting must have torn a hole in the bottom during my impromptu track and field day back there, and taken the cake mix and the decorations with it. I waited a few minutes for the hail to die down, then retraced my footsteps until at last I found the streamers, the balloons, the ice-cold frosting tin and finally the dampened, rock-hard cake mix. 


I had hoped that by the time I finished my much-needed hot shower, the cake mix would have thawed. But no. It was still a solid block of unyielding darkness. 

After peeling off the soggy cardboard outside, I placed the cake mix, still in its plastic inner casing, in the microwave. A minute ought to do the trick, I thought. It wasn’t until I heard the bag pop that it occurred to me that microwaves have a “defrost” setting for a reason, aaaand I probably should have poked some holes in the bag first.


I took one look at the microwave and cringed. The window was almost completely covered in what looked like old coffee grounds. But when I opened the door, it was even worse than I imagined. No surface had been spared the sludge spatter, and the bag hadn’t just popped, it had exploded and partially melted into said sludge. 


I saved as much mix as I could, scraping it off the sides and into the mixing bowl, carefully picking out the bits of melted plastic as best I could. Looking dolefully at the bowl full of clumped powdery mess, I realized what was missing from this scenario. 


Music.


I put one of my favorite mix tapes on the stereo and cranked it up. “BURNIN’ DOWN THE HOUSE!” sang the Talking Heads at full volume. 


“Hmm,” I thought. “Let’s hope that’s not an omen.”


Dancing through the kitchen, I picked up the soggy cardboard container from whence crawled the creature from the black lagoon, a.k.a. my cake mix. The writing was thankfully still legible, for the most part. 


Step one: preheat oven to 350 degrees. Check. 


“Wow, this is going to be easier than I thought!”


Step two: Grease two 8” pans and flour lightly. 


“Hmmm. I have one 8” pan, and one 9” pan. Ehhh. Close enough.”


Greasing the pans was pretty straightforward — though my nice, clean jeans did end up with two perfect Crisco hand prints on both the back pockets and the front thighs. Never did get those to wash out. 


The flouring, on the other hand, did not go according to plan. See, the problem with bags of flour is that they tend to be on the large side. Kind of unwieldy for an awkward, barely-teenage girl with pipe-cleaners for arms. And this bag of flour, having been purchased as a flour-baby for my sister’s health class, had not yet been opened.


Happily, personifying the flour babies is optional, and Kat went for a minimalist approach: a simple smiley face. I don’t know how I would feel about busting open my flour niece or flour nephew and scooping out their insides just to dust the bottom of my birthday cake.


When I tried to pull it open, though, it was, shall we say, a bit stubborn. Apparently, having remained sealed for so long, it was not keen on coming unsealed. I pulled and tugged from multiple angles. No luck. Finally I got frustrated, grabbed a pair of scissors, and sliced it wide open. A cloud of flour hit me in the face, blinding me just long enough for me to knock the bag of flour with my elbow and spill flour all over the stovetop. And no, this wasn’t one of those handy, easy-to-clean cooktops with a nice, smooth surface. I wiped my face, sighed, and set to work removing each individual heating element and accompanying drip bowl and piling them in the sink.


The good news, though, is that there was enough flour on the counter to lightly flour my greased pans. 


But then there was the question of how to put away the giant bag of flour. It had come from a high shelf, and now that the top was irreversibly open, putting it back seemed a precarious endeavor. Besides, I knew I should seal it up somehow or it would go bad. I mean, obviously baking was not a regular occurrence in our household, but the need was bound to arise again eventually. I tried a rubber band but the rubber band broke. I tried a chip clip but there wasn’t enough bag left on top for it to grip onto. Finally, I had a stroke of genius. 


“Duck tape! Duck tape fixes everything.”

Savior


I flipped on the garage light, which was in the hallway near the kitchen, and padded in barefoot, searching for duck tape. The door closed behind me, as usual. I was about halfway across the garage when suddenly, the lights went out. 


“DAMMIT SIDNEY!!!” 


You see, my cat, Sidney Van Gogh, had recently figured out how to run up the wall and hit the light switch on his way down, thereby turning off the lights. That was how Sidney earned his last name, Van Gogh, because clearly he was a misunderstood genius. 


Unfortunately, he chose to unveil this new talent one night when I was home alone and had made the supremely poor choice of watching a scary movie. He apparently has a sense of humor as well because he waited until the dramatic climax of the film to start systematically turning off every single light in the house, one after the other. 


Happily I discovered the culprit before calling 9-1-1 thanks to the tell-tale patter of feline footfalls against the wall just before each light went out. Seeing as Sidney had two extra toes on each front paw and one extra on each back paw, his wall-scrabbling was… distinctive.


There was a lot of yelling, though, and several items thrown.  He was lucky to have escaped with all nine of his lives. 


Sidney, though, undeterred by my tantrum, was so proud of his newfound skill that he delighted in showing it off at every opportunity. Like this one, apparently.

 

Submerged in darkness, I started to feel my way back toward the door, stepping on something rather sharp and unpleasant in the process. My yelp drew a concerned meow from the other side of the door, and I heard Sidney’s mutant Maine Coon paws tapping urgently against the door and its knob. 


“Turn the light back on!” I instructed. But alas, Sidney’s genius did not extend to languages.

To his credit, though, he faithfully continued his fruitless attempts to solve the mystery of the doorknob right up until I managed to hop back over to it. 


That, of course, is when I realized that what he had managed to do was hit the lock button. I was now locked in the garage. 


“Dammit, Sidney.” I whispered it this time. Yelling took too much energy, and I would need to save my strength for the journey ahead. 


I ran my hand up and down the wall until I hit on the garage door opener. A gust of cold air blew in, along with some snow, as the door retracted. I looked down at my foot, which I could now see had a screw partially embedded in it. I yanked it out and hopped to freedom, leaving a suspicious trail of blood droplets behind me. 


“Here’s hoping I don’t get abducted between the garage and the front door,” I thought, “or that forensic evidence is gonna look pretty bad for Dad.”


I watch Forensic Files. I know how it goes.


Lucky for Dad, though, I managed to make it to the front door relatively unscathed. And honestly, the snow felt kind of nice on my wound. 


Sidney greeted me at the door, meowing loudly and rubbing apologetically against my legs. “Yes, yes. I forgive you. This time.”


After bandaging up my foot, I returned to the kitchen, only to be confronted by the reason I had gone into the garage in the first place: the flour bag. Having been traumatized by my last foray into the garage, I decided to simply set the gaping bag of flour inside the garage door, intending to find the duck tape and seal it up later. The clock was ticking, after all: my friends would be arriving for the party in just a couple of hours, and I still needed to bake a cake, clean, decorate, and put on my fancies before they arrived. 


So: back to work.


Step three: blend cake mix, 1 cup water, ⅓ cup vegetable oil, and three large eggs on low–

“Wait, what? THREE eggs? What happened to two eggs?”


It was at that point that I realized that it was the other cake mix that called for two eggs. This one called for three. 


I opened up the fridge. Two eggs. 

“DAMMIT. I knew I should have gone for the instant oatmeal this morning.”


But it was too late. I was one egg short of a Devil’s Food Cake. 


Never one to give up easily, though, I decided to do what I do best: get creative.


I looked through the fridge. There had to be something else in there that could substitute for the missing egg. Mayonnaise? That’s got eggs in it, right? Or–wait! What’s that, way in the back? A container of blueberry yogurt! That’s got an eggish consistency, and it’s sweet, too. Perfect for a birthday cake.


I pulled the container out of the fridge, opened it up, and glopped it into the cake mixture along with the other ingredients. I did notice, though, that it had a strange consistency to it. Sort of… clumpy. Almost as if it had curdled. It was at that point that I realized I hadn’t checked the expiration date on that container. 


“Welp, too late now,” I thought, blending the clumpy, purplish sludge with a wooden spoon since we didn’t own a mixer. 


But the batter, once blended, had a strangely sour odor to it, which I was guessing had something to do with my extra ingredient. 


“What covers up strong odors?” I pondered, looking around the kitchen for inspiration. That’s when my eyes fell upon the container of white vinegar my father always used to clean the sink, in conjunction with a bit of baking soda. 


Patting myself on the back for my remarkable resourcefulness, I dug the baking soda out of the fridge, sprinkled some onto the batter, and splashed some vinegar over the top. 

A lot of you out there already know what happened next because you, unlike me at age 13, have a basic understanding of chemistry. But, for the rest of you, here’s a hint. 


After cleaning up the blue-black lava from my accidental science fair volcano, I made the mistake of tasting my mixture. Definitely still sour. And sort of… soapy now, too. Hrm.

It needed more sweetness, clearly.


“I know! Honey! Honey can sweeten up anything.”


I poured in a generous portion of honey and stirred. It tasted sweeter, but the funk of the yogurt was still evident. 


“How about… cinnamon! And some other spices, too. Cloves. Nutmeg. Ginger. Maybe even some cardamom. Perfect for the Christmas season.”


And it was as I stirred in all those festive spices, friends, that it hit me. The brilliant idea that… could have saved my cake, had I thought of it earlier. And perhaps still could. 

EGG NOG.


I mean, egg is right in the name, folks. And I just remembered that Dad had a container of the old nog tucked away in the mini fridge out in the garage. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind if I borrowed a bit for the cause. And heck, I only needed a little; he probably wouldn’t even notice the difference.


What could possibly go wrong?


Well, the first thing that went wrong was that I had already forgotten about the open bag of flour I had stashed inside the doorway. So, naturally, I walked right into it, sending a cascade of flour down the steps and all over the garage floor.


The second thing that went wrong was that, not having time to dilly-dally, I walked right through it to get to the mini fridge.


The third thing that went wrong was that I failed to notice that my feet were now caked in flour and therefore leaving a trail of incriminating bloody-flour footprints from the scene of the crime all the way into the kitchen.


But frankly, I had bigger fish to fry.


After adding a quarter cup of eggnog to the cake mixture, I realized why Dad had hidden that eggnog in the garage: it was spiked, and rather generously at that. 


“BONUS!”


I tasted the mixture again, but all I could really taste was the alcohol, plus a few of the stronger spices. “Good enough,” I decided. I poured the batter into the pans. It was kind of hard to tell how much should go in each since they were slightly different sizes, so there was a lot of spooning back and forth to try to even it up. The counter was a mess, but the cake was FINALLY ready for baking. 


I popped it in the oven, set the timer for 30 minutes, and carefully returned the special eggnog to its hiding spot. Then, I set about cleaning up the cake batter mess and vacuuming the hallway. 


I took a peek in the oven: to my great shock, the cakes were rising nicely. So I grabbed the roll of streamers and headed up to the loft to string them over the railings. I was only about a quarter of the way done when I smelled something burning.


“DAMMIT! I KNEW THAT WAS A BAD OMEN!” I told myself, dropping the streamer roll and half-running, half-hopping down the stairs to the kitchen. 


I flung open the oven door and was engulfed in a cloud of acrid smoke. The cakes, which had looked fine a few minutes ago, had now collapsed in on themselves, and batter was oozing down the sides of the cake pans and dripping onto the heating element. I turned the oven off (there were only a couple of minutes left on the timer anyway), pulled out the cakes, turned on the fan, and opened the back door. 


That’s when I heard Sidney scrabbling around up in the loft. He had found the roll of streamers.

I got this

*sigh* 


After rescuing what remained of the streamers, I did my best to make the place look festive without hyperventilating from blowing the balloons up too fast or dying of smoke inhalation. 


I figured the cakes should be cool enough to frost by then, so I headed back downstairs. 

Sidney, seated calmly on the kitchen counter, appeared to be chewing on something. Upon closer inspection, it was discovered to be a sizeable chunk of–you guessed it–the birthday cake from hell. 


“Oh well,” I told myself, “I’ll just put that one on the bottom.”


Upon further investigation, however, it was uncovered that Sidney had, in fact, taken a chunk out of both cakes.


“Oh well,” I told myself. “That’s what frosting is for, right?”


One container of chocolate-fudge frosting later, the cake was looking… well, not good. But at least… edible? Probably?


Anyway, there was no time to fret because my friends would be there any minute and I was still wearing my Crisco-marked jeans and my flour-flecked sweatshirt. I headed downstairs to change into my birthday outfit: a 1920’s flapper dress, complete with oversized pearls, elbow-length gloves, and a sequined headband with feathers sprouting from one side. What can I say? I’ve always been a sucker for a theme.

I got all spangled up with no time to spare, and greeted my guests as they arrived. 


Michelle looked around as I took her coat. “It smells…”


“Please don’t say ‘like smoke,’ please don’t say… ”


“… so yummy in here! Did you bake your own cake?”


My face lit up. “Yes, I did!” I pointed to the cake, which was already sitting on the table since there was no room for it in the fridge.


There was a lot of oohing and aahing as my friends inspected this marvel of baking ingenuity. 


“What flavor is it?” asked Jenny. 


“It’s… my own recipe. Sort of a Devil’s food meets spiced rum cake.”


They all looked so impressed I couldn’t stop myself from adding: “I call it, The Devil is in the Details.


That’s when I noticed that they were all starting to congregate around the cake and I realized, a moment too late, that I had probably oversold my creation. 


“That sounds amazing!” Michelle salivated, “Can we try some now?”


“NO!” I responded, a little too abruptly. “It’s for… after dinner.”


“What’s for dinner?” asked Megan. 


That’s when it occurred to me that I had been so focused on making a cake that I hadn’t actually made a plan for dinner. Harkening back to the remaining $20 hidden in my jewelry box, I exclaimed, “We’re ordering pizza!”


That bought me some time, but I was still dreading the moment when they actually attempted to cut into the cake. Or worse. Eat it. 


I herded everyone upstairs to watch a movie while we waited for the pizza to arrive. But eventually, inevitably, both the movie and the pizza were finished, and it was time to cut the cake. 


I led the way down the stairs, taking my sweet time about it and blaming my slowness on having literally screwed myself earlier. But when we arrived at the dining room table, it appeared that fate had stepped in to save us all from food poisoning.


Okay, it was the cat again.

Except the cat was a giant Maine coon and the cake was way uglier

Sidney was sitting on the dining room table, licking what little frosting still remained from the forlorn, crumbling cake. There were fudgy paw prints all over the table, and little piles of deviled cat puke all over the carpet.

 

Needless to say, we ate ice-cream for dessert.  


And just as we were finishing up, I heard the garage door open, and remembered that I had forgotten to clean up the garage…


But that, my friends, is another story. 


From the fake-baking fiasco, I learned three important lessons.

  1. Always check the ingredients list before you leave the store, and always check the expiration date before you add it to your mix.

  2. Creativity is no match for chemistry.

  3. Never ever EVER trust a cat.

But above all, I learned that enthusiasm without experience can be a dangerous thing, and that while confidence is important, if not coupled with competence it can get you into a lot of trouble. And fast. 


***

After that I tied it back into the importance of a well-rounded liberal arts education blah blah blah. You get the picture. 


The REAL lesson of the birthday cake from hell, though, is one I wouldn’t recognize until decades after the fact:


DON’T DO STUFF YOU SUCK AT.


You don’t have to be good at everything. Yes, teach to your weaknesses. Absolutely, shore up those gaps. But if someone offers you money to have a paid professional take care of something you are patently unqualified to do? 

YOU. 

SAY. 

YES.



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