The Devil is in the Details

Updated: Feb 9


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 me

I deserve that twenty

This cake will be AWESOME

Just 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.