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The Cake Monster

One mom attempted to bake with love, but it turned into something darker.

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It started with a small Star Wars cake on my son’s first birthday, and it all went downhill from there. Birthday cakes became my obsession: Tangible (and photographic) proof that I loved my kids. And the more children I had, the more elaborate the cakes became. A six-layer beauty surrounded by vanilla and chocolate swirl-frosted buttercream ice-cream cones. A Storm Trooper cake draped in fondant, shaped into a full-sized helmet. Rocket the Racoon for a 3-year-old, who was obsessed with the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise.

I never was much of a baker, but a little-known perk of my job as a food editor was that I was allowed to take cooking classes and get 100 percent reimbursed. So, while in my 20s—childless and eager to experience everything that New York had to offer—I took advantage of it. A 10-week wine class. The Culinary Institute of America’s entire 12-part basics series. One-offs on cuisines from Thai to African. And then … the mistake. I signed up for an 8-week cake decorating course.

We learned to bake rich, flavorful cakes, and cut them into perfect, even layers. Then lessons on icings, from Swiss meringue buttercreams to fondant. Crumb coats. Piping. Roses. Lettering. Twenty-four solid hours of lessons from a cake master.

And once I had kids, it ruined me. Every time a birthday rolled around (three times a year, yikes), I’d start to get anxious. Making a cake took hours—sometimes up to 10, depending on what I was attempting. I was working full time, juggling three young kids, and cakes loomed on my radar, taunting me to create time I just didn’t have. The night before parties was particularly stressful, when I had to attempt the final decorating phase (I’m not much of an artist). Of course, the kids always wanted to help, but I’d snap at them and shoo them away as they looked longingly at the sweet confection I was hunched over. I was resentful, but stubborn. The cakes meant I loved my kids.

I was working full time, juggling three young kids, and cakes loomed on my radar, taunting me to create time I just didn’t have.

Last year, though, I stopped. My 6-year-old was having friends over for a karaoke party, and she requested a disco ball cake. As I felt the panic well up inside of me, I looked at her and asked, “Would you mind if we just get an ice cream cake?” “Sure, mom,” she said, skipping away to play with her ponies. Baskin-Robbins for the win.

The cakes were never really about them, they were for me. They came from a burning desire to “get it right.” I wanted to share my love for them, but those elaborate cakes ended up symbolizing frustration and resentment. These days, we do wacky sweets on their birthdays. Pies, sometimes, or a build-an-ice-cream-sundae bar. Or even—gasp—a supermarket cake. They don’t care, and now, neither do I.

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