A few years ago, when I was still living in my little mountain house without electricity, I found a picture of Christmas present cakes in Bon Appétit — individual, four-layered cakes with strawberry ice cream and lemon curd between layers, all wrapped with chocolate ganache and tied with white-icing ribbons.
I immediately wanted to make them for my friends at our Winter Solstice party. It would be a two-day labor, but I would use the very best ingredients — Häagen-Dazs ice cream, organic Meyer lemons, good chocolate and brandy — and if it worked, it would be so beautiful!
Due to the weather, the beginning was not auspicious. A howling gale kept blowing out the pilot light on my back-porch propane refrigerator, incapacitating my freezer, but my neighbor a quarter of a mile down the road told me I could use her electric freezer, which sits in an outdoor shed. So I made the cake, a good white cake, and the lemon curd. Both turned out beautiful. When I walked down the road to put the lemon curd in Sylvia’s freezer, the storm seemed to have abated, but when I returned two hours later, the ice cream was soft and the lemon curd still liquid. A tree falling across power lines had caused a blackout. Electricity returned before the ice cream was ruined, but by the time I was able to spread it and the lemon curd between the cake layers, I was a day behind.
The layered cake had to freeze overnight. As soon as it was light the next day (the day of the party), I walked down the road (in wind and light rain) to cut the cake into nine squares. Then I came home to make the chocolate ganache. The next step was time sensitive: I would have to bring each cake home, cover it in ganache, and get it back to the freezer before the ice cream melted. I could only do three cakes at a time. To save precious minutes, I drove between my house and Sylvia’s, although I still had to walk down my hill to get to my car. Three times I ran down the hill, got in the car, drove to Sylvia’s, opened the gate, drove through, closed the gate (just knowing the dogs would choose that moment to dash out of the house and down the road), parked by the shed, carefully lifted three cakes from the freezer, put them in the car, did the open and close gate thing again, drove home, ran (or half-ran) with the frozen cakes up the hill and into the house, where I quickly (but carefully, still catching my breath) spread chocolate ganache over each one. Then I ran the course in reverse. Only after the third trip, with all the cakes ganached and in the freezer, could I breathe easily. I cleaned the kitchen and got ready for the party.
With my timing thrown off by the storm, I had to add the icing ribbons when I picked up the cakes on my way to the party. I figured I could refreeze the cakes in my host’s refrigerator. During the 20-minute drive to the party, I watched in dismay as the ribbons and bows melted into white blobs. Once at the party, I did some emergency repair with the remaining icing, crossed my fingers, and left the cakes in the freezer.
It was a fun party. First we sat around the hors d’oeuvres table, talking and eating; then we got out some clay and made ceramic frogs; then we had a good dinner; then we gave each other presents. Finally, we were ready for dessert. I placed each ice cream cake (with its ribbon intact) on a plate and added a dollop of strawberry sauce on the side. I passed around the beautiful little presents. They were admired and exclaimed over as forks were raised, suspended, and lowered.
A classical guitar concert in a centuries-old Spanish mission, my guitar teacher once told me, transports the listener to a different place. It’s a spiritual experience, a transcendent sensation. That’s what it was like to eat the ice cream cake presents. The ecstatic experience was apparent in the eyes of the eaters. Conversation slowed, as though to make the words fit the music. Someone asked how I made the dessert, and I told the story. Tracy asked what it was called, and before I could answer, Shel said, “It’s the ten-mile cake.” Someone mentioned Joanne Harris’s novel Chocolat. Someone else alluded to Babbette’s Feast. We talked about justice in the world, about the preparation of food as gift. One man apologized for not eating his present but said he didn’t really eat desserts.
“That’s all right,” I said, “but such a dessert shouldn’t be wasted.” I started to return the cake to the freezer, but the teen-age boy at the party said he would be more than happy to keep it from being wasted.
To me the man who wasn’t eating was a measure for the depth of our shared experience. He was talking a great deal, whereas the rest of us were as slow and deliberate with our words as with our tasting. It was like someone in a cathedral with sun-gloried stained-glass windows talking and talking while everyone else was singing hymns. Finally Louann pointed out that the rest of us were focused on our cakes and couldn’t he be quiet? He looked around and saw the ecstasy in our eyes. He decided to try some dessert, after all. When he did, his talking, too, diminished, and we were all singing hymns together. It was that kind of dessert.
Diana Coogle teaches writing at Rogue Community College in Grants Pass and has published three books of selected JPR essays, available in local bookstores and on her blog, www.dianacoogle.blogspot.com, where she posts weekly essays about her life on the mountain.