Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A Harrowing Tale

I stopped to get gas on my way home from work, just like any other day.  These tales always begin just like any other day, you know.  The summer heat wave was reaching another crest, rolling in with the kind of sweltering air that awakens and angers things... dark, creepy things.  Actually, the heat makes me pretty grumpy, too, so I can sympathize.

While I was standing by my car, waiting for the small tank to fill up, I noticed a few of the armored-looking, grey bugs that have been plaguing our area for the past few summers.  They seem to always be thick at this particular gas station, so it was nothing out of the ordinary to see a few of them flying around, displaying their insectoid intelligence by bouncing off the triple-bypass burrito ads atop the pumps.  But just as I was wishing the tank would fill up faster so I could get out of there before any of the bugs flew closer to me, one flew into my shoulder.  Slightly panicked, but fairly sure the bug had already moved on, I began brushing at my shoulder and trying to use the windows of my car to catch a reflection of my back so I could be sure I had no hitch hikers.  About the time I was convinced that nothing was crawling down the collar of my shirt or hanging out in my hair, the pump clicked off and I collected my receipt and made for the safe haven of my car's cool interior.

In what I can only assume was a dastardly conspiracy conceived by evil plotters in some secret lair, at the exact moment when I opened the door to my sanctuary on wheels, one of the vile, armored bugs flew in and plopped down on the threshold, barring my entry.  Pausing to gather myself for the offensive as much as to wait for my brain to begin functioning after the moment of sheer terror that had flash frozen it, I struck out with my only available weapons: my trusty credit card and the gas receipt.  My credit card has stuck by my side through many late night bouts of ill-advised shopping, but it was no match for the steel-nerved bug.  The bug merely laughed in its shiny, plastic face, causing my insides to quiver.  As I was rallying for a second pass with the card and receipt, another iron-sided bug made a successful landing on the car door and set about entrenching itself in the gap between window and door.

I instantly realized that the bugs which had, moments before, seemed so stupid, flying into and bouncing off of signs, had actually staged that as a ruse to lull me into a false sense of security.  They were, in fact, evil geniuses.

I knew that I had mere moments before thousands of the grey bugs would fill the sky and swarm over my car.

I resumed my shaky onslaught against the armored nightmares, my nerve deteriorating rapidly.  I would be stuck at that gas station forever, blocking the pump while more sensible people honked their horns and wondered why the crazy girl was waving her arms and wailing about two harmless little insects.

When I had lost all hope of ever seeing home, I heard a voice break through the terror-induced darkness: "Those pesky things are over here, too."  Another car was being filled up beside mine, and waiting patiently at the pump, was a man wearing a ball cap and mirrored sunglasses.  Through my terror-stricken eyes, he was transformed to a knight, armor shining in the sunlight, his trusty steed munching away with its nose in its feed bag.

Mustering what little sanity I had left, I cried out, meekly, "I'm terrified of these things, and there are two of them in my car."

The knight was at my side in a instant, and had drawn his sword against the evil, monstrous insects.  Outside of my warped reality, the man in the ball cap had walked over to my car and was using his keys to pry the bug out of the space between the window and door.  In what would have been a very anticlimactic fight scene, he knocked the bug out almost immediately.  Relieved, but aware that one yet remained, I beseeched the knight, "Thank you!  Would you mind terribly getting the one that's just down there, as well?"

He obligingly grabbed the offensive insect with his bare hands (in actuality, just a couple of fingers) and removed it from the threshold of my car.  "Those stink bugs are sure annoying, aren't they?" he said.

"Oh, thank you, so much!" I exclaimed.  "You have no idea how much I appreciate it!"

And just like that, the knight, having bested the terrible beasts, jumped upon his steed and rode off into the sunset.  Reality flooded back into the still terrified reaches of my brain, and I hopped back into my car and slammed the door before any more bugs could try to tag along.

Thank you, sir, in the ball cap and sunglasses.  I have recovered from my mental lapse now, but I'm sure you saved my life yesterday!

The Anniversary Cake

A couple of Sundays ago was my parents' 30th wedding anniversary.  Happy Anniversary, Mom & Dad!  Inspired by an anniversary gift from my ever-thoughtful fiance, I enlisted said fiance's help in creating a photo book encompassing my parents' lives together.  And, as 30 years is such a big deal, I stuck two tickets for a hot air balloon ride between the pages of the book.  Then I figured, what better way to top all of that off than with a delicious and nicely decorated cake?

I love decorating cakes.  Examples of my work, in all its amateurish glory, include the cake I made for Halloween last year:

And the tiki cake I made for Denny's birthday in May:

Which he murdered....

Of course, I wanted people to eat it.  I mean, that's what you do with a cake.  I just wasn't expecting my cute little tiki cake to be knifed in the face on the first slice.  (What?  It's not normal to cry when someone slices a cake?  Oh.)

Ahem.  Anyway, I had planned to experiment with fondant prior to my parents' anniversary and make them a really awesome cake.  But (surprise, surprise) I let the date sneak up on me without any fondant experimentation.  In fact, I let it sneak up on me without any cake even baked.  So I concocted a plan to secretly bake the cake at Denny's house, wanting it to be a surprise for my parents.

I stopped at the store for the ingredients and drove over to begin baking the cake.  I wanted to get it in the oven early so it would have plenty of time to cool before I decorated it.  Cool is such a relative term.

The first snafu was at the grocery store.  I had planned to buy two 8" round cake pans because I knew Denny only had 9" rounds, and I like the cakes to be taller and less flattened-looking.  Unfortunately, the grocery store, too, only had 9" rounds.  I told myself it didn't matter, skipped over the decorator icing because I was sure I had plenty of that already, and headed to Denny's house with all the necessary ingredients.

Denny was visiting his parents, so I had the house to myself.  The first order of business was to switch on the air conditioner; it's a window unit, for those of you who are unfamiliar with the concept.  I quickly mixed up the cake batter, popped it in the oven, and then did the dishes while I waited for it to bake.  With perfect timing, the cake was done just after I put the last dish in the drainer.  (I just love washing dishes by hand.)

When I crouched down to pull the cakes from the oven, I noticed that they were both rather high on one side.  And then I saw the oven rack.  It was bowed in the middle as if someone had cooked a small child on it.  No wonder the cakes were lopsided.  Enter snafu number two.  I told myself that I would just turn the cakes so as to balance the high side on one with the low side on the other, and I went about my business.

In addition to the 8" cake pans, I was also missing a cooling rack, so after letting the cakes cool in their lovely 9" pans for fifteen minutes, I plopped them onto plates.  Denny had returned by this time, so we sat down to watch our favorite cooking podcast, Food Mob.  About fifteen minutes in, I checked the cakes, but they were still pretty warm.  Denny suggested putting them in the fridge, and I thought that sounded like a viable solution.

When Food Mob ended, I pulled the cakes out of the fridge and grabbed the icing from the counter.  Having carefully arranged the first layer on the cake plate, I opened the can of icing and began to stir it with a knife.  "Wow," I said to Denny, "I will say one thing for the 'weather' in your house, it makes it much easier to stir icing!"  I like to tease Denny that his house has weather because it lacks central heating and cooling.  It probably doesn't bother him... or it didn't the first hundred times.

Ready for the thick texture of the icing, I tipped the plastic can down over the cake so I could use the knife to scrape some onto the top.  Rather than coming off with a glob of icing on the knife, the icing poured down over the cake like one of those chocolate fountains.  As I watched the icing pool on the cake plate, I thought, "Ok, no problem.  I'll just throw it back in the fridge for a bit."  And I placed the second layer on top of the dripping icing and put the newly stacked cakes and the icing in the fridge to cool down.

Ten minutes later and half an hour before my parents were due to arrive so we could all go out to dinner, I again got up to pull the cakes and the icing from the fridge.  It was do or die time.  I had to finish the cake now, or there would be no adorably decorated dessert to celebrate my parents' milestone anniversary.  Little did I know what horror awaited behind the closed refrigerator door.

I opened the door, and my eyes came to rest on the cake.  The top layer had slid nearly completely off of the bottom layer because of the melted icing.  "Ok, no problem.  I'll push it back on, ice over the whole thing with the nice, cool icing, and no one will be able to tell."  I pulled the cake and icing out and sat down to finish the cake.  I righted the top layer (tearing a chunk out of the side in the process) and again tipped the plastic can of icing over the top of the cake, knife poised to scrape a glob of icing out of the can (hoping I could cover the missing chunk with the icing).  The icing again poured over the cake and began pooling on the plate.

"Ok, well, it'll just have to do.  It's sort of nice and smooth, like ganache!  It will still be pretty," I told myself.  I went to the cabinet and grabbed my bag of decorator icing.  I was going to pipe on a simple hot air balloon design and the words, "Happy 30th Anniversary!"  Easy enough, right?  I dumped the bag of colored icing tubes on the table, and saw that I did not have as many colors, or as much left of any one color, as I had originally thought.  "How could this happen?!  I always buy way too much decorator icing!"  I scanned the colors remaining and decided that there was enough black and red to do the balloon (no brown for the basket) and enough purple for the lettering.

I piped on the balloon first, and I must say, it didn't look bad.  With little time remaining, I began the purple lettering.  I got "Happy 30th Anniversa-" piped on the cake, the purple icing gave up the ghost.  I squeezed as much as I could out of the little tube and used a toothpick to borrow from the already completed letters and finish the last word.  With that accomplished (to the extent that it could be), I added a few clouds in blue and stepped back to assess.

The (black) basket of the hot air balloon and some of the lettering had slid over the edges of the cake and down onto the sides.  As I watched, the pretty, blue, cumulonimbus clouds stretched into cirrus streaks and over the edges, as well.  Without a word, I stood up, grabbed the knife with which I had intended to ice the cake (ha), and stabbed the center of the cake.

Right in its red, hot-air-balloon heart.

A temper makes you do horrible things sometimes.

Despite my angst, the cake still tasted fine, and by the time we returned from dinner and I showed it to my parents, I could even laugh about it.  The top had slid off again when I pulled it from the fridge, so I just gently slid it back on with the knife, thus the large gash on the side of the cake.

I need central air.  It makes me a better person.  Really.