In March of 2012, I was a mess.
Like, moving out of your boyfriend’s apartment and back in with your parents, unemployed, emotional, drunk, extremely fragile mess. I joke now about my tendency to hole up in bed, in sweat pants, watching Teen Mom on repeat, but this is where it started. And I did it for about 30 hours a week, when I wasn’t obsessively rearranging my bedroom or using any opportunity to just get obliterated, in an attempt–I mean, in the worst possible way possible–to get on with my life. Basically, I was trying to dig myself out of the hole that was my life, but I just dug myself in deeper.
It was around this time that my mom and her best friend Sue went to visit Sue’s son Matt and his wife Mandy in Savannah, GA. Mandy took mom and Sue to one of her favorite local eateries, Back in the Day Bakery, and mom brought back some of their Old Fashioned Cupcakes for my dad and me. I have a very distinct memory of that day, as I often do with food that changes my life.
I was unshowered and in my pajamas and had just cancelled all my work plans when mom presented the adorable paper box to me, tied with red and white string and hand stamped with the bakery’s name. The box had a couple greasy spots on it, which immediately intrigued me. After all, grease spots most often forecast a delicious treat. Inside the box was a small cupcake covered in pink icing and white sprinkles. I grew up hating frosting and hating cupcakes because they were mostly frosting. But, I didn’t care. Suddenly I needed to eat this cupcake. I peeled the paper and shoved it frosting first into my face.
What a cupcake. Even after a 10+ hour journey in a non-air tight container, this cupcake was perfect. It had the most amazing texture. The best flavor. And it tasted real. Like the first person to have ever created a cupcake had made them in their kitchen from scratch and had delivered it to me. There was no fake sugar taste that accompanies most frosting. It was real butter cream–and all you could taste was butter and sugar. And the cake was moist and had the perfect crumble. Even the sprinkles were tasty. You could taste the attention to detail. It was incredible.
I remember when I was done eating it, I was sad. I was sad all the time back then, but this was a new, different kind of sad. I had a Lester Burnham moment and thought, “This will be the highlight of my day.” And I took a picture of the empty wrapper.
That cupcake, and the three more I ate immediately after, lifted my spirits in a beautifully weird way. Like, the fact that I could love something that I had so long hated made me feel like change within myself wasn’t impossible. Like I had been judging things too quickly. It was cupcake empowerment. Or it was a massive sugar high. But either way, I felt better than I had in a long time.
As with most sugar highs, the feeling was short lived. Most unfortunately. However, a few weeks later, Mandy sent my mom Back in the Day Bakery’s first cookbook that had just been released, signed by chef and co-owner, Cheryl Day. I leafed through it, hoping to find the recipe for the cupcakes that shone a light for me. And lo and behold, there it was. And that to die for butter cream frosting, too.
That first batch of cupcakes helped in a way I didn’t fully realise at the time. Baking gave me an outlet, something to focus on. Following precise instructions gave my brain a break from worry and grief. And looking at the plate of cupcakes, frosted and sprinkled, knowing they were as delicious as the ones made in Savannah, gave me a shot in the arm. I had created something. And it was damn good. And it made everyone who tried it happy. It was the fulfillment I needed in a dark time.
I baked all summer. Some fails, some awesome successes. It was centering, calming, and exciting, even when it made me want to rip my hair out (see: double boiling). But I was productive. As I baked and cooked, life felt easier. For those moments I was in the kitchen, everything was good. And that’s how it’s been since.
Setting down to make something from scratch never fails to make me feel good and right about the world. And I give all the credit to that first batch of cupcakes, and that first cookbook that brought me some hope–something I got to tell Cheryl Day herself last summer when I finally got to go to see the bakery in Savannah.
I haven’t had many chances to bake since I’ve been in Sydney. Mostly because I didn’t have a mixer or pans, and also because I’m still learning my way around Fahrenheit and Celsius and that whole “metric system” thing. So when Joel and I were looking through Back in the Day Bakery’s new cookbook, Back in the Day Bakery: Made with Love, which my mom so awesomely sent to me, and I noticed how wide his eyes got when he saw the Caramel Cake with Salted Caramel Frosting, I knew I had a baking project ahead of me. Yesssssssss.
First, there was plotting. I went to Victoria’s Basement, a kitchen and homewares store that sells items at deep, deep discount, to buy supplies. Then there were 3 trips to grocery stores to find all the ingredients. With Joel gone for two evenings, I knew I had plenty of time in case I screwed up and had to start all over. I measured out my butter and put it out to warm, and then, it began.
There was a minor catastrophe while making the caramel sauce (hello seizing caramel and 40 minutes of stirring over low heat to smooth things out), and I might have rushed things and burned my fingers and over baked one of the layers a tad, but overall, the cake was delicious. And it brought back all the good feelings that that first round of cupcakes brought.