Nabokov once threw his manuscript for Lolita in the trash. Stephen King did a similar thing with his manuscript for Carrie. In both cases, the wives of these authors dug out the manuscript, read it themselves and then urged their husbands to continue writing. If it were not for these women, these texts would be in a trash heap somewhere, smoldering into nothingness, suffering a cruel fate, the same fate that befell the chapter I wrote this summer about making a squirrel cake.
The chapter was for my book, which is based on my website, The Amateur Gourmet. It was a chapter about challenging yourself, about the way that cooking something complicated can motivate you to take big chances in life. The original idea was to make croissants, but that would've been too time consuming. Croissants require lots of resting. I didn't want to spend 36 hours making pastry.
So I went with my friend Lisa to the bookstore to find something we could challenge ourselves with that wouldn't take 36 hours. What we found was a book called Kate's Cake Decorating by Kate Sullivan (of LovinSullivanCakes.) Lisa flipped through it and stopped on page 44. A big grin blossomed on her face.
"What is it?" I asked.
"A squirrel cake," she said, flipping the book around and showing me a red-and-blue cake with a marzipan squirrel sitting on top.
"Let's make it," she begged, and since I was stuck for what else we could do, I agreed.
Great authors go through great trials to create great literature. George Plimpton famously joined the Detroit Lions to get material for Paper Lion; Ted Conover became a prison guard at Sing Sing to write Newjack. To write this important chapter of my book, I went with Lisa to Whole Foods to buy ingredients. One of the major ingredients for squirrel cake is fondantsheetlike icing that you roll out and layer on top of the cake. The author says specifically, "By all means, buy the fondant ready-made. It is not worth making yourself."
But Whole Foods doesn't carry fondant, and the more we investigated, the more discouraged we became: All of the cake-making stores were closed in our neighborhood (it was Sunday.)
"Well," I said. "We could give up or try to make it ourselves."
"We can't give up!" Lisa said. "This is the challenge-yourself chapter, dummy."
So we charged ahead. We bought all the ingredients for the cake and then, with more difficulty, tracked down the ingredients for the fondant. The most difficult to find was glycerin. But we found it at a health-food store and then returned to my apartment, where we began the squirrel cakemaking process.
To make the fondant, we melted gelatin in water, placing it over a double boiler for five minutes. Then we added corn syrup. Lisa made a well with powdered sugar, and we incorporated the liquid mixture into the sugar the way you might incorporate eggs into flour to make pasta. And then it got truly sticky: we began the kneading process.
Kneading fondant is not like kneading dough, which can be pleasurable and soothing. Fondant is the evil love child of a threeway between paste, glue, and rubber cement. It's maddening as it sticks to your hands. But between the two of us, we kneaded it the requisite amount, added food coloring, and tucked it away to rest overnight.
Then came the fun: We made marzipan animals. We painted the animals. We made the cake.
The next morning, before Lisa came over, I made buttercream frosting. When she got there (playing hooky from work to help with this important work of literature) we frosted the cake. Then we rolled out the fondant (a scary process that, thankfully, came out OK) and laid it on top of the cake. We pressed the fondant on to the crumb-coated surface and along the side, and Lisa cut off the excess. What resulted was a beautiful cake, a Tiffany box with its light-blue smooth surface and shape.
On top of the fondant, we perched our squirrel, the acorns, and the pears.
"It looks awesome!" I said.
"It does!" Lisa agreed.
"We could sell this," I said. "We could sell this for like $100."
"Yeah," she said.
We stared at the cake.
"OK," she said. "I have to go back to work."
"Wait a second," I said as she began to leave. "Why don't you bring the cake? Let your co-workers eat it."
"How will I carry it?" she asked.
She had a point. So we decided that, for lunch, she'd bring her co-workers to my building to eat on my roof (she'd done this before.) I'd give her my key, and she could bring up the cake for all of them to enjoy.
Little did she know that this moment on the roof would be her only reward for the hard work we poured into this chapter. For there came a moment, weeks later, when I looked at all we'd done, all the funny pictures and notes that I took, and realized that this had no place in my book. We'd challenged ourselves, sure, but not much had happened. We'd make a cake. We'd made fondant. We'd made a marzipan squirrel. But where was the drama? Where was the conflict? Where was Shelly Winters discovering Humbert's diary or the bucket of pig's blood perched precariously over Carrie's head?
Into the trash the chapter went but not our squirrel cake memories. We have the pictures, we have the stories, we have the cookbook. Lisa's co-workers had a delicious cake, and the world of literature was spared the story, the story of the squirrel cake.