Four Wedding Cakes and a Funeral Hot Dish
I made my first wedding cake in 1982. I don’t remember what kind it was, although I can tell you that the bride had words with her father at the door and stomped up the aisle alone, and that the recessional was the Rebel Fanfare from Star Wars. The cake just couldn’t compete.
Since then I’ve made at least a dozen—mainly for friends with small budgets and relaxed sensibilities. I know my limits: no mini Taj Mahals and only real butter in the frosting. Nevertheless, there have been secret disasters.
My sister-in-law still does not know that Joan’s dog Angus took a big old bite out of the side of her four-tier chiffon cake with meringue buttercream. It was midnight on the day before the wedding, and I was scheduled to leave town at 6:00 a.m. for a conference. I had just that minute fallen in love with Joan, and hoped vaguely to endear myself through a free wedding cake to what I already thought of as my future in-laws.
So I trimmed the bitten part and blobbed a whole bunch of frosting over it. No guest complained, to my knowledge.
Once I made a cake in the style of a medieval mille-fleur tapestry. I festooned it with feathery dill sprigs and branches of rosemary, miniature ivy, gilded tiny strawberries, violets, dianthus. The brides had tears of joy in their eyes when I delivered it, four hours before the reception.
Ten minutes after I left, the caterer moved the cake out of the refrigerator to make room for the seafood salad. For four hours, my cake sat in the un-airconditioned kitchen of the Moscow Community Center on a Saturday in late July. It began as the Tres Riche Heures of the Duc du Berry, and went out to the guests as Hieronymus Bosch’s Hell.
After three tries at a lemon cake that would suit a particularly finicky North Carolina bride, I borrowed a church fundraiser cookbook from my neighbor, and made the cake of the bride’s dreams: Duncan Hines Golden Pudding Cake with two boxes of lemon jello. I’m not proud of this. But the bride’s mother told me it was absolutely perfect, honey.
I can’t exactly say that I prefer cooking for funerals, but making a casserole, some rolls, a peach cobbler—of course they don’t help, but then nothing can. And one use for food in a bereaved home is filling mouths that might otherwise be saying painful, unhelpful things, which is a genuine service.
In my rebellious twenties, I joined the Lutheran church, which has had four hundred years to hone its ministry of feeding the bereaved, new parents, and the temporarily disabled. While preparing for Confirmation, I plumbed the esoterica of the dinner roster (so that everyone doesn’t make lasagna), the meal captain (who handles deliveries for minimal intrusion), and the permanent assignment of certain dishes—Helen’s Chicken Broccoli Bake, Margaret’s Tamale Pie, and, eventually, my Macaroni and Cheese.
Macaroni and Cheese is an excellent funeral dish. Eaters of all ages mostly like it; it’s undemanding, and incredibly filling. Grate about 3 cups of medium cheddar, plus a little bit of extra-sharp white cheddar—maybe another ¾ cup. Cook a bag of elbow macaroni (this is not the time for funny pasta), drain, and rinse with cold water. Meanwhile, melt half a stick of butter in a medium saucepan, and add ¼ cup of flour, ½ teaspoon of English dry mustard, and some pepper. Stir with a whisk over medium heat till it’s well-blended and just barely golden and then pour in four cups of milk, stirring vigorously. Heat, stirring constantly, till the sauce is thick. If it gets too thick, add some more milk. Add the cheese and whisk until smooth. Add the drained macaroni, stir well, and pour into a disposable foil pan. Cover with aluminum foil when cool, and deliver to your meal captain with instructions to heat in a 350 oven until bubbling and golden brown on top.
Of course, you don’t have to wait for someone to die, or get married, or have a baby, to make Macaroni and Cheese. Our commonplace sorrows and mysteries—bad day at the office, another ear infection, snow on the daffodils–are also more intelligible over a plate of something hot and simple and easy to eat.