Normally when people write articles about their cooking experiences, there’s always a picture attached of the dish they made. Have you ever wondered why there are never food pictures in my articles? It’s because nothing ever looks good. I don’t know if it’s my inability to plate food or my lack of understanding regarding “angles” and “lighting,” but no matter what color the dish is, it always looks brown and sad on camera.
I’m not a very aesthetically pleasing cook. I care so much about the taste that I kind of ignore the whole “eat with your eyes” element. Baking wise, my recipe for this week was a breeze — the post-baking steps were the mess.
My brother’s 21st birthday was this week and, in a moment of hubris, I told my mom not to send a cake: “I’ll take care of it with my handy-dandy Moosewood Cookbooks.” Since it was his 21st birthday, I naturally wanted to make a boozy cake, but “Big Banana Bourbon Cake” sounded gross, so it was back to square one for me. After finally deciding on Gingerbread Cupcakes, because they seemed like a more COVID-friendly option than a cake, it was time to bake.
I went shopping for all of the ingredients I didn’t already have, like molasses, cream cheese and confectioners sugar — yet I conveniently forgot half the spices and the lemon extract. Oh, well. Gingerbread already has so many spices that no one would miss the allspice or black pepper, I thought. Worst comes to worst, the frosting will add some extra flavor if it’s bland … except I forgot to buy lemon extract.
The cupcake batter came together pretty easily. This is the first Moosewood recipe that I’ve made where the serving size was perfect. Maybe a little bit too perfect because when I got up to cupcake ten, I started re-distributing and scooping batter out of the other cupcake molds to fill up the last few. The easy part was over — they went in the oven, the timer was set and it was time to make the frosting.
Up until this point, I’m sure you were thinking the same thing I was. “This is going surprisingly well. Good job Sarah!” But sadly, as soon as we got to the frosting, things turned a little less sweet. Since I forgot to buy lemon extract (oops), the frosting was just cream cheese, butter and confectioners sugar beaten together. I don’t have a knack for decorating, nor have I ever really tried to decorate a cake from scratch. Sure I’ve used store-bought frosting and a plastic knife to decorate cupcakes before, but they’ve always been pretty wonky. This was the first time I was going to make frosting from scratch and attempt to decorate a dozen cupcakes identically.
After I pulled the cupcakes out of the oven, I started hand-whipping the frosting while the cupcakes cooled. How hard could it be?
Really freaking hard. After the most intense arm workout I’ve had this year, it felt just about ready to fall off. I was sure the frosting had to be whipped by now. It was a lovely consistency, and I just accepted that that was as good as it was going to get.
I started filling a piping bag with the icing, only to realize that I had forgot to put the tip in. I tried to fix it by shoving the icing tip through the frosting to puncture the tip of the bag. If I stopped for a minute to think about that, I should’ve known it wouldn’t work. So, the next logical step was to stick my hand into the icing and fish out the piping tool. At this point, my mind was racing because I had 20 minutes before my brother’s party to create a dozen perfect little cupcakes, but I had already failed at frosting. However, the problem had a quick fix: I stuck the icing tip into an empty piping bag, cut off the point and then put the filled bag into the empty bag.
I took the cupcakes out of the fridge and started to pipe. Although the icing wasn’t solid, I tried to swirl it around the cupcake and stack it to create a solid foundation to decorate… only to have the icing collapse and run down the cupcake sides and onto the table. Of course I assumed the fault was a lack of icing to ensure stability, so I did three more like this. Oops. After realizing my mistake, I just piped the icing into a circle in the middle of the cupcake. I then banged the tray on the table so the icing would spread and more completely cover the cupcakes. I was very pleasantly surprised — they looked kind of … rustic.
Earlier in the day, I made gingerbread cookies because my plan was to have a delightfully fluffy frosting for the cupcake with a star-shaped gingerbread cookie perched on top like a Christmas tree. The end product was a very flat, iced cupcake with a star-shaped cookie resting on top. They looked kind of “meh,” so I added some white sprinkles. By the time I finished my very rough (sorry, rustic) decorating job, I had five minutes before I had to leave. I set the cupcakes in the fridge and began cleaning up the disaster I created in our kitchen. After scrubbing the table twice because it was so sticky, it was time to reveal my creation to the world and see if cake decorating is in my future (spoiler alert: It isn’t).
Birthday cakes tend to be perfectly decorated, so I was nervous to have my cupcakes become a stand-in for a classic frosted cake. Although my mom assured me they were great (“Wow, very impressive,” was her exact response), she’s a biased source. I couldn’t prolong the inevitable anymore. My time was up. I comforted myself with the fact that it would be dark outside, so no one could really tell just how messy they were, and braved the cold to deliver the cupcakes to my brother.
After unveiling my cupcakes to an impressed crowd (I think they were just being nice), it was time for the moment of truth: the first bite. My biggest fear was that I overdid it, between the gingerbread cupcake and the cookie on top. However, since I omitted spices in both gingerbread recipes, everything had flavor but it wasn’t too overpowering. People even went back for seconds!
I feel like this was a perfect recipe to conclude this semester of A Moosewood Mess — coming full circle. In the first week, my star-shaped chocolate sugar cookies were disgusting; however, my star-shaped gingerbread cookies this week (not Moosewood sorry) were actually pretty good. I went from not being able to follow a recipe without something going wrong to producing at least one edible Moosewood dish a week. And finally, after weeks of attempting to perfect the science of cooking and baking (which I definitely did not do), I got to work on the presentation of my dishes.
While I still firmly believe the way something tastes is much more important than the way it looks, I recognize that we live in a very visual society. For the first time since starting my Moosewood journey, I was able to produce something that tasted good and even looked halfway decent. Don’t worry, I won’t let it get to my head — I’m sure there are still many more messes for me to clean up in the future.
Sarah Austin is a sophomore in the Cornell School of Hotel Administration. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.