Dixie General's Cake

It looked so easy on paper. Sift a few cups of cake flour. Separate a dozen eggs. Squeeze a few lemons. Grate some orange rind. Beat, fold, stir, and bake. Presto. Dixie General's Cake: a towering, four-layer confection fit for a high-ranking officer in any region of the country.

If only it were that simple.

The recipe had been floating around my house for weeks. Copied from one of my mother's Southern Living magazines, it had escaped from my ill-organized recipe folder, bouncing between the kitchen counter and the family room. All the while, I was contemplating this marvel. The sparkling, airbrushed vision of perfection from the magazine's color spread filled my head.

I believe in the power of food. Even a sugar- and fat-laden cake seems wholesome when prepared with care and affection. Baking embodies the American ideal of hearth and home. And the magic of food extends to every culture. Think of Laura Esquivel's novel Like Water for Chocolate. Based in a Mexican border town, circa 1910, the novel has a heroine who prepares meals that can inspire people to laugh, cry, or run naked from the house. My own dishes have never had such dramatic effect, but I like to believe in their potential to do more than satisfy hunger.

My resolve to bake Dixie General's Cake came on a weekend morning. An expanse of unfettered time was before me, and the morning was still fresh when the recipe made its way into my partner Tim's hands. "This sounds delicious," he said.

That's all it took. I was off and baking.

This is not the tale of a cooking disaster. A chef profiled in this issue of the Bulletin had an assistant who once dusted dessert-soufflé pans with salt instead of sugar. Nothing like that happened to me.

No, the creation of this masterpiece exemplifies that consuming, time-altering, hassle-ridden state we amateurs sometimes enter: the cooking abyss. The dark hole that gapes between inspiration and completion. The saga of Dixie General's Cake is about a cake that should take two hours to prepare, but takes four instead. It's about egg whites that leap from the mixing bowl when beaten and form a glistening glaze on top of already shiny granite countertops. The plot offers up a sifter that clogs from the cook's mistake of washing it between uses. The hairdryer he employs to dry it doesn't help. The ending involves a shortage of frosting, a back that aches, and a spirit defeated.

After I manage to produce a second batch of frosting, the cake looks acceptable. The recipe calls for a few hours in the refrigerator before it's ready for consumption.

The moment of reckoning comes when the silvery knife slides through the powdered sugar frosting. Flecks of orange and lemon rind cling to the knife as it's lifted from the cake's white layers. A garnish of fresh mint (necessary to achieve the look from the magazine) teases the taste buds and stimulates the sinuses.

Tim and I sit. He bites. He chews; and, as always, he tells the truth. "This is okay," he says. "But you don't need to make it again."

The cake sits in the refrigerator for more than a week. I alone slice away at it, refusing to admit that it's anything other than spectacularly delicious.

I still believe in the power of food. Lately, however, I'm growing fond of the bakery at my local supermarket.

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