Three Gorgeous Cakes for the Holidays

After I worked in restaurant kitchens, I learned to be more careful and precise, archiving all the tactile and visual reference points that would work like cues. I became good enough, at least, that I was enlisted to make birthday cakes for my friends. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I became obsessed with a single-subject Tumblr account at this exact time. The site, called Doom Cakes, cataloged cakes that cast long, dark, menacing shadows in films like “The Birds” and “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past.” While I waited for yellow layers to cool in their tins, I’d watch Matthew McConaughey in a shiny waistcoat, struggling to hold up a structurally unsound four-tier wedding cake, and failing. The intricately decorated layers would splatter, finally, in extravagant chaos. Genre didn’t matter. In animation, thrillers and romantic comedies, a cake was vulnerable, and usually a sign of imminent disaster.

These horrifying clips should have put me off, or slowed me down, but instead they propelled me to attempt more and more complicated techniques, and produce more elaborate cakes. A classic Opera cake for my mother’s birthday at home, the almond layers soaked in a boozy coffee syrup. A strawberry-and-cream sandwich built in an acetate-lined ring, carried to friends in Prospect Park on a dangerously warm day. I took a thick roll of spongecake filled with yuzu curd to my boyfriend’s father in the hospital and left it on a plastic folding table with a note, and built a wobbly whirly-domed charlotte that was grotesquely beautiful, serving it after a lunch at home of salad and fried chicken. At a friend’s apartment in Brooklyn, I glazed a sheet cake layered with mint buttercream and chocolate ganache, piping tiny, unnecessary patterns all over it out of melted dark chocolate. What I found was that I baked well with a shiver of dread, that I liked the feeling of rushing ahead without knowing with any certainty that everything would turn out all right. Dread motivated me in the kitchen, in the same way a looming deadline motivated me at my laptop.


Sugarplum gingerbread cake.

Davide Luciano for The New York Times. Food stylist: Maggie Ruggiero. Prop stylist: Chloe Daley.

When two of my closest friends in New York married, they didn’t ask me to make the cake, but they did give me the navy blue stand mixer they received as a wedding…

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