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Cake : The Slicer's Tale

November 10, 1994|MICHELLE HUNEVEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Some people find great pleasure in cake decorating, and the apex of this art is surely the wedding cake. I have found equal pleasure, however, in dismantling and, so to speak, demolishing wedding cakes.

I still remember the day, early in my career as a banquet waitress, I learned how to cut wedding cakes.

A woman brought a wedding cake she'd made to the country club where I worked. Before she would relinquish the cake to us, this woman insisted on showing us how to cut it. She was sick, she said, sick and tired of seeing her cakes mutilated by bad cutting. The most popular method at that time--cutting the cake into concentric circles and then subdividing the circles into slices--was ridiculous, she claimed, for several reasons: It involved a constant turning of the cake, each slice was cut on an angle, and it did not, as promised, eke the most slices from the cake. In fact, the slices tended to be chunky and uneven, and many broke apart--from their own ungainliness, it would seem.

We waitresses knew what this woman was talking about, because this was the way our boss, the banquet manager, cut all the wedding cakes that came within her purview. Constant turning, countless uneven slices. In fact, the slices that fell from our boss' knife often looked like small piles of cake scraps, chunky and unappetizing. During the cake-maker's demonstration, we all avoided looking at our boss: Clearly, she was one of the great cake mutilators.

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Our self-appointed teacher had a different cutting method, guaranteed to produce the most and most uniform slices from a round cake. Instead of cutting up a series of concentric circles, she divided the cake into a series of horizontal bands, working from the front of the cake to the back, and then cut them into slices.

She worked with a spatula in her left hand, a knife in her right. In easy reach was a container of hot water wrapped in a napkin. Periodically, she'd dip the knife and spatula in the water and scrape off excess frosting on the container's lip. She said if a helper was right in there, holding plates to catch slice after slice, you could serve cake to hundreds of people in a matter of minutes. No turning. No angles. Only beautiful, uniform slices that lay on the plate like elegant little flags.

This demonstration made a great impression on me--I was taken with the skill and rhythm inherent in the method--but my boss barely noticed. As a devout practitioner of the circular chunk-and-crumble method, she had grown indifferent to the appearance of her slices. She continued to perform her ritual mutilations on all wedding cakes that came into the club.

Then I moved to a different country club, where the banquet manager also reduced her wedding cakes to crumbs. This boss, however, had no particular attachment to cutting the cakes, and was delighted to turn the task over to me.

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After the wedding couple made the first cut and slammed it into each others' mouths, I'd step in. First, I'd take the top cake off, the one with the figurines on it, and box it up for the couple to freeze and unpack, God willing, on their first anniversary.

After that, what I did was a form of controlled mayhem: I pulled tiers of cake, extricating a framework of sticky columns and flat plastic discs hidden under blankets of frosting. Next, I removed all the wooden dowels baked into the layers to lend internal strength. These dowels you had to locate and pull out with your fingers.

All this went in a messy, sticky snarl into a garbage bag under the table, concealed from the customers by special skirts or linen boxing. (In a few days, the baker or the bride's mother would come calling for this bag of unwashed tricks.) Once every piece of plastic and wooden scaffolding was removed, I'd smooth the disturbed frosting over the tops of the largest cake and begin to cut.

I always had an audience--usually a circle of excited children who staked out rosettes of frosting and sugar bells as if their lives depended on it. The first few slices, from the frosted edge of the cake, generally went to them. Then the servers and I swung into gear. One waitress fed me plates to fill and then passed them on to servers who added forks and could carry seven plates of cake apiece out to the tables.

Now, waitressing is rarely a smooth or easy job. Between customers and kitchens, there are so many variables that any kind of well-oiled rhythm is seldom reached. Cutting and serving cakes, however, gave us a moment of control: We could get going so quickly and smoothly and hypnotically, it was often a disappointment when word came back that everyone was served.

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