SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

December 24, 2012

Column: A lesson for the New Year

Sharon L. Cook
The Salem News

---- — Standing in line at the supermarket, I flipped through a woman’s magazine. The cupcakes with kitty faces were really cute. They were just the thing to take to the annual Friends of Beverly Animals (FOBA) Christmas party. I committed the image to memory, deciding to recreate them at home. The cupcakes would be a hit, causing everyone to gush, “You are so clever!”

You could say that my expectations exceeded my ability. It also illustrates one of Murphy’s Laws: Things are always harder than they look, especially if it involves baking.

Add my attention deficit disorder: Those with ADD will do anything to avoid reading the fine print, including recipes and instructions. For instance, my 4-year-old car may be showing minor wear, but the driver’s manual is pristine. After all, it’s never been opened.

The morning of the party I made two dozen cupcakes using a box cake mix. They came out of the oven nice and golden . . . and tall. They rose so high they looked like Sno Cones. While they cooled, I mixed up a batch of frosting. As I stirred, the mixture thinned. I added more powdered sugar and when it became too thick, more milk. This went on until my arm became stiff from beating.

Finally, I frosted each naked cupcake and added a sprinkling of coconut. This set the stage for the fun part: making cute kitty faces. I had a vague idea of how they should look, yet hadn’t planned the details. If I, an art school grad, couldn’t create a kitty face, who could?

In the cupboard, I found peanuts for the eyes. I’d considered using M&Ms, like the magazine photo, but feared they’d get eaten before I could use them. Unfortunately, the peanut eyes created a startled deer-in-headlights expression. I searched the refrigerator for something else and found a container of black olives. In the end, I decided to stick with peanuts.

For the nose and whiskers I’d bought tubes of frosting gel, a product used for writing on cakes. My first attempts were not good. The tubes were small and the gel tricky to handle. Instead of fine lines for whiskers, I had runny red squiggles. This brought me to the kitty ears, my pièce de résistance. The ears would salvage the project. Originally I’d debated what to use. White paper, I thought, would be cheating. I needed something edible, such as matzo balls or Wonder Bread. Browsing the supermarket aisles, I had a flash of inspiration: marshmallows! They were white, pillowy, and sweet. A perfect choice for kitty cat ears.

Yet working with marshmallows proved nearly impossible. For one thing, you don’t cut them, you saw them. Marshmallows, I discovered, don’t cooperate. They deflate and even with a serrated knife, won’t yield. The knife was followed by scissors and finally, an x-acto knife. The results were sticky bits that didn’t resemble cat ears so much as horns. To their credit, however, they stuck to the cupcake’s surface.

Meanwhile the butter in the frosting, reacting to the warm kitchen, began to melt. And because my cupcakes were bulbous and not flat like the magazine cupcakes, the frosting began to slide. It took the kitty faces, and in its wake left a smeary mess.

At that point I was glad to give it up. I’d lost faith in the cupcakes and should have quit at the peanut stage. But rather than toss them out, I threw red and green sprinkles into the remaining frosting and plastered it over each surface. “Delicious cupcakes,” I was later told at the party.

It’s a lesson I’ll take into the New Year, should I set unrealistic goals for myself: Sometimes you have to settle for less. You move on and try again. And while you’re at it, don’t measure your efforts against a magazine’s artificial image. After all, they have stylists and you don’t.

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Sharon L. Cook of Beverly is the author of the mystery “A Nose for Hanky Panky” and the newly released “The Legend of Judgment Rock and other Mystery Stories,” available at bookstores and online. Read more at www.sharonlovecook.com.