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Rechanneling Mr.Clean - It's a Piece of Cake


I learned valuable things this past weekend.  I learned the difference between buttercream frosting and fondant, how to do a crumb coat, using a lazy susan turntable to frost a cake, the easiest way to make petit fours, and most of all  - throwing caution to the wind!

Earlier this year my partner Gary placed the winning bid on a silent auction item for a cake decorating class with Maryellen from Cakes & Candies by Maryellen in West Chester, PA.  We won an in-home class for up to ten people. Maryellen would supply all the baking accouterments.  We would supply the people. Previously, we had participated in several baking classes, so it sounded like great fun.

The other classes were with a pastry chef in a restaurant, so this was going to be a different spin on what we had done before. I was excited to have something creative and tasty to do in our relatively new kitchen. Maryellen’s business is quite hectic, so we scheduled the date in the summer when things slow down a bit for her. The big occasion was planned for July 20th.  We had to decide whom to invite to our baking bonanza. It needed to be a small group, so we thought we would stick to family and perhaps a couple of friends - the right mix.

Gary is a great party planner, so I just marked my calendar in anticipation of the event. A menu was decided upon. Of course, we had to feed our guests before they got into the trenches with spatulas in hand ready for Cake Wars.  Baking is a strenuous workout and we all wanted to go for that sugar burn.

The day of our Cake Decorating Party, all I needed to do was tidy up the house. I guess I am known as a bit fastidious. I have always been a cleaner, duster, tidier-upper. It must be in my genetic makeup. I grew up with the mom mantra “wash it and put it away.” Dishes were never left in the sink, on the counter, anywhere, in fact, or you’d have a lot of explaining to do. As a child I became a neatnik.  

I think I fall in the scale somewhere between the Anal Chef and Felix Unger.  Gary is the cook and I am the cleaner.  When we have friends come over to visit, they always ask, “Who cleans your house?”  Of course, I always raise my hand in pride at the impeccable way I maintain our household. I have noticed a few startled looks when I admit to being the domestic god. I guess they are thinking he must be borderline neurotic and a pain in the ass to live with. I really am a good guy. Perhaps, I just have a few screws wound to tightly. Cleanliness is next to Godliness – “yeah whatever!”

I must admit that Gary and I both like to keep a neat house. In fact, Gary is actually better at organization then I am. I’m just a more thorough cleaner. I have the reputation of being the tougher nut when it comes to having everything in order. With that little digression in mind, we arrive to Saturday evening and time for the festivities.

We invited my sister Gail; Gary’s sister, Geri; Geri’s boyfriend, Brian; and Amber, Geri’s assistant stylist; and our friend. Gary, professionally arranged our dining room table, with a tasty array of appetizers, and I had the freezer stocked with vodka. The start time was called for 5 to 5:30 PM, with Maryellen expected to arrive between 6 and 6:30 PM. The candles are lit and the counter tops are shiny.

Our guests arrive and we chat and chew on the pre-sugar goodies. Geri brought a tomato pie that looks scrumptious, and Gail brings tasty cheese. I bring out the silver cocktail shaker and crack open the freezer where the vodka resides. Among my several talents, I am an amateur mixologist.  What a better way to limber up the old cake decorating fingers then with shot of vodka. I mix a blend of orange infused vodka, pineapple infused vodka and orange juice for a tasty Orange Pineapple Martini. They are smooth and tropical, and after a few of these you can call me “Cake Boss - bitch!”

All are having fun, when the doorbell rings, signaling the arrival of Maryellen. Gary and Brian both disappear to assist in the carrying of the bakery supplies. As the plastic tub of cake pans filled with cakes, the five-gallon drums of buttercream frosting weighing in at about 60 pounds, the huge sheet of pound cake, the tubs of multi-colored frostings and fondant arrive, I start to wonder how the pristine kitchen is going to survive the onslaught. 


We had cleaned off the Silestone kitchen island as our work area and suddenly there was not an empty space. “Just a little organization is needed,” I thought to myself. “No need to worry.” A deep breath and an emphasis on “fun” and everything would be fine. I am a neat cook, which means I clean as I go. When I am done cooking everything is washed and put away – neat, no scene of the crime. I can’t expect everyone to be the same as me, right?

Maryellen explained that we each had two cakes, and some petit fours to decorate for the evening’s activities. It sounded ambitious, but we had the whole night before us. She showed us pictures of her beautiful cakes as inspiration and to give us ideas for our creations. Suddenly amongst the baking supplies, Maryellen was flinging 6” vanilla cakes and 8” chocolate cakes at us.  She demonstrated how to cut the top off the cake to make a perfectly flat surface for frosting. You could flip it out and over onto the cake pan for cutting and then flip it onto a scalloped cardboard for decorating.  With the precision of a samurai, she sliced off the top of the cake and threw it to the side.

I tried not to notice the moist, buttery, particles of cake as they landed on the top of the island or plummeted to their gooey death on the hardwood floor.  I needed to concentrate on the baker’s instructions and not the urge to clean.  Just a sip of a martini, and I could alter my genetic predisposition like Joan Rivers had altered her face.  I told myself to calm down. We had had parties before and everything was fine. This was just the first time cake and frosting was being flung, so we were working without a net.

I took a seminar once that taught about self-empowerment and living in possibility. I had to be the possibility of fun, creativity and laughter for the evening, or I was headed to the pantry for a tumbler of Grey Goose and three Klonopin.  I was resolute that I would live in the moment and enjoy my family, and get out of my head which was a maintenance closet of brooms, mops and Swiffer’s that were all calling my name.

We all decided on our cake themes and went to work. The huge drums of vanilla and chocolate frosting were opened and spatulas of creamy goodness were being heaped upon our cakes. Tubes of orange, turquoise, yellow, green, white and brown frosting were arranged for us to create our artist palette. I looked around the kitchen and it was like Willy Wonka’s factory as we dove into the process.

Brian is a Wood Fire Potter and he quickly took to the Lazy Susan as if it was a potter’s wheel. He quickly frosted his cake with a smooth professional look like he was making pottery. It was like a scene from the movie Ghost, but without Demi Moore, Patrick Swayze, the old Righteous Brothers song and the clay. Geri chose flowers for her theme, Amber went for the tie-dyed 60’s vibe and Gail worked patiently on a basket weave with vines and leaves.

Gary and I worked next to each other, and we had fun putting on the first coat of frosting. Gary chose to use both his cakes as one creation as did Gail. He is a purist, so he wanted a sleek, classy design.  As a designer he created the look, but had Maryellen help him on the more intricate parts of the frosting. When he completed the cake it was dubbed the “Garyellen” design. 


I wanted to try the fancy scroll look, which I think appears like a piece of Wedgewood China.  This certainly takes practice, and a steady hand. My initial attempt was like Deadwood China or alien hieroglyphics. Maryellen recommended practicing on waxed paper, but it is difficult to have a steady hand when you are on your way into sugar shock.  I kept rolling off the bad scrollwork frosting and eating it, so my sugar rush was at DEFCON 1.  In fact, I think everyone was suffering from sugar overload as we tasted and sampled while we worked.

We were having a great time, and all got a laugh when Amber, using a latex glove to scoop bright green frosting out of a container, looked like the Hulk’s proctologist. At some point, I glanced at the bottom of my flip-flops and realized that I had been walking in chocolate frosting.  “Oh well,” I thought to myself. “The cleanup happens later – keep calm and carry on.” Who was this strange person inhabiting my head?  I felt happy and cheerful, and at the moment not worried about the frosting besmirched into our hand-scraped wood flooring.  I had to remember not to be too relaxed and loosey goosey. Company does not appreciate belching and farting.

We had moved all our cakes off the island as we finished them. I realized we had quite an assortment of desserts assembled; in fact, there were eleven cakes in total.

There were four cakes just between Gary and I. This was far too much dessert for the two of us, even with my sweet tooth. We need to “bake it forward” and share the sweetness with others. Amber was going to take her cakes with Geri and Brian’s cakes to her church for their Munch & Mingle. This was such a kind gesture to share the baked goods with her congregation – cakes and fellowship. After all, Jesus was a baker. Didn’t he do something with a bunch of loaves?  Amber did text Gary later that evening, that she gave two of the cakes to two random hot guys entering her apartment building. Sex appeal always overrules the pulpit. Case in point, the annual edition of People Magazine isn’t called “The Holiest Man Alive.”


Gary and I decided we would try a piece of the “Garyellen” cake and the remainder of our desserts would go to my mom’s nursing home Shady Lane. We could show appreciation to the nurses and aides for good caregiving with a carb overload. “Nothin’ says lovin’, like something from the oven.” It was good that the cakes could be shared with so many others. Maryellen even brought cardboard boxes, so they could be safely delivered.

Clean up time came, and I took a deep breath. Maryellen was being very helpful with her container of wipes, and I didn’t feel the slightest bit anxious until I heard her ask if we had any bleach for the island top. Felix Unger was invading my happy place. I grabbed a chair back for support, as Gary went to the fetch the bleach. I heard Gail mention there were pieces of cake on the stairs in the hallway, and I snuck into the laundry room, as much as yelling “I’ll be right back with the vacuum!” can be interpreted as sneaking.

In the laundry room, I doused my face with cold water in the utility sink and readied myself for the job at hand. The laundry room is like my Bat Cave. Everything I need to handle a situation is there. From brooms, mops, dusters, steamers, to a sewing kit, it is all within reach. Luckily, Gary came in to talk me off the ledge, and made me see that I could wait until the guests left. I didn’t need to vacuum around their feet. I compromised with a wet Swiffer. 


A thunderstorm had arrived just at the end of our party, and I had promised I would drive Gail home.  A good way to take a break from the cleanup would be a trip in the car. I could rest for a little while before breaking out the floor steamer and removing the quarantine from the kitchen. The rain was coming down steady as I drove Gail and her cake home. The lightning lit up the night sky with a blue glow against the barns and farm fields like a scene from Old McFrankenstein.  Not a great night for driving, but we laughed about the evening, and I said that I hoped Gary was home scrubbing the kitchen.

There was no let up in the rain as I arrived at Gail’s to drop her off. I was getting out of the car to help Gail with her belongings when I heard a thud and an exclamation from my sister. As I moved around the car I saw Gail had fallen onto her wet stone patio and the two-tiered cake in the box had gone with her. She had tripped getting out the car and took a swan dive with her sugar creation. Of course, my first thought was to find out that she was not hurt and there were no injuries. She advised me that she was okay, since her cake helped cushion her impact. I guess Detroit never thought about cake air bags.

I felt bad for that my brother-in-law, Rick, would not get too see the pretty cake Gail had created. Gail and I, shared our MacArthur Park moment with the cake out in the rain, and then I helped her get up. Gail was wet and covered in frosting, but at least she could have the recipe again.  I hugged her, shared my condolences for the loss of the cake and headed off into the night. On the way home, I had an inspiration and listened to Donna Summer on my iPod.

When I got home I found Gary washing dishes in the sink. He was waiting for me to return to tackle the kitchen. “Oh lucky me!” I knew I couldn’t sleep until certain things we back in order – like no frosting on the baseboards. I vacuumed and wet mopped the kitchen floor, and we called it quitting time by 2 AM.

As I lay in bed with my synapses still firing from the sugar, I thought had I truly stood in possibility that evening and not spent the entire time channeling Mr. Clean?

I realized that I really had enjoyed myself. I laughed, I frosted, I joked and I let family come first. I’ll never be able to splice off my clean gene, that is just the way I am. I like the neatness and order it brings, but I like that I can strive for more moderation. In the end, it is always about the love we get from the people in our lives, the special moments we create, and the enjoyment we derive from those times. So what if once in a while I require drop cloth.


















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