Cake for Ted Kooser

Ted Kooser is living proof one can live in rural Nebraska, have a career as an insurance guy, and still win a Pulitzer. Recently I had the honor of chauffeuring this former U.S. Poet Laureate. I’d been chosen for two reasons: One, my speech has a Midwestern twang, so it was thought I’d be able converse with someone from the heartland. Two, my car was clean.

Turns out Ted Kooser inspired me to bake.

The last time I made a cake was 29 years ago. That day, I made a three-layer, devils-food, a crossroads kind of cake that might’ve directed me toward a life as a pastry chef. Or I could’ve retired from baking, aglow with the knowledge that I’d made that one perfect cake. Fate quickly made the decision for me. Moments after the guests licked the last chocolaty butter-cream from their forks, the earth moved.

I’d read that chocolate could improve one’s love life, but this was a G-rated birthday party, for criminy-sake. Nevertheless, the floor undulated, furniture toppled, and china crashed. Whew! That was some dang good cake.

Turns out it wasn’t the cake. It was the August 13, 1978 Santa Barbara earthquake that derailed a freight train, knocked mobile homes askew, and emptied the UCSB library shelves of books, most likely including three by Ted Kooser.

My mama didn’t raise a stupid kid. I got the message. No more baking for me.

I kept my vow all these years, and then along came Ted Kooser. Before we’d left the airport parking lot Ted complimented me on my clean car, and we were onto the subject of dogs too fond of skunks, and the many women who’d influenced our lives. Ted told a story about his thrifty mother, and that reminded me of my thrifty grandmother who made burnt sugar cake.

If Jeannine’s Bakery made it, they’d say “Cake Caramel” with a French accent. Back in Nebraska we understood that caramel is nothing more than burnt sugar. And we knew better than to give a cake a fancy name, lest it draw the attention of the gods and cause some cataclysm.

I got Ted Kooser safely to his gig at the spring poetry workshop at La Casa De Maria put on by the Santa Barbara Writers’ Conference. Poets had come from all over the United States (and even a few from Canada) to hear this highly respected poet speak and give a master class on crafting poetry. While he dispensed considerable wisdom on polishing one’s writing, I decided I’d like to bake him a burnt-sugar cake.

Alas, some things aren’t possible. Famous poets have planes to catch, and cake doesn’t travel well by mail. To change the subject as we drove back to the airport, I asked what kind of music he liked.

Without missing a beat, Ted sang the old song, “When I was a lad, and old Shep was a pup, over hills and meadows we’d stray…”

There’s nothing like a baritone voice delivering a sad song about a faithful old dog to make a girl forget about cake…at least until the last weekend in July at the Santa Barbara Summer Poetry Workshop at Westmont. In the middle of my talk on how to get your poetry published, I held up Ted Kooser’s “The Poetry Home Repair Manual.” This book offers practical advice on how to write a publishable poem and happens to have a cover the caramel color of burnt-sugar cake.

That’s how I found myself stirring granules in a skillet today. With flame revved, I waited for the sugar to clump before meltdown, and then grow darker, until I beheld the familiar bubbling brew. I poured in boiling water, and it sizzled. I added flour, eggs, vanilla, and voila; I had the batter pouring into my grandmother’s speckled enamel tin.

The oven did its best, I’m sure, but when I took the cake out, it was a half-inch high, about the same thickness as the book on writing poetry that’d inspired it. And nowhere on the Rumford baking powder can does it explain that leavening used in August 1978 for perfect devils-food won’t work well for making a cake in 2007.

A normal person would throw this flat thing out, but anybody who uses Grandma’s pan is too thrifty to toss perfectly good cake just because it didn’t rise. So I’ll use poetic license and dub this “Ted Kooser’s Burnt Sugar Torte.” It’s solid, and it’ll do fine in the mail.