The year was 2009 and I was turning twenty-five years old. I was officially an adult. I could rent a car by myself, I was at the peak of my physical health, and I had stepped into a new age bracket for marketing demographics. But, most importantly, I was celebrating my last birthday that mattered. Think about it. What lies beyond twenty-five? Twenty-six certainly isn’t important and looming off in the distance is thirty, making you question what you’ve accomplished and what you could have done better and, Jesus, is that a gray hair? Oh god. Twenty-five is the last birthday with any kind of joy or hope attached. Is that jaded? Probably.
Back then I was living in Houston and had a group of friends I commonly celebrated with. The six of us were always together for holidays no matter what they were; Christmas, Independence Day, Columbus Day… Meals were coordinated and duties were handed out. We really operated more like a family in that way, making sure everyone was playing their part in the festivities. Birthdays were no exception.
Cakes were most often handled by my friend Stephanie. She’s an adventurous culinary whiz with an artist’s eye for design. She’s also a bit of an ass sometimes. Her biting sarcasm is well matched with her natural ability for good comedic timing. Her plan for this birthday’s cake would utilize all of these traits. Stephanie was going to create for me a ham cake. That’s right. Ham cake.
Steph had recalled something I mentioned once for the basis of her inspiration. I had mused that I didn’t much care for hams, honey-baked or otherwise, due to having eaten an overabundance of them in my childhood. Every major holiday, or gathering that wasn’t Thanksgiving, contained ham. We didn’t have much money when I was growing up, so we’d always spring for a cheap ham in an attempt to at least make the holiday feel special. There were thick slices of it, usually overdone, and we ate it for days until the ham had been entirely consumed. As an adult I appreciate the gesture, but I still avoid hams to this day. I just can’t stand the taste. Stephanie pondered what she could do with this knowledge and decided to create her most challenging cake to date: a cake that looked like a ham. It was a chance to force me to consume the visage of a food I despised, knowing I was sure to enjoy it. How could she pass that up?
She set to work a couple weeks beforehand, sketching out a detailed schematic of the ham cake, plotting shape and layers – her plan of attack. But she scrapped the whole thing when it was time to create the cake. In her words, “Just as Michelangelo saw an angel in the block of marble and used his chisel to free it, I saw a ham in the pile of cake and used a bread knife.”
Stephanie started with a half sheet of red velvet cake, so deeply crimson from food coloring, you might mistake it for a dark brown at first glance. The half sheet was baked the night before my birthday so it could properly cool. To ensure you have solid cake construction, and for ease of applying frosting, it really is best to work with cake at room temperature. Now, I’ve made plenty of cakes where as soon as it’s baked, you pop it out of the pans, slap some frosting on it, and ta-da! You have cake. But the top layer might slide a little. Or you might have it crack in the middle. Stephanie couldn’t risk any of this happening to my cake. Process is critical for a cake when you’re focusing on presentation.
The next day, cake properly cooled, Stephanie started on the construction. She took the half sheet and cut it up into sections. She then started on a boiled milk frosting, also known as a butter roux. She had done a little research and discovered that this was the traditional frosting for red velvet cakes. It’s a bit different than the cream cheese frosting we all know to accompany red velvet cakes these days. As the names for it would imply, the ingredients for the butter roux are butter, flour, and sugar. It creates a bright white frosting that might seem like buttercream from afar but handles itself much better from a culinary stance. Using the frosting, she stacked the layers of cake, one on top of the other, frosting in between, until she had a magnificent pile of cake. Then the carving commenced. She shaved down the sides with her butter knife, adding some angles and shapeliness to the cake, no longer just a pile at this point.
The next step was to apply the crumb coat of frosting. This coats the cake to trap any loose floating pieces or crumbs. When you trap them, you allow the frosting that goes on over it to glide onto the surface crumb-free, so the cake doesn’t show through and frosting appears smooth instead of lumpy. Also, you get more frosting this way. Bonus! The cake then sat in her fridge for thirty minutes to allow the coating to firm up.
The real artistry came out with the final layers of frosting. Stephanie mixed up several colors of frosting for the cake. First, a base of that brownish pink color that all hams have, followed by a darker brown over that to look like a deep glaze. She took a hot knife and smoothed out the frosting, followed by using unflavored dental floss to create a crosshatch pattern in the frosting over the “ham”. The final touch was to take some black frosting and pipe little dots in the crosshatch. They looked like perfect little cloves pressed into the ham. All said and done, the process took about eight hours, start to finish.
When she unveiled the cake to us at the party, we all gasped. It looked like the real deal! We were in awe. The coloring was perfect. The details of the crosshatch and the frosting cloves gave the cake an authenticity that would have made it a splendid stand-in for some Norman Rockwell painting. She even found a bit of broccoli to stick on the side as a faux garnish. Ham cake was truly an epic creation.
I was offered the knife to cut the first slice, but I hesitated. It was pristine. I hated the idea of disturbing that perfection. But, unlike Michelangelo’s angel, we weren’t meant to oggle ham cake’s beauty. We were meant to eat it. I sliced off the side to reveal the red cake underneath, in stark contrast to the abundance of white frosting inside. It almost looked marbled, like beef or some other meaty cousin to the ham it aimed to imitate.
As I bit into the cake, I realized it was probably the best cake I’d ever had. The cake itself was flavorful; a perfect blend of sweet and chocolate, and dense but not crumbly. The frosting was delicious. But on top of all of that, the cake had done something really wonderful. It had replaced what was a crappy childhood memory into something that made me happy. It was a deeply meaningful gesture, wrapped in a slightly snarky package that poked at my picky eating. I thanked Stephanie. It was truly a great gift.
Later that year, our friend Matt would request that his birthday cake from Stephanie be a cake ham – a pile of ham slices and mashed potatoes shaped to look like a cake. She did it, and apparently they thought it was delicious. I wasn’t available to eat a slice that day, though, as I was out of town with prior commitments.