The Final Cake

Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes
the outmost—and our first thought is rendered back to us by the trumpets of
the Last Judgment.


Dayum! I just realized that the title of today’s post might lead you to believe that I’ve baked my last cake. Not to worry. I haven’t. I mean, after all, I’ve been stacking cakes for layers on end, and I have cakes to bake before I sleep and cakes to bake before I sleep. (Frost and I have our own thing going.)

Let me count the cakes. (Barrett–Elizabeth, not Robert–and I have our own thing going, too.) I’m thinking something like around the world in 80 cakes. (Well, dayum again. It looks as if movies and I have our own thing going. Maybe I have my own thing going with everything. No doubt. I do.)

But imagine that. Baking 80 cakes from around the world. Well. I have never, not yet at any rate. But I wonder: will I be the first? BRB.

Well, triple dayum. Every time that I have a brilliant idea, someone goes and steals it from me–right here in plain sight for everyone to see–and manages to get away with it years before I even manage to speak up and declare it in my post.

Yep. You read it right. Famed pastry chef Claire Clark has already done it: 80 Cakes from Around the World. 6 continents, 52 countries. What adventures. What delights.

OMG! I just had another brilliant idea! Forget my idea of around the world in 80 cakes. Well, actually, we can’t forget it, can we? It’s published as a book already, enjoying life everlasting to its fullest.

Fine. Since Clark’s book focuses on countries, here’s another idea. I will remove that which defines countries as countries. I’ll take away all the borders. Is that a stroke of genius or what? Then I can bake what I want to bake and not be boxed in. BRB. I have to go Google.

Well. Dayum nearly flew out of my mouth again, but I’m getting tired of saying dayum because I’ve said dayum three times already. So, dammit. I Googled, and, once again, someone stole my idea even before I had a chance to speak up and declare it here in my post.

Yep. You read it right. Jennifer Rao has poured the batter already and is baking it up as eBooks. Cakes without Borders. Volume 1: The Maiden Voyage. And she’s added another layer. Cakes without Borders Volume 2: The Journey Continues.

Fine. No problem. Since the baking borders are gone, let’s call it like it is. One World. How’s that for a simple-syrup solution? I’ll bake up One World Cakes. Forget cakes without borders. BRB. I have to go Google again.

Well, as I live and breathe. I have been duped again. What I found was not a perfect match, but it was close enough in spirit and intent that my conscience would never ever let me move ahead with what I know would become my One World Cakes empire. I can’t because Oksana Greer started her One World Cafe in 2007.

Well, I’ve gotten over the repeated theft of my ideas before I even had the chance to speak up and declare them, but now “one world” is floating around in my head. We are, you know, One World. More and more every day. One world.

But if you had asked me when peopled started talking about one world and the heightened responsibilities that we face as one world, I would have credited Pearl S. Buck, who alluded to one world in her 1950s essay “Roll Away the Stone,” contributed to NPR as part of its “This I Believe” program:

I take heart in a promising fact that the world contains food supplies sufficient for the entire earth population. Our knowledge of medical science is already sufficient to improve the health of the whole human race. Our resources and education, if administered on a world scale, can lift the intelligence of the race. All that remains is to discover how to administer upon a world scale, the benefits which some of us already have. In other words, to return to my simile, the stone must be rolled away.

But I’m glad that you didn’t ask, because I would have been wrong. Buck was not the first. Credit for the first use of one world goes all the way back to 1919:

The English idealists have followed Hegel rather than Fichte … in striving for a one-world theory, for seeing ideal values realized in the actual (Political Science Quarterly, 34: 610).

Gracious me. Have I gotten side stacked or what? If I keep this up, my post might well compete with a Smith Island Cake. Please tell me that you know about this famous cake from Smith Island, Maryland. Say whaaaat? You don’t. Well, let me take just another crumb or two to bring you into the cake know. The Smith Island Cake has been honored a mighty stack of times for the defining role that it has played in American culture. It is a super-sweet confection, consisting of at least seven thin layers with cooked fudge icing between the layers and on top. The side of the cake is often left unfrosted. (I made one once with 15 layers. Talk about a show-stopper.) Give yourself the baking challenge. Here’s Mrs. Kitching’s Original Smith Island Cake. Or, if you prefer, buy one online: Smith Island Baking Company.

Enough of Smith Island Cakes. Enough of one world and one world cakes. Enough of cakes without borders. Enough of around the world in 80 cakes. Enough of my nonsense.

It suits me just fine to let it all go. Enough is enough is enough. Besides, those who know me well know that I have baked the good bake and that I will continue to do so (The Bible and I have our own thing going, too.)

I suppose, then, that the best thing for me to do is stop salivating over the gazillion cakes that I have yet to bake and start putting the frosting on the final cake that I baked, the one that got me going with this post.

Let me tell you all about it. I promise: I’ll make it no more than a three-layer cake.

During my twenty-three years at Laurel Ridge Community College (formerly Lord Fairfax Community College), I always baked cakes for my classes, especially my Creative Writing classes. They were smaller than my other classes. Plus, I usually met with Creative Writing classes on Fridays. Bringing cake seemed perfect for a three-hour class like that.

Baking for my classes became a standard. If it was a Kendrick class, there would be Kendrick cakes. Word traveled fast. Once I walked into class on the first day and discovered that one of my students had written on the board:

We heard there would be cake.

Is that sweet or what?

I continued baking for my students throughout my teaching career, all the way through Fall 2022, my final semester as a full-time professor at Laurel Ridge. However, that semester I treated my students, week by week, to various types of sourdough muffins.

As I prepared for our final class–which turned out to be my final class, too–I had in mind my usual: celebrate my students and their writing successes.

Muffins didn’t do it for me. It just had to be a cake. I had many of my favorites lined up as possibilities, but it seemed to me that my students should get to choose.

So, for our final class, I’m baking a cake to celebrate. And here’s the deal. You get to decide what kind of cake. What would you like? Just name it. You’ll get it.

Silence fell over the very same room that I sometimes thought could never be silent.

But I learned decades ago that the best way of breaking classroom silence is to remain silent.

It always works. After a minute of silence that felt as long as a semester, one student spoke up:

German Chocolate.

Robbie, thank you very much. German Chocolate it shall be.

I was silent for a moment, pondering why Robbie was the only one bold enough to speak up and declare a preference. The others sat there as if they could not speak. The others sat there, as if they had no preferences whatsoever. I knew otherwise and started laughing a little, as I started asking why no one else spoke up. Typical responses followed:

Social anxiety

Didn’t know what others might think.

Fear of being wrong.

(Hello. How can you go wrong with cake?)

Wanted to hear what others had to say.

But here’s the thing, and it’s rather ironic. When I walked into class and asked my students what kind of celebratory cake they would like, I stood there before them ready to honor whatever they wanted.

It could have been my 15-layer Smith Island Cake. It could have been a Lady Fingers Cake–Торт “Дамские Пальчики”–from One World Cake. It could have been a Bolo de Fuba from Cake without Borders. It could have been the scandelicious Carrot Cake from 80 Cakes from Around the World. It could have been whatever their taste buds desired to taste, whatever their minds dreamt to dream.

With greater irony, they could have had more than one cake. I stood there before them ready to honor whatever they wanted.

But only one student spoke up. One lone voice prevailed. German Chocolate.

I didn’t want to turn the situation into a lecture, yet I felt that I had a responsibility to seize this moment and make it a sweet learning one.

In a flash, I thought of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance.” With greater speed, I found the essay on the Internet, projected it on the screen for my students to see, and read the following passage:

To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men—that is genius. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost—and our first thought is rendered back to us by the trumpets of the Last Judgment. Familiar as the voice of the mind is to each, the highest merit we ascribe to Moses, Plato, and Milton is that they set at naught books and traditions, and spoke not what men, but what they thought. A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty. Great works of art have no more affecting lesson for us than this.

When we met the next week, my students were majorly impressed by my show-stopper German Chocolate Cake. Three 9-inch layers of light chocolate cake. Coconut-pecan frosting slathered between the layers, all around the sides, and on the top. Delightfully sticky. Delightfully sweet. Delightfully decadent

When the final class ended, Robbie left–cake carrier in hand, delighted to be taking home what remained of the final cake, his own sweet indulgence to share as he saw fit.

I like to believe, however, that everyone left class that day with an even sweeter realization that might serve them for a lifetime if they will only listen: the influential power of a lone voice surrounded by silence.

The Joy of Baking

Sharing baked goods with your friends and neighbors is a great way to feel connected or make new connections.

(Pamela Honsberger, a family doctor and director of physician engagement and leadership development at Kaiser Permanente in Orange County, California)

Thankfully, Thanksgiving is past. Don’t get me wrong. Dinner was awesome. Turkey. Gravy. Buttered Green Beans. Creamed Spinach. Candied Sweet Potatoes. Jellied Cranberry Sauce. Cranberry Sauce in Grand Marnier with Ground Ginger and Candied Ginger. Homemade Dinner Rolls. Pecan Pie. Pumpkin Pie. Cherry Pie.

Far more important than the dinner, though, were my guests. Friends chose to give up Thanksgiving in their own home to spend the day with me in my mountain home. And they brought a new friend who also chose to spend the day with us rather than in his own home. I was truly honored by their company. (Thank you, Frank, Barb, and James!) And isn’t that what Thanksgiving is all about? Being with friends and loved ones in a communal celebration not only of good food but also of life’s beyond-measure blessings. How incredibly important it is to slow down on at least one day of the year to give heartfelt thanks.

But now that it’s past, I’ll return to my regular baking once again. The Jamaican Black Cake that I’ve been working on for weeks will take center-stage. The dried fruits–prunes, dark raisins, golden raisins and cherries–have been soaking in 140 proof rum and port (equal amounts of each) for several weeks now. I may very well undertake the bake this weekend. I have never baked a Jamaican Black Cake before, but last year my Strasburg (Virginia, not Austria) correspondent shared a New York Times article with me about Jamaican Black Cakes. This year, I am filled with joyful anticipation of the soon-to-happen bake.

I have been an incredibly busy baker this entire year. Muffins. Scones. Bread. Fruitcakes.

What prompted my baking frenzy was simple. I resurrected my love of sourdough, and I created a culture of my own using nothing more than flour, well water, mountain spores, time, and patience. No doubt you remember my “Oh, No! Sourdough!” (If not, this would be the perfect time to read it, right after you finish reading this post.)

I’ve had lots of fun with the sourdough muffins. I like big ones, and mine are bakery-style jumbo muffins. The Morning Glory Muffins proved, perhaps, the most popular, followed by the Triple Chocolate Muffins. But the White Chocolate Macadamia Nut Muffins were favored by many people. So were the Lemon Blueberry Muffins and the Banana Blueberry Muffins. Several muffin aficionados even claimed that my Banana Blueberry Muffins were the best they had ever had during their extensive world travels. (Being a suck-up will get you more muffins every time!) Most recently the Pumpkin Muffins have been winners, only to be outdistanced by the Triple Ginger Gingerbread Muffins.

I’ve baked about 43 dozen or so of those jumbo jewels, and I’ve shared them with students, colleagues, and neighbors.

The Sourdough Scones were a huge success, too: Banana. Banana Blueberry. Apple.

I baked about 7 dozen or so in small batches, shared exclusively with friends and neighbors.

Sourdough Bread is up next! You just can’t go wrong with regular Sourdough Bread, that is until you try Multi-Grain Sourdough. But, then, Parmesan Black Pepper Sourdough is a fierce flavor contender.

I baked about 34 loaves of Sourdough Bread, and I shared them with colleagues, friends, neighbors, and even strangers who became fast friends.

As for sourdough cakes, I baked one: a Chocolate Orange Bundt Cake.

It was so delicious that I ate the whole cake all by myself without sharing. I suppose, however, that I am sharing simply by mentioning it here and by declaring its deliciousness.

But I baked lots and lots of fruitcakes. No, not Sourdough Fruitcakes. I’ll be foolin’ around with those next year. I’ve found a few recipes.

This year I stuck with my mom’s fruitcake recipe that she perfected during 70 years or so of baking. Her fruitcakes were legendary and the best, ever. You may remember my “In Praise of Fruitcake.” (If not, this might be the perfect time to read it, but not until you finish reading this post.)

One year my mother baked 34 fruitcakes and shipped them to her friends all across America.

I didn’t bake that many, but I am super proud of the 16 fruitcakes that I baked this year.

Let me tell you a little bit about them. I know–and you do, too–that I teach English. But when it comes to math, I know all the numbers (plus the secret ingredient) for the 16 fruitcakes that I baked this year.

This is when I need a drum roll. (Great! Someone heard my plea and reached out. That might very well have been the most melodious drum roll that I have never heard. Thank you!)

So, with no further ado, here’s the moment you’ve been salivating for. Here’s what went into those 16 fruitcakes: 24 pounds of candied cherries; 16 pounds of candied pineapple; 16 pounds of golden raisins; 16 pounds of pecans; 16 pounds of butter; 16 pounds of flour; 9 pounds of sugar; 98 eggs; and 1 gallon of peach brandy.

All right. That’s as much as I am willing to divulge. The special proprietary blend of spices is staying right here with me in my kitchen.

I will tell you, though, that most of the 16 cakes are bespoke. Most of them are gifts. However, I have set aside a few to share with people who don’t even know they need a fruitcake yet. Won’t they be surprised!

I imagine that you’re thinking that I must be exhausted from all this baking. I’m not. The various joys of my bakes far outweigh the weight of their ingredients.

Here’s why. So many other things go into baking. Planning. (I sometimes plan my bakes weeks and months in advance.) Research. (I love the research angle and find myself running culinary reference just as my mother ran Biblical reference. Right now, I am researching Sourdough Stollen and running reference on all the various recipes.) Anticipation. (As I pitted cherries last week for a pie that one of my Thanksgiving guests requested–halfing one half of the cherries; quartering the other half; that was not his request; that was simply part of my perfect-cherry-pie recipe–I stood at the kitchen counter joyed beyond the tedium, simply anticipating Frank’s first-sight and first-bite reactions.) Performance against Plan. (Do the bakes measure up? Most times, thumbs up. Sometimes, thumbs down. Sometimes, a trash can is a baker’s best friend: it accepts and never tells. Trust me. I know.)

But at the end of the day and at the end of the bake, the greatest joy of all the many joys of baking–the joy that always rises to the top, for me–is simple. I can share it with you in four words:

The joy of sharing.

Actually, I can share it with you in one word:


Oh, No! Sourdough!

“’Can I bring you some of my sourdough starter. Would you like that?’ Hattie raised an eyebrow at me. ‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘It is quite a commitment. I had some before and I didn’t look after it. It died and I felt terrible.'”

Sally Andrew, The Milk Tart Murders (2022)

When I was a graduate student at the University of South Carolina (Columbia), I became a sourdough master, partly because I lived the life of a starving grad student but largely because I loved practicing a culinary art with spores going all the way back to ancient Egyptian times. And whenever I wanted, I could fast forward to the more recent and better-known traditions of the California Gold Rush miners who were known as “Sourdoughs.”

With equal speed, I could shift my focus from sourdough histories to sourdough geographies. Did you know that the flavor of sourdough differs from region to region? It does. The reason is simple. Microbes differ from place to place. Plus, bakers in different regions have varying flour preferences and differing ways of starting their starters.

Working with my own sourdough was so fascinating and my baked goods–primarily bread and pancakes–were so delicious that I kept my sourdough culture alive and well throughout grad school and throughout my subsequent career at the Library of Congress.

Oddly enough, when I moved from Capitol Hill to the Shenandoah Valley, my sourdough starter died.  Maybe it didn’t like fresh country air as much as I. I doubt it. I probably got so blown away by country air and country living that I neglected to give my sourdough culture the care, attention, and regular use that it requires, even in the country.

Obviously, without my own starter, I had to stop baking my own sourdough bread. No big deal. I could easily buy some pretty good sourdough loaves in my local grocery stores. I say “pretty good” because store-bought sourdough bread always smacks of commercial yeast. A real sourdough aficionado would never, ever–absolutely never, ever–use commercial yeast to boost a sourdough starter that wasn’t strong enough to rise up on its own. No way. The beauty of working with sourdough is slowing down, taking time, and letting Mother Nature work her own Poppin’ Fresh, Pillsbury Doughboy magic. Rise up. Rise up.

But a few weeks ago, I got a hankering to bake some sourdough bread. So I decided to make room in my life once again for sourdough starter.

No big deal. It’s simple and straightforward. Using a wooden spoon, I mixed up 120 grams of whole wheat flour with 120 grams of water in a glass jar, covered it with cheesecloth, put it in a warm kitchen spot, and waited for my mountain spores to start their mountain magic.

By day two, little bubbles bounced gleefully up and down and all around. The magical sourdough dance of life had begun!

At that point, I knew exactly what to do. Discard half of the starter. Then feed the remaining starter 120 grams of all-purpose flour and 120 grams of water. As always, mix it all up with a wooden spoon, cover with cheesecloth, and return the jar to a warm kitchen spot.

However, I ran smackdab into a major crisis of monumental magnitude, ethical and economical.

Here’s the ethical part. The “discard” starter is filled with living microorganisms. While I had absolutely no qualms whatsoever about baking it to death for my own betterment and joy–not to mention the joy and betterment of those with whom I share–I was distressed thinking about throwing it out–discarding it–as of no worth.

Here’s the economical part. I am a big believer in “Waste not, want not.” I can’t throw away something that I might be able to put to good use. The mere thought makes every fiber of my being quake.

My compound crisis that day resulted in two jars of starter on my counter, instead of the single jar that I should have had.

On day three, I suffered just as much as I had the day before. Yep. You guessed it. Now I was parenting and feeding four jars of sourdough starter.

Day four doubled my joy and my responsibility: eight jars.

Day five, sixteen jars.

Now, come on folks. This is getting serious–alarmingly so–because it takes seven days or longer for a starter to mature and be so full of vim and vigor and little yeasties that it can transform any kitchen into a Sourdough Sanctuary.

You do the math. (After all, I teach English. What do I know about math?) But as near as I can figure, by day seven–if I continued to adhere to my high standards of sourdough ethics and economics–my counter would be covered with 64 jars of sourdough starter, each one needing love and feeding. I could manage the love. I could manage feeding. But what the heck! I don’t even own that many Weck jars. Besides, I don’t need all that sourdough. Neither baker nor bakery am I.

Thank God, I came up with a brilliant plan: reach out to friends and offer up my precious sourdough starters for adoption. Surely my friends would save me from myself.

Thus began my noble quest to rid myself of my own madness.

ME TO A FRIEND. “If you have any interest in adopting a jar [of sourdough starter]–with a full commitment to having it bring you baking joy for years into the future–I’ll be glad to share with you, and I will even forego the customary adoption process that I am told is customary in matters of bake such as this. Just let me know!”

FRIEND TO ME. “Well, I’d love to know about that ‘adoption process’ for hand-reared sourdough, but I daren’t risk actually adopting any cuz I have a feeling it would die before I got any use out of it and I don’t want to risk experiencing any ritualistic unpleasantness that might have made up part of the adoption process. If you want to give me a loaf or a waffle, though, I’d be entirely grateful!”

Well, phooey! How’s that for a friend? She wants all the gain without any of the pain. Hmpff!

At that point, I knew that my efforts to place my starters up for adoption were going nowhere fast.

Here’s what I came up with as an alternative. Rather than watch jars of sourdough starter double every day, why not bake with the sourdough discards?

I love to bake, you know. You definitely know that if you read and remember my post “Baking Up My Past.” (And if have not read it, read it. And if you have read it but don’t remember it, I won’t say, “Shame on you.” But, really! Shame on you. Re-read it to lessen the shame that you’re surely feeling.)

But returning to the serious matter of turning my sourdough discards into delights rather than tossing them into the compost heap as of no worth, I did as my friend–the same one who chose not to adopt one of my starving starters–always reminds me to do whenever I share with her one of my many and endless brilliant ideas: “Google that.”

And that’s just what I did! I googled, “Baking with sourdough discard.”

Dare I share with you my utter shock and amazement when I discovered that lots and lots of other folks had stolen my brilliant idea–just as lots and lots of folks have stolen my other brilliant ideas in the past–and had posted hundreds of recipes without giving me even the slightest crumb of credit, not even in Baking Notes. Well, I have never. (But rest assured: I have.)

The only thing that lessened my shock and amazement was the fact that some of those sourdough discard recipes sounded so good that I decided to try them.

I knew just where to start. Sourdough bread. I had made it before. Easy peasy, lemon squeezy.

Next? Sourdough pancakes. I had made them before, too, but these would be super special because I could open up my last bottle of Brattleboro (VT) Maple Syrup that I bought in 2019 when I was guest speaker in the town where Mary E. Wilkins Freeman launched her distinguished writing career. Oh, my!!! I was not disappointed. Those pancakes were well worth the wait.

Then came sourdough waffles. Vanilla one day. Chocolate, the next. Both days, Brattleboro maple syrup presided.

Then came sourdough muffins, lots and lots of jumbo, bakery-style muffins. Morning Glory. Blueberry. Triple Chocolate. Lemon White Chocolate Chip. Banana Chocolate Chip. To my great joy, the sourdough muffins proofed to be exceptional. My neighbors, friends, colleagues, students (and one stranger) gave rave (and ravenous) reviews.

I knew, though, that I needed to move past breakfast. How could I use my sourdough for dinner? Of course! Pizza. Imagine your favorite pizza, and I’ll guarantee that it will be better with a sourdough crust.

My sourdough chicken and dumplings were heavenly. I confess that I had some major doubts about sourdough cornbread, but it proofed to be the best ever.

And you can’t have dinner without dessert. How about Sourdough Chocolate Orange Bundt Cake? You want some? Excellent! You won’t be disappointed. What’s that? With ice-cream? Sure thing. Vanilla. Homemade. On the house.

I am happy to report that I have baked the good bake so successfully and so frequently that now I am the proud parent of sourdough-starter triplets. All three jars are in the fridge where they can chill with one another for an entire week before I have to care for them again.

At this point, I have a plan. That’s right: you guessed it. It’s brilliant. Here it is. I’ll spend this coming weekend having my own sourdough bake off.

To start, I will use one entire jar of starter–every last drop of it–for making several loaves of sourdough bread.

Then I will use the second jar–every last drop of it–to make assorted sourdough muffins.

“What about that third jar?” I hear someone asking. Don’t worry. It will be an “only,” but it won’t be lonely. I will love it and nourish it and use it forever and forever and forever, and I will bake really good bakes, bake by bake by bake.

Better still, every time I bake with it, I will do so with an abundance of bubbly joy, knowing that I saved myself from parenting the 64 jars of little yeasties that I nearly found myself parenting.

And, best of all, I will no longer walk into my kitchen sighing under my breath, “Oh, no! Sourdough.”