What My Mother's Cake Pan Taught Me About Love, Imperfection and What Really Matters

Over the years, Mom passed on so much smart advice about doing things the right way, from jump-starting a car to creating a classic chignon. But as Elissa Schappell explains, your original (and most beloved) role model may have much to teach you about embracing imperfection, too.

Photo by Emily Tobey

When I moved into my first apartment, 20 or so years ago, my mother—an inspired, marvelous cook—gave me one of her round cake pans. It wasn’t pretty: Its once non-stick bottom was crosshatched with silver scratches. I would have thrown it out if I hadn’t needed it so much.

Each time I look at that well-worn pan, I envision my mother as she was during my childhood: a bit ruffled, with paint in her hair from a new still life she had been working on, or breathless from picking me and my sister up from guitar or trampoline lessons. I picture her gingerly attempting to remove a sponge cake from the pan, and failing to do so with the sort of grace and ease she desired. Again and again, I imagine her scraping the bottom of the pan.

Despite the fact that my mother is a gifted chef who cooks all the time, entertaining our family and dinner guests with exotic dishes like Mongolian hot pot and cassoulet, and despite the fact that she was once a co-owner of a boutique catering business specializing in high-end hors d’oeuvres and fancy foods, my mother is not a fabulous baker.

For a time, growing up, I assumed that every layer cake leaned forward like a stout opera singer midaria, or was propped up or held together with a series of girderlike toothpicks. It never occurred to me that the ring of pachysandra and daisies around her Black Forest cake disguised the hole in the side. I didn’t realize that you didn’t routinely cut the bottom off a cake. I believed there were cookies that were meant to be overbaked because they were best that way with tea, and others underbaked because they were fun to mold with your hands.

It wasn’t until I got a little older and started going to other kids’ houses that I discovered the truth. My friends’ mothers’ cakes weren’t constructed with a vast, intricate system of beams and joists. There were no tunnels in the centers of their birthday cakes, no tastefully spackled-over cracks, no singed-burned aftertaste, no masses of ivy and roses camouflaging the frosting. I felt a little jealous. And a little embarrassed. No one else's mother had to warn party guests: "Be careful around the toothpicks!"

When I asked my mother why we couldn’t just buy a cake at the bakery or grocery store, like normal people, she would look confused and shocked, as though buying a cake reflected not only a lack of imagination but also a lack of care. It was so impersonal.

After I got my own apartment and started cooking and baking, it became clear that I had inherited my mother’s recessive Betty Crocker gene. Even so, when I threw a birthday party for a dear friend, I felt that I had to bake him a cake. Despite my vigilance, it burned. And despite my careful attention in handling it, an ominous-looking fault line appeared toward the bottom. (Whose fault? My fault.) But I didn’t have time to run out and purchase a cake.