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.

By Elissa Schappell
Updated July 29, 2014
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Elissa Schappell
Credit: 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.

“It’s not a problem,” my mother said when I called her in tears. “Just cut off the bottom.”

“I can’t do that.”

“Yes, you can. You just inform your guests, ‘That’s how they do it in France.’”

My mother laughed, as though she had said this a million times.

“No,” I said, “I’ll just tell my friend the truth. I’ll apologize profusely and—”

“No, you will not,” she said firmly. “Just cut off the bottom and use a lot of frosting. Do you have pecans? Cover the cake in nuts or coconut. Put it on a pretty plate. Do you have any flowers? Really, it’s all in the presentation,” she said confidently.

I could do that. I had inherited a beautiful Victorian glass cake stand from my grandmother, and some bone-china dishes rimmed in gold. I had some baby’s breath from the $5 bouquet of flowers I had bought at the corner market.

“Then pick up your chin, smile, and tell them, ‘This is how they do it in France.’”

After I hung up the phone, I thought about what she had said. I recalled how many times I had heard people rave about my mother’s cooking—even her desserts—always praising her creativity. I recalled a less-than-heavenly angel-food cake drizzled with pureed frozen raspberries and served in antique glass compotes. She had called it a “fallen angel.” It was one of my favorite treats.

I had always sworn that when I became a mother, my children would have store-bought cakes. How I had longed for a bakery cake with lifelike pink roses and HAPPY BIRTHDAY written in elegant cursive script, as opposed to herky-jerky capitals. A cake with smooth-as-glass icing delicately accented with silver balls and sugared violets—not a cake as cratered as the moon. Once I became an adult and started attending kids’ birthday parties that seemed more like elaborate wedding showers (e.g., the guest of honor’s likeness airbrushed onto a triple-decker cake), it became even more clear that I should outsource the task. My baking, I was sure, would only bring shame on my family.

When I look at that banged-up pan, I think: What matters is that you made the cake. What matters is that the people you made it for felt that you cared, and you did.

But in the end I wavered. I couldn’t bring myself to honor my son or my daughter with a store-bought cake. There was something soulless about it. Anyone could buy that cake. Anyone could have made it. I loved my children. And despite the fact that it might seem more loving to spare them the spectacle of a cake that appeared to have been sat on, I would make their cakes.

And no ordinary cakes, either: a pink caterpillar, its unsightly lumps and bumps disguised with "spines and bristles" (toothpicks topped with baby marshmallows) and long, twisty candles; a scooter, which, thanks to my impatience when liberating the sheet cake from the pan, looked like a cracked gravestone on wheels; a castle painstakingly erected out of ladyfingers and crème that, despite the Popsicle buttressing and the retaining wall of daisies carefully wedged around it for stability, began to list, slide, and collapse—the victim, apparently, of an invisible landslide.

Guests occasionally look perplexed and squint at my creations. "Is that a unicorn?" someone might inquire.

“No, a narwhal,” I say in a way that suggests I was being clever, not that I did a poor job attaching the ears.

And the person nods, in a way that I'm grateful for—as though she’s chalking the situation up to my being a little eccentric, and I suppose I am.

Here is what I have learned about baking a cake: Buy twice the amount of frosting to use as emergency cement. Sprinkles, colored sugar, M&M’s, Rice Krispies, flaked coconut, gumdrops, nuts, and anything else small, edible, and bright is your friend.

Don’t apologize. Remember the pan.

When I look at that banged-up pan, I think: What matters is that you made the cake. What matters is that you served it with flair. What matters is that the people you made it for felt that you cared, and you did.

I suppose when my mother gave me that pan, she really gave me two gifts: the faith that I could make a cake, and a fine philosophy for living my life.

About the Author

Elissa Schappell is the author of, most recently, the novel-in-stories Blueprints for Building Better Girls ($16, amazon.com). A version of this essay appears in the new anthology What My Mother Gave Me: Thirty-One Women on the Gifts That Mattered Most ($16, amazon.com) edited by Elizabeth Benedict. Schappell lives with her family in Brooklyn.