Childhood was a brief confluence of fantasy and reality. It started out with the rolling hills of our eight, wooded acres. It ran with our horses and dogs and jumped with the fish that our dogs hoped to catch. It rode the breeze that wafted unbroken fields of flowers in a neighborhood of five houses and cracked streets. It was refreshed every year in my dad’s butterfly garden and blooming citrus trees. In this garden grew a towering bush with fluted yellow flowers that smelled of nature’s cotton candy. Its scent seemed to wrap around the house and funnel into my bedroom. The humming bird moths I snagged between lithe fingers, carried on heady summer romances with it every year. Out there, I always felt a supernatural ether just outside my touch. It seemed to crouch in the trees, draped in a cloak with golden eyes, clutching a bow, whispering of adventures I thirsted for. My childhood was beaten to death by a woman with a spray can of Pam and some cake pans.
In my early years, neophyte magic pooled where the holidays grew. Celebrations were the main excavators of my teeth, they riddled them with holes, eaten away by my sweet tooth. My mother restrained my culinary choices. She herded me away from sugar to the point that my birthday wishes were for breakfast cereals such as Cocoa Pebbles and Reese’s Puffs. Nothing was sweeter, however, than her debauched confectioneries. Burrowed deep in the pages of her old cookbooks, were recipes our family adored, like Jewish Apple Cake, Peaches and Cream Cake, and, the busty queen of all that was delicious, her Boston Cream Pie.
It’s a process that I can’t recall the birth of; it began before me. In the rivers of my memories, there’s no starting point, but rather, the constant of it, like her, being in my life, until I was eleven. The start of the exhibition began mid-morning and came to fruition in the afternoon It kicked off with bulbous glass containers of flour and sugar, sporting retro American Airlines’ stickers from her time as a flight attendant. The puffs of sifting flour would rise in a plume, speckled with light from the windows. The butter and sugar would be creamed together with her dated electric mixers. The egg whites would be beaten until stiff and then folded in with the rest of the combined mixture, resulting in a lighter and fluffier batter. The house would take on a perfume of pastry as the two round tins filled with pale liquid before getting placed in the oven.
While they baked, she’d start on the custard, everything was made from scratch. In went egg yolks and cream and sugar. We always made double or triple the amount of custard called for. When the custard was done it was put in the fridge and the cake portion was pulled from the oven, now golden and spotted. The custard, having been pronounced ready, was diminished by our love for it. Fingers, spoons, spatulas, even the beaters were licked clean, by everyone in the house.
The dual rounds of cake would be set out to cool and my mother would start melting semi-sweet baking chocolate with confectioner’s sugar, water, and butter. The bottom cake was rarely leveled off, instead it was placed directly on a display dish; then the custard would gah-lop on top. It was a snow capped-peak, sweet and bumpy. The custard would always slip over the sides, and still be an inch thick in the middle. My mother would then top the custard with the other cake round and pour the chocolate over the entirety of the beast. Then, it was lidded in a glass dome, where the bonny lass coyly teased our taste buds until after dinner.
A busty behemoth, her imperfections made her our mother’s, they made her our favorite. There was too much custard, it was lopsided, the cake wasn’t browned evenly, the custard was flecked through with lumpy bits, and she didn’t follow the recipe. It wasn’t a true Boston Cream Pie. It was ours, and we couldn’t get enough of the custard. It was the creation that was looked forward to by all. From when I became cognizant to when I was eleven, it was demanded for every Thanksgiving, Christmas, a minimum of three birthdays a year, social gatherings, and, if we were lucky, just because.
Boston Cream Pie was what we missed when my mother fell into alcoholism and out of our lives. It’s not that she didn’t reach out, we didn’t want her around. When she was around she wasn’t a mother or a baker, she was a drinker who got Baker Acted. She was abusive in her mental games, abusive with her tongue. She had deteriorated since I was eight. It had gotten so bad, that when I was eleven and she was Baker Acted, we breathed a sigh of relief. We didn’t miss her. We missed what she had once been, and the recipes of our past that had left with her. Attempts at reconciliation failed. When working towards a relationship, and using baking as a stepping stone of civility, she kept the recipes hidden. She thought if she could hold on to material possessions, we would weather her abuses. We shocked her when we walked away from the few, shining memories of happiness as well as her. She thought my sister and I were brainwashed, but it was about survival and sanity for us.
When I reconnected with my aunt at nineteen, my mother’s baking skills and recipes were a source of bonding for us. My aunt had the recipe for Peaches and Cream Cake. I had monstrosities from Pinterest. My aunt remembered the cookbook my mother had adapted the Boston Cream Pie from. I couldn’t remember its name even when she told me.
During the couple of months I reconnected with my aunt, she called to tell me my mother had passed away. With the blame that my aunt placed on me for my mother’s death, our sweet reunion passed away too. The final chances at any redemption were burnt away, spread with ashes of my mother that I refused to take. The last chance at rebuilding the final link to the mother of my childhood, had been lost.
A month ago, I was browsing books in Goodwill, hoping something would snag my interest. I ended up in the cookbook section. Among the hundreds there, one stopped my breath.
The New Doubleday Cookbook.
I hadn’t found it. I had not found what I had forgotten. The title had triggered my memory, but I wasn’t sure I was right. I pulled it out with fingers that had trapped hummingbird moths, with fingers that had sorted through her belongings.
I flipped to the back to find the Boston Cream Pie recipe. On pages 802, 801, and 823 the recipes for the cake, the custard, and the topping were dusted off in the landscape of my mind. It might not be the same as hers yet, but, between my sister and I, we can rebuild the best parts of what she left us.
Featured image from The Girl Who Ate Everything.