Kim Knight On Cake, Cancelled Weddings & A Whole Lot Of Crying

By Kim Knight
Three years after its layers were baked, the finished cake gets to go to a wedding. Photo / Jenna Todd

Count your years in cakes — and the people who made them.

A herd of pastel horses gallops around my birthday. I am 6 years old and Mum has stuck store-bought shortbread animals on to the poles of the Carousel Cake I’ve chosen from the children’s party cookbook. The biscuits

They are from a packet, not an oven, and I cannot stress how unusual this is. Mum fills the tins with ginger crunch, Queen cakes and peanut brownies. Animal biscuits come from the supermarket where things cost more money than sense.

Now that I think about it, what happened to the lions and the monkeys and the tigers? Did we eat them all separately? Did Mum buy dozens of packs of biscuits just to collect enough horses for my cake? Or am I just imagining they were all horses, nose-to-tail, on my faded fairground carousel? I don’t remember what I wore to the party or who was there or whether that was the year I got a bicycle or a wristwatch. My birthday, once sharp, is now just splodges of colour and form, flavoured with cake.

Count your years in cake.

I was born in a decade of butterflies and princesses. Liquorice antennae and sweet, rippled icing; a real (plastic) doll emerging from a skirt made of cake. When the 1980s loomed, I embraced the decadence and demanded icecream cake. We lived a long way from town. Mum opened the box and the contents looked nothing like the picture on the outside. The edges had clearly melted and refrozen and now they were starting to melt again. The whole thing looked like it had been squeezed from a toothpaste tube and it tasted of air and chemicals. I should have just asked for hokey pokey in a cone.

At 13, carrots made the leap from coleslaw to cake. Cream cheese was a delicious mystery combined with icing sugar and lemon juice by women far wilder than I’d previously encountered. I ate carrot cake for the first time at a rented bach at Ōkārito where I holidayed with my friend and her mum and her older sister who read feminist literature and talked about their periods.

The bach was very small and my friend and I slept outside in the car. I wished we had not recently been to the cinema to see The Scarecrow because Ōkārito looked exactly like the sort of place where fowls might be stolen and throats might be cut. Lock the doors, roll up the windows and talk long into the night. Our breath condensed on the glass and, by the morning, it looked like it had rained inside the car.

Wedding cake marguerite daisies and ginkgo leaves made by Mary Parker before she died. Photo / Kim Knight
Wedding cake marguerite daisies and ginkgo leaves made by Mary Parker before she died. Photo / Kim Knight

Four years later: my new friends wear their jeans stovepipe slim and their hair like a synth-pop band. They are willowy tall with porcelain skin and watery grey-blue eyes because I am 16 and everything is so DESCRIPTIVE. My new friends are a brother and sister on the periphery of the drama kids. Smart. Like, really brainy. We are too loud for their house, but we go there anyway to study for exams and eat wholemeal toast.

They are liberal academics, disguising their comparative wealth under velvet cushions and incomprehensible art. We listen to The Cure, The Smiths and Pet Shop Boys. When the letter comes to tell me I am a Rotary Exchange student who will be spending my seventh form year in Dauphin, Manitoba, I go to their house and throw myself into a pit of DESPAIR and demand that nobody forgets me EVER and oh, how I will miss ALL THIS.

I go back down the hill to actual drama class wondering what people wear in countries where it snows all the time (even when you are doing normal things like going to school or watching television) and when I walk back up the hill, my new friends present me with a congratulatory cake. I recognise this as a MOMENT — the first time I understand you can be given a cake without having a birthday. I lick icing from my fingers and laugh when they perform the Eurythmics song they’ve rewritten in recognition of my year of absence: “Don’t mess with the Rotary Man . . . "

Baking a cake is an act of love more laborious than a hug or a kiss or a conversation. Ingredients must be purchased, tins greased and lined. It takes forever to turn butter and sugar into a pale, fluffy cream and to add eggs one at a time so the mixture doesn’t curdle. Do you have vanilla? Cocoa? Three medium mashed bananas and the zest of one orange? It’s messy. There are so many bowls and spoons to wash afterwards.

“Should I make a dessert?” I have met a man, he is coming for dinner and I am wondering how hard I should try. “Yes,” says Emma, who sits at the desk beside me. “Definitely.” It is more of a loaf than a cake. It takes just as much work, but — crucially — looks like it was no effort at all. A weeknight cake. The next morning, he leaves with a large, sugary-lemony chunk of leftovers. He has borrowed my polar fleece because it is cold but, mostly, I have wrapped him in cake.

In 2021, every Aucklander with access to flour and glace cherries baked a Christmas cake in October. What else was there to do in the long, long lockdown that did not extend beyond this big, boring city? The rest of the country had Labour Day and we spiced up another identical weekend with cinnamon and cloves. As I stirred in the fruit, I made a wish. This is a family tradition. Mum used to call us into the kitchen to take our turn mixing the heavy batter; a dried-fruit concrete that required both hands on the wooden spoon. I didn’t tell anyone I was turning my circles into seasonally appropriate words. P.E.A.C.E. I made letters with the spoon, dragging a kind of domestic magic through currants, sultanas and blanched almonds. L.O.V.E.

My mum has noted the cost of her Christmas cake ingredients every year since I was born. She was still a teenager when she had me; a baby, with a baby, baking the most adult of cakes. Dense and serious, loaded with ritual and sherry. Like most kids, I loathed it. Now, as per Brussels sprouts and grapefruit, I can’t imagine a world without it. Our family Christmas cake recipe is handed down from my nan — my dad’s mum, who once worked in a bakery. Ultimately though, it is Grandma — my mum’s mum — who becomes famous for her cakes.

Grandma crafts real magic into the icing flowers she creates for brides and birthdays. Her royal icing canvas is smooth and pristine-white, and the decorations she fixes to the surface look so real, they might have just been picked from the garden. It makes me laugh when I think of the chaos those cakes come from. Grandma’s kitchen bench is somewhere under several half-finished cups of coffee, a pile of lemon verbena and a handful of runner beans. A transistor radio, newspapers, a crossword in progress and slices of tea-soaked lemon in a saucer. Under those perfect layers of marzipan and royal icing, is the fruit cake from Nan’s recipe. Grandma has had to admit it is the best she has tasted.

My grandmother's hands and handiwork. Photo / Kim Knight
My grandmother's hands and handiwork. Photo / Kim Knight

In 2019, I fly to Blenheim to talk to Grandma about making my wedding cake. She is turning 90 and thinks, perhaps, it will be the last she will make. This is ridiculous because she has been here forever and ever. Still, I imagine something square and simple — a single layer with minimal work for her fingers that bruise black when she bumps them. By the time James and I leave her house, she has talked us into three tiers (one of chocolate, two of fruit) and frowns when I say I just want loads of white daisies: “They won’t show up in the photographs.” (Grandma pulls pictures of cakes out of her wallet like they are baby photographs.)

Our wedding is set for May 9, 2020. Grandma bakes the fruit cakes early that year because she knows they will improve with age. On March 21, the Prime Minister addresses the nation. On March 25, we are locking down, shutting shop and nobody knows if it is ever going to be okay again. We watch television and, already, it feels strange to think that we used to touch complete strangers or share food or pop next door to our neighbours. Grandma emails to tell me she is eating the silverbeet and parsley from her garden to keep healthy, and that she has loaded the wedding cakes with brandy, wrapped them tightly and stored them in the freezer.

(I have photographs of her showing me how she made the marguerite daisies and ginkgo leaves — rolling the icing through a pasta machine, and patterning the foliage with a special tool. Her hands pull shapes from thin air. She sets them to dry on a piece of florist foam and then packs them in a container padded with dacron where, she says, they’ll keep forever.)

I worry about Grandma during the first lockdown, alone in her little house with the big garden, reading the Listener and listening to National Radio. We have a virtual family art challenge and my nephew builds a website to host a gallery of our work. The theme is “animals”. My future mother-in-law makes an owl out of a potato but reports, three days later, she has been forced to eat it when she runs short of vegetables. My sister weaves harakeke birds and her children spend an entire weekend on papier mache sculptures, pencil drawings and driftwood installations.

I’ve collaged a surreal prawn cocktail using pictures from an old travel magazine and Grandma cackles down the phone, telling me about the swan’s egg she has made out of icing. She’s worked a crack into the perfection, broken it open and now she is crafting a rotten centre, all swirling chartreuse-green and sulphur yellow. She has taken a photograph on her ancient phone and is trying to teach herself to text it to me.

If it doesn’t work, she says, she has a plan. She will place her rotten sculpture on a trolley and wheel it outside until my mum can come around and take a picture. Several blocks away, my parents are collaborating on the same art challenge. They are, eventually, declared the winners, thanks to their three-dimensional diorama of a shark supermarket.

It was a pandemic and, I think, we all went a little bit mad.

When we were allowed back out, my heart was no longer in a wedding. It was enough to have got through this intact. The cakes were frozen and maybe so was I. We lived blithely, smugly, luckily. Zero cases. Borrowed time. Our new normal was pretending things were back to normal until some of us actually thought it was. Silly probably, not to immediately try again. By the time I was ready to face a reorganisation, there were limited international flights and managed isolation lotteries, 14-day stays in hotels run by the armed services and we wanted family from overseas at the ceremony.

“If I die before the wedding,” said Grandma, “Beth will put the cakes together for you.”

(Don’t be ridiculous.)

Three years after its layers were baked, the finished cake gets to go to a wedding. Photo / Jenna Todd
Three years after its layers were baked, the finished cake gets to go to a wedding. Photo / Jenna Todd

We were so lucky we could all go to Grandma’s funeral in that window before Delta arrived and Auckland spent four more months in lockdown. At the service, we sang All Things Bright and Beautiful and her ashes were buried in the same plot as my grandfather’s. The wedding cakes went into Mum and Dad’s freezer and, when my future sister-in-law got a spot in MIQ, we began planning the Wedding 2.0. Mum and Dad caught a ferry from Picton to Wellington and kept driving north to the farm where Grandma’s cake-decorating friend lived. Over the phone, Beth asked me how I wanted the cakes to look. I started crying. I think I said “like Grandma would have wanted” or maybe Beth said that to me. And then Omicron arrived.

“Don’t worry,” said Beth, “the cakes will be fine in the freezer.”

I imagine something happening to her and my wedding cakes sitting between roasts of beef and shoulders of lamb. The cakes are not labelled. They get donated to a charity. We road trip haplessly to rescue them from a raffle table outside a small town superette. Sam Neill plays my father.

Our third-time-lucky wedding finally happened on a back deck in Sandringham at the end of August. We pulled it together relatively quickly and drastically cut the guest list. Family and three friends each. Our cake was designed to share with 110 guests and now just 18 people would be attending. Maybe Beth could ice the small top layer and we would absolutely donate the rest to charity? No, she said. Because it wouldn’t look like Grandma wanted it to.

We told our family there would be no cake at the wedding, that we would keep it for the anniversary party. And then we secretly flew to Wellington, hired a car and drove to Beth’s farm. It was freezing cold and she answered the door in bare feet. Our two cakes had become one, white and pristine, and packed inside a cardboard fortress surrounded by inflatable plastic air cells.

“Your grandma had a lot of input into this,” said Beth, and I smiled because, yes, I knew they were very good friends and they must have talked a lot. “She chose the ribbon,” Beth said, showing me a divining crystal strung on a yellow chord.

Was the cake what Grandma expected? No.

Did she like it? Yes.

It is a simple and beautiful cake. The chocolate layer is no longer required, but it is still too big to fit under the aeroplane seat in front of us and, technically, too heavy for carry-on. James lifts the 11.5kg weight into the overhead locker like it is no big thing and we hope for a smooth landing.

In late August, we say our vows. James chooses Maybe I’m Amazed for my entrance and I choose Another Girl, Another Planet for our exit. We are married in front of a red camellia bush and a vegetable garden stalky with cavolo nero. We don’t tell anyone that, any moment now, our sisters will walk through the ranch slider doors carrying Grandma’s cake. I have a speech all worked out, but I forget every single word.

We cut that cake for 110 people and post pieces around the country. We send a slice to New York, take platefuls to work and serve it at an extended whānau gathering with a cousin home from England for the first time in years. Last week, after dinner, James and I were watching television. “Do you feel like cake?” I asked my husband.

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