Friday, September 28, 2007

Robot Cake

Saturday morning. Don went out to run errands: get the oil changed and tires rotated in preparation for our big trip to Missouri coming up in October, drop off and pick up and the library, pick up grocery essentials that we've run out of, mainly eggs.

Ulysses happened to notice the KitchenAid mixer in the corner of the kitchen counter. "Robot. Oh, robot! Cake, Mama, cake. Robot. Cake!"

Up until a few weeks ago, Ulysses interpreted everything possible in his environment as a train. Zippers on jackets were train tracks, blocks in a row could be pushed like a train, and so on. Abruptly, his obsession shifted to robots. I'm not sure what the trigger was, or if there was a trigger. But overnight, the free-standing dishwasher became a robot while it was in operation, our old webcam that stands on three legs became a robot, and now the red KitchenAid that I love so much had become a robot, too. He wanted to see this robot in action.

Cake -- why not?

"Would you like to make a cake?" I offered.

"Yeah!" he said, hopeful and excited. As if he hadn't actually expected a yes answer.

"OK," I said, measuring what my next words should be. How to do everything that had to be done before cake-making could begin, without tripping the panic switch? What could U
comprehend? He needed to trust that we were really going to make this cake, even though the first thing I had to do involved leaving the kitchen. "He understands a lot more than you think he does," my mother-in-law had told me during her visit in June. "A lot more." I decided to aim high.

"We'll look in a book. We'll find the cake we want to make. We'll read and learn what to do. Then we'll make the cake."

U looked startled. "Book?" he said, incredulous. A non-sequiter.

"Yes. We'll find a cake we want in the book, and then we'll make it. Any cake you want."

He scrutinized my expression. "A ... cake book?" he asked.

"Exactly," I said.

He looked doubtful, but climbed down off the stool he'd been using to admire the KitchenAid closer up. His face seemed to say, "This I've gotta see."

Now came the trickiest sell: doing seemingly un-cake-related things without inciting a riot. "I'm going to the bathroom and I'm going to get dressed. Then I'll clean up the kitchen. Then we'll look in the book and then we'll make the cake." He was carried along by my confidence -- at least, that was my plan -- and didn't complain. I think he might have been waiting to see what random object I was next going to connect to cake. "Clean up!" he echoed, happily.

After a few minutes, I was ready to search. I pulled my Cook's Country 2005 and 2006 compilations off the shelf -- lovely, retro-plaid cover with red cloth bindings -- and hunted fast, while the spell held. I couldn't believe my luck in finding this after a few moments: Quick and easy cupcakes from scratch especially for the parents of toddlers, from the April/May 2005 issue. Could anything be more perfect?

I studied the recipe hastily, then showed it to Ulysses. It was set with a lovely, two-page, full-color spread. "Would you like to make this?" I said. "Yeah," he answered, nodding.

"OK, let's go." I tried to retrieve the book and get us moving back towards the kitchen. "Let's go make cupcakes. C'mon. Let's get going."

He sat with the book, not answering me. "Apple upcake!" he said after a few seconds, pointing at the photo of a cupcake done up like an apple. "Flower! Ice cream! Hey, bird! Bird upcake" I sat back down and looked at the pictures of cupcakes with him. "Hockey ball!" he said.

Hockey ball? That one was frosted white and iced with baseball-like stitches. "That's a baseball," I said.

"Hockey ball upcake," he corrected me. Whatever.

He studied the recipe pages for a few minutes, with running commentary on all the pictures. I responded to all the picture IDs, while studying the recipe over his shoulder. After a few minutes, I supposed this was our new activity, and I let go the plan to actually make the cake. Suddenly he jumped up and ran towards the kitchen. "Come on, Mama! Cake! Let's go! Come!"

Aha! Just as I wanted to study the recipe, so did he. He had taken to heart what I'd said earlier: read, learn, do.

I headed for the refrigerator to get out four eggs. They needed to be room temperature, so I filled a steel bowl with hot tap water to get them warmed up. I opened the refrigerator door, and ...

Donald was out grocery shopping. We were out of eggs.

How was I going to make cake now?

Then I remembered seeing in the 2006 compilation a recipe that dated from the rationing of World War I. It was a cake that used no eggs, no butter. It had come to be called "Wacky Cake" because of the assembly method: Pour the dry ingredients directly into the greased cake pan. Make three wells in the flour mixtures. Pour vinegar into one, oil into the second, and vanilla into the third. Pour a cup of water over top, give a quick, partial stir, and shove the mess into the oven. It's supposed to mix as it bakes.

I found the recipe and showed the picture of a confetioners-sugar-dusted chocolate cake square to Ulysses, holding my breath as I said, "Would you like to make this cake?"

He looked at the picture. "Yeah," he said, happily.

Whew. Now, about the assembly part. Ulysses was standing on the stool by the KitchenAid, looking lovingly at that robot. There was no way I was going to leave the robot out of the process. That was the whole point! I got out ingredients and measuring cups and measuring them out one by one, calling out what I was doing. Ulysses echoed everything, and took each cup and spoon full of powder and oil and liquid in his hands carefully, emptying each ingredient into the bowl. I fitted the KitchenAid with the whisk at his request -- I would've used the beater. We ran that robot just as long as he wanted, and then poured the batter into the wells of a cupcake pan. I told him to stay carefully away as I opened the oven and put in the pan. Then I called him over to flip the light switch. That's our deal with the stove and oven -- it's the one control on it that he's allowed to touch.

I was so proud of how he handled the ingredients, how he listened to all my instructions, how patiently he stood back while I managed the oven. He also listened when I told him the pan coming out was hot.

By the time Don got home and the groceries were put away, the cupcakes were ready to eat. Ulysses was thrilled and so was I, to have something that we'd really baked together. They were pretty good, too, for being made with vegetable oil and water. I joked to Don that these war-ration cupcakes could be marketed as a premium product today -- they're vegan, after all!

But best of all, it was robot cake.

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