Baking, smiling, and crying over soggy sponge in the time of COVID.
It was impossible to foresee the extent of the pandemic, as tired professional women and hardworking mums rejoiced at the opportunity for a small sabbatical. A time to get out the comfortable slippers and fold away the neatly pressed pantsuit; snuggle up with our little angels; reconnecting with our partners or just spending some quality time alone. We all craved this at some point during our nonstop, crazed schedules: quality time for us.
Like many, I had joined the wave of baking enthusiasts, going to the local store and purchasing flour, sugar, yeast, and settling into what would become a therapeutic/borderline obsessive baking prowess. The banana bread, sourdough, and cake making had in itself become a pandemic. We flocked to social media to present the fruits of our labor as an offering to the digital gods, proof that we were “fine.”
Our Netflix menu was cued up with Emily in Paris, as we dusted off the beret we thought we would never wear, snacking on the sweet pastry we created in the safety of our own home. Who needed to travel when you could recreate the excitement in the confines of your own home at the cost of a bag of flour? In times of crisis, one must simply eat cake. I do not have children, but the care and watchful eye I afforded to the proving of my loaves while I strummed a repertoire of La Vie en Rose on my ukulele was downright maternal, by all accounts.
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Then, overnight it seemed, those little cherub-cheeked angels morphed into strategic fiends as UFC fighting had commenced in the living room; gal pal Emily had begun to grate us up the wrong way, causing us to hurl our home-baked goods at the screen as the hysteria finally began to set in.
Fast forward a month, the rumor mill was grinding hard as embassies quickly arranged repatriation flights. Pacing back and forth, unsure if we should up and away to Italy, which is my husband’s mother country, or barricade ourselves in our small African home and wait it out. The latter we may have done, had it not been for the ticking clock on my husband’s residency in the country. Eventually, we decided that perhaps it would be better to leave.
Ten days before we were due to leave, I was informed I would not be able to travel to Italy. Something inside me cracked as I was faced with the seriousness of the situation. Late nights were spent scouring the net looking for more recipes to execute. I ventured towards Italian torte, possibly with the hope that I could present it to the Italian consulate and win instant approval and admittance into their fair land.
It was in that moment that I happened across the mimosa cake. There was something soft and lyrical about the ricetta as I poured over the ingredients and the instructions. I had to make it. I was overcome with a determined madness; I needed to know its story. I finally made it to Italy and when I did, I asked my husband about the mimosa. He opened the door and showed me an Italian road, where on either side of the brick-red dirt road, an avenue of brilliant yellow flowers had sprung to life. Tiny round flowers, no bigger than a skittle had bloomed into excellence, crowning the tops of the acacia canopies.
The mimosa cake is not just a technically difficult cake but shares the likeness of the elegant mimosa flower. Towards the beginning of March, the Italian countryside explodes into vibrant yellow just in time for Le Feste Della Donna, or as we know it: International Women’s Day. The exquisite mimosa flower became the emblem for Le Feste della Donna, a symbolic gesture given to women of all ages on March 8.
This serene gesture stemmed from a grotesque injustice back in the 1920s. A fabric factory located in Manhattan offered employment for women, the majority being Italian immigrant women. Having reached their wits end of the dire working conditions, the women arranged a strike. To prevent the women from leaving their work posts, the proprietor of the factory barricaded the women inside the factory, when a fire broke out within, resulting in the loss of their lives. Hard-working women who had only dared to ask for humane working conditions were trapped and lost to the fiery chasms of injustice.
In 1962, a baking contest was held in Sanremo, where Adelmo Renzi scattered sponge over a Chantilly cream-covered cake, creating an incredible likeness to the flower. Thus, the flower and its edible component became an international symbol for Le Feste della Donna and has since been associated with political women’s rights movements through the ages. Standing on the quiet dirt road, the flowers shivered with delight as a gentle breeze carried up the hymns of prayer from the church at the foot of the hill. Hope in prayer, hope in all; I had to attempt the mimosa cake.
The first disaster was the four sponges. Thanks to the lopsided gradient of my home, the sponges had baked into wedges. Sawing and filing down each one, my husband leaped in to postpone an inevitable breakdown, as I fretted like an amateur architect over its imperfection. The breakdown later came, as I cried bitter tears into the formation of my chantilly cream, repeating the process thrice. Once the chantilly consistency was right, I proceeded to lather the cream on the sponge disks like a brick-layer applying cement. An argument had ensued prior to the stacking of the sponge, as my husband had insisted on dousing the sponge layers with sugar syrup. I insisted I knew best: no one likes soggy sponge! However, chartering unfamiliar waters, I conceded. Laying one soggy sponge on top of the other, screaming at every touchdown; it was now a four-layered cake. Slowly, I applied the remaining chantilly cream, drawing too many heartbreaking similarities to my own life that I felt was slowly falling apart. I patched, spread, and reinforced the cream, hiding away the cracks and breaks of the interior. I wondered how many women across the world were doing this every morning. How did they find the right moment to crawl into a corner and confess their fears and cry? Perhaps they didn’t. Perhaps they sealed it away behind a wall of sweet chantilly.
I patched, spread, and reinforced the cream, hiding away the cracks and breaks of the interior…How did they find the right moment to crawl into a corner and confess their fears and cry?..Perhaps they sealed it away behind a wall of sweet Chantilly.
The emotional crescendo came, as I sprinkled the rugged offcuts of sponge that fell like tears of frustration and sadness for the world around. As the crumbs clung to the chantilly and bloomed, like many I am sure, I found no perfection in my creation; just an edible version of my personal state of affairs. We devoured that cake. In the end, it was the delectable comfort I could have hoped for.
A year on from that moment, I rang in the 28th year of my life, very much in the shambles it was when we left, settled in a new home in a small seaside town in Italy. My husband had spent the week prior to my birthday in mysterious detachment, only to surprise me with the most enchanting mimosa cake I had ever seen.
As I blew out the candles I spared a thought for the women around the world who had done their best to keep it together for the sake of their children and partners; for the women alone wondering if they will ever see friends again; for the countless victims of domestic abuse who have felt their safety compromised in the confines of their own homes. I thought of the women who had fought on our behalf against a world that always seemed to be designed to hold us back, for, without those women, we may continue to live without hope. Finally, I thought of Adelmo Renzi, who had given me a lifeline to hold onto in the form of sweet soggy sponge and chantilly cream.