Last week, one of my two roommates had a birthday. In any other year, Kat would have arranged for a picnic outing in Malibu or a chicken parm dinner at Little Dom’s, maybe. But this is 2020, and we live in Los Angeles. The guest list and the venue were predetermined by the rules of quarantine.

Something extravagant seemed necessary to make a Safer-at-Home birthday feel like a celebration, so I volunteered to make a cake. A BIG cake. I pulled out a cookbook called Sky High, which — no kidding — exclusively features recipes for triple-layer cakes. My baking bible has long been Shirley Corriher’s Bake Wise, my cookbook shelf is crowded with workhorse volumes: Julia Child, Joy of Cooking, The Cook’s Illustrated Cookbook. But in my 20s, when I went through my primary cake phase, Sky High was my go-to for fun party cakes. I only stopped making them because it never seemed like anyone else was as excited to eat a slice of cake as I was to offer it. The cakes were beautiful but huge, and they rarely got finished off. Is there anything sadder than putting cake in the trash?

I asked Kat to flip through Sky High and choose any cake in the book. She went with a “Mile High Devil’s Food Cake,” which the authors paired with a lovely “brown sugar buttercream” frosting. Classic, straightforward. Or so I thought.

I made the three cakes with relish. It was distracting, even meditative. All my old, learned tricks came back to me — dropping the filled pans onto the counter from a few inches to knock out air bubbles; folding 3 pieces of parchment in half to create identical pan liners; rotating the pans just once during baking so that the cakes were even but the oven stayed hot. The cakes came out springy and fragrant, filling our third-floor walkup with the aroma of chocolate and vanilla.

Then it was time to make the frosting. Buttercream. What could be simpler? All I had to do was follow the recipe.

On closer inspection, this recipe was something unfamiliar, totally unlike any frosting, buttercream or otherwise, I’d made before. It called for (1) beaten egg whites; (2) a brown sugar/water solution cooked to soft-ball stage, then added to the egg whites; (3) a full pound of room temperature butter. That was it. Four ingredients, four steps.

Any baker (successful or failed, in fact) can tell you that specificity and exactitude are more important in baked goods than in any other type of cooking. The only saves for a vague (or bad) baking recipe are wisdom or luck; ideally you bring both into the kitchen. I was operating with only a little of the former and (as always) an unknown amount of the latter. As I got going, I became aware of a great many ways my buttercream could fail. Was this one of those egg white recipes where the bowl must be scrupulously clean? The recipe didn’t say. Must my whites be fluffy before I add the sugar solution? The recipe mentioned nothing about this. Is this butter really supposed to be room temperature? Or had that been a mistake in the ingredient list?

This recipe had the audacity to specify that the brown sugar solution needed to hit precisely 238°F on my candy thermometer, but then suggest that I blend it with the eggs whites until that mixture reached “body temperature.” Body temperature! 98.6º? The temperature of my cold baker’s hands? Who knew. I put my hands on the mixing bowl and tried to remember what it felt like to touch a human body. Then I added the butter.

Here’s what the recipe told me about what would happen next:

“When all the butter has been added, raise the speed to medium and beat until the frosting almost appears to separate. Continue beating, and it will suddenly come together, looking like smooth whipped butter.”

What is missing from those two, simple sentences? After a minute or so of mixing melting butter into my feverish batter on medium, the deficit became obvious: no amount of time was specified. How long was this supposed to take?

HOW LONG WAS THIS SUPPOSED TO TAKE?

Sometimes we come across a situation so metaphorically apt that, for a few moments, it is as if we can see the matrix. The world snaps into focus with a certain poetry that is invisible to us most of the time. As I let my supposed buttercream spin away for minute four…five…six…I saw that churning mess in my KitchenAid for what it really was. The buttercream was the quarantine. It was this whole situation.

Right now, all we want to know is how long? But we just don’t know. We have vague instructions to wait for things to come together, with no timeline, our only assurance a warning that they will get worse before they get better. We know how we got here, we know what we want things to look like in the end, but in the meantime, we watch the beater spin and hope that we haven’t already ruined everything. There’s no real reason to think that it’s ruined; only our fears that, without better guidance, hope itself is foolish. How long is this supposed to take? Why haven’t things changed in a way that I can see? When will it look like it is supposed to? Will it ever?

Seven minutes passed. Eight. I really needed this frosting to come together, and not just for Kat. I needed it to work out because of the metaphor. We were going to be okay, right? We were going to get the world back, right? I had great idea: I consulted my bible (BakeWise; see above). Alas, the only comparable recipe was so different from this one that there was no usable advice. Classic bible. So I consulted a couple of other valuable sources while the beaters spun on. I found a few buttercream recipes with similar ingredients, but the details were different, as were the methods. I put my cookbooks away. They had been little help, beyond the affirming my feeling that this whole situation was totally bizarre.

Nine minutes. Ten minutes. I leaned on the counter’s edge. It was already after 10pm. The smell of warm chocolate on the air had long since faded. I watched the blade spin and tried to determine if anything at all had changed. Was the color finally uniform? Had all the butter pieces finally dissipated? Was anything working here?

And then, it started.

…Until the frosting almost appears to separate” is a scary directive. In whipping anything, be it mayonnaise, cream, or frosting, separation is a crisis. It means that all your hard work, your ingredients, your elbow grease, have gotten you nowhere. And yet, as my frosting appeared to separate before my eyes, I felt a rush of relief. It looked awful, but that was what was supposed to happen. It was supposed to come apart so that it could come together. My hope restored, I watched a few moments longer until, finally: brown sugar buttercream. Looking like smooth whipped butter.

The cake was delicious, and gigantic. The three people that live in my apartment polished it off in 5 days. And even though it was Kat’s birthday cake, my roommates saved the last piece for me.

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