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When Cake Isn’t a Dream Come True


Cake dreams aren't always about the dreamy store-bought cakes.

As if it weren’t enough to be thinking about food throughout the day, I also dream about it, usually in that hour just before waking when dreams are especially vivid and memorable and sometimes creative. One recent dream had me baking a cake using a technique I had never seen before. One of the ingredients was a pound of cottage cheese, and in the dream I used the cheese container to measure out the flour going into the cake. My dream recipe included the usual eggs, sugar, leavening and some lemon juice, but had a quirky detail in that the batter was not put into a typical cake pan but was shaped into a loaf and baked on a flat sheet. More about this dream cake later.

Upon waking, I wondered what Freud would have said about the dream so I rushed to my computer and Googled “dream interpretations” and this is what I found about baking cakes:

“To see a cake in your dream indicates that you need to learn to share and allocate your workload instead of trying to do everything yourself. Cakes also symbolize selfishness or the feeling of not getting your fair share. More positively, the dream may represent your accomplishments and achievements.”

I had expected the interpretation to be uplifting because baking a cake strikes me as a positive activity about giving and sharing, and I was even hoping that the dream foreshadowed something wonderful about to happen. Instead, I found the interpretation to be about drudgery, selfishness and grievances, albeit with a sop to accomplishments and achievements. I found these revelations unsatisfying and suddenly had an insight into why the psychiatric profession is more about pills these days than it is about talking things over.

Famous cakes

So I turned to literature and history for more interesting examples of what meanings have been given to cakes over the years. To my mind, the most gripping literary reference is in Dickens’ “Great Expectations” with his unforgettable portrayal of Miss Havisham who had been jilted on her wedding day. She kept the memory of this bitter event alive by stopping the clocks at the precise moment when she heard that her intended had run off, and forever after wearing her increasingly tattered wedding dress. But the most haunting detail of her ruined life was the remains of a huge wedding cake she kept on her banquet table, covered in cobwebs with platoons of spiders and beetles scuttling in and out of their moldy home.

Another literary cake that came to mind is the one that shows up at the beginning of “Alice in Wonderland” just after Alice follows the White Rabbit down the rabbit hole and finds herself in a strange hall with locked doors of various sizes. She spots a cake with the message “Eat Me” spelled out in currants, gobbles the whole thing down and soon grows to such a tremendous size that her head hits the ceiling. What I take away from this story is to never eat an entire cake by myself.

History too has moments when cakes are prominent, my favorite being the lawsuit involving Sachertorte, thought to be the most popular of all Viennese cakes. According to food writer Joseph Wechsberg, the cake was created in 1832 by Franz Sacher, chef to Prince Metternich. It is a rich chocolate torte with a layer of apricot jam and is cloaked in a shiny chocolate glaze. It became so popular that countless recipes surfaced all claiming to be the real one.

Rivalry peaked in a famous court case involving the Demel bakery, the most famous pastry shop in Vienna, and the Hotel Sacher, each seeking the right to claim its cake as genuine. While the hotel won the case, the dispute continues, and at issue is where to put the apricot jam — between the cake’s layers or just on top under the glaze. To me, the real point of this episode is that a cake was important enough to become the center of a long and expensive legal battle.

Recipe for a great story

As for my dream cake, as soon as I wakened I jotted down the recipe and rushed to the kitchen to start baking, expecting the cake to be a revelation, based as it was on a vivid and inspiring dream. I thought I would be introducing to the world an instant classic — something right up there with angel food cake, carrot cake and yes, Sachertorte. Just as the cake was coming out of the oven, friends dropped by and I, of course, immediately told them about my dream. We stared at the long, flat cake cooling on a rack and could hardly wait for it to be ready to eat.

Finally, it was sliced and served, and with my first bite I knew the cake was a loser — dense and gummy and altogether no good. The 12-year-old among us looked at me and said, “You know, it makes a better story than a cake.”

He was right, of course, and I was forced to realize that dreams should not necessarily be taken literally but rather as symbols for other things going on in our lives. Maybe my dream was really about my desire to write a bestseller or sort out my sock drawer. I do not know. But what I do know is that I am not offering the recipe for this cake, and for this you should be grateful.

Zester Daily contributor Barbara Haber is an author, food historian and the former curator of books at Radcliffe's Schlesinger Library at Harvard University. She is a former director of the International Association of Culinary Professionals, was elected to the James Beard Foundation's "Who's Who of Food and Beverage" and received the M.F.K. Fisher Award from Les Dames d'Escoffier.

  • beverly friend 7·25·12

    Absolutely delightful article. You don’t have to be a baker to truly enjoy it.