The Careful Preparation of Vanilla Cake by Will Musgrove

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2 cups of flour

I slide my index finger across the measuring cup. The excess flour sprinkles into the bag below. I wipe what’s stuck to my finger against the bag’s papery skin.

Waste not, want not.

Dad’s catchphrase.

I inherited my old man’s slender nose, his deep-socketed eyes, and his worries about if there’ll be enough. What’s enough? I guess the definition depends on life’s lottery. As a kid, enough meant waiting for necessities to drip, drip, drip like a leaky faucet, meant lining up in church parking lots. Today the word means remembering when times were rough.

Doing without punctuates my DNA.

Waiters zoom around me. Prep cooks chop ingredients. Line cooks combine these ingredients. They all depend on me to keep their lights on. My dad also depended on the kindness of others. 


1 tablespoon of baking powder

With the back of a paring knife, I level the baking powder. I whisk the chemical together with the flour. Eventually, it will mingle with the batter and birth carbon dioxide, giving the cake a cumulus texture. 

I’ve prepared desserts stuffed with edible gold, ones infused with lavish oils, ones auctioned like masterpieces.

Extravagance to one-up extravagance.

Those recipes only belong to those who can. This one belongs to everyone. 

Fluffiness will be the only reminder of wealth in my remembrance.


2 sticks of unsalted butter and 1 ¼ cups of brown sugar

I unwrap the room-temperature butter. I measure the sugar. I join the two in a mixing bowl. Convenience calls for a machine. Instead, I’ll beat these elements together by hand like he taught me. Electricity costs money. Everything costs money except your own hands, your own feet. 

“Savor the authenticity,” he used to say.

“Savor the authenticity,” I say.

With a wooden spoon, I squish the butter and sugar into one, blending them into a golden cream. 

I speed up.

My wrist and forearm burn.

Stopping early causes clumping.

I keep pace not just for him but for my grandma, too. Baking is generational. She guided him like he guided me. When you smell one of our cakes, you’re smelling all of us. When you take a piece, you’re taking a piece of all of us.


4 eggs

The recipe says four eggs, but I add another for extra density.

One at a time, I crack the eggs on the edge of the mixing bowl and stir them into my concoction. The whites and yokes will emulsify, will gift their proteins, will serve as a foundation, as something to build on.

When I was growing up, dad drove a city bus. Each day he went around in circles to pay the bills. But in the kitchen, he’d dance, blaring classical music on the turntable. He’d spin around me like a top, encouraging me to tinker, to substitute, to make the dish my own. And when I told him I hoped to go to culinary school instead of something six-figures, he pirouetted like a ballerina, extended his hand, and said: “Can I have this dance?” 


1 ¼ cups of whole milk

Alternating between pouring in the flour and milk, I give the batter life. The white liquid swirls. Each bite will taste like chewing the ocean.

I use buttermilk, which is almost $5 a quart.

Despite lacking the same fat content, dad always was able to procure me buttermilk’s less thick cousins, one- and two-percent, to keep my pastries moist. Milk was a common inclusion in our handouts. Purchasing more for baking, however, got expensive. So, dad befriended a cafeteria worker who rode his bus and traded him passes for lunch-room cartons.

He made sure I never went without.


1 teaspoon of vanilla extract

I dump the vanilla extract into the mixing bowl. The solution will provide the cake with its signature seasoning while also enhancing every other nuanced flavor. 

“Sweetness is the soul,” dad used to say. 

“Sweetness is the soul,” I say.


Bake for 30 minutes at 350 degrees, let cool for 10 minutes, and enjoy 

The oven beeps. I transfer the pans to a cooling rack. Steam drifts off the cake like fog off a lake. Once cool, I frost the cake with basic white frosting. I place the finished product onto a cake stand and carry it out to my awaiting customer.

The restaurant is packed.

People are chatting about this, about that.

In the corner, mom sits alone at a table.

Her eyes resemble bell peppers. She’s been crying.

Atop the table, dad rests inside polished ceramics. 

I set the cake stand on the table. Mom looks up at me. I pull out a chair and sit down. I cut her a slice. With her fork, she brings a part of dad, a part of me, to her lips. 

She chews.

She swallows.

She reaches across the table and puts her hand on mine and smiles.



Will Musgrove is a writer and journalist from Northwest Iowa. He received an MFA from Minnesota State University, Mankato. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Versification, Unstamatic, Ghost Parachute, Serotonin, Defenestration, Rabid Oak, The Daily Drunk, Flash Frontier, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter at @Will_Musgrove.

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