Monday, September 19, 2011
Cupcakes and a Broken Dream
Having a cupcake stand at the Old Market Farmer's Market was a lot like the KoolAid stand my sister and I set up in front of our house when we were six and three years old except more expensive. It was fun and silly and we ate more product than we sold.
Back in March when I hated my job, I signed up to sell cupcakes weekly at the farmer's market. Now I love that same job and I hate all things cake. I had this fantasy of my sister and me frolicking around the Old Market in sundresses selling cutesy little cupcakes with fancy garnishes, flavors like French lavender, apricot and Meyer lemon. We would be the most popular vendors at the market. Men would cluster at our table, vying for our phone numbers. Reality, my friends, is cold and cruel.
They called me Tuesday of last week to see if I could work the market. I said yes without even thinking about the logistics of my weekend. Fridays I wake up at 4 a.m. to bake something I like to make (bread) and work for 10-plus hours on my feet the entire time. That leaves the rest of Friday to make 200-some cupcakes and interview three people for a story due Monday. Stupid. Just stupid. I don't function well on not enough sleep. I get mean and dramatic and I have big meltdowns.
After work and emergency errands, I got started on the cupcakes around 4 p.m. I made a large batch of orange-chiffon and burned one tray. Calmly, I threw them out and kept going--really keeping my cool. My sister joined me at 5:30 or so and got going on the sign (see top photo of the classy sign to go with the "classy" Husker tent we were extremely happy to have). The sign, so cute, but never to be used again. She worked on the sign for four hours. She was happy. She was singing, talking aloud "Oh I just love this. It's so creative. I just love making things like this. Lalala." She cut out letters and ironed them to the banner while watching episodes of Sex and the City. Meanwhile, I labored away in a hell of my own making. Cupcakes are messy. And for a messy person such as myself, things get out of control quickly. There's runny batter and sticky icing, flour everywhere. I would gaze into the oven after each batch, hoping that they would rise to the perfect level, ballooning over the rim of the cupcake liners. But the cake-making was a cinch compared to the icing.
Buttercream, real buttercream, is a hot whipped meringue that you let cool and then add butter until it forms a fully emulsified, creamy and airy, delicious frosting. The key here would be letting the meringue cool. Patience is not something I can boast about personally. In the end, it took half an hour or so of whipping on near maximum velocity in the mixer until I could add the butter. This was after two failed attempts. It was 10 p.m. or so, my sister was nearly done with the sign and I was totally ready to give up. It seemed like a better idea to call the market people and tell them I couldn't do it. Or better, just not show up. I could sleep in until 10 p.m. on a Saturday, at which point the market would be nearly over, and life would be beautiful and cupcake free. Instead, I took a shower. In the shower, I was so tired that I couldn't stand anymore, so I sat down and took a bath. I thought about giving up a little more. One more attempt at buttercream, I thought, one more attempt.
I sent my sister to the store for more butter and eggs. I hated just a little to tear her away from the happy world of sign-making into the den of cupcakery, but also, I wanted to scream at her. I told her we should give up. She was so cheery in her response "No, this is great." Her sweetness doesn't belong with the cupcakes. I called my mom. We had a pep talk, I got a new plan and called Allison to pick up cream cheese and powdered sugar at the store. "I'm baaaack," she answered in a sing-song voice. There's nothing worse than happiness when all you want to do is throw a pastry bag of whipped cream at the wall (which I had earlier that day at work). But it worked. Allison filled the peach cupcakes with mousse while I made cream cheese icing, just enough for the peach and orange-chiffon cupcakes. And this time, I made the buttercream right. I was in bed in time for four hours of sleep for the second night in a row.
Even after the cupcakes were made, our farmer's market dreams did not come true. We did not wear sundresses and only a few young men visited our tent but only because they happen to be good friends. We froze our asses off when Seattle weather descended upon Omaha, Neb., in September. Hardly anyone came to the market; the balloon man who usually has a line 10 deep was pacing around quite bored. I actually will give myself a little credit for not crying on the spot. I didn't care anymore about selling the cupcakes to make back all the money I had spent on supplies and a portion scoop ($18!). At least the cupcakes were over and I never have to make them again. And the sign really was quite cute