“What can I bring?” Such a simple question, but so fraught for us “high executive functioning” (read: perfectionist and/or controlling) types. What we bring to someone’s dinner party or backyard barbecue or children’s birthday celebration reflects a personal philosophy, whether we intend it to or not.
The Hickory Farms cheese ball vs. local goat cheese with lavender honey; a case of Bud Light vs. a six-pack of seasonal micro-brew; a store-bought sheet cake vs. oat bran and flax seed cupcakes with probiotic yogurt icing. These offerings reveal a little bit about who we are, how we were raised, even our politics.
There’s a very funny scene at the beginning of Allison Pearson’s novel, I Don’t Know How She Does It, where the main character has been asked to bring “appropriate festive refreshments” to her daughter’s school Christmas party. Fearful of being labeled the “Mummy Who Didn’t Make an Effort,” she smashes store-bought mince pies with a rolling pin in an attempt to pass them off as homemade.
At least she’s pragmatic. My problem is I fall in love with a particular recipe and pragmatism flies out the window. This spring, for example, I was tasked with making dessert for a dinner party that included three families, all with children under the age of five. I chose a vanilla custard tart, with a graham cracker crust, layered with strawberries on top. I’m not exactly sure what I thought my strawberry custard tart (with a fluted crust, no less) would say about me. Probably something like, “I know we’re all sleep-deprived and juice-stained and our ‘dinner party’ will be punctuated by interrupted conversations, spills, falls, and the occasional crying jag, but we can still attain some level of meaningful adult interaction through this magnificent dessert.”
But I failed to consider the heat wave. 95 degrees + transporting a custard tart across town in the back of my car = formerly artful spiral of sliced strawberries now half-submerged and drowning in liquified custard. It was pitiful.
Or there’s my favorite vanilla cupcake recipe with a crumb so tender it falls apart with even a hint of rough handling. Why do I keep bringing these to 4-year-olds’ birthday parties? The kids either lick off all the frosting and leave the gorgeous cupcake untouched. Or they dig into the cupcake and leave a wreckage of crumbs all across the table and floor. Like I said, not practical.
And so, the banana bundt cake offers form and function: a lovely flavor, a firm texture that means the cake can be carried around without leaving a Hansel and Gretel trail of crumbs, and a pretty lemon glaze. It’s better the second day, so you don’t have to rush around baking at the last minute. And the lemon glaze firms up, so you can wrap and transport without smushing the icing.
If you’re looking for an easy, tasty, practical dessert that travels well, this is it. But if you’re at all like me, we both know there will be many more episodes with a fallen souffle or a capsized three-layer cake. New recipes will come along — less tidy and sensible, more ambitious and sprawling — and I’ll be off in a new direction.