Let Me Eat Cake: The Quest for the Perfect Slice

noun: cake; plural noun: cakes
  1. an item of soft, sweet food made from a mixture of flour, shortening, eggs, sugar, and other ingredients, baked and often decorated.
    “a carrot cake”

A few days ago, I placed a muffin baking pan sideways in the dishwasher. My husband pointed out that the water was in no way going to splash into the little cups that way. I countered that it was just fine, since I had pre-washed the pan. (let’s just overlook the fact that pre-washing is not recommended, and I probably should have washed it entirely by hand). In any case, I wondered why was he so concerned. After all, it was my baking pan.

I’ve had this pan for about 18 years, and only recently took it back with me from my home in Atlanta. I’m not much of a baker these days.

However, once upon a time in 1996, armed with a Nestle recipe book and the rudimentary beginnings of our world wide web (Geocities pages, anyone?), I took pleasure in creating confectionery delights for my family and me.  Admittedly, some attempts (rich brownies) were more successful than others (sawdust biscotti).

It was my freshman year of high school. My family and I had just returned to Atlanta from a three year residency in Chennai, India. My dad and mom moved to the U.S. in 1975 and 1980 respectively, and my brother and I were born and raised in the U.S. Sometime in the 90s, they felt a burning need to expose us to culture of the motherland. After all, the cold war was over, my new leather-bound Encyclopedia Britannica atlas was immediately outdated, and we just saved Kuwait from Saddam Hussein. The world was safe again. Bill Clinton was elected President, and America was in great hands. Why not?

When I started classes upon returning to the the U.S. in 1996, I quickly realized that my friends had moved on and developed new friends and cliques. As a rather painfully shy introvert, I had little chance of making friends any time fast with the old or the new. I was on my own.

So I took up baking. Why baking?

Living in India, one of the things I missed the most was the availability of quality baked goods during that time: cookies, cakes, doughnuts were not really up to standard. You could get mouth-watering adhirasam, soan papdi, mysore pak, and paal kova, everywhere you turned, particularly on that turn that took you to Adyar Grand Sweets and Snacks.

Athirasarn Grand Sweets

However, a red velvet cake would be extremely hard to find. A Baskin Robbins-style ice cream cake – forget about it. Besides, in Chennai weather, it would have melted by the time you got to the car. Additionally our house didn’t have an oven, a luxury item still reserved only for the upper-upper-crust. Most Indian foods did not require an oven, and those which did required a tandoor which was usually only found in restaurants. With frequent power outages in Chennai, ovens would be unreliable unless you had a generator.

If anything, I was deeply nostalgic. I missed the U.S., and I missed my decadent, refined flour, eggy, and buttery cakes and cookies. So, I transformed my loss into a never-ending quest to find a good piece of cake. And good cake was indeed hard to find.

The most obvious and economical place to secure bakery items at the time was at the well-known Adyar Bakery. Around since 1979 with headquarters were in Adyar, the bakery had branches scatted throughout the sprawling city, one just down the road from my house in Thiruvanmiyur.

Adyar Bakery had savory vegetable puffs, an Indowestern style snack item. Yet, the quality of the cakes varied. Sometimes, they tasted passable; other times, they tasted like cardboard. Invariably, they were rock hard by morning – no doubt as a combined result of all-natural ingredients, lack of preservatives, and the dearth of proper temperature control. When the temperature rose over 100 degrees, with no central AC in my house, all bets were off. (Living in Atlanta had prepared me quite well after all.) Nonetheless, I enjoyed the eclairs and greasy donuts here.

So, I moved on.

The next place I investigated was the fledgling bakery chain Hot Breads. Demonstrating a more contemporary look and feel, its stores consisting of modern red and white decor, Hot Breads sold far superior cakes and pastries, including one of my favorites, a black forest cake. You could even get a pig in a blanket here, yes a hot dog wrapped in a croissant. My little brother, five at the time, particularly enjoyed these.

It seems anathema to have pork and beef in proximity, though not right next to, to other meat and vegetarian items. But this was Chennai. It was a conservative place in terms of dress and social mores, perhaps still holding onto some Victorian-era vestiges of British colonial rule, however, it was liberal when it came to religion and culture.

Hot Bread hot-breads1

We lived next door to a strictly vegetarian family. I would walk down to the chicken stall with my grandmother to unwittingly watch a bird killed on the spot for dinner that night, and the fishmonger lady would walk from Besant Nagar beach to sell us pomfret (like perch) and seer (a type of mackerel). Beef and pork was often found on Chinese restaurant menus, to please cosmopolitan palates.

Across the street from us lived a Muslim family that invited us over one time for their young daughter’s birthday celebration. The main dish: a beef biryani, the deliciousness of which I remember to this day.

On to the last bakery.

The best bakeries and pastry chefs were part of five-star hotels. I imagine this may still be the case. Most notably, the Taj. I remember my mom would be in that part of town every now and then, and would bring back cakes from the Taj Bakery. They were spongy and moist, and to date some of the best cakes I’ve ever consumed. Chocolate, vanilla, pistachio, raspberry! They were the Dior of cakes! But they were also outrageously expensive. You basically paid in dollar equivalents for these cakes. So, they remained a once-in-a-while treat.

Overall, I was satisfied with the outcome of my quest. I had found a delicious slice of cake, approximating the taste of home. However, I doubted my parents were going to bankroll it. So, I contented myself with Adyar Bakery and Hot Breads 🙂

Back in the U.S., I think I found baking therapeutic. It allowed me to recapture something I felt like I had lost, even though it was now easily accessible. But sometime in my sophomore year, I got busy with school. I wrote more and more, and I baked less and less.

By the time we moved houses, I stopped baking. And the little muffin pan was a thing of the past. Looking at it the other day though, I think it represented in some way my quest for the perfect slice of cake in India.

In my quest to recapture lost memories, I had created new ones.

For a while, I missed Hot Breads. But would you believe, Hot Breads is in the U.S. now? A few years ago, I saw one in Atlanta.  There are also several in Washington, DC – Gaithersburg, Chantilly and Herndon, too!

In the end, my quest for baked goods came back around in one giant loop — and right into the DC Beltway.


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