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Mandarin cake: A personal essay

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ASHLEY XU | STAFF

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NOVEMBER 12, 2022

I put some mandarins in a pan with hot water, and boil them for two hours —

until the peels soften up and become all mushy. Defeated. Like gum. 

I have always loved baking cakes. I’m not much of a baker when it comes to cookies or pie, and I only cook out of necessity, but cake, specifically, has always been the one thing I know how to make, and I make it really well. 

I place them in a blender — and watch as the sharp blades cut through the porous peels of the slightly-cooled yet still warm

fruit, rotating so fast that the soft balls that went in

turn immediately into orange mush. 

There is just something beautiful about the whole process — the becoming of a whole. Adding together all these raw ingredients, inedible alone, to create something so delicious and completely non-resembling of its initial form. In a world where we are constantly conditioned to consume,  shutting yourself in the kitchen to create something feels like a breath of fresh air, an escape from routine, a small act of resistance against mindless consumerism.

I crack eggs into a large bowl, and stare at the perfectly round suns that come out.

They look at me expectantly,

waiting to be whisked, swirled, and mixed — to become whole.

Baking cake is also a process of zooming in, of momentarily putting aside all the big problems in the world, and focusing on the smallest of things. It gives you perspective, allows you to be present in the moment, instead of your mind wandering, your thoughts drifting in many directions. From the moment you crack your eggs in the bowl to the moment you push your cake pan inside the oven, the world could be falling apart — it often is, these days — but you are only present in the kitchen as a baker. The cake demands your whole attention, and rightly so. You deserve to breathe.

I grab a fork and break the yellow circles, dissolving them into slime.

The sticky bits mixing with the yellow — the suns spread like sunset. 

I consider baking a major act of love. Growing up, I often made cakes whenever my father craved one. We all loved cake in my family, of course, and I loved making it, but it was my dad’s absolute favorite, and his craving was always the trigger that sent me into the kitchen, excited to create something that I knew my family would enjoy, something that only I could make for them. 

I remember many special days, like birthdays, holidays or other celebrations, where my dad had received many gifts and politely thanked everyone, but never showed as much enthusiasm to anything as he did when the cake came out. This always made me so happy. 

It is a simple gesture, baking something someone loves, but in cases like my family’s, it can signify a lot. It is a way of caring, a form of loving.

Sugar, baking powder and a pinch of salt — then goes in the mandarin purée, right from the blender whose blades are painted

different shades of orange, and stand like a monochrome rainbow. 

Last month, my mentor in the laboratory I am doing research in brought some homemade mandarin cake into the lab, on a day where I had been working in the lab since early morning, not having had a chance to eat anything since. I was starving. Reaching for a slice of cake which felt at that moment like the most precious thing in the world, I found myself feeling very emotional. 

This small gesture, while it may have been insignificant to others, reminded me of a familiar feeling I had long forgotten. The feelings of love and caring I associate with cake are inexplicable. 

I pour the flour to a mesh sifter and watch as the surface of my cake mix is covered by white spots,

like snow falling on an early winter morning. 

The following week, my mentor handed me a bag of mandarins, and taught me how to make the cake I liked so much. Later on that day, as I watched the mandarin peels soften up inside the hot water, I felt more connected than ever to her, knowing that she, too, had gone through the exact same experience: watching hard mandarins turn into soft little balls in the water, wondering if they are soft enough to go into the blender, nervously awaiting the result.

There are so many different flavors of cake, so many unique recipes, and each person can still add something of themselves into the recipe, making small changes and additions to taste. Yet, even when different people follow the same recipe, the results are often different. The mandarin cake that I make will likely always taste different than my mentor’s. So, as I baked, I felt excited to taste the end result, to cut the cake in slices and share it with friends and other loved ones. For baking is a personal experience, but it is best when it is shared, just like recipes are…

I watch the flour cover the entire surface as I move the sifter around the bowl.

I scrutinize the porous texture of the mandarins, the imperfect grains of the sugar —

then, I move my hand,

and let the snow bury it all.

When I’m baking cake, my mind is blank. As I move the whisk in circles inside the batter, the resulting twirl in the middle of the bowl almost hypnotizes me. I stare at it and keep mixing, watching the batter become smoother and smoother with each turn. It’s a chance for me to relieve stress, to let out any pent-up feelings. 

When I was much younger, I couldn’t mix cake batter from start to finish without my arms hurting. My muscles would get sore from the force it took to move the whisk around the thick batter. Sometimes, even if I did manage to mix for a long time, I would still be unable to get the batter to be smooth. I would usually call my mom for help in these instances, and she would tell me to be stronger, more aggressive with my moves. “Think of something that makes you upset,” she would tell me. “And then pretend it’s the batter!” She would then show me how it was done, pretending to be angry at something and quickly mixing the batter. I never managed to be as strong as her until I got older, of course, but she always made me laugh during those demonstrations. 

Today, whenever I reach the mixing stage while baking, I think of things that frustrate me and promise myself I’ll get rid of all those feelings as I get rid of the clumpy texture of the batter. When the batter becomes smooth, so does my mind. 

I pour the batter into my cake pan, and watch as it expands,

fold over fold, through the greasy bottom —

like ribbons embellishing the most extravagant of gifts.

Another incredible thing about cake is how easy it is to make. Unlike cookies or biscuits, you don’t need to shape dough to create delicate figures or decorate it in any way. With cake, you mix the ingredients together, and pour it into a pan. There is a certain simplicity in the way it is made; it doesn’t require any artistic talent or attention to detail. It is also, uniquely, a clean process. Unlike other baking products that require you to shape dough or sprinkle your kitchen counter with flour — both of which would be painful for me to carry out in my small, difficult-to-clean kitchen — cake-making requires nothing more than a bowl and a whisk. 

I push it in the oven, feeling the warmth on my face.

Hours pass as the batter rises, proudly — reaching for more. 

As a child and a teenager, baking cake was something I did for fun, something that was a regular part of my life. It was a way for me to connect with people, to create something of my own. Nowadays, as an adult and a college student, it no longer feels the same. The kitchen in my current apartment is so small that all my cake ingredients don’t fit on the counter at the same time. The oven doesn’t work as well as the one back at home does. When I spill something, it’s harder to clean. And, of course, there’s always one ingredient that is missing whenever I decide to make something. All these difficulties, together with the constant academic stress and pressure, makes baking feel like a chore, or sometimes even a waste of time.

It is difficult to remember that sometimes we all need a break from the chaos of everyday life. For me, this break comes from baking cake, which gives me the space to create something beautiful, allows me to zoom in, to destress, and most importantly, to revisit my childhood and all the fond memories I have associated with baking. It transports me back in time, and I get to experience many feelings I had long forgotten.

Lately, despite my busy schedule and upcoming exams, I’ve been trying to take more breaks and bake more cakes. When I do, it feels like time slows down, and I get to breathe again. It is truly the most special gift.

When I turn off the oven it has transformed, risen to the task.

As it cools, coming down from an oven-baked high, the whole room smells like mandarins.

Taking a deep breath,

I feel so happy.

Contact Merve Ozdemir at 

LAST UPDATED

NOVEMBER 12, 2022