Cupcakes For Daniel

I can’t remember the last time I baked anything from a mix. Greg had a passing fancy with a disappointing Boston Cream Pie mix at one point when I had a broken arm and he was attempting to do some of the cooking, but it was a sad affair that we agreed never to repeat. Besides usually being not very good, cake mixes have the uncanny ability to suck absolutely all the fun out of baking. Dump powder, add water or milk. Stir. Meh. I get that this is exactly the amount of effort that is desired by people who do not like to bake but for some reason want to “make a cake”, as opposed to going out to a nice bakery and buying something. But for those of us that dig the process, it’s not a lot of fun.

Which is why this particular box of cake mix is such a conundrum.

When Greg’s uncle Daniel passed away at the end of November, he left an apartment full of stuff that needed to be dealt with. Daniel wasn’t a hoarder, but he definitely had some packrat tendencies, and his tiny little apartment often felt like a delicate dollhouse to my lumbering built-like-a-brick-shithouse frame, exacerbated by the fact that there was so much stuff everywhere.

As Daniel spent most of his adult life working as a chef, much of what he collected was food-related. Every time I saw him, he gifted me with cookbooks, or baking pans or little gadgets and utensils. Many of these he’d pick up at thrift shops and yard sales, treasures that he couldn’t pass up but likely knew he’d never need.

After he passed away, we went to his apartment to help pack up his belongings. Two of Greg’s other uncles were there, as well as Daniel’s landlady and an upstairs neighbour he was close friends with. Much of the food in the fridge and cupboards had already been removed – the landlady and the neighbour, Serge, who was training to be a chef himself, had cleaned out the kitchen when Daniel was moved to the palliative care ward. But in a small back room, we found a whole stash of cookware – pans, utensils, plastic containers – and a shelf full of dry goods. Bags of rice, crackers, tubs of flours and grains, and oddly, a selection of cake mixes.

We all stood in wonderment and looked at the brightly coloured boxes like they were some foreign object we’d never seen before. This was Daniel, who loved to bake probably more than anything else. Who made a killing every Christmas selling his famous fruitcake. What the hell would Daniel be doing with cake mixes?

Serge the neighbour took most of the boxes. He might be a chef-in-training, but he was also a starving student. But I nabbed the confetti angel food cake. I’m not sure why – the package was expired, and I don’t even own a bundt pan. Maybe it dated back to my childhood when my very favourite cake, and the one I asked for at every birthday, was a confetti cake with pink icing. Something about the rainbow hues of the sprinkles – so much cooler than brown chocolate. (To this day, chocolate cake is usually the last thing I’ll order off a dessert menu.)

My plan had been to make the cake and take it to the funeral – those rainbow sprinkles would have been perfect with the rainbow flag placed on the altar with Daniel’s chef apron and his urn. But those days were busy, and stressful, and the holidays were fast approaching and I just didn’t get it done. So after Christmas, after all the cake and cookies and candies were gone, I pulled out the cake mix and whipped it up.

I made cupcakes for lack of a bundt pan. Then to cover up the vaguely chemical taste of the cake (nearly had a heart attack when I read the ingredients on the label), I made a rich butter cream, tinted it pink and spread a thick layer on each cupcake. Of course, being light and airy angel food, the cakes were at risk of collapse from the weight of the frosting, but it didn’t matter. Some colourful sprinkles and they were done.

They were, well… they were gay. In the best sense of the word. Sweet and light and pink with rainbow sprinkles inside and out. They were me when I was 7 and adored everything pink. They were the raucous joy of a Pride parade on a glorious summer day, and they were Daniel, singing, pirouetting in his kitchen, and filling our pockets with candy as Greg and I left his house after an evening together.

I regret not getting them made for the funeral. All of Daniel’s friend would have totally appreciated how much the cupcakes represented him, from the rainbow sprinkles to the sharing of food, something that Daniel loved to do. We didn’t eat them all ourselves; I sent them off to work with Greg to share with his co-workers, which felt like the most important part of the process.

I’m sure Daniel didn’t leave that cake mix there on purpose for us to find. He was too sick near the end to do much planning or organizing, and that back room was a treasure chest of goodies and oddities. But he obviously bought that box with the intention of making that cake at some point. To honour a man who helped shape my love of food and cooking, making that cake was the least that I could do.