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The Angle of the Nipple
by YVONNE GEORGINA PUIG
My sister and I took a week-long cake-decorating class in the summer of 1991. Our intention was to make pretty cakes, and also to eat icing. The class was at a local middle school which I considered particularly institutional: fluorescent light, pea-green linoleum, gray walls. The previous summer we’d taken a week-long typing class at the same school. Even now, this typing class appears in my dreams as a form of purgatory. We had to be there at 9 a.m., (meaning I missed CHiPs and The Price is Right) and sat in long, even rows and typed on typewriters. The teacher, an old black lady who wore spectacles and floral dresses, was incredibly stern and made fish faces when she thought no one was looking. I was looking because I wasn’t typing. I mostly watched the clock and cursed whatever power was responsible for designing this school and establishing this class and creating this mean little typing teacher. Vanessa didn’t like it either, but she seemed to find some value in typing skills where my 9-year-old constitution was only deeply appalled.
Nevertheless, we returned the next summer to decorate cakes. The subject matter was pleasantly disparate from typing, and the possibility of eating icing all day long was too great. The class was held in a home-ec room, and the other students, all girls, seemed to take it seriously. I don’t remember now if we baked the cakes we iced, but both Vanessa and I liked to bake. While in retrospect there’s a Betty Draper undertone to the whole thing (the typing class included), for us it was about “being sisters.” In our house this meant doing things together while our mom, a kindergarten teacher, passed through singing songs about how two sisters are best friends forever. In addition to baking edible goods, we had a bathroom cooking show where we invented recipes with silly-putty and paste.
The first thing we learned in cake decorating class was that there are many ways to decorate a cake, and over the course of the week, we practiced a few of the simpler methods. Cake-decorating is a mess, and it’s a lot like milking a cow. You fill a pastry bag with icing, and attach the nipple (or “tip”) of your choice, and then squeeze.
Much of the instruction involved demonstrating which nipple made which shape. Smooth narrow tips for lace patterns, star tips for a Fleurs-de-lis or shell patterns. The angle of the tip on the cake is important. If you get the angle wrong, your rosette will be too flat. My rosettes were usually flat because I held the bag directly over the cake and squeezed too hard. The key is to ease into it at a 45-degree angle. I was an imperfect cake-decorator not only for my lack of nuance but also because I put too much icing in the pastry bag. It oozed out the top and smeared all over my hands, but that was fine with me because I just licked it off. Vanessa was a better decorator, but she managed to get icing all over her hands as well, and she licked it off too.
The real take-away from cake decorating class was that icings vary in taste according to color. Pastels were too sweet and therefore dreaded. Red was bland, and like blue, stained your mouth. Green, orange, and purple tasted much like blue and red — sugary and predictable. The standout icing, the best color of all, was gray. It had an unexpected tartness, a bittersweet aftertaste that sat well in the stomach, which meant you could eat a lot of it, and it was specked with darker gray dots that gave the appearance of texture. When the time came to design patterns for our final cakes, I drew a chick popping out of an egg. This, I thought, was the perfect way to use as much gray icing as possible, and it was.
I emerged on the final day of class with an almost entirely gray cake, a rosette egg with a sliver of yellow chick. I have no memory of eating this cake — by the time I finished decorating it I was completely sick of icing, we both were — I only recall myself holding it, walking beside Vanessa, approaching our mother’s car, and feeling pleased.
Yvonne Georgina Puig is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Los Angeles. She tumbls here.