The Crumbs That Bind Us

Natalie Paull believes in having her cake joy and eating it, too.

I believe in a thing called cake. I believe there are invisible crumb-flecked strands – slicked with buttercream, or a tangy fruity swirl – that hold us to important moments. That hold us to important others. The crumbs that bind us. Cake times rarely happen in a vacuum of solitude. Unless you are alone with a last slice, furtively shoving it in before anyone else gets home and you are forced to share it. And then that bond is flecked with gentle guilt, like the tell-tale seeds of vanilla bean.

My most enduring memories are built around cake, the people who were near me as I ate it, and how it made me feel. I can’t recall many savoury meals. For me, the pre‑cake meal is like doing your homework on Friday night – the un-fun thing you do before the good stuff.  I have had very nice birthday bologneses, celebratory lemon chickens with fried rice, and cheery pizza dinners. (Remember when you got dressed up to dine in at Pizza Hut?!) All lovely and serviceably nourishing – but let me tell you about some of the cakes.

The very first special cake I can remember eating was my fourth birthday cake. My mother joined the legions of (mainly) mothers asked to level up their birthday baking by the Australian Women’s Weekly Children’s Birthday Cake Cookbook. My cake was Hickory Dickory Dock. The clock-climbing protagonist had a prune with musk lolly eyes and a liquorice tail. Liquorice strips would indicate age o’clock. The cake was a symbol of my mother’s steadfast gift of love to me. She toiled after long hours at work, both inside and outside the home. She baked and sculpted and iced and delighted in my cake joy. A faded photo of us from that day shows the love and happiness between us. Hickory Dickory cake became our birthday ritual from that time on, and every time I think of that cake I think of her, apron-clad and smiling at me.

Skip to an early-1980s primary school playground. Running at top speed on hot asphalt with Tiffany. Our cardigans are buttoned around our necks to look like superhero capes at velocity. In the pauses, we are eating tooth-pulling sticky toffee pucks in paper patty pan cases, with sprinkles. We would soften and stretch the toffee bites, cheering each other on to see who could stretch the sugar the farthest. The quintessence of first best-friend-forever-ship: no winning, no losing, just feeling free, playing, laughing so hard we don’t think we will ever stop.

In my teenage years, the extreme angsty existential anxiety was softened by a single cake – a frozen supermarket chocolate Bavarian. I ate almost a whole one by myself most Saturdays as a consolation for being too young to go to parties, not being liked by a boy, and painfully overwrought about everything. Chocolate Bavarian was a salve – reliably constant, accessible and it always made me feel good. A glance at the Bavarians these days and I am right back in that hormonal murk, living inside a Smiths song. The Prufrock is still in the pudding.

A boy did eventually like me (a lot) and so of course I baked my own wedding cake. Bride and baker. I remember serving slices of a seven-tiered, raspberry-topped, hazelnut-crusted tart off a clear stand that made the tarts look like they were floating in air. Our friends and family swirled around us as Ben Harper’s ‘Gold to Me’ played for our first dance. My husband and I wielded knives and cleft slices onto guests’ plates, stealing crumbled crust pieces, panna cotta smears, fallen berries and glowing face giggles in between serves. United in cake and united in our world.

When I became a full-time cake baker at my shop Beatrix Bakes, the threads of connection were reversed and amplified. I felt like I was omnipresent – going to EVERY place my cakes went. Like I was layered between the featherlight sponge cake and whipped cream and then travelled, in the cake box, to its destination. I hope that’s not creepy. Customers would come back and elatedly tell me about how the cake tasted or made them feel and then I was elated too, as if I had eaten the cake beside them and been witness to their cake joy. The friendships and relationships I whipped up when baking for others are some of the most profound in my life to date. I adore meeting folks and hearing how one of my cakes made them feel.

These moments are the sliver-iest sliver of the immensely positive power eating cake has had on my life. Cake has always created an uptick in mood (or kept me afloat in shaky times). Boffins mutter facts about cake just scientifically elevating blood sugar, but I can’t accept that’s all it is. Cake is nutritious for your soul. There are little happy moments in cake. Cake will tether you to a memory of one you love. And cake will always be worth believing in.

Natalie Paull is a Melbourne caker and author who bakes, dreams about and eats sweet every single day.

Published in Ed#713
Photography by  Rochelle Eagle