Thursday, July 18, 2024
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Tasty, if not pretty

Emily Heil

THE WASHINGTON POST – I was in a certified funk the day I was supposed to sample the new line of Dolly Parton-themed cake mixes and frostings from Duncan Hines.

It was a cold, drizzly afternoon, and yet again I was wearing pair of baggy grey sweatpants. Everything was grey: the sky, the T-shirt I had pulled on (having abandoned the concept of the “cute Zoom top” months ago), my outlook. I wasn’t down about anything in particular; my head was just filled with an accumulation of the usual muck of life. Had I filed my taxes correctly? Was that mammogram appointment tomorrow?

Signs that the pandemic conditions of the last two years were finally easing – such as seeing friends and colleagues again – were making me feel stressed out instead of relieved.

“Wouldn’t it be just too perfect if making this cake put me in a better mood?” I thought as I assembled the ingredients and called up a Dolly Parton playlist. “Wouldn’t that just be a little too on-the-nose?”

I was certain there was no chance. Just dragging a box of eggs from the refrigerator felt like a chore, and all I could think of as I pulled out my mixer were the dishes I would be doing after this ordeal was over. The products’ packaging – done up in shades of pink, featuring a glamorous cartoon image of Dolly herself, all big hair and eyelashes – looked irritatingly cutesy.

Dolly Parton showcasing her new cake mixes. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

Even the idea of the confection I was making annoyed me. It was ‘Dolly’s Favourite Banana Puddin’ Cake’, a sort of semi-homemade affair that involved a box of cake mix, to which you add a little bit of pudding mix in addition to the usual eggs, butter and milk and a canister of frosting that gets mixed into homemade whipped cream. The cake is layered with pudding, bananas and crumbled vanilla wafer cookies, then frosted and topped with more cookies and bananas.

Grumbly me silently made fun of the apostrophe. (Dolly’s line, which is available starting this month in retailers around the United States (US), also includes a coconut cake mix).

And despite my determination to remain grumpy, darn it if Dolly didn’t get her way. I began mixing ingredients, with Jolene as my soundtrack, and by the time I Will Always Love You came on, I was singing along, using as a mic the spatula that had also come in the package. (It is pink, of course, and emblasoned with the phrase “If you are what you eat, why not be sweet?”).

I poured the sunshine-yellow batter into pans. My kitchen filled with the scent of bananas, calling to mind sunscreen.

In spite of myself, I was feeling a little better.

I swirled the frosting around the cake and decorated the top with slices of banana and cookies, feeling pleased with my artistry as I sprinkled on extra crumbs and added a garnish.

I thought about how impressive it would look when I revealed it to my husband. It had been ages since I had made anything like it; my pandemic-era cooking wasn’t exactly about aesthetics. Neither were my fashion choices, come to think of it. I vowed to break out my bright-pink lipstick, just like Dolly on the cake box did.

Which is to say, I realised how much I needed Dolly Parton. A woman who has been down in the dumps, too, as many of her songs attest, but still keeps at it, her head held high, her hair even higher.

Focussing on appearances feels right, because (and I hate to say it – sorry, Dolly!) this cake was not as delicious as it was pretty. The banana flavour was distinctly artificial, though I could partly blame that on the banana-cream Jell-O pudding mix, not Dolly’s mix. And the frosting was still a little cloying, even after it was cut with unsweetened whipped cream. But the cake’s crumb was nice – moist but still airy, and the assembled dish had the textural variations that I love in banana pudding – the creamy pudding, tender fruit, and the softened crunch of vanilla wafers.

I followed the recipe almost to a T, but I disobeyed Dolly in only a couple ways (shhhhh): I ignored the all-caps warning “DO NOT EAT RAW BATTER,” and I made another alteration that I think the country-music goddess would approve of. The instructions called for topping the first layer with pudding and 12 slices of banana, the latter of which seemed a little skimpy to me, so I doubled the number. More is more, I thought, and Dolly would probably agree.

Dolly once answered a reporter’s questions about whether she had cosmetic surgery with one of her trademark Yogi-Berra-in-sequins quips: “I may look fake, but I’m real where it counts.” And I’d say the description fits her cake, too. It might taste a little tinny, but its heart is in the right place.

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