These Cakes Are So Enchanting We Wish We Could Eat Them

April 19, 2018

Cakes, in all their sugary splendor, are quite enchanting to look at. Beautiful illustrations of cakes are possibly even more enchanting to look at. Thanks to a new cookbook from illustrator Maira Kalman and author Barbara Scott-Goodman, that’s exactly what you can do.

The simply titled Cake is just short of a hundred pages dedicated to the dessert, replete with Kalman’s distinct illustrations, each one featuring, in some form or another, the book’s eponymous confection. It is as much an ode to the cake as it is to craft: of creating sweet delights, of enjoying them with company, of recreating a recipe, and all the memories it can conjure, on the page.

The Strawberry and Blueberry Shortcakes that remind Kalman of summer. Photo by From CAKE by Maira Kalman, with recipes by Barbara Scott-Goodman.

I spoke to the book’s author Scott-Goodman about the process of bringing these cake recipes into existence. Her words provide a very necessary foil to Kalman’s whimsical design. In one romantic sequence, the introduction for a Pavlova with Fresh Berries, Scott-Goodman pens a fixating tale: “There has always been a bit of controversy about the origins of this ethereal dessert. It is said that Anna Matveyevna Pavlova’s dance company was the first to tour the world, and they performed in Australia and New Zealand in 1926. Her visit to New Zealand was considered ‘the chief event of 1926.’ To this day, both countries claim credit for the invention of the Pavlova.” It’s stories like these that ground Kalman’s memories (much of the recipes are culled from her childhood) and bring her recipes to life on the page.

Valerio Farris: What's your favorite type of cake?

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Barbara Scott-Goodman: Oh, wow, that’s kind of like naming your favorite child. I do love a simple cake like an olive oil cake. It’s easy to make and so versatile. I like to bake this cake for a dinner party dessert and dress it up with ice cream and berries. The leftover cake is the perfect thing to have with a cup of coffee the next morning. I also love a big beautiful layer cake with lots of frosting. Is there anything more festive?

Dogs deserve cake too! Photo by From CAKE by Maira Kalman, with recipes by Barbara Scott-Goodman.

VF: What's your favorite recipe and story from the book?

BSG: That’s another tough question. So many good ones. The Pavlova is great and I loved doing the research on it. Who knew that Australia and New Zealand have been fighting over ownership of a dessert since the 1920s? And Maira’s paintings of the pink table and Anna Pavlova are so wonderful. A Pavlova piled high with whipped cream and fresh fruit is impressive—a real showstopper. And making a meringue is very satisfying and not difficult at all.

Kalman's whimsical and inviting illustrations lend themselves to the sweet confectionary creations. Photo by From CAKE by Maira Kalman, with recipes by Barbara Scott-Goodman.

VF: What was it like to work with someone's food memories and bring them to life?

BSG: It’s so interesting that we all have memories of cake—for better or worse. It was a sheer delight to work with Maira on this book. Her take on cake involves her family and her life, and it is full of gentle surprises. Her words and paintings are lively, witty, funny, and sometimes a little sad. We had a great time going back and forth trying to choose the cakes for the book. There were so many possibilities.

VF: Why do you think making cake, eating cake, sharing cake is important?

BSG: Cake is usually part of a celebration—a marker like a birthday, a wedding, or an anniversary. The key word here is sharing. There doesn’t seem to be any point to baking a cake if you’re not going to eat it with the ones you love. What could be sadder than eating cake by yourself?

Illustrations reprinted by arrangement of Penguin Press, part of the Penguin Random House company. Copyright (c) 2018 by Maira Kalman.

What cake brings back the best memories? Share your pick in the comments below.

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Valerio is a freelance food writer, editor, researcher and cook. He grew up in his parent's Italian restaurants covered in pizza flour and drinking a Shirley Temple a day. Since, he's worked as a cheesemonger in New York City and a paella instructor in Barcelona. He now lives in Berlin, Germany where he's most likely to be found eating shawarma.


kgohl April 20, 2018
I believe you may have misunderstood Kalman's role in the book. As you repeat in your captions but not in the text, both the book text and illustrations are by Kalman, the recipes are by Scott-Goodman. These are Kalman's stories--not Scott Goodman's. And in Kalman's inimitable style, the words are witty and delightful, the art work extraordinary. So far I've only made one of the cakes--the first one, a lemon cake based on a Maida Heater recipe--and it's delicious. The book is a gem.
amysarah April 19, 2018
Longtime Maira Kalman fan. When my mother died, someone at her shiva gave me Kalman’s memoir Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant (about the same subject) and I read it on the spot. It so perfectly mirrored what I’d just been through, I literally couldn’t stop laugh-crying. Since I was at a shiva, there was also a lot of cake – so, there’s the cake connection.

In terms of best memory cake, I guess it would be my mother’s very simple, but incredibly delicious yellow butter cake. The best, never got tired of it. I still crave it.