By Emily Mangini
“No, no, it tastes delicious,” our guest generously lied, taking another timid bite. I knew he was just being polite, and I tried desperately to convince him and his wife that it was not necessary to soldier on. After all, I was eating the same dessert, my beloved Basque Cake. I was tasting the same rich, luscious pastry cream sandwiched between two thick rounds of sweet cake. Only unlike our dinner guests, I was not in denial because every other bite was bastardized by the rum extract I had used in the pastry cream. It was my fault, I had cut corners and used rum extract instead of real rum. Instead of lightly flavoring the pastry cream, the extract hid, like tiny land mines of bootlegger’s sweat, waiting to explode in a cruel assault on innocent taste buds.
I could not believe this was happening. I was a pro at Basque Cake, and it was always a crowd-pleaser. That said, it was a natural choice to make the cake for the small dinner party that my husband and I were hosting. Living in Florence, Italy, was an amazing adventure. We were sometimes lonely, and were eager to bond with a pair of newfound, fellow ex-pats. My intentions had been pure: I would solidify our friendship with cake. And so I went to great lengths to execute the Basque Cake in my foreign home, knowing my efforts would be rewarded with a larger social circle.
I scoured the Italian markets for the more obscure and expensive ingredients in the cake: rum and cake flour. I procured the cake flour, but the rum was way too expensive for my English tutor budget. Instead, I opted for the much more affordable rum extract. What could go wrong, I reasoned while admiring the cute little bottle and its 2 Euro price tag. Quite pleased with my fiscal ingenuity, I headed back to the apartment to start baking.
It should be noted here that baking in a tiny Italian kitchen was not easy. For the most part I successfully fumbled my way through our minuscule kitchen. When the electrical fuse blew, though, I took a full-on dip in the pool of hysteria. Somehow I managed to get my masterpiece in the oven.
When sufficient time had passed and the beautiful, golden cake emerged, a tidal wave of relief washed over me. The night would no longer be a disaster, and in the end we would have new, lifelong friends. Thank you, Basque Cake.
But that’s not what the Italian gods had in store for me. Of all the trials and tribulations faced leading up to my moment of grandeur, it was the seemingly innocuous decision to use rum extract instead of rum that brought my victory to its knees. With a single, heavy-handed pour, I had ruined a cake born in an age when forks were a novelty and the average life expectancy was 38 years old.
Despite the burn of fake rum still singeing our tongues, we made plans for another dinner party. We even set a date for me to visit the couple in Barcelona when they moved the following month. The night had not gone perfectly, but I had survived. Best of all, our friendship was seemingly intact.
That sense of victory—not unlike what I felt when I pulled the cake from the oven—was false and short-lived. Once our friends moved, they disappeared, never to be heard from again. Phone calls and emails went unanswered. I found myself stranded in Barcelona, scrambling to find something safer than a park bench on which to sleep.
Where they went will always be one of the great unanswered questions for me and my husband. Having settled on the self-inflated notion that we are much too delightful a couple to so drastically run off new friends, we have agreed that they were undercover spies. Or fugitives, evading the law. But every now and then my husband will bring up the Basque Cake and the possibility that maybe, just maybe, it all could have turned out differently.