As of late, it doesn’t seem like I can write about anything else besides my neurotic fits, pits, pills, and spells. And even as I try to write a food essay, I’m reminded of that time. A time of hotlines, missed school, OCD tendencies, binge eating, restricting, weight gain, weight loss, self-loathing, self-harm, suicidal thoughts, and panic attacks, but also, a time of cake-baking.
Weird, right? It’s somewhat ironic that the girl who used to cry if an apple made her bloated, or who once ate 10 vegan energy bars in a sitting would turn to baking fatty, sugary calorie bombs to cope through a mental health crisis. But I did. I did because the smells, the tastes, and the steps brought comfort and familiarity to an increasingly dangerous world. It brought smiles to the people I knew and the people I didn’t. It reminded me that I made people happy. It reminded me that I was not as alone as I felt.
But there’s one thing I baked during that time that particularly stands out in my memory. They were banana cupcakes with Nutella buttercream frosting. I made them for Caroline Benedetti's 15th birthday.
I met Caroline during my first and last cross country season. She is brilliant. Her thoughts and ideas articulate themselves in a way unprecedented by any freshman I’ve ever encountered. She, two years my junior, gently tutored me as I stumbled through Algebra 2 Trig Honors. She nearly tripped in bewildered laughter when I stuck my hand out behind an awkward, shirtless cross country runner as if to grab him, just because something told me it would be funny. She loves writing, as I do. We both see it as a way to use language to explore our stories. We give each other feedback, writing paragraph-long emails and texts. She didn’t judge me when I constantly stalked her Western Civ class, just to have something positive to hang onto through so much pain.
But I worried about Caroline. I worried that she would feel anything like I did freshman year. I caught glimpses of potential low self-esteem, of anxiety, of needing to be enough when she was already everything to me.
So I baked the cupcakes on January 14th, 2016, two days before her birthday, documenting my journey through poorly filtered iPhone photos. I combined a stick of butter, ½ cup light brown sugar, and 3 eggs in a bowl, beating for 2-3 minutes. I then had to mash 3 giant, ripe bananas with a dinner fork, working harder than I’d ever had in my life to mash fruity sticks of starch into a lump-free, aromatic mixture I could feed to a baby. After stirring in the cinnamony dry ingredients to make the batter, I had to add the buttermilk. I’d never done anything with buttermilk before. Pouring in the ½ cup of this sour, thick, lactescent substance was one of the coolest and most terrifying moments of my baking life. Once that was whisked in, there was no going back. All that was left was pouring everything into lightly greased cupcake liners to bake at 350 degrees for 17-19 minutes. I prayed that the cupcakes wouldn’t collapse into spicy, fruity pillows of sadness. And they didn’t. They came out as golden, fluffy towers of promise, a treat fit for an Italian princess. Perhaps for one named Caroline Terese Benedetti.
Next came the Nutella frosting: 2 sticks of butter and 2 cups of confectioners sugar collaborating to hold together ¾ cups of Nutella and 3 tbsp of heavy cream. My hands refused to give up, boring my electric mixer deeper down into the creamy, chocolatey, hazelnutty frosting tower. I added the vanilla extract and salt and tasted. Yes. Utter euphoria.
I’d done it. I’d made something good enough not only for Instagram, but for the girl who didn’t know exactly how special she was.
I decorated the golden towers with ample dollops of frosting and showers of rainbow sprinkles, leaving two unfrosted for her hazelnut-allergic brother Chris. I packed all 18 cupcakes into multiple containers, leaving about a dozen just for Melanie. I gave them to her the next day, coupled with a t-shirt, a two page letter, and a poster reading “Carpe the Heck Out of that Diem”.
She loved them. She and her freshman gaggle huddled together, marveling at the sprinkles and frosting. She ate one in front of me, singing praises about the harmony between the light cake and rich frosting. She hugged me tightly, thanking me for my kindness.
The next days, weeks, and months were brutal and horrible the way only fellow mental health crisis sufferers know them to be. The pounding viciousness of my mind nearly consumed me.
But when I came home, after a long day of struggle and strife, opened the kitchen cabinets, and baked a cake for another lucky consumer, I escaped. I escaped knowing that there was still some good left in this world. And that I had made someone out there less miserable. I am so glad that Caroline was one of my first testers.