Whenever one of my children reaches a milestone, I become hopelessly teary. Tears of joy? I don’t think so. My tears are for a moment so precious and fleeting that I fear it may be lost. It’s a confusing place in the sad-to-happy range that makes me strangely gloomy.
The cream-soda-and-raspberry cupcakes came out of such a bittersweet moment. They were created last year to celebrate the 10th birthday of a Syrian refugee making her way across Europe. The girl, called Amal, which means hope in Arabic, was actually an 11-foot-tall puppet. Her makers wanted to bring to life the experience of millions of displaced children by creating a live art event called “The Walk.” They set Amal on a 5,000-mile journey, all the way from near the Turkish-Syrian border to Manchester, England, walking through more than 70 cities. Wherever she went, Amal was greeted by crowds of children and adults, eager to see her, shake her hand and offer her company.
When Amal reached London, I approached a group of local pastry chefs and asked them to join me in creating a giant birthday cake made out of individual cupcakes, all with different flavors. On a sunny Sunday last October, dozens of kids came to the Victoria and Albert Museum to celebrate with Amal, sing in Arabic, play and, the highlight, pick a cupcake.
With all the celebration, Amal felt overwhelmed and overly emotional, so at some point, she went aside to rest, while the other kids carried on with the party — a touching moment familiar to many parents, and another illustration of how quickly happy can turn into unhappy.
Cakes are ceremonial by their very nature. You don’t need a cake for your daily sustenance.
In fact, the exact same thing happened to me when I recently met up with Paulina Bembel, Ottolenghi’s head pastry chef, who created our cupcake for the event, to talk about her inspiration. Paulina is from Poland, so the first thing that came up was the situation back home. Poland has recently taken in more than 3.5 million refugees from Ukraine, a huge stretch for a country of roughly 38 million. This astonishing act of hospitality meant that Ukrainian children are now learning in Polish classrooms; doctors have opened up their clinics, and private businesses offer free services to refugees. But, Paulina sadly pointed out, there are also anti-immigrant voices, and nonwhite refugees have sometimes been greeted with hostility. As I say, sweet and bitter.
Not when it comes to the cupcake, though. Paulina’s cupcake is all about crafting a pure childhood dream. The lemon-studded raspberries evoke a raspberry-lemonade slushie. The cream-soda flavoring is a twist on the vanilla often used in Polish babka, a cake Paulina grew up on. And the popping candy and meringue — well, such keystones of childhood fantasy are simply calling to be scattered on top.
Cakes are ceremonial by their very nature. You don’t need a cake for your daily sustenance. It’s a very special extra, so we put it in the center of so many of our rituals, small or large: afternoon tea, weddings, religious holidays, personal landmarks, expressions of sympathy and condolence.
Dulling pain through cake is an especially powerful idea, I find. No one seriously expects to eliminate the troubles of this world by the spreading of frosting or the dusting of powdered sugar, but it gives a momentary sense of well-being. The act of baking is soothing both to the giver and the receiver, to the busy baker and to the person taking a big bite of a fluffy slice of sponge. This potential comfort that every cake holds within it is why bake sales are what so many, children and adults alike, have been doing to raise funds for Ukraine.
I was comforted to learn that Amal traveled to Poland last month to visit Ukrainian refugee children and their families. “At a time of unprecedented global change,” said Amir Nizar Zuabi, the artistic director of “The Walk,” “Amal’s journeys transcend borders, politics and language to tell a new story of shared humanity — and to ensure the world doesn’t forget the millions of displaced children, each with their own potential to enhance the communities in which, as we hope, they will find refuge.” And, if I can add a little request of my own, may these children also find something sweet along the way, to ease the pain.