The days and weeks before my wife and I got married are something of a blur, but in retrospect, I see myself flailing like a fish on a hook...

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The days and weeks before my wife and I got married are something of a blur, but in retrospect, I see myself flailing like a fish on a hook or thrashing like a salmon on its way upstream to spawn.

I was cooking at a café in Friday Harbor in those days and trying to earn as much money as I could to pay for the honeymoon.

I was also trying to take care of maintenance on my future in-laws’ summer home where my fiancé and I had been squatting for some months before the wedding.

The house was on a small island across the harbor from Friday Harbor and I commuted to and fro by means of a small aluminum boat fitted with an outboard motor. Betsy, my wife-to-be, was serenely out of the picture, staying at her parents’ house in Bellevue, putting finishing touches on her self and on the wedding plans. So I was alone in the islands.

When I wasn’t working at the restaurant or on the house or drinking with friends after work at the local watering hole, I was baking and freezing layers of sponge cake and planning their final assembly into what I imagined would be the best-looking wedding cake of all time.

Keep it simple

Never mind that I had no real professional baking experience, no professional baking equipment and no clear instructions to follow. A passionate amateur baker with a large extended family, I had been called upon in my late teens and early 20s to make a few tiered wedding cakes for family members and hippie friends. So naturally I assumed I could bake my own wedding cake.

Since my in-laws are casual people without control issues, and since my wife is their fifth daughter to get married, the mother-of-bride had no problem allowing me to bake anything I wanted to bake, and my father-in-law was more than happy to forgo the expense of hiring a professional. Betsy’s only advice was to “Keep it simple.”

The reception dinner itself was to be a sort of glorified potluck with family members bringing dishes that were known to be Betsy’s favorites. The band was an assemblage of ersatz jazz musicians one of the sisters-in-law found in a bar.

And the photographer was one of my wife’s high-school friends who was trying to establish herself as a professional; she said our wedding photos would bulk up her portfolio. I was sure that my cake would fit right in to this hodgepodge of homegrown-nuptial paraphernalia.

Building a future

But nagging away at the back of mind was an intense desire to make the thing look good. It seemed symbolic of both my love for my wife and my capability as a future provider. If I could get it together to make our cake, I would get it together to build a future with Betsy where we both might live happily ever after.

Instead of homemade-looking butter cream, I wanted the cake to be finished with smooth drapes of fondant.

Two days before the wedding, just before midnight, I was piloting the little aluminum boat home from town. I used an attachment to the handle of the outboard that allowed me to stand up. This, I thought, allowed me to better see what lay ahead; more importantly, it was fun.

The water between the smaller island and Friday Harbor was stormy. As I sped along through the surf, I took a mental inventory of the cake parts. The layers were safely baked, wrapped and frozen and the boxes in which they would travel had been secured.

I had been struggling with the fondant. The first batch was sticky and hard to work. The second batch was easy to work but hardened into a concrete layer that would never allow for slicing the cake. When I got home, I would perfect the formula and make a final test batch.

Baker adrift

Then I hit a log. I tumbled “ass over teakettle” as my father-in-law would later describe it, right out of the boat and into the ice-cold drink. When I surfaced, I could hear the motor running and I imagined that the motor with its spinning blades would soon come and slice me up. I dove.

With my heavy boots and winter coat, it was hard to resurface, but somehow I did. Then I swam toward the boat, which seemed to be moving rapidly away faster than I could swim.

When I finally caught up with it and hurled myself in, I was freezing cold, bleeding from my hands and from a gash in my leg. The motor was missing and I had to paddle the boat like a canoe with a single oar. But all I could think about was finishing the wedding cake.

When my parents arrived the next morning from the Gulf Coast, ready to travel with me to Bellevue for the rehearsal dinner and wedding, I met them in Friday Harbor in a tiny rowboat, and they were drafted to hold layers of the frozen wedding cake on their laps.

In the end, my mother, a competent baker herself, whipped up some butter-cream frosting and fashioned some roses to decorate the cake. The fondant vision was abandoned.

In photos, the cake looks very nice, and very homemade. Wedding guests commented that it was the most delicious cake they had ever eaten. “Usually they look great and taste terrible,” remarked one guest.

At that point, I could not have cared less; I only had eyes for Betsy, and she looked fabulous.

Greg Atkinson is author of “West Coast Cooking.” He can be reached at greg@northwestessentials.com. Barry Wong is a Seattle-based freelance photographer. He can be reached at studio@barrywongphoto.com