Over Easy is a weekly food column by a 20-something woman who can barely cook an egg and just wants to learn how to throw together an elegant three-course meal for her friends.
One muggy afternoon last August, I took a 45-minute train ride out to the Animal Care Center in Brooklyn, and came home with Cleo, a 3-year-old, Shih Tzu/poodle mix, who loves chasing her own tail and cuddling in a 69 position and lives in terror of the wind. She was a teen mom and is unfailingly polite and extremely beautiful, even though she has a condition called cherry eye that’s common among small dogs. People constantly point it out to me, as if I haven’t spent hours gazing into the brown, watery depths of her one good eye and one wonky eye and wondering what she’s feeling, where her puppies are, if she misses the old woman who supposedly owned her before, if she’s ever disappointed in me. Her favorite food, as far as I can tell, are the discarded chicken bones she tries picks up outside the Jamaican restaurant up the street from our apartment. She is what I believe scientists would describe as “a very good girl,” and I would die for her.
I knew it was only a matter of time before I became a full-blown dog lady. Growing up, my most prized possession was an illustrated dog breed encyclopedia my parents got me for Christmas one year. I loved to go through it and named every single dog (the Irish setter was Ruby, the Xoloitzcuintli was Spike) and eventually, the spine dissolved from overuse. A friend once described my exhaustive canine knowledge as “unsettling,” and a baseball cap that says “Dog Mom” has been sitting in my Amazon checkout for months because I still can’t decide if it’s a bit or the first precarious step toward an entirely dog-centric wardrobe.
Having self-actualized into the obsessive dog owner I was always meant to be, I decided to mark the occasion of mine and Cleo’s one-year anniversary by making her a cake. Committing time and resources to making elaborate baked creations for creatures who communicate by shoving their noses in each other’s buttholes is objectively absurd. But as a quick scroll through the 23,500-plus posts categorized as #dogbirthdayparty on Instagram will show you, it’s also extremely adorable. And I cannot help but want to do something special for the small, furry light of my life.
The first step was to decide what kind of cake Cleo might like best. Due to her docile, gentle nature, I thought a meat cake might overwhelm her, but I still wanted her to be able to indulge her carnivorous tendencies, so I decided to make her this Sweet & Salty Dog Birthday Cake by Tiffany of the blog Parsnips & Pastries. Tiffany said she made the cake, which has pumpkin, applesauce, peanut butter, and bacon, for her 6-year-old Corgi, Cocoa, who “went nuts for it,” and that she “kind of loved it as a human too.” But would Cleo like it?
Though I trust both Tiffany and Cocoa, I googled all the ingredients to double-check that they are indeed dog- friendly, because if I made Cleo sick I would never forgive myself. Luckily, I was able to confirm that the ingredients are all safe. As Tiffany notes, however, “it’s important to find a natural peanut butter with only peanuts in the ingredients” because xylitol, a sugar alcohol frequently used as a sweetener, and common in processed peanut butter, is very toxic for dogs, and “other common ingredients, like palm oil and processed sugar, aren’t so great either.”
I started by frying up the bacon. Normally, I prefer baking bacon to frying it, because it’s less greasy and more crispy, but this recipe calls for bacon grease in the batter and I had a dog to please. I laid five strips of bacon down on a cold skillet, turned up the heat, and prayed that my apartment’s hypersensitive fire alarm wouldn’t go off. Meanwhile, Cleo lay obediently at my feet, her small nose twitching wildly.
When the bacon was done, I poured the grease into a large bowl along with unsweetened applesauce, pumpkin purée, raw honey, and peanut butter, then whisked it all together. I then added two eggs, a teaspoon of baking soda, and some organic unbleached flour, before stirring the mixture, being careful not over-mix, as Tiffany warned. (I remain unclear on how to know whether something is over-mixed.)
Though the recipe calls for an eight-inch round baking pan, our apartment only has a nine-inch one, which was fine — in the end, the larger pan just made the cake slightly flatter. The batter baked at 350 degrees for 25 minutes, during which I prepared the “frosting” (peanut butter and greek yogurt mixed together). It’s the same combo this woman I used to temp with (let’s call her Cate, because that’s her name) made every day as a snack. Cate was the single most radiant human being I’ve ever encountered in my life and I can’t believe we’re genetically the same species. Even though I never took her up on her invitation to attend her monthly intention-setting circle with her and her equally radiant, yoga-fanatic, crystal-devoted, six-pack-having friends, I was happy that Cleo, an equally inspiring woman, would be eating the same thing as her.
After the cake was done baking, I let it cool, and then cut it in half through the middle, slathering icing and bits of bacon between the two layers, and on top. It looked like one of the shabby, busted cakes you sometimes see depicted in children’s books, but I didn’t think Cleo would be too worried about the aesthetics. With great pomp, I set it on the floor in front of her, hoping that she would dig in, overjoyed. She sniffed it, took a step back, and laid down.
“It’s probably too big for her,” my roommate Caroline suggested. Though I was sad she hadn’t immediately wanted to bury her face in my baked creation, I was proud that my sweet girl was polite enough to need bite-size portions. I cut her a slice, put it in her bowl, and, like Cocoa, she “went nuts.” While she wolfed it down, my roommates and I took bites of our own, to mixed reviews. Caroline said it tasted like spoiled buttermilk, Mallory said it was reminiscent of an oven that needs to be cleaned, and Kenny said, “It’s definitely a dog cake.” I kind of liked it.
I gave Cleo another, smaller piece because I love her and also because she kept licking her chops and staring up at me with the intense, crazed eyes of someone who just did a bunch of coke in a bar bathroom. There was a lot of cake left over, so I’ve been doling slices out to her every night this week, and I can tell she’s starting to be disappointed by her regular dry food. Perhaps I’ve created a tiny, adorable monster. Was the cake good, or was it just better than the street chicken, dry kibble, and dog butts to which Cleo’s palate is accustomed? I’m not entirely sure. But it did make her very happy, and that makes me very, very happy.
My report card
Cleo’s delight: A+
My Overall Performance: A