To try Regina's recipe for easy wedding cake cupcakes with almond buttercream, click here.
I know this will sound incredibly weird, but during wedding season, especially in June, I cannot help but think about monkey stories. I have a friend, Ritchie Montgomery, who is a Southern actor and such a great storyteller that one night when he was sharing his monkey story with my dinner guests, my husband literally fell out of his chair laughing. I cannot share his story as it would be considered "x-rated" or at a minimum incredibly inappropriate for a food article, but he should write it, as it is one of the most entertaining stories I have ever heard. I have a monkey story of my own. I do not pretend that is as funny as Ritchie's, but it is true and it is my monkey story.
In the summer of 1973, I was home from college for the summer and it was mandatory that we worked. I chose to work for my dad, at the bakery and deli that he owned. One of my most colorful aunts, Mae Mae, worked as a hostess at the bakery part-time. She was the aunt who turned us on to blue eye shadow in the '60s, the first to teach us to "twist," and she often encouraged the padding of bras to create a bit more cleavage. One of my favorite memories of her was when she played Mae West in a yearly production at our Catholic school to raise money for the athletic association; it was made to order for her. We were more mortified that our mother played Gypsy Rose Lee and did a striptease. Even though it was to a tasteful level, still very embarrassing when you are in junior high.
I have always had an interest in food, and I enjoyed watching Mr. Labouef, the pastry chef, decorate wedding cakes, something I have never conquered as a true craft. I can get by, but it is a gift you must have and you are hard-pressed to learn without that natural artistic ability. It was a Saturday in June, warm as June can be, and I arrived to start my daily duties before opening: brewing coffee, filling the cases with fresh baked goods, writing the lunch specials on the chalk board. As I went in and out of the kitchen, I would take a closer look at the four finished wedding cakes for the three Natchez June weddings that day.
One cake in particular caught my attention because it had a scalloped bottom layer and the decorative icing was just a shade creamier than the base frosting, and it was separated into four tiers, whereas the other three cakes were quite a bit smaller, but still lovely. I remember taking orders for wedding cakes, and I was always amazed at how ugly the plastic bride and grooms were. Some even had smeared facial features if you looked closely. I always tried to talk people into fresh flowers on top or even unrealistic doves over ugly figurines. Wedding cakes have come a long way in 37 years; I am so pleased to say. There were conversations with Miss Mamie, the head lunch cook, about how many covers we thought we would do that day, and everything seemed business as usual.
There were two young men in Natchez, Leslie and Harold, who loved animals and wanted to start a zoo. If my memory is at all correct, I do remember a rather mangy black bear in a cage, a couple of bobcats, and a spider monkey. That June Saturday morning, the spider monkey escaped from Leslie's front yard, which was the birthplace of the Natchez zoo that never came to be. It did not take long before a posse of young boys started chasing the monkey through the bayou between the Homochitto addition and the back of Trosclair's bakery.
There were very large screens the width of the building to provide fresh air for the very warm kitchen, which had rotating baking ovens going through the night into the early morning. The monkey found refuge from the mob that was hot on his trail between two screens. He then managed to chew through the screen and was in the bakery kitchen. Miss Mamie was first to act; she picked up a plastic Solo coffee cup and threw it at the monkey. Why? I am not sure. It was less than effective and instead it scared and angered this three-pound creature, and in moments he decided to retaliate with onions, tossing one after another at Miss Mamie. It took no time for Aunt Mae Mae to become nearly hysterical, and she began demanding that I do something. What could I do? I just observed because it was so surreal to have a monkey wreaking havoc in a bakery kitchen. Truthfully, I was amused. I was a bit worried that he might bite someone, but I never expected what happened next.
Back to the lovely, expensive, ready-to-be-delivered wedding cakes, lined up on the bakers table ... the monkey decided to perch right on top of the loveliest of them all, then he ran from one to the next until he had trashed the top of each cake. Then it got worse. Almost as an act of complete defiance, he sat on the grandest of the cakes and relieved himself, then dragged his dirty little bottom from one cake to the next. I know this seems absurd, but I tell you it is the truth. In a quick few minutes, four wedding cakes destroyed, two hysterical women, onions everywhere, and a monkey still on the loose.
We managed to open the back doors and he escaped as easily as he entered. It was not over; he managed to hide in the bayou for several days and surfaced in front of the bakery to perch on top of the Natchez Democrat newspaper dispenser several times a day just long enough to create a little more hysteria. I think he helped business for a few days with an influx of curious customers. Although the Associated Press article in the Jackson paper quoted that the monkey cost over $600 in damages, I think it was a bit more, and the additional onlookers probably did not make up for the monetary loss. But the cost of a monkey story? Priceless.
The drama was all over by 10:00 a.m. and Mr. LaBouef was called back in and luckily had plenty of cakes in the freezer and magically reproduced the cakes by 4:00 p.m. for delivery. I always loved watching him work and he was masterful this day. I joyfully remember the taste of his wedding cake, although after the monkey incident I lost my appetite for wedding cake for a while. I eventually got it back and developed this recipe to bring back the taste of his cakes as I remember them.
This is my recipe for what we called his "French Wedding Cake," although using the cake mix base is very American. I think the mixture of almond and vanilla gave it a memorable taste that we thought had to be French. As I have said, I avoid cake decorating, but I did make this cupcake wedding cake for one of my sweet brides who wanted to keep things simple. As I learned at La Varenne and Mr. LaBouef learned in his training, cake freezes very well and it is preferable to work with frozen cake when applying frosting. These are great to keep in the freezer after you have applied the buttercream. Then you can take them out and place them under a cake dome until they come to room temperature. These are always an opener for your favorite monkey story.