John Carlson: Husband is Crumby, But Cake is Great

A Kentucky Bourbon Brown Butter Cake and its best ingredient. Photo by: Nancy CarlsonA Kentucky Bourbon Brown Butter Cake and its best ingredient. Photo by: Nancy Carlson

Editor’s note: This story has been republished, (originally published in September of 2016) as John takes a brief medical leave. We wish him well. 

By John Carlson—

So the other morning I’m trying to grab a few more winks of sleep when, from our kitchen, I hear my wife’s ear-piercing scream.

“What?!?!” I holler.

“My cake sank!!!” Nan hollers back.

For a moment I am confused. Then I vaguely recall how she was getting up early to bake a cake to be auctioned off in a church fundraiser for Project Stepping Stone, which provides temporary housing for people in need. For an earlier auction, in fact, Nan provided a Swedish tea ring, a stunning work of Scandinavian bakery beauty that earned a cool hundred bucks for the charity and, for her, a reputation.

My wife is now regarded among certain local Lutherans as a butt-kickin’ baker. Being a 4-H loving country girl at heart, this reputation appeals to her. Needless to say, she can’t suddenly show up at the auction with a cake that looks like Betty Crocker sat on it.

This realization sends me back to Nappy Land with a satisfied smile plastered across my face. Her sunken cake was from a recipe supplied by the late Elizabeth Coblentz, the original Amish Cook newspaper columnist, and a woman who knew her way around a kitchen. Therefore, even if this cake with the sunken middle doesn’t look perfect, I am pretty sure it is going to taste that way.

But next I hear the manic flipping of cookbook pages, followed by a gasp of relief. Nan has found another recipe, this one by Martha Stewart no less, for a special bundt cake that, if she hurries, she can bake before the church auction. She even has all the ingredients … but one.

“Honey,” she coos, “I need to borrow one-third cup of your bourbon.”

Now it’s my turn to scream.

See, due to a lack of planning on my part, my only bourbon at the moment is a fifth of Blanton’s, a gift to me, a classic sippin’ whisky that runs about 60 bucks a bottle. This makes it very precious, me being a notorious cheapskate whose own bourbon purchases run more to ones with names like Olde Kentucky Road Kill. Now that I possess some Blanton’s, my wife wants to pour it into a bundt cake.

“Why don’t ya go buy some Olde Kentucky Road Kill!” I suggest, tactfully.

“I can’t, snookums!” she reminds me, cheerily. “It’s Sunday.”

For the millionth time, in my mind I cuss out the Indiana Legislature’s refusal to allow Sunday liquor sales.

Then, regretfully, I crawl out of bed. If that woman is going to commandeer a third-cup of my beautiful Blanton’s bourbon for a bundt cake, I’m going to make darned sure I’m there with my lips puckered to slurp up any spillage.

It’s with a mixture of horror and confusion then, that I watch her pour my Blanton’s into a common sauce pan, mix it with a chunk of butter and heat it. Then, like some psycho with a maniacal hatred of bundt cakes, Nan begins punching holes in hers with a wooden skewer. Finally, ignoring my gasps of disbelief, she pours my hot, buttery Blanton’s into the holes.

When it’s finished, voila. She’s got a Kentucky Bourbon Brown Butter Cake just like Martha Stewart’s, and I’ve got a broken heart.

Still, even I recognize it’s for a good cause. At the auction, our friend Becki Bergs pays fully $145 for that baby.

Nan, of course, feels pretty good about this. Becki feels pretty good about this. What’s more, hard though it is to believe, eventually even I feel pretty good about this, my heart now alight with charitable thoughts. As the old saying goes, they also serve … who donate great whisky to their wives’ baking fundraisers.


A former longtime feature writer and columnist for The Star Press in Muncie, Indiana, John Carlson is a storyteller with an unflagging appreciation for the wonderful people of East Central Indiana and the tales of their lives, be they funny, poignant, inspirational or all three.  John’s columns appear on every Friday.