"Cakewalk: A Memoir"
By Kate Moses
The Dial Press, 368 pages, $26.00

Kate Moses opens her lyrical and delectable memoir with a defining moment in her childhood. It’s 1965, in Palo Alto, California; she’s not quite four years old. Her mother has dressed her neatly, brushed her long hair, and sent her across the street to play with a neighbor’s daughter. The two youngsters are drawn into the kitchen by the “intoxicating” fragrance of caramelizing sugar, discover a mound of “what looked like burnished swirls of cloud,” and eat every last sweet morsel. What was that, she still is wondering hours later, her bottom sore after being spanked, as she sucks “the last ambrosial flavor” from her candied hair.

'Cakewalk' is a collection of such moments, explaining Moses’s lifelong obsession with cakes as a struggle to find a way to redeem with sweetness those moments that left, however bitter upon occasion, such a lasting taste in her mouth. Nearly every chapter ends with a recipe, from “Vanilla Birthday Cake with Lemon Curd and Simple Buttercream,” which includes a tempting blood orange variation, to "Kay Boyle's Pain au Chocolat Bread Pudding."

Neglect and nuttiness are standard fare for family memoirs. Moses is clear about the difficulties in her childhood. Her mostly absent and silent father invites her on a hike just before her second year in college and breaks into tears as he apologizes for being a terrible father. She heads back to college and a season of depression, “not yet aware of the deep channel my father’s apology had cut through me.” As Kate and her two brothers grow up, her mother shifts from eccentric to truly troubled. When she reaches college age, a visit home for the holidays is a harrowing experience. After a particularly vicious argument shortly after graduation, she vows never to return. Driving away, she notices a hillside of forgotten strawberries, fruit that hadn’t been picked in years--”small clotted hearts struggling to survive, dangling on their stems among the weeks.”

Moses, author of the imaginative introspective 'Wintering,' a novel based on the last months of Sylvia Plath’s life, and a cofounder of Salon.com’s Mothers Who Think website, brings considerable literary flair to her tale. In one exquisite setpiece, she describes working as a book editor, dining at the Sonoma home of legendary food writer M.F.K. Fisher. Fisher prepares a last-minute dessert: “’While a pint of good vanilla ice cream softened on the counter, she gently mashed two Hachiya persimmons that had been ripening to a translucent glow on the windowsill over the sink, then folded the two together, marbling the clear orange flesh of the persimmons against the white ice cream.”

Moses takes a refreshingly sanguine approach to her “confusing, painful, unforgettable childhood.” She grows in understanding after she has her first child (with a husband who lives in another town, and virtually ignores her). And it’s cheering to read of the love that ultimately brings a steadying calm to her life.

In addition to her luscious cookies, cakes, candies and pies, the generous Moses offers up a rare helping of forgiveness, and thanks. “The byproduct of suffering, if you’re lucky, is appreciation,” she writes. “My windfall has always been a sweet tooth, the gold watch that deflected the bullet aimed straight at my heart.”

Jane Ciabattari is a regular contributor to NPR and The Daily Beast; in addition to the Chicago Tribune, her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, Bookforum, Oprah magazine, the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and numerous other publications.