My kids and I watch "The Cake Boss" every weekend, playing episode after episode on Netflix as if taking just one more cookie from the Italian cookie platter at a party.
There's the butter cookie sandwich with raspberry jam, half-dipped in dark chocolate glaze and then in colored sprinkles. The pretzel-shaped chocolate sandwich cookie. The cloud-fluffy pignole-studded cookie. The green and red leaf-shaped chocolate sandwich cookies, the three-tiered Italian wedding cookies. They are the special treat cookies of my childhood, and I doubt I'd have any more restraint than I did as a kid if they were nearby.
My kids love watching the show because they get to see giant, amazing, novelty cakes conceptualized and assembled. When my 8-year-old son watches Mauro or Buddy "dirty ice" a cake, or slather on chocolate mousse filling between slabs of pound cake, his face takes on an expression of happy, covetous wonder.
My 11-year-old daughter enjoys it for the delicious-looking epic cakes as well, but I can tell that she's also digging the design and architecture aspects of the cake-creating. And then the cast of characters is pretty rich.
I have my own reasons. The industrial elements of the bakery don't really grab me. I much prefer the idea of a sweet little one- or two-person operation, a kind of Holly Hobbie kindly grandma butter cream bakery, instead of watching the fellas sling 20-pound tubs of factory fondant around. (In my foodie memoir Licking the Spoon: A Memoir of Food, Family, and Identity, there's a chapter called "The Cake Bible," an homage to Rose Levy Beranbaum, about my fraught foray into wedding cake baking.)
When I watch "The Cake Boss," I'm much more hungry for the doses of big Italian family. I didn't have one, growing up, but I was surrounded by them -- on the block, at the store, in the restaurant, at school concerts, at church. They were boisterous and interconnected and quick to raise their voices in joy or in displeasure.
The biggest hunger I feel when I watch "The Cake Boss" is not for a piece of cake. It's for a piece of the Valastro clan's sense of connectedness and rapport. I feel like I'm there, in the bakery or in one of their home kitchens, their warmth around me, hugging, laughing, teasing, cajoling me to have one more helping.
It's not like I want to be one of Buddy's sisters -- I don't. When they get going, their voices sound like cats in an alley. In his family, there's a lot of little bits of dysfunction, everyone playing their roles the way they always have-and always will? Nothing wrong with that, necessarily, but it doesn't give the individuals a lot of room to change, grow, get beyond the familial Hydra formation.
I come from a very diffuse family, and that's a blessing, because along with the dysfunction, there's a lot of latitude to take plenty of protective distance. My sister and I are very close, and for that I am grateful.
As my kids snuggle on either side of me and laugh, or hold our breaths in unison as Buddy and Mauro lift a big, elaborate cake and have to load it into the truck, we are connected, just as we are every day in dozens of ways.
We aren't an Italian family living in New Jersey. I'm not having any more kids, so we won't be replicating the gang of siblings with their spouses, kids and in-laws at any point. If I had to go to weekly Sunday family dinners with tables laden with lasagna, ziti, the works (on top of mega access to bakery cookies), it would trash my figure. And... I'm guessing the Valastros probably wouldn't take a gay sister in stride. If I were a Valastro, I'd have to do a lot more debating, explaining and resisting.
As reality TV shows go, this one is transfixing because of how far it is from our own reality. But the closeness of our own little family pod is the main course that sustains us. The show's dose of the mercurial, lovable Buddy and his family is perfectly titrated. It completes me, without cramping my style.