I am not superstitious. Well, not a lot. I mean, black cats don’t bother me, but I tend to avoid cemeteries at night. I look for the logical in the unexplained, even if sometimes I hope not to find it.
My one area of illogicality is dead people. I don’t believe in poltergeists, and I’m not even sure I can say I believe in ghosts. But I do believe that, on some level, people don’t exactly leave earth when they die. I could get into the science of why I think that, or I could wax romantic about souls chained to one another, but I won’t, because I have a better way of explaining this to you: Grandma Mary’s cake.
My favorite thing about food is…well, OK, everything. But one thing I really enjoy is cooking, and baking in particular fascinates me. It’s the simple chemistry of baking I love: I know that, no matter what, the right proportions of water, egg and flour will make macaroni, but if I alter the proportions, use milk instead of water, and throw in a little baking powder, vanilla and sugar, I’ve got cake. It never fails.
At least, it never failed me until about a year ago when my grandmother died. Grandma Rae taught me how to make everything from roast duck to almond crescents. She had a recipe collection that surpassed the page count of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. They’re good recipes, too: aside from her family, her recipes are her best legacy.
One of the first things she taught me how to make was her mother’s (Mary, my great-grandmother) cake. It was the go-to cake for birthdays in our family; it was probably the first cake I ever ate. As a teenager and adult I made it regularly. It was a little denser than most cakes, but still spongy and moist. If I do say so myself, it is a feat of cake engineering.
So it only stands to reason that when Leah had a Halloween party last year, I offered to bring Grandma Mary’s cake. My grandmother had died the month before and I thought it would make me feel closer to her. I made the cake, same as always, and brought it to Leah’s house.
It was the most disgusting, dry, heavy cake I’d ever tasted. I still apologize to Leah for gracing her dining room with this atrocity. But, as any cook will tell you, sometimes these things happen. Maybe I got the proportions wrong. My grandmother had Alzheimer’s, and I wondered if I’d gone off a recipe she’d written down after her mind started to get a little jiggly.
No problem. My dad’s birthday was just around the corner, and since it was his mother, I figured I’d make the cake and make him smile. I double-checked the recipe against the four other copies I had. I double-checked the ingredients as I measured them. I made the cake.
My mother took one bite of it and looked at me sadly.
“Honey, you’re a great cook, you are, but please don’t make that cake ever again,” was her Mom-of-the-year response (I’ve ordered her trophy) as she spit the cake into the garbage. The thing was fruitcake consistency, dry as limestone, and heavy as hell.
Now, this is where it started to get personal. I could do this; I could make a damn cake- especially one I’d made for almost 20 years. I tried to think of what I’d done differently. I asked my baking friends what they thought. Leah asked what was different from the last time I’d made the cake. I thought, then realized nothing. Well, other than my grandmother being alive every other time I’d made it.
But that was ridiculous. Christmastime came, and I was determined to get this right. I tested the baking powder, made sure I wasn’t beating the mix too long, and set my mind toward making the now-subtitled-I-May-Have-a-Breakdown-Over-Grandma-Mary’s-cake one more time. It had nothing to do, I told myself, with anything supernatural. Cake makery is just chemistry, simple chemistry. I aced chemistry in high school. Piece of cake.
I think we can all assume that had the cake turned out with anything other than me crying in frustration, it would not be the subject of this column.
Like I said, I’m not superstitious, and I’m not crazy. I don’t believe for one moment Grandma Rae’s watching over my shoulder, rubbing her hands together with evil intent and casting some beyond-the-veil cake spell on Grandma Mary’s cake. But I simply cannot explain why a perfectly good recipe has consistently failed me over the past year.
So here’s where you come in. I know there are bakers out there. The recipe’s below; tell me what I did wrong. Fix this cake for me, and I’ll bake you a batch of her almond crescents (those are still good; I’ve checked) come Thanksgiving.
And, hey, if you happen to see a handsome gray-haired Italian lady sitting in the corner of your kitchen, wearing a blue apron with red trim and clip-on earrings, tell her I’d trade the cake in a heartbeat to have her cook alongside me again, would you?
Grandma Mary’s Cake
3 c. Swan’s Down cake flour
4 t. baking powder
¾ t. salt
Sift the above ingredients together.
4 eggs, separated
¾ c. butter (1 ½ stick)
1 t. vanilla
2 c. sugar
¾ c. milk
Cream butter and sugar until creamy. Add egg yolks one at a time until well-blended.
Add the teaspoon of vanilla to the milk. Starting with flour, add vanilla and milk, alternating and ending with flour.
Beat egg whites until stiff peaks are formed. Fold into batter making sure no whites are shown.
Pour into waxed, lined 9” baking pans. Bake at 350º for 35 – 45 minutes. Test with toothpick; make sure it comes out clean. Cool about 10 minutes. Turn out on waxed paper.
Contact Cathy Salustri at CathySalustri@theGabber.com.