for a loud-laughing, card-playing caterer, on her 95th

the wedding cake from my caterer grandma

I’m not going to tell you I miss her. That’s what everyone says. I’m just going to tell you I think about her sometimes, like each year when I smell my first fresh spring lilac, heady with sweetness like the big bushes in her backyard that she’d pick from to make corsages on Mothers’ Day; in summer, when the tomato plants grow big, their leaves overwhelming the wiring around them and huge, red fruits forming on the branches; at night, when I can’t fall asleep, and I watch the shadows from the windows dance across the wall, just the way they did in Grandma’s room, when we slept with the window open, a street light’s beam extending across her ceiling.

I also think about my grandma on days like today, her birthday. If she had lived, she would have been 95. And I think about her, mostly, when I bake.

white wedding cake

After her husband died at the age of 50, Grandma was left alone, with one daughter, in a brown brick bungalow with a shaded back porch and a fenced backyard, a few miles from her four siblings and their families but, alone nonetheless.

By the time I was born, she’d grown to like it, living by herself. She held garage sales with some friends, she joined bridge clubs, she had her picture in the paper, smiling in her red silk shirt with white moons on it, for a seniors’ group she belonged to. Mostly, she spent time in the kitchen. She baked cookies for people she loved. She made our Thanksgiving dinners. She catered—big, white wedding cakes studded with frosted flowers and delicate details.

So while I think about her today, it seems fitting to talk about her cake recipe, which I found on a brown-tinted 3 X 5 card in her recipe index, her cursive penmanship unmistakable. In classic form, this card lacked key information—what temperature to set the oven, how long to bake—so part of it is improvised. Also, I’ve been told for weddings, Grandma used a ricotta filling, like that good stuff inside of cannolis. (This was not on the card, either. Improvising, I used a jar of packaged frosting and topped it with crushed pistachios—good, but next time, I will find a ricotta filling instead.)

My favorite memories of Grandma are her stories, the ones she’d tell, laughing, her entire face wrinkling and happy. By the end of her life, to me, she was defined by those stories, and her laughter, how it tilted her head back and made you feel close. I hope the same will be said of me.

Wedding Cake
Adapted from my grandma, Caroline

Taste: I almost forgot to tell you how this tasted! Sweet and dense, with the heaviness of a wedding cake, this was very good, even if my layers turned out a little thick. It was the kind of cake I found myself grabbing slices of, for breakfast, for lunch, for a snack before bed. That could just be me, though.

Size of pans to use: Her instructions said something about a 12-inch layer and a 6-inch layer, which pointed me towards the closest improvisation I could find: a 13 X 9 and an 8 X 8. The batter seems awfully thin when you pour it in the pans, but it truly rises when cooking. Next time, I’d try three 8-inch round pans and see how thin I could make the cakes, to highlight the frosting more.

Filling: Like I said, I used a packaged frosting—something with whipped in the title. Then I crushed pistachios and layered them on top. The possibilities here, though, are really endless. I’d love to hear ideas.

3 cups sifted cake flour
3 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup butter
1 3/4 cups sugar
1 1/4 cup milk
1 1/2 teaspon vanilla
2/3 cup egg whites (from about 4 eggs)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Thoroughly grease and flour baking pans.

In a large bowl, cream butter and 1 1/2 cup sugar. Separately sift together the sifted caked flour, baking powder and salt, and in a small bowl, combine milk and vanilla. Add the dry and wet mixes alternately to the large bowl, and blend thoroughly.

With an electric mixer on low speed (these are her instructions, but I’ll admit to impatience and using high), beat 2/3 cup egg white until stiff, not dry.

Add gradually to the main mixture in the large bowl a 1/4 cup of sugar, beating constantly until stiff. Fold egg whites into batter.

Measure batter by cupful into well-greased and floured cake pans. (I used one 9 X 13 and one 8 X 8 and then measured them after cooled to make them three same-sized layers.)

Bake at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes, checking towards the end. Cake is done when a toothpick can be inserted in the center and come out clean.


  1. says

    i’d use some sort of honey frosting, maybe, or a fruit filling that’s not too cloying — lemon or burnt orange. you want to maintain the integrity of the white cake, and give it a little boost at the same time.

    i miss my grandmother every day. thank you for posting this.

  2. says

    oh what a sweet, heartfelt post! you are lucky, what a blessing to have known her at all. grandma stories and memories are the best. happy day of her birth!

  3. rachel says

    mmmmmmmm… that was a good post Shanna. :) ANd a good lookin cake to say the least.

  4. says

    I love your story. It’s great that you have been able to remember your Grandmother in such a special way. She seemed like a great women, full of life.

    I will definitely give this cake recipe a try…thanks for sharing the recipe and your story.


  5. Donna Azure says

    What a wonderful post!! My Mom has been gone 5 years now and while so many things remind me of her, flowers, parades, the way she treated her family as the most special guests of all, it is her way of showing love through food that makes me feel the closest to her. She made wonderful raised sugary doughnuts that I could never get enough of! When she was in the process of making them, she would have to chase me off because I loved to eat “the middle” that yeasty, sweet lump that she would let rise surrounded by a bowl full of flour. I have her metal strainer that she used to lower the white circles into the hot oil and to raise them back up again, hot and golden brown. She would put some sugar in a paper sugar sack and shake them and then lay them out on a plate. I couldn’t wait to bite in to one of those hot,delicious treats! Thanks for triggering the memory once again!! I love your blog!!

  6. Kelley says

    I will definitely be trying this cake! I like your pistachio idea, but I’d top it with a good homemade buttercream (said the girl who used a tub with a red spoon on it to frost her mom’s cake last week). :)

  7. Mom says

    Well, I can’t see too well as my eyes are filled with tears, but I love you for
    honoring my wonderful Mother, your Grandmother. She would come over and in no
    time have us all laughing at the way she would tell her great stories! I miss her so.
    Dear Lady, rest in peace. She gave us such security and joy. She was such a good
    Italian cook! You’re on your way, my little girl. Gramma would be so happy!
    Love, Mom

  8. says

    This cake looks wonderful! My Italian grandma and mom used to make a french pastry cake with ricotta filling and this made me think of it!

  9. says

    Ha – Tim, of course you would find the post where I used packaged frosting. Ah! I guess I should have said I am *trying* to get away from processed foods.


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