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.
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.
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.