Piece of cake


Recently I had a real hankering for cake. I’d be sitting at work, staring at spreadsheets and billings but dreaming about a firm, moist yellow cake with the kind of crispy white icing that melts in your mouth. No one ever told me I’d fantasize about cake the way I used to fantasize about boys, but let’s get back to that cake.

This was this cake of my dreams. I always knew it as 7-minute cake.

I haven’t had it in about 25 years. My dad’s mother used to make it every year for my birthday. She knew her way around the kitchen and died many years ago and before I thought to show interest in her skills. She was tricky to get close to, but her cooking and baking was pure love.

Who knows why that cake started to call to me all these years later. Work has been busy and stressful and I have been self-medicating something fierce with sugar. I’m none too pleased with myself, and more on that in a bit. But I wonder sometimes at the seemingly random resurfacing of memories. Maybe it was literally the 25th anniversary of the last time I had that cake and my brain figured this is it, we get it again or lose it forever. Maybe my brain was embarrassed to realize I’d never made a cake before. Like ever.

Now, I always liked to cook, especially before I got sober, and lately I’ve felt the urge to get back to it again. But baking isn’t cooking, and while I have baked plenty of things from scratch, I somehow never made a layer cake. The idea of needing perfectly matching layers intimidated me, plus I only had one cake pan. This was easy enough to fix, and after hunting around the internet and asking my mom what she knew about the cake, I finally remembered the old wooden recipe box at the back of one of our kitchen cabinets.


I can’t remember when or how I got it, but this old recipe box used to belong to my mother, who died many years ago. It’s filled with clipped recipes that were hot stuff in the early 70s, like Boeuf Bourguignon, but it also has a cache of family treasures like the shrimp dip we serve at literally every gathering and Aunt Helen’s punch. Index cards are neatly filled with my mother’s script, many credited to Mom D., a woman I know was not easy to impress. I wonder if my mom was trying to bond with her mother-in-law over something she knew she loved. I found a recipe for boiled icing and another one for 1-2-3 cake and figured they were my best shot.

With the recent long weekend and colder weather settled in, it felt like the perfect time to attempt my first layer cake and recreate an old favorite. My girls were happy to help and hopefully they learned baking a cake isn’t hard at all. All you really need is two good cake pans ($9 for a set at Wegmans), a 20 year-old electric mixer that smells like it might burst into flames at any minute, and patience from those trying to watch TV in the other room while you run it on high for the next 20 minutes. Baking a cake isn’t a piece of cake, but it turns into one, so it’s a satisfying endeavor.

This was the finished product. We were really pleased with ourselves. Unfortunately, the icing is nothing like what I remember from my grandmother’s cake. While delicious, this icing was goopy and thick like marshmallow cream. My grandmother’s icing was thinner and had a slightly crispy outer shell that melted in your mouth. I did some research online because apparently I’m not the only one searching for childhood in recipe forums, and I think the trick is leaving the cake out overnight. And I’m certain this is just what my grandmother did. I can picture it on a crystal pedestal on the sideboard in her dining room and, unlike us, they didn’t have nosy pets to take a lick or twenty.

The 1-2-3 cake itself turned out nothing like I remember, but it was still old fashioned and good. I have an email in to my aunt to see if she can help me with my grandmother’s cake recipe. My aunt also used to make a lovely chocolate cake with buttercream icing, and it dawned on me how reckless that I never thought to ask her for that either.

The thing about this recent obsession with cake and recreating family recipes is it’s poorly timed. Or maybe not. Lately I’ve come to the re-conclusion that I have a serious sugar habit and I need to do something about it. I’m still noodling through what that will look like,  but I’m pretty sure it won’t involve fat slices of cake under the guise of taste-testing old family recipes. I’m hoping it doesn’t involve sitting at my desk fantasizing about cake.

Most of the fun of baking is doing it with my girls. They love helping out, especially when it comes time to lick the beaters. Cooking seems more like an adult hobby, while baking feels special and like a place to reconnect with not only old recipes but the people who breathed them into life.

Leftover icing