Back in September, I put out a call for folks to send me their food memories and recipes. I said:
“I’m starting a project for the blog that I’m calling Food Memories and I hope you can help. I’m looking for recipes that have special meaning to you. Maybe it’s something your family always had at Christmas or what your mom or dad made as a special treat, just because. What is the dish that always takes you back to a happy memory?
If you have a recipe that you’d like to share, email it to me (or just click here) along with the memory or description of what it means to you. I will make the recipe and post it, along with your memory, on the blog.
By sharing our food memories, we honor our personal histories and the people who made them real. I hope you’ll join me on this special adventure down Memory Lane.”
That request started a lively conversation with a BAH reader who then began to collect her own food memories. She said, “Now I have everybody writing down “Heirloom Recipes” I really do not want these to go by the wayside, nor the memories they stir up. Who knew those were the best days of our lives?” My thoughts exactly.
Actually, I need to backup just a bit because this project actually started with that reader. Emily had emailed me looking for a peach cake recipe. While I didn’t have a recipe for her, we began corresponding about what was cooking at BAH. And then one day, in response to a cake recipe I had posted, she sent me a recipe for her Grandmother’s Hot Milk Cake. Here’s what she said that got me to thinking, “My grandmother used to make this cake on holidays. You knew it was either Easter, Thanksgiving or Christmas when the Happeared covered in buttercream icing and sprinkled with fresh coconut.” A lightbulb went off inside my head.
We all have these food memories. It doesn’t matter if it’s an “Heirloom Recipe” that’s been handed down for generations or something more recent that you make for you own family. There’s a dish that will always take you to a memory of a happy time. In a world packed with reasons to forget what happiness feels like, I think it’s important to celebrate those memories. Whether it’s the excitement of Christmas morning, the carefree days of summer vacation, or the quiet moments of life, let’s remember them.
So thank you Emily for inspiring me to do something. I can’t think of a more fitting Food Memory to launch this project than yours.
The Cake of Christmas Past
My gramma would be tickled pink and purple to see this!
I honestly don’t recall any name other than THE HOT MILK CAKE. Okay, to the story. I call this The Cake of Christmas Past (and I weep as I write it, those were the days!)
My grandmother, Rose, loved the holidays. Christmas was her favorite time of all. On Christmas, the little house she called home, would be overflowing with the sights and smells of the season. It is the only time I ever remember hearing her sing. I am not able to hear The First Noel without immediately hitching a ride on the Way Back machine and seeing her in the kitchen, glasses perched on the end of her nose, peering at the markings on the 1 cup measure (it was so old they were no longer readable). Makes me misty every time my mind wanders there.
The week before the holiday, the plywood platform for the Christmas garden made its yearly pilgrimage from the basement to the living room. My grandfather, Eli hauled out the Western Flyer trains and the mountain paper and the little mache houses and statues who populated the miniature village. The tree was brought in, set up, and lighted. The mantel was decorated with the tiny clear plastic trees with hooks on the branch ends for the multi colored mini balls that were hung by chubby, child fingers. This was the signal that baking was about to begin.
Rosie usually had the necessary ingredients for the cookies and cakes and pies to be made. One ingredient that required a special trip was the coconut for the coconut frosted hot milk cake that defined a holiday for us. Local stores did not carry fresh coconuts. Certainly, the stuff in the package was not adequate for a masterpiece of this magnitude. The adventure to procure the elusive coconut required a trip downtown to the big produce market.
Bundled up to the eyebrows, grandmother and I boarded the bus in front of the house and headed south into the business and shopping district. If it happened to be snowing, I considered this a real bonus! Rose was not quite so happy. When we entered the great hall of food, my senses were assailed by the sights and sounds of the place. It was like a circus! Best of all was the smell. The produce stand she patronized ground its own horseradish. The odor permeated the entire building. It hit your nose the minute you entered and followed you when you left.
Of course, I was impatient to get the coconut and get on to the next stop. The market had a candy store attached. We always stopped there. This trip would not only procure the desired caramels for eating on the bus ride home, but also the ribbon candy that would grace the round dining room table next to the platters of cookies, home made peanut butter twirls, cinnamon covered, fondant filled candies. pies and the coconut hot milk cake. How many kinds of coconut could there be for heaven’s sake????? Did she REALLY have to shake every one? Why did everything take so long?
Finally, all goods secured, we rode back home. Upon entering the house, my grandfather took custody of the doomed coconut. He whisked it off to the basement. There were banging and thumping noises, then silence. Meantime, in the kitchen, aprons were tied, bowls came out, the heirloom (old) tube pan appeared and the stove was lit. Cake baking began in earnest. Soon, my grandfather appeared with the remnants of the dismembered coconut in hand.
He sat down in the rocking chair with the grater by the big kitchen window, the coconut meat and a bowl. As Rosie put the cake together, Eli grated the fresh, glistening meat for the garnish. The liquid inside he kept for me. Once baked, the cake was allowed to cool. The buttercream icing made its appearance in the Jewel T bowl as it did every year and was soon transferred to the waiting cake. At last, the coconut was added and the monument was complete.
While I was “OOOing” and “AAHing” over surely the most beautiful mountain of goodness ever seen on earth, my grandfather was pointing out the one tiny place Rosie missed with the shreds. She was giving him the glare she reserved for us in church when we were misbehaving.
Christmas Day, the little house fairly rocked with family. The aunts were in the kitchen helping Rosie with the meal. The men were in the parlor drinking egg nog and rum punch and trying not to eat Eli’s home made fruitcake. The cousins were in and out of the house stuffing faces with candy grabbed from the dining room table amidst admonitions not to “spoil your dinner.” It was a chaos worthy of the Cratchit family.
After dinner, everyone’s attention turned to the dessert table and the delights it held. All paled in comparison to the shining star, the coconut cake. As it was brought into the kitchen (this was the only room large enough for the Christmas crowd) all was silence in homage. The silence was not broken until the first slice was cut and passed to my grandfather. He tasted it, made a face, then smiled and raised his glass of wine in a toast to my little grandmother, Rose.
This is pretty much how it happened every year. Until I started writing it, I didn’t even think that it was as important a piece of history as it is. This taught me something new.
- 4 large eggs
- 2 cups of sugar
- 2 cups of flour
- 2 teaspoons of baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 pound (1 stick) of butter
- 1 cup of milk
- 1 tablespoon of vanilla
Bring milk and butter to a boil (melting the butter). Remove from heat and set aside. In a bowl mix the flour, baking powder and salt. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Grease (I use Baker’ Secret to spray — Grandma always buttered and then floured her pan) your cake pan. We mainly use a bundt cake pan.
In a large bowl, mix the eggs and sugar together. Beat until the sugar is well blended with the eggs. Add in half the flour mixture and mix together until blended. Add remaining flour mixture and mix till blended. Stir in hot milk and butter and mix well. Stir in vanilla and pour batter into pan. Do not overbeat your batter – this is the hard part, you must only mix until blended because over-beating will give you a tough cake.
Bake in center of oven for 25-35 minutes (until cake tester comes out clean).
We also has some lively discussion about frosting for the cake. Emily’s memory is of buttercream frosting but another reader suggested melting butter over the warm cake and then sprinkling with cinnamon sugar. I was tempted to use the cinnamon sugar to “flour” my cake pans, to get a crunchy coating. I still might try that but in keeping with the spirit of the project, I used a Cook’s Illustrated Vanilla Buttercream. The frosting was good but I think a lighter, fluffier frosting, like maybe the CI 7 Minute Frosting would be a better compliment to the cake.
Vanilla Buttercream Frosting
BAH Note: I have doubled the original recipe to make enough for a layer cake. The frosting can be made in advance and refrigerated. Bring it back up to room temperature before using. CI says to increase mixing times by at least 50% if using a hand held mixer.
- 20 tablespoons butter, softened
- 2 1/2 cups confectioners’ sugar (10 ounces)
- 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
- 2 tablespoons heavy cream
- pinch of salt
Beat butter at medium high speed in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with a whisk attachment, about 20 seconds. or until smooth Add confectioners’ sugar and salt and mix approximately 45 seconds on medium low speed until most of the sugar is moistened. Scrape down bowl and beat on medium for about 15 seconds until until the mixture is fully combined. Scrape bowl, add vanilla and heavy cream, and beat approximately 10 seconds at medium speed until incorporated. Increase speed to medium high and beat until light and fluffy, about 4 minutes, scraping down bowl once or twice.
Once the cooled cake is frosted, garnish with flaked or grated coconut.
One last thought, the recipes of our grandmothers seem to develop a mythical status over time. I have yet to make anything better than my grandmother did. But when I gave my grandmother some of this cake, she called me later the same day to say that she couldn’t wait until she saw me the following weekend to tell me how good it was. She was only going to “nibble” on one layer, but it was so good that she ate an entire piece (good thing I gave her two slices). So this recipe definitely gets the Grandma Seal of Approval!