The other day my mom was reminiscing about her mother’s legendary baking misadventures. Grandma Phyllis was a good, hearty cook, but her baking (with the notable exception of her pies) was somewhat erratic. Sometimes before a family gathering, my Grandma would pipe up with “I’ll bring the cake!” Beneath the table, feet would urgently nudge other feet, lips would be bitten to keep protests at bay, and in the collective consciousness of the table, a vision of carrot cake made with extra carrots, half the butter, and no leavening, would settle with a doughy thunk.
You could say she was a resourceful baker, or a determined baker, since running short on such staples as sugar, or baking powder didn’t deter her. She said she was going to bake a cake and she was going to bake a cake. The temptation to hoist all 4 feet, 8 inches of her up by the armpits and deposit her in a closet until the family dinner was safely consumed was to be expected.
I wasn’t always the best granddaughter, and when my cakes fall, or wind up dry, I imagine she’s haunting my kitchen, shaking her head over that long ago disagreement we had (for the record, I was right that Catholics are not going to hell). I wish I had paid more attention, because I know I missed a lot. There are so many stories there, and not very many people left to tell them.
I move through life slowly, taking years to realize what others seem to grasp early and without effort. Going at such glacial speed, you’d think I would have managed to take more in. I didn’t know that while life would contain stretches of tedium – that it would feel, at times, torturously long – at the same time, that same life would burst past in a moment. I long to recall the taste, texture and aspect of every fallen cake, every unleavened offering, every story that unfolded in front of me that I failed to perceive. Sorry Grandma, I shouldn’t have gotten so irritated when you said I look better with make up on.*
Here’s a family recipe I got from my mom. It isn’t one of Grandma’s, but my mom says it should be, because it seems like one she would have made (though perhaps without the butter or baking soda). My girls were put off by the texture of the oats, so it isn’t for everyone (a bit like grandma, then).
I just want to add that my grandfather met her when he was five, and never referred to her as anything but “Cherub,” their entire lives. She was a difficult, tenacious, slapdash little woman, but to my grandfather, she was an angel. Not for everybody then, but for somebody.
* My people are Nordic, and I think that was considered a compliment. Better than still looking like pale death once the mascara is on, I suppose. It’s akin to, “You don’t look as heavy in that dress.”
Angelic Oatmeal Cake
This rustic cake is an excellent use for leftover cooked oatmeal.
1 cup dry oats
1 1/2 cups boiling water
3/4 cup sugar
1 cube butter (room temperature)
2 eggs (room temperature)
1 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Pour boiling water over oats and allow to soften. I sometimes soften the raisins along with the oats. Cream together sugar and butter, add eggs and vanilla. Beat thoroughly. In a separate boil, mix dry ingredients, then add them to wet mixture, alternating with oatmeal. Add raisins if you kept them separate.
Bake at 350 in a greased 9 by 9 pan. This is moist, dense cake and it takes awhile to bake so be patient. Check it at 30 minutes but it will take longer.
For a glaze, mix 1/2 cup confectioner’s sugar with a melted tablesoon of butter. Add a bit of milk, a few drops at a time, until you get a pourable consistency. Poor it on cooled cake. If you can’t wait, pour it on hot cake.