I recently read a post on one of my favorite blogs, Blacksheep's Bit of the Web, that listed Edgar's all time favorite cakes. He noted that one of the favorites was his Grandmother's Walnut Pound Cake. He wrote about how, since his mother no longer bakes this family favorite, it has fallen to him to carry on the tradition. And speaking of traditions, he noted that he has taken up the family tradition of baking it as a birthday cake for Jesus each Christmas. And that had me plunging into nostalgia: all the cakes that have been significant to me, intimately tied to family memories and traditions.
First and foremost, a simple but showy cake that my mother used to bake for the annual Christmas Bake Sale at St. Catherine of Genoa's Elementary School. A simple apple-sauce spice cake to which she added fruit cake citron and chopped walnuts and raisins. Mom liked citron but didn't like the heavy as a brick style fruitcakes that are everywhere ... so she made up a lighter version by combining recipes. The first year my Mom made this cake for the bake sale, the nuns quietly set it aside for their own Christmas table and shame-facedly confessed their greed to my Mom when she showed up to work the bake sale. Thereafter, Mom made three every Christmas: one for us, one for the nuns and one for the sale. I make this cake now, for me and for my brother, as we are the only one's who really like it ... the in-laws and the youngsters turn their noses up at just another fruit cake no matter how we try to explain that "it's different, really, it is!" But like my Mom, I couldn't help tweaking it to make it more to my taste. Instead of the light dusting of powdered sugar she used to finish it, I make a light glaze by melting two tablespoons of butter with two blocks [ounces] of bittersweet dark chocolate and drizzling it over the cake. She used a spring form pan, I use a bundt pan. But it is still the cake of my childhood.
Another cake that was a big part of my childhood wasn't a home baked treat at all. I grew up in Brooklyn in the 50's and 60's and that meant several things for what we would now call "the foodies": Jahn's Ice Cream Parlors and Ebinger's Bakeries and the Brooklyn Terminal Market in Canarsie. Ebinger's cakes were to die for. Every Sunday my Dad would stop off at Ebingers on the way home from Mass and stock up on rolls, crumb cake, pecan coffee cake and for dessert for Sunday dinner, a chocolate layer cake. Most often the layer cake was the yellow cake filled with chocolate butter cream and iced with the bakery's signature hard dark chocolate icing. But every now and then I was able to convince Dad to buy the somewhat more expensive yellow cake filled and frosted with chocolate butter cream that had sliced almonds pressed all around the sides of the cake. On those days I was truly transported to heaven. Another baked item that was an important part of my childhood was Italian sesame cookies. These little sausage shaped cookies, rolled in sesame seeds before baking, were cheaper than the fancy cookies that one bought for company. My father, who loved them, always called them the lousy cookies, because they were what you bought when you couldn't afford better. On Saturday mornings, after making the rounds to the Italian butcher and to the Italian stalls at the Terminal market [for cold cuts, cheeses, dried figs, olives and all the other necessities of life], we'd stop at the Italian bakery for our weekly three long loaves of seeded Italian bread and some cookies. If there had been overtime in that week's paycheck, we'd get pignoli cookies packaged in a white cardboard bakery box and tied with red and white striped bakery string. The box was sacrosanct until we got home and Mom opened it and had the first cookie. In the car, we kids would have to settle for the heels of the Italian bread, broken off and munched on the journey home. But if it was an ordinary paycheck, the cookies of the week would be the humble sesame seed cookies, a pound tossed carelessly into a plain white bag. In the car we would each receive a cookie to munch on the way home. But best of all was when great Aunt Ida [my Dad's godmother] made the home-made sesame cookies from her fiercely guarded family recipe. Much as my Dad begged she wouldn't share that recipe with my grandmother, my mother or later with my sisters and myself. The tyrannical old matriarch is probably spinning in her grave now since, shortly after her death, my cousin Nettie shared that recipe with my Aunt Anna who passed it on to the rest of the family. I now try to make those cookies most every Christmas in memory of my Dad's fondness for the lousy cookies. And, I confess, I am very fond of them now myself ... much more than I am of the cherry studded butter cookies that were coveted during my childhood days.
Once I married and started cooking to my own tastes, I developed different favorites. I must be channelling some ancient Pilgrim, or more likely one of the Salem witches, because my favorites are true New England Gingerbread [made with dark molasses] and Bread Pudding. I make them as soon as the weather gets cooler. And of course, there are my husband's favorites: Verona Loaf and Orange Peel Nut Bread. Come to think of it, I haven't made the Verona Loaf in a couple of years, mainly because a key ingredient is saffron threads and they cost dearly. But Father's Day and his birthday come up close together ... I think I'll be making time to make this yeast risen sweet bread [more of a coffee cake really] again. Another favorite is Joel Richert's bannana cake, more for the icing than the cake. The icing, made from heavy cream, extra fine granulated sugar and baker's cocoa, reminds me of the chocolate butter cream from Ebinger's in taste, texture and color. My well-meaning husband once bought me the Pepperidge Farm frozen chocolate layer cake in an attempt to recapture the Ebinger's experience but it was only the palest ghost of the real thing.
But right now I am jonesing for some Hot Cross Buns. This being Holy Week, they won't be around very much longer. Ebingers no longer exists but there are still boxes of Entemann's baked goods to be found and they make a fair Hot Cross Bun. For those who didn't grow up in Brooklyn: Entemann's was the poor Long Island "cousin" of Ebinger's ... no where near as good but an adequate substitute when no better alternative presented itself, at least in a Brooklynite's opinion ... a Long Islander might have a different take on the matter..