When I was a child, I remember sitting on a kitchen stool, watching my mother fix a cake for my birthday. As my special day falls in winter, it was often snowing outside, but warm and cozy in the kitchen.
By tradition, birthdays were celebrated with an angel food cake, usually a box mix.
Box cake mixes were invented in the late 40s when housewives returned to the kitchens and men returned from the wars with an appetite for home cooking. And nothing said “love” better than home baking. At first the cake mixes just added water, but the need to add eggs and oil invested the homemaker in the process and allowed her own creativity.
Even though my mother’s angel food cake was a box mix, eliminating the need to crack a dozen eggs and separate out just the whites, it wasn’t a simple cake to make. My mother shared with me many years later that she reserved angel foods for special occasions because they were so unpredictable.
The mark of a good cook was not that you made the cake from scratch (this was the era of the post-WWII housewife, after all) but that your cake didn’t fall or sag to one side, a feat accomplished by carefully running a knife through the batter to even it out and cut through any air bubbles in the batter. A special two-piece cake pan reserved just for angel foods was used.
And the oven temperature had to be just so–not too hot, not too cold. We were given strict instructions NOT TO PLAY in the kitchen, for fear the vibrations would cause the cake to fall. We could peek through the small glass window in the front of the stove door, but quietly–NO YELLING.
When the hand-set timer rang, the cake pan was lifted carefully from the oven using long-handled oven mitts and set upside down on an empty liter club soda bottle. This was the same bottle that acquired a cork-lined nozzle on ironing day to sprinkle the clothes that took all afternoon to iron. But that’s a story for another time.
By the time the cake had “set” my mother usually had three little kids–my sister, brother and me waiting for the pan, because after the cake was carefully cut around the center tube and removed, we got to scrape all the gooey crumbs from the tube and bottom of the pan.
Taking the butcher knife, she would carefully cut around the edges of the cake and lift it out, the tube and bottom still attached. Then she’d make a second cut to free the cake and with an expert twist she’d remove the bottom of the cake pan.
My mother set the cake upright on the special footed plate and cut a small square of cardboard to cover the center hole where the tube had been.
She’d mix a simple powdered sugar and milk glaze, always two coats: the first to capture the crumbs, the second to cover the cake. If it were your birthday you got to pick the color of the icing–mine by choice was always pink. Then came the insertion of candles into the plastic holders saved from one birthday cake to the next, and the long wait until the celebration.
It was the only type of cake my mother ever devoted this time and energy to in her busy life. Although she didn’t know it, her mirror neurons were at work. Making something for another person was the truest form of altruism, allowing the creator to share in the joy of giving. It represented both self-expression and that communication-without-words that moms have practiced for thousands of years.
When my mother died and my daughter left to build her own family, I had thought homemade angel food cakes had disappeared from my life. But recently, on a landmark birthday, I felt a surge of nostalgia and determined to make one for myself.
I found a Betty Crocker angel food cake mix at the grocers, lost among a full shelf of brownie mixes. Then I discovered no store in my small town stocked the proper two-piece tube pan I needed for the project. I had to order it on Amazon!
I no longer had a club soda bottle, since I haven’t ironed in years, but a Diet Coke liter bottle, propped carefully on the edge of the pan sufficed. I didn’t bother with the cardboard square in the middle. But the sweet crumbs inside the cake pan stuck to my fingers as I pried them from the inside edge of the tube pan.
A little extra frosting accommodated a sag to one edge.
I closed my eyes and I was back home, getting a hug in the only way my mother knew how.
What about you? Do you have a special cake that says love and hugs?