Warren and I have birthdays eight days apart tin April. For the last several years, I have baked Warren a birthday cake from scratch, always the same recipe. The cake of the day is found in my battered 1990 Fannie Farmer Cookbook (13th edition), page 570. In Fannie Farmer, it is called "Lady Baltimore cake,"as its origins may have been in a tearoom of the same name in Charleston, South Carolina. A true Lady Baltimore cake has a center filling of chopped pecans, figs, and dates. I use the recipe only for the creamy white layers of cake it turns out.
When Warren's birthday rolled around earlier this month, I again turned to the Lady Baltimore recipe and soon had two eight inch pans in the oven. I joined them together with the Seven-Minute Frosting (a boiled frosting) found on page 602. Feeling particularly plush, I slathered the cake heavily, finishing off the top with a decorative swirl. Proud of my handiwork, I put a photo of it on Facebook.
A week before Warren's birthday, I had put a photo of a long-ago birthday of my own. (I have written about the scene before in this blog.) A Facebook friend saw the photo and commented: "Your family sure does like cake. Is that the same family recipe you just made for your hubby?"
It is only in looking back that I finally realize why Mom was no help the year I took 4-H Cooking and had to bake a scratch cake for judging. That morning, I must have baked four or five cakes before one turned out decent enough to take. Mom stood by while I struggled but could offer no insight: this was totally alien territory to her.
I spent a good part of my youth, starting at a very, very early age, rejecting the paths my mother kept pointing out for me. She was a good seamstress and sewed many of my clothes. In contrast, I refused to learn and am still a poor sewer with severely limited skills. After her children were mostly grown, Mom did needlepoint and plastic canvas crafts. I didn't and don't. She wanted desperately for me to pierce my ears in 8th grade; to this day, I still do not have holes in my ears. If she was for it, I was against it, and vice versa.
So small wonder that when my interest in baking awoke, I baked with a vengeance. Lemon tarts, breads, pies, cookies, cakes—all from scratch, all step by step. Baking was something that came easily to me and that I could do without interference or competition from my mother. And to her credit, Mom has never suggested, even when asked, that she taught me anything about baking. Despite the wrangling we have done over the years, baking is one arena she ceded without protest.
One of the treasures in this house is the 1947 edition of The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook, the forerunner to the Fannie Farmer Cookbook. It was a wedding gift to Warren's parents when they married in 1948. Ellen often made notations in the margin of this cookbook as to the strength and weakness of a recipe. The recipe for what is now the Lady Baltimore cake is called "white or snow cake" in the 1947 volume. There is no marginalia on this recipe and I suspect Ellen never tried this particular recipe, although her notes indicate she tried plenty of other scratch cake recipes.
Ellen died ten years ago on Warren's birthday. She never got to see us as a couple and she and I never had the pleasure of baking together. She would have been very happy with our marriage. And I like to think she would have enjoyed being around when I baked, especially for Warren's birthday. I see her at the table, both Ellen and I holding our breaths as I cut into the cake and serve up the first slice for the birthday boy.