This post was supposed to go out at the beginning of the month, but with all the sickness and nursing duties, I didn’t have time to finish nor edit it. In fact, the birthday cake didn’t even happen on the birthday, so it shouldn’t be too hard to pretend it is three weeks ago.
My husband’s birthday is at the beginning of March. It’s easy to remember because it is the same day as my brother’s birthday. Will never wants anything for his birthday. It’s close enough to Christmas, so that anything he did want he got 2 months ago. It’s actually better this way, because I enjoy giving experiences or handmade gifts much more than something I can purchase in a store. In the past, Will had received gifts like a day full of activities he loves (riding his bike, eating German food for lunch, and lime paletas for dessert) and a homemade birthday cake. I know I’ve said this before, but homemade birthday cake is a gift I love to make and give. And for Will, the homemade cake must be an angel food cake.
My first experience with angel food cake was as a child in Phoenix, AZ while visiting my grandparents over Spring Break. My grandfather had heart problems, so he was on a low salt and low fat diet. His newest favorite dessert was angel food cake, and I remember helping my grandmother make one from a box. I believe we whipped egg whites then folded in the box contents. It was good, but as a kid I never skipped dessert no matter what. The best part was watching the cake cool upside down on a bottle. I may have made one or two more angel food cakes once I returned home, but they never became one of my standbys until Will came into the picture.
Will’s paternal grandmother, Granny Margaret, was a wonderful cook. He ate lunch (or dinner as true Southerners call it if they are sitting down and eating a meal with their family) at her house at least once a week. If it was a Saturday lunch, Granny Margaret made hamburgers. If it was after church Sunday dinner, Granny Margaret made roast beef, broccoli with cheese sauce, and rice. Dessert for Thanksgiving and Christmas was always boiled custard, “Granny Margaret” cookie press sugar cookies with sprinkles, and angel food cake. Granny Margaret knew her two grandsons loved her angel food cake – she always made one for Will and his cousin Clay to share while the rest of the family ate the other one. I once asked Will what made a Granny Margaret angel food cake, and he told me it had to have a slight almond taste (from almond extract), cracks or fissures on the top surface with a slight amount of “juice” leaking out, and it must return to its original shape after being poked with your finger.
The only problem with Granny Margaret’s angel food cake was that only Granny Margaret could make it. That was fine while she was active enough to cook feasts out of her kitchen, but once she began to age she didn’t remember things as well as she used to which was always a little precarious to begin with. Granny Margaret was one of the very first neurosurgery patients in Middle Tennessee in the 1950s and while the surgery fixed her brain, her memory never completely recovered. No one knows why, but when Granny Margaret came to after surgery, she had no memory of her son – my father-in-law – John. John had been sent away to overnight camp for 1-2 weeks so Granny Margaret could recover from her surgery in peace, and her sisters (Will’s Great Aunts) Ruth and Lois used that time to tell Margaret everything they could about her 10 year old son John. John returned from camp and had no idea any of this happened until his aunts confided this tale to him when he was an adult.
In her early 80s, a few months after I met her, Granny Margaret was diagnosed with dementia and moved into assisted living. There was no kitchen in her assisted living apartment, so I only got the chance to eat one Granny Margaret cooked meal. Will wanted me to come to Saturday lunch, and asked Granny Margaret to make me a grilled cheese so I, a vegetarian at the time, could eat with them. After the first bite, I began to believe some of the Granny Margaret food lore. I don’t know what she did to the grilled cheese, but it was the best one I have ever eaten. Thinking about it now, she probably cooked it next to the hamburgers in her electric griddle!
For many years, Will and his sister Meg tried to learn how to bake angel food cake as good as Granny Margaret. Will videotaped Granny Margaret one weekend, so he could replicate her baking process exactly, but the cakes never turned out the same. Meg got Granny Margaret’s angel food cake pan and her Betty Crocker cookbook, complete with Granny Margaret’s notes in the margins, but the cakes never turned out quite right either. Clearly it wasn’t the recipe or the pan, but some magic Granny Margaret had.
So here I was, with the need to recreate Granny Margaret’s cake, yet told by everyone it was an impossible task. It was November 2001, and I opened my most recent copy of Gourmet magazine to find a recipe for an angel food cake that was compiled from the testing of many recipes (sort of like what America’s test kitchen does). I made the cake, carefully dividing the vanilla extract in half and replacing one half with almond extract, and scoring the cake halfway through the baking process to archieve the groove Will liked to see. When Will came home that evening, he saw my angel food cake sitting in the middle of the dining room table and looked as if he’d seen a ghost – the cake was just like one of Granny Margaret’s cakes. Of course recreating a look is one thing, and recreating a taste is quite another. Once dinner was over, I cut both of us big slices of cake and Will took a bite. He said, “This is it. You have done it. I’m not sure how, but this is Granny Margaret’s cake. Good thing I already asked you to marry me.” I believe the cake was gone by the end of the next night, and for the first time ever I thought of angel food cake as something very special.
Will was convinced of my abilities, but the next step was to bring the cake to Thanksgiving and let the rest of the family taste it. When cousin Clay saw the cake, he said, “Okay, now who tried to make Granny Margaret’s cake again?”, as he knew of and had tried the many failures. He looked a little sheepish when Will’s mother told him I made it, and begrudgingly took a bite of the slice offered to him. I knew I was the family’s new angel food cake baker when Clay took a second bite, then a third, finished off the rest of his piece and asked for seconds. If Clay is coming to Thanksgiving dinner, I make sure to bake two cakes.
The recipe published in Gourmet is pretty different than the one Granny Margaret used, but the results are the same. I follow the directions exactly, even the annoying sifting before measuring, and make sure never to overbeat the egg whites. The result is always perfect and delicious, and we get to think about Granny Margaret every time this cake is on her aluminum cake stand in our house.