It was a Proustian moment. Instead of a madeleine dipped in tea, it was an Italian cream cake and the location was not belle époque Paris but Antioch Baptist Church’s homecoming and I certainly did not struggle with the cake as Proust did with his madeleine but otherwise, it was exactly the same.
The moment I laid eyes on that towering confection and saw its very distinctive light delicate crumb flecked with coconut and pecan bits, I immediately knew how Proust felt when he first dipped his madeleine in tea. It was as if I was ten years old again and watching my Mom fold the egg whites into the batter, salivating at the prospect of getting a lick or two off of one of those beaters, one of the great perks of being close at hand when she baked.
The batter on those beaters contained raw eggs and a lot of them. There were five egg yolks beaten in one after another and the whites were then whipped into a glorious fluff which was folded gently into the batter so as not to deflate its airy perfection. Once the chopped pecans and coconut were added and the cake gingerly divided into three cake pans and ever so carefully placed in the oven, I would be rewarded with a beater to lick or maybe the bowl, depending on how many kids were lurking around the kitchen with their tongues hanging out. Such moments were one of the highlights of my childhood and are sadly unknown to today’s children. The consumption of so much as a drop of that delicious eggy batter today would undoubtedly result in an instant and probably fatal salmonella infection but fortunately, we didn’t know that back then.
Early in her marriage my Mom had embraced the Betty Crocker revolution and even though we usually had a cake around the house, it almost always began with a box. The Italian cream cake was the lone exception and we only got it at Christmas. Mom saw no reason the rest of the year to spend all the time, effort and money to bake a scratch cake when her favorite Duncan Hines was not only easier and cheaper but was impervious to four children thumping, bumping and slamming each other to the floor. Unlike the more delicate homemade cakes, they never fell. Never. But even as a child, I knew they weren’t the same and would have gladly suspended hostilities with my brother long enough for a cake to bake.
The Italian roots of my favorite cake are a little mysterious. I can only think of two cakes in the Italian repertoire; panettone, which is actually a sweet bread and tiramisu which is more of a torte made of ladyfingers glued together with pudding and cream. Neither is real cake at all. As great as Italian food is, it’s not about cake. My guess is some southern housewife in the middle of the last century thought it sounded exotic. And indeed, to a kid in the country whose idea of Italian food was Spaghetti-Os, it was very exotic.
From the start I helped out by greasing and flouring the pans and by high school, I could make the whole thing myself. And did every year until I moved away. Even after I moved to New York, it was always part of the Christmas holiday. Sometimes Mom and I would make it together and sometimes it was waiting on me when I got there but it was always there.
Then after a decade or two and a few missed Christmas visits, the recipe went missing. The little three by five index card that contained the secret to the magic up and disappeared, never to be seen again. Possibly when the kitchen was remodeled and the stained plywood cupboards with the little scroll sawed curlicues made by my grandpa gave way to oak cupboards from Lowes. The drawers slide easier now and there is a lot more of them but I have always blamed the new kitchen for the loss of the Italian cream cake recipe.
But that problem resolved itself last month at the Antioch homecoming when my Proustian experience subsided and Gail Jones agreed to give me her Italian cream cake recipe for this week’s food story. When I saw the recipe, I recognized it immediately. It’s exactly the same as Mom’s. I’ve seen dozens of recipes for Italian cream cake in my search to replace the missing one and none of them was right. Gail’s is perfect. Other than being on a sheet of notebook paper rather than an index card, it is exactly as I remember it.
I’ll be the first to say, I can’t wait for Christmas and the triumphant return of the Italian cream cake of my childhood. Thankfully, my grandchildren are young enough for it to become an integral part of their holidays. My daughter never grasped the importance of special Christmas cake. She doesn’t even like nuts in desserts. I failed her there. The years that we missed Christmas in North Carolina must have been the formative ones. I am sad about that but it’s not going to happen with her kids. It will, however, be very hard not to let them lick the beaters.
Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699 or on Twitter @BillColvard.