Some of you who have been following this feature of my misadventures in cooking—from me trying not to burn myself while frying cheese in butter to bludgeoning vegetables—may be wondering at this point, “Exactly who let this person loose upon the world to destroy food and maybe starve to death?” Well… she’s not entirely to blame. My mother, a retired elementary school teacher, supervised my first batch of scrambled eggs – hence assuming responsibility for my culinary training. She was supportive and proud because she thoroughly enjoys watching children learn to do things independently, if ineptly. I was cute back then and I got away with soggy eggs. We did some other kitchen projects, maybe some brownies that earned a Girl Scout badge or something. And a bûche de Noël for my French III class. Pretty much everything else I knew about cooking came from PBS.
See, when we had something called a television, we watched this woman from Pasadena, California named Julia Child teach everyone how people made food in this faraway place called France. We watched her because she was hilarious and fascinatingly honest about the origins of butchered meat or seafood, and she came on right before my mother’s yoga program came on and she kicked us out of the room. It was only for entertainment. We never expected to be able to make our own boeuf bourguignon or coq au vin.
To make our own family food, we usually turned to something called a newspaper, which regularly published reader-submitted recipes that didn’t require much more than a casserole dish. There was nothing to click through, no fast-motion videos of food being prepared–you just cut the thing out with a pair of scissors and “saved” it to a recipe box. My mother hand-painted hers with an apple and the word “recipes,” lest the bulging contents of the box not identify themselves.
I am no longer cute and my eggs are still soggy or oily or undercooked or whatever. So it is pretty amazing my mother has decided to acknowledge me as kin and cook something alongside me to participate the “generations” theme of this issue. She takes down the little tin box of “family recipes” to peruse. (Here, “family recipe” is defined as a recipe that was cooked for our family, and not as one created by us.)
“This was a popular one,” she says as the pulls one out. It’s a dessert recipe calling for some combination of jello and angel food cake. There’s also Mac and Cheese Puff. Turkey Divan. Lots of dishes calling for a can of soup and a can of vegetables and bread crumbs or Durkee onions. I’m beginning to see the problem here.
I decide that as long as we cannot claim the invention of the recipe, we should turn to something more professional than recipes submitted to the paper by strangers a few decades ago. We have only once real resource. The (probably original) Betty Crocker Cookbook, with its bright orange cover. We definitely used this thing, mostly to make desserts. It is now being held together with duct tape along its spine.
There’s only about one thing from this cookbook my mother still likes to make: Williamsburg Orange Cake. I used to think Williamsburg Orange Cake was only a thing in the world of Betty Crocker, but my research indicates it’s actually an old Southern recipe, or something hipsters like to think is an old Southern recipe in order to be woke. We decide to be fancy: three layers, amaretto in the frosting, little strips of orange peel decorating the top. I have decided it will be my mother’s birthday cake. A couple of days before this project, my mother calls to check on my stash of supplies.
“Do you have sugar? Regular sugar?” I pause for a moment. “Does sugar go bad?” “No, not really.” “Then yes.” “Salt?” “Yes.” “Flour?” “Probably.” “Baking soda?” “Let me check.” I quickly raid my cleaning supplies. The box is mostly full. “Yes.” “Vanilla?” “No.” “You’re really bad at this,” she concludes. “I’ll just bring everything.”
And she does, in a big wicker basket, which is precious. A mixer with beaters, three cake pans, a big mixing bowl, and some spatulas. She’s even lined the cake pans with parchment paper, which is kind of ingenious. Fortunately, the process of making the actual cake is mostly just dumping the ingredients into the bowl, mixing them, and putting them in the oven. But some of the ingredients require a little prepping. The walnuts go through the food processor. Orange peel is grated. And my mother gives me the miserable task of trying to chop golden raisins. (They stick to the knife.) She is really good at mentally dividing the batter into thirds and apportioning them into the pans. Baking is love and baking is ritual. It brings us together to form memories, and to help us learn about ourselves and each other as we perform a common task. This is what my mother learns about me from an afternoon in my kitchen:
• I don’t keep my microwave plugged in.
• My oven is very clean.
• I can’t seem to open a carton of buttermilk without help.
“I think this is the best this cake has ever turned out,” my mother says as we sample slices. Unfortunately, I don’t think she’s saying that because I sort of helped her. I wish I could say that I have been a better student of the kitchen, if only for my mother’s sake. But perhaps if I had, we would not have had the opportunity to preserve this moment in writing, because I would just another person in the kitchen, making normal, palatable food. As it is, she can embrace me as…exceptional, as only a mother can. Happy Birthday Mom.
• Frosting is like duct tape. It can fix things.
• Measurements don’t have to be exact. Perfection is boring.
• Speak anthropomorphically to food. Give it some encouragement.
Williamsburg Orange Cake, from The Betty Crocker Cookbook, circa 1969
2 3/4 cups cake flour or 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
1/2 cup butter or margarine, softened
1/4 cup shortening
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
1 cup golden raisins, cut up
1/2 cup finely chopped nuts
1 tablespoon grated orange peel
What to do: Heat oven to 350°. Blend all this stuff together in a bowl until it looks like cake batter. Pour it into a pan 13x9x2 inches, or two 9-inch or three 8-inch round layer pans. Do something so the cake doesn’t stick to the pan. Bake the pan 45 to 50 minutes, layers 30 to 35 minutes or until a toothpick stuck in center comes out clean. (If you don’t have a toothpick, just have my mom come touch it and she’ll tell you if it’s done.) Put frosting on cake, but only after it’s cooled down. It works better that way.
1/2 cup soft butter or margarine
4 1/2 cups confectioners’ sugar
4 to 5 tablespoons orange juice (or amaretto or orange liqueur)
1 tablespoon grated orange peel
Blend everything until it looks like frosting. Don’t eat too much of it.