Wednesday, September 2, 2015

From Scratch

As predictable as Santa Claus and way more dependable than the Tooth Fairy or the Great Pumpkin,  I will come home from work one afternoon in the general vicinity of my birthday and find my present from Millie on the counter.  It will be not just home made, but made "from scratch": a tall, fragrant, sticky, angel food cake, the dripping glaze just begging for a finger to scoop it up and a tongue to lick it off.  Millie's chickens provide lots of eggs, and an angel food cake is a perfectly splendid way for a dozen eggs to be cracked.

Lest you think my birthday is somehow special, I hasten to mention that Millie makes "from scratch"angel food cakes for almost EVERYONE's birthday: like Caesar, she includes 'friends, Romans, and countrymen' in her wide flung generosity. Her chickens may contribute the raw materials, but the beating, the baking, the delivery on either the blue/white china plate or the melamine chicken plate is all a personal labor of endurance and love.
Love...and homage.  Millie's gloriously light and moist angel food cake is a legacy of her mother, Dora Nelson. Not to be impious, but every wedge of birthday cake says to her children, grandchildren and great-grands: Enjoy this!  And remember..... Grandma's copious notes and scribbles speak to us from the pages of the old St. John's cookbook and come back to life every time Millie brings us a cake.

Clearly, Grandma thought of her cakes as works in progress.  She would laugh out loud to hear me express it this way, but she had high standards for her cakes and sought always to express in writing what she innately sensed through repetition and experience.

Millie has the same humility...I don't know if I've ever eaten one of her cakes that 1) she was satisfied with ("It fell","Ít stuck", "It's uneven"...or the perennial "Its just not quite right.") or 2) tasted like anything other than what I imagine the Lord sent down as manna.

All the directions and notations in the world cannot capture the nuances of "from scratch".   Consider this advice: Sift cake flour four times...fold in flour and sugar mix 1/4 cup at a time, counting 15 strokes....add vanilla and fold 25 more strokes...beat each egg 21 times....Pretty calculated, huh?  One expects the measures to include a decimal point or two of significant digits..With directions this precise, even a novice should be able to reproduce a "from scratch"masterpiece, right?

But's the rub...Beat the egg whites until foamy...beat the eggs 'til soft peaks form....fold the sugar one cup at a time gently 25 times by hand.  All of a sudden the clinical precision of the recipe has diffused into haze of subtle judgement calls, the kind of make or break decisions that leave novices rigid with deer in the headlights terror.
Only time's pendulum ensures more successes than flops and makes legends of grandmas and aunties.  My grandmother was a magician with caramel frosting from scratch.  With her ruffled apron protecting her dress from hot splatters, she wouldn't say a word, just smile while she beat and beat the brown sugar and butter until it was creamy and spreadable.  I think of her every time I count down two minutes of boiling and stirring, not hundreds of strokes with a wooden spoon, before I add powdered sugar with the electric mixer to ensure smooth rich and reliable frosting. I can remember my mother's indecision about when to take her angel food cake pan off the Coca Cola bottle it was upended upon.  Meringues, pie crusts, homemade bread...all approach the level of alchemy when successfully concocted from scratch...and their makers earn every plaudit bestowed for the effort lavished on something so ephemeral.
After all, it's just a today...and with us eating it...gone so soon!  But a well worn recipe is family history...and legacy. Every time we cook a dish that begins with 'Mom's' or 'Grandma's', we reinforce the memories of our common past and honor all the backs of envelopes and dog eared recipe cards stuck inside the stained and sticky pages of the church cookbooks.
And if it takes a dozen eggs and more than a hundred strokes of's a 'from scratch' angel food cake....and priceless!


  1. Love this post! That is great that you have all of those handwritten notes and the exact directions. How neat. Also, thanks for linking up to the Country Fair Blog Party!

    1. I shared this post as one of my Blue Ribbon winners from the Country Fair Blog Party: I hope you link up again this month!