“No! It’s my turn to lick the batter!” I squealed and pummelled my brother’s legs. He effortlessly held a whisk attachment high above the reach of my hands while slowly licking the batter off the other.
“Give one to your sister,” my mother chided my brother as she slid the bundt pan into the oven. I grinned in delight as he reluctantly handed me the other whisk.
“Don’t worry,” my mother whispered to me after my brother left the kitchen. “I’m making two more cakes. You can have the batter for both.” My mother’s pound cake is the taste of my childhood. It was dense, yet airy. Buttery and sweet. Bands of colour swirl through the cake, combinations of which us siblings took turns choosing. My favourite was always blue, red and yellow, sometimes taking the time to eat each colour individually. We looked forward to family get-togethers, where at least two of these cakes would be on the table. And sometimes, for no reason at all, a freshly-baked cake would be around at tea-time, with whisks in a bowl at the side for my brother and me, batter still on them.
The recipe for this cake was copied out from either an old women’s magazine or a Betty Crocker cookbook back in the 1970s when my family lived in the United States (before I was born). My mother filed it away in a little recipe journal, along with other recipes from family and friends, and the occasional newspaper or magazine clipping. Unfortunately we moved so many times that it always got lost. Most times it would turn up, but in the last move, it disappeared amongst the piles of the boxes and bags. Years of careful recipe curation? Gone. No amount of hunting, rearranging, or just willing it to appear worked.
The worst part was that even though my mother had made this cake probably over a hundred times, she could not remember the proportions. I don’t blame her as many of us need the security blanket of a recipe book to make sure that it works every time. It didn’t stop me from feeling frustrated. I love that cake and I was never going to get it again. Unless... I did something about it.
So I did what I do best: I researched. Every single faded cookbook in the house was pored over, many friends’ mothers were asked and tens of browser tabs were open on my computer, all displaying different recipes for pound cake. I finally narrowed it down to three: the traditional pound cake recipe, a friend’s mother’s recipe, and a Martha Stewart recipe. I decided that I would bake all three recipes and somehow decipher what to do to find my mother’s recipe.
The traditional pound cake
The very first cake I baked had to be the traditional pound cake. One pound each of butter, sugar, eggs and flour, nothing more, nothing less. The batter was thick, far thicker than I remembered my mother’s cake batter to be. But this was an experiment, so I forged ahead. Plus, it would be interesting to see how a pound of everything would turn out. With no temperature guide, I figured the average temperature of 350°F listed in many other cake recipes was suffice. Checking periodically with a wooden stick as it was baking, I finally got it out of the oven about an hour after I put it in.
Verdict: Extremely heavy and dense, very sweet. A pleasant surprise. But not my mother’s cake.
A friend’s mother’s cake
Of all the many recipes I got from friend’s mothers, this one sounded the most interesting. It called for a 1-2-3-4 combination of ingredients: 1 cup of butter, 2 cups sugar, 3 cups flour and 4 eggs. In addition, it had 1½ teaspoons each of baking soda and baking powder, plus 1 teaspoon of vanilla essence. I was curious to see too how the addition of baking soda and baking powder would add to the cake, as now I remembered that my mother added these ingredients as well.
350°F and the cake was in the oven. 15 minutes into baking, I happened to glance over at the oven and got shocked. The cake was rising much too fast! There wasn’t anything I could do as I knew it had to do with the baking powder and I could not fix the batter already. Not only that, after another 30 minutes, I found that even though the outside was starting to harden, the inside of the cake was still runny. After over an hour in total, the cake was finally done.
Verdict: Quite delicious. The outside was almost cookie-like in texture, while the insides were still cakey. But not my mother’s cake.
Martha Stewart’s classic pound cake
“Not an original pound cake” Martha reminds on the recipe page, but one that yielded a better taste and texture. 1½ cups each of butter and sugar, 6 eggs, 2 cups flour. She also called for a teaspoon of salt and vanilla extract. I was apprehensive about the salt. I know that many desserts called for salt to balance the flavours but my mother never put salt in her desserts. It was a taste I grew used to, and had a feeling it was going to ruin the chances of this cake being The One.
A quick taste of the batter and my heart lifted. It tasted almost exactly like my mothers, plus the salt was barely discernible. “This might be it!” I proclaimed. An hour in a 350°F oven later, the crumbly top of the cake signalled promise.
Verdict: The texture was at the right density, but it didn’t have the slightly larger pockets of air that my mother’s cake had. The salt unfortunately came out during the baking and the cake was far too salty for my memories.
And with that, the experiments with the other cakes were done. I had to do at least one more.
The final cake?
Even though the taste of the Martha Stewart cake was a little off, it still was the closest one to my mother’s cake. So I decided to tweak the recipe with what I remembered of my mothers. I omitted the salt immediately, and added a teaspoon each of baking powder and baking soda. On a hunch, I put in 5 eggs instead of 6. Then I did two major things that my mother did to bake her cakes. First, I separated the batter into different bowls so I could colour them differently to make the different layers. Then, I poured the batter out into a fluted bundt pan. The batter tasted extremely close to my mother’s. It was still slightly stiffer than it was supposed to be, but no matter. In a 350°F oven it went. I checked it after half an hour and found that it was already cooked! This didn’t tally somehow, but I didn’t want to overcook it, so out it came.
Verdict: The texture was perfect - dense, yet airy. The colours came out well too. The taste however had a slight alkali tinge, which meant that I had to lower the baking soda. But otherwise very close to my mother’s cake.
I know I still have a few more experiments to go. But I know too that I am definitely on the right track. Baking all these cakes (and eating them) brought me a little closer to my mother. I felt a bit like her while researching and baking: shaking my head at recipes that were obviously out of proportion, adding in a bit of this or that on a whim because it felt right. Steps and tricks that come with experience in the kitchen, even though I know that my experience was puny next to my mother’s sixty years.
I still haven’t told my mother that I’m trying to find her cake. I can tell you, though, that once I find it, I’m never going to lose the recipe!