What I love about old family recipes is that there is usually a story. Over time, the story inevitably gets diluted. The handwriting gets smudged, the facts get a little flour on them, the names become a mystery. But the story always ends the same. “This is a food I know.” And with time-traveling delight, these are the recipes that keep our traditions strong, and the tale of the person who made it before us, tangible. In my family history book, there is a cake. And you can be sure there is a story.
New Zealand is a far away, mythical place for most of us. For my Grandmother, it was home the first few years of her life. While I don’t know the whole story, I know the parts that have helped me understand who I am and where I get my strength and independence. It is the story of Great-Grandmother Lucretia Cattley, who alone, in 1919, packed up her 4 children and a few keepsakes, and crossed a giant sea from New Plymouth, New Zealand, to a small town called Melrose, in the State of Massachusetts. Without a husband to speak for her, she convinced a local bank to lend her enough money to buy a house. With a meager income from odd jobs, she made payments of 50 cents a week to the man at the bank, and alone, she paid for that house, and in it, she raised her 3 daughters, Amy, Eleanor, and Marjorie and her son, Henry.
I love that story.
Surviving the adventure across the sea is a recipe for New Zealand Birthday Cake. My Grandmother’s handwriting on an otherwise neatly typed card in her recipe box states that this is her Grandmother’s recipe. How many women in my family wrote that recipe down, or recited it in a kitchen far away to be made on someone’s special day? That’s a lot of years in one cake pan. At least five generations of my family, and nary a birthday has been celebrated without it.
My beloved Grandmother is gone now, but for 32 years she and I shared a birthday. Every year she made the two of us the New Zealand Birthday Cake, and never once, did she forget to tell me where it came from. Everything, including the recipe, had been committed to memory, and the most important task in making the cake was telling the story. Last night, for my father’s 63rd birthday, my sister made the cake and the story was shared again. And all of those women were sitting with us for a slice.
There are no directions on this recipe card, save a scribble from my Grandmother that tells me to cream the first 3 ingredients together, and that 3/4lb of something equals 1 1/2 cups. I have always used my Grandmother’s 9×13” pan. The comment from my Mother is that this is one of the driest cakes she’s ever had the “pleasure” of eating. At the risk of altering the story, I am experimenting with cooking times – thinking that if I increase the temperature and significantly reduce the time in the oven, it may not be so “pleasurably” dry. No matter what, this story always ends with gobs of plain white frosting and homemade vanilla ice cream.
Grandma Cattley’s New Zealand Birthday Cake
¾ lb butter or shortening (1 ½ cups)
¾ lb sugar
4 cups sifted flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp lemon juice
1 tsp mace
1 tsp salt
¾ cup milk
1 jar of citron and ½ cup nut meats
Bake at 340 degrees for 1 ½ to 2 hours.
Find your recipes and share their stories.
Happy Birthday, Dad!
Love, Gal Foodie