Great-aunt Nettie's Spice Cake

The first cake I ever made by myself was to Great-aunt Nettie’s Spice Cake recipe, and it was for Mom’s birthday. This recipe has been in our family so long that no one knows any more who Great-aunt Nettie was, but it has always been one of my favorites.

I wanted to make the cake as a surprise for my mother, but that was impossible. I was only nine and had to ask her permission to use the stove. Happily, she agreed and let herself be talked into leaving the house while I made it. I’d chosen this particular cake, even though it was a little complicated, because it was both my favorite cake and because it was so good that it didn’t need frosting. I didn’t think I was ready to tackle frosting yet. Mom did suggest that I ask the next door neighbor, Mrs. Cliffe, my piano teacher and spiritual adviser, for help if I ran into any problems. Mom also suggested that I double the recipe. I thought I could do that, but I also thought that she expected that I probably would have problems. Then she took my younger sisters over to a neighbor’s house to play with their children while the women chatted and did some creative crocheting.

The first stage of the recipe involved measuring and then boiling water, raisins, spices, sugar, and shortening in a big pot. I’d helped her make the cake before, but it seemed to need a bigger pot than I remembered Mom using so I had to transfer the water into a larger one to get it all in. But I finally got everything measured and in the pot. Then, standing on a stool, I stirred the mixture as it came to the boil and for the required 15 minutes of simmering. Next, while it was cooling, I mixed the flour and the rest of ingredients in a bowl. Again, it seemed to take an awfully big mixing bowl. It also took a long time for the hot mixture to cool. But I was committed now—I couldn’t do anything but keep going. When it was finally cool enough, I stirred in the flour mixture—or started to. It wouldn’t all go into the big pot.

I rootled around in the cupboards and found the largest pot—the one Gran’ma and Mom used for large family gatherings. The full pot was too heavy and awkward for me to lift and pour, so I carefully transferred the warm mixture a cup at a time. Then I slowly added and stirred in all the floury mixture. I had to get a chair to stand on and a long-handled ladle to do it. It’s a fairly thick and stiff batter when all the dry things are added. There may have been a small floury lump or two hiding still among the plump, boiled raisins when I decided that enough stirring was enough.

Cake pans—we had four—that should have been enough for a double recipe. I greased, floured, and filled them—and more than half the cake mixture was left. They didn’t begin to hold all that dough. By now I had realized that, even with all my very careful addition and measuring, I had somehow miscalculated. Numbers have never been what I was best at, so while not surprising, it was a little worrying. I could see that enough pans for all this would never all fit into the oven at once. I put the first four in to began baking. I borrowed two more pans from Mrs. Cliffe. Not enough. Another pan from Mrs. Rheisenover. And another two pans from someone else. I baked them in shifts, watching them anxiously. I knew how to tell with a toothpick when they were done, but not how long they should take.

Eventually they were all done and cooling on racks. There weren’t enough racks either, so I had to improvise by using the racks out of the oven. The cakes looked and smelled just like they ought — spicy and delicious. I arranged them carefully on the big table in the kitchen and put the card I’d made for Mom beside them.

Nine cakes! Far more than enough for our family and for singing Happy Birthday over. I fetched Mom and my sisters home. She appreciatively sniffed the aroma when she came in, but seemed a bit taken aback when she saw all of the cakes on the table.”But you said to double the recipe,” I told her.

“Nooooo,” she replied. “I said the recipe was double. I meant you to make half of it. But they are beautiful cakes!” Fortunately, she was a sensible woman and decided it would be fun to share it with some of the neighbors after we’d finished dinner. Heaven only knows how she explained all those cakes to Dad when he got home.

After dinner, we children were sent around to invite all of the neighbors in for coffee (or milk) and birthday cake, an impromptu party. As people began to gather in the house, someone suggested making ice cream. Various hand-crank ice cream freezers came out. A few of the men went off to the ice house to get blocks of ice and chip them up while women mixed up their favorite flavors. Older children cranked until the ice cream got so stiff that the men had to take over. People had to bring their own bowls and spoons—this hearty cake was fine in fingers with a paper napkin, but ice cream demanded dishes.

We all sang Happy Birthday to my mother, and someone fetched a big candle for her to blow out with her wish in lieu of the usual small candles on a frosted cake. God/dess knows what she was wishing by now! I watched with mixed feelings as the cakes disappeared into happy mouths. None of us in the neighborhood were rich, and birthday parties were usually simple and for children only. This was different. Fortunately, it was July—the 7th of July, just after the communal celebration of the Fourth, so everyone was ready for more celebrating.

The weather was warm and it didn’t matter that there were too many people to fit into the house. Women filled the big kitchen, children ran wild everywhere, the men all gathered out in the front yard and sat on blankets on the grass, like a picnic. After everyone was served, the women hung up their aprons and came out and sat on the blankets too, modestly tucking the skirts of their everyday house dresses around them. No one had dressed up; no one had expected a party. The neighborhood dogs laid in the grass, looking hopeful, and more than one person surreptitiously passed a raisin to their favorite pup. Twilight arrived, and the stars came out. Everything just happened. And all the cake somehow disappeared, down to the last crumb.

I used to wonder about Great-aunt Nettie—I still do. As far as I can remember, she wasn’t my mother’s great-aunt, and as best I know, Nettie wasn’t my grandmother’s great-aunt either. Since Gran’ma was born in 1886, a great-aunt already lost to her generation’s memory takes us back a bit into the mists. Who was she, really? How far back do we need to go to find the woman whose cake (and herself) made such an impression that her name is still attached to it generations later?

I know how recipes go—we tend to follow the instructions the first time, but after that, if we’ve a mind to, we experiment, trying adding a bit of this or substituting that. How many changes had that cake been through before it reached my nine-year-old hands? My hands—they are like my mother’s and grandmother’s hands, all the same shape and with our littlest fingers shorter than most people’s. Even the lines in our palms were very much alike. I remember comparing all three pairs of our hands when Gran’ma was eighty-eight—like and alike again. My grandmother and I even wore nearly identical wedding rings and they were the same size.

Healers’ hands, all of us, each in our own way. And how far back do those hands go? Mixing cakes, touching hurts, soothing children, making and mending, shaping and creating? All of those women stretching back in time, like many-colored beads on a string, some bright, some scratched or chipped, some probably dull. How far back would we have to time travel to find the original Great-aunt Nettie—a woman whose cake was special enough to bear her name through decades, even centuries? Did she have these hands? And how many generations back do variations on that cake go? Would it have been made with stone-ground whole wheat and honey once? Other grains? Other fruits and sweeteners and spices? Different… and yet bearing the imprint of the same hands?

I must look carefully at my granddaughter’s hands the next time I see her. When I was rushing along the road to be present at the magic of her birth, I remember hearing one of my Voices saying, “She has your hands, you know.” I assumed the Voice was talking about healing, but… now… well, I must look. And perhaps we should bake that cake together.

© Copyright 2013 by Jessica Macbeth. All rights reserved.

7 thoughts on “Great-aunt Nettie's Spice Cake

    1. Thank you, Cheryl. I went to an open mic thingy last night,and someone read a piece she called “My Mother’s Recipe” which made me remember and think about this. I’m glad it happened!

  1. Oh please do bake that cake together. What a terrific mother you had to let all that happen!
    Wish I had looked at my grandmother’s hands. Sometimes I would pick up the phone to call her and she would already be on the line. Jan was born on your mother’s birthday.

  2. I LOVE this story! We have recipes in our family from Aunt Essie, who nobody can quite place in our family lineage…but man oh man, she was a hella good baker too!!! 🙂 Wonderful share, thanks! Marci

  3. And when you do, take that extra bit of time, crank up some homemade ice cream, spread a blanket on the lawn at twilight and watch the stars rise….

    Moments like these are the true treasures in Life.

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