Helen’s Cake

Last summer, I was cleaning the basement of my old house.  My goal was to have everything in the house in its place or gone by the end of summer.  Goals can be lofty things…

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In my travels through boxes upon boxes of “stuff”, I came across my mother’s recipe box.  I set it aside for further inspection later that night.  Who am I kidding; it was the perfect excuse to stop the sorting and have some fun.

My mother spent the last ten years of her life afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease.  Her kitchen skills vanished slowly.  She went from cooking full meals with dessert to serving my dad a can of soup that hopefully she remembered to heat up.  She never claimed to love cooking or baking.  In fact she would proudly state the opposite.  She lost her mother at eighteen and never really had training in that department.  My grandmother, as I have been told over and over, was a kitchen wizard, an amazing seamstress, and a gracious hostess.  They say I took after her, but I never met the woman.  I think, perhaps, I have strived to be like her in an effort to connect with a grandmother I never knew but somehow loved.

My mother told me that when she married my father, she learned enough to get by in the kitchen, but she found no joy in it.  I imagine that my dad’s daily critiques (for her own good, of course) weren’t quite as helpful as he thought they would be.  My dad probably couldn’t contain himself, as he was a pretty good cook and quite the baker.  It was following him around the kitchen that instilled my love of baking.

Family 1965

In looking back on this, I have to say that she sold herself short.  I don’t remember a bad meal.  Fancy, no.  Tasty, always.  And no one could touch her Blueberry Cobbler!  She worked full time and kept an immaculate home.  Her household expertise was in the laundry room…as an adult, I was still taking hard-to-get-out stains to her for her miraculous touch.  She loved it and basked in the glory of everyone’s praise.  I think, that’s it, you know?  We love to be recognized for what we do and I think we excel at the things that people take notice of early on.  I also think that we play down those things that we imagine aren’t worthy or that we have attached sorry memories to.  That’s unfortunate because in my mother’s case, it would have been amazing to see what she would have created in that kitchen on Grape Street.  I’m sure of it.


I have no idea who Helen was.  I googled “Helen’s Cake” to see if it was an actual recipe, but it was not listed.  My guess is that Helen gave my mother the recipe for her cake.  This is funny because I can almost play out the scenario in my mind…

Mom:  Helen, this cake is delicious.
Helen:  Thanks Rita.  It’s such a simple recipe.
Mom: Oh, well you’ll have to give me the recipe sometime.
Helen:  I have it right here; it’s yours!
Mom:  Thank you.  I’ll be sure to make it soon.

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Now, for those of you that knew my mother, you already know that there are two key words tucked into this dialogue.  “Sometime” and “soon”.  Both imply that it will happen, but commit her in no way to baking in the near future.  She was polite, but I guarantee you she only took the recipe from her as a curtesy.  You can see by the hand copy (her beautiful cursive) that she didn’t even bother to get all of the directions down, nor did she even find out what the actual name of the cake was.  Gotta love that woman!

In an effort to make this cake and update the recipe as well, a few changes were made.  You will note that the recipe doesn’t specify creaming the sugar and butter or any order of adding ingredients.  It also calls for 20 minutes of beating the batter.  Really?  20 minutes?  This threw me off a bit.  I am a self-taught baker and I am aware that there are many, many things I’ve yet to learn – so back to Google to see about that.  Turns out, this is unnecessary.  The recipe predates the time when stand mixers were a common thing in the home.  So, can you imagine 20 minutes of beating by hand? UGH!

I am not sure what Helen’s Cake is supposed to look like.  I didn’t even know what type of pan to bake it in.  I chose to use a classic stoneware bundt pan.  There was too much batter for this so my second attempt will be in an aluminum tube pan.  I still have the one that my aunt gave my mom when she was a store clerk at Grant’s in Hammonton.  The recipe calls for vanilla and lemon extracts.  I used vanilla bean paste and orange extract, since this is what I had on hand.  The baking time was not specified so I baked it for an hour, checking it several times throughout the process.

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This is what we used to call “company cake”.  My aunts that lived next door always had a company cake on hand.  If no one visited (company), we got to eat it the next day.  Never something fancy, gooey, or overly sweet, but always made from scratch and just right for a midafternoon snack.  The texture is course and moist with the slightest crunch from the delicious crust.  It is heavier than a sponge cake, but not as dense as pound cake.  The only decoration is a light dusting of powdered sugar through a sifter.

Upon removing the cake from the oven, I was pleased on several levels.  First, it had a beautiful golden brown crust.  The portion of the cake at the top of the pan (eventually to become the bottom of the cake) was crusty and even.  This is by far my favorite part of the cake.  I usually eat a ring of crust around the center…it’s too good to resist (and when the cake is flipped, no one will notice!).  The cake released from the pan easily and unbroken.

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The slice removed from the cake did not disappoint.  The orange flavor was present, but mild.  The cake was dense and moist.  I’m not sure that I would change much about this other than experimenting with other flavors or adding a little orange zest to the batter. (Scroll down for the updated recipe)

My mother died almost three years ago.  The disease had taken her away from us long before that.  It had been difficult for me to connect with her since her passing.  Who knew that there would be a blessing for me waiting in her recipe box of all places!  I am looking forward to baking my way through all of the recipes that she had in there (even if she never did).

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RECIPE:  Helen’s Cake

1 lb butter
4 cups sugar
4 cups flour
4 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
8 eggs
1 cup milk
2 tsp. vanilla bean paste
2 tsp. orange extract

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Grease and flour bundt or tube pan.

Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy (approx. 5 minutes).

In a medium bowl, mix the flour, baking powder, and salt.  Mix with a whisk to thoroughly combine.  Set aside.

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Measure the milk and then add the vanilla bean paste and orange extract.  Set aside.

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Add eggs, one at a time, to the butter/sugar mixture, beating after each addition.  Beat at medium speed for 3 minutes.

Into the batter, add the flour mixture and milk mixture in portions – alternating dry and wet (ending with wet) while mixing on low speed.  Beat at medium speed for 3 minutes. Spoon batter into prepared cake pans.

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Bake 50-60 minutes, checking for doneness by inserting a knife or wooden skewer.  Do not overbake.

Allow cake to sit in pan outside of the oven for 10 minutes.  Invert onto cooling rack.

Dust with powdered sugar or glaze of choice.  Serve to company and think of Helen.  Or, just say you are going to bake it “soon”, and think of Rita.

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