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ANOTHER DAY IN THE COUNTRY: The Birthday Cake

© Another Day in the Country

My mother and her siblings enjoyed telling the story about their Grandma Schubert and the birthday cakes she always made for her grandchildren. She was evidently a woman who liked to be ready in advance of these occasions so she planned ahead and made the birthday cake and stored them in a cupboard she had in her pantry. So far, so good, except that she also stored other things in this cupboard including her supply of soap.

In my mind, the soap was Palmolive soap—that’s how I recall the story; but whatever soap it actually was it was a strong-scented soap. In fact, so strong scented that it overwhelmed whatever flavor the cake was originally. This birthday cake was now essentially a Palmolive soap cake.

Now when the birthday child came to visit Grandma Schubert she produced the cake, each member of the family having a generous slice and gave the birthday child a nickel. They loved the nickel but of course hated the taste of the cake, choking as much down as they could in order to later enjoy spending that coveted nickel.

I heard that story as a child and gagged at the thought of soap-flavored cake and being out-spoken wondered why on earth somebody hadn’t told their grandma how awful the cake tasted year after year. My mother shook her head and said, “We wouldn’t have dared.”

Many years later, when we came back to live in Ramona, Aunt Gertie said, “You know Great Grandma’s cupboard is out in the garage. Your Uncle Hank used to store motor oil in it. Would you girls like to have it?” Would we? Of course!

The cupboard no longer smelled of soap. It now had the odor of things mechanical but that was okay because we were not going to store food or anything pertaining to food in it. It proudly stands in the living room at the Ramona House, full of books and games.

On Sunday we had friends coming for brunch to celebrate Christmas, New Years and Phyl’s birthday—we don’t get to see them that often, so we combine occasions. My sister always makes a special cake for Phyl and this year she’d decided on one of those French roll-up cakes, chocolate with a whipped cream filling that looks like a yule log.

We’d picked the menu from a Holiday Cookbook that our cousin Becky had sent to Jess years ago. We love the book because it’s full of pictures. It is Jess’s greatest delight to follow the recipes explicitly so that her creation looks just like the pictures or even better.

At the grocery store getting supplies, Jess found one of those yule cakes on the cover of a women’s magazine and brought that home, too. “Don’t you just love the presentation on this one?” she asked. This yule log looked like a woodland scene with mushrooms made of marshmallows with Rolo caramel stems. She set about to make the cake.

When it came out of the oven, Jess was disappointed. “It doesn’t look chocolaty enough,” she said. “I think I’ll try that other recipe.” I mean how many roll up chocolate cakes does one need? When the first cake had come out of the oven, we’d rolled it up in a towel, per the instructions. When the second cake came out, the instructions said to cover it with a damp cloth for 15 minutes and then proceed. Jess followed the instructions carefully and went to run an errand. She got delayed. Someone needed help. I was cooking other things, paying no attention to her cake project until she returned (almost an hour later) and we tried to roll up cake #2. It was a disaster—the cake had absorbed way too much moisture and was almost reduced to cake batter again. As we tried to roll that *!/! cake we began to laugh. Laughed until we were doubled over, dizzy.

That’s it! The gooey cake went into the trash and we concentrated back on not-chocolaty enough cake #1 which turned out quite lovely. With the addition of dark chocolate frosting, ragged like bark, and powdered sugar snow with a sprig of cedar fresh from the tree, it was magazine-cover perfection.

We sat at the table, conversing with friends, roasting our little marshmallow mushrooms on the tea candles at the table. “Happy Birthday,” “Merry Christmas,” “Happy New Year,” as we spend another day in the country.

Last modified Dec. 18, 2014

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