As a child in Brooklyn, the first notable event in my family that came after the Christmas and New Year’s Holiday was my maternal grandmother’s (and her twin brother’s) birthday. This year will mark the 111th anniversary of their birth on 23 January 1906.
At a family reunion back in October, my mother and her siblings gathered the Kelly family together for the first time in quite a while. Old photos and artifacts from the family were on display, shared with stories about those that went before us. Many of the stories centered around Nana’s kitchen, cooking and baking in her Park Slope home. The stories of her old gas stove were legendary. For years, I think only Nana knew how to coax that old relic to life and then to the right temperature for whatever she was making. I know in the back of my young head I had a cartoon vision of her lighting the pilot light leading to a small, smokey explosion that would leave her unharmed with the exception of a blackened face and wildly singed hair, smoking from the ends.
Out of that gas oven came countless family meals, holiday feasts and, in her later years, more intimate meals for the occasional grandchild visiting or boarding with her in her ubiquitous brownstone just down the street from Prospect Park West.
Several of my memories center around her baking. She would bake raisin nut soda bread and, what my siblings and I would call, “pound cake”. I later learned that my mother’s siblings referred to it as “money cake”, named so by my uncle. The name comes from the expense of the ingredients during the 1940’s. It was extravagant and it was a treat that appeared on special occasions.
I am one of six children. For some reason I was the only one that would leap for the raisin bread while my brothers and sisters would favor the “money cake”. Don’t get me wrong, I loved both treats. But when you are the middle child competing for limited treats, you go for what you like and what is plentiful.
When my grandmother passed in October, 2001, my Aunt Maureen put the recipes together and passed them around so the next generation would have an artifact that they could taste. Over the years, I have become fairly proficient at the Raisin Nut Bread. A few years ago I even made a loaf and passed it to my son who sent it overnight to my mother (but that is another story). But I had never attempted the “Money Cake”. To be honest, I did not realize I had the recipe because the recipe sheet I had called it “Cream Cake”. The same product had a different name in each generation of the family. Nana called it “Cream Cake”, my mother’s generation called it “Money Cake” and my siblings and I called it “Pound Cake”. Confused? Yeah, sorry!
About a week ago, while discussing some genealogy discoveries with Aunt Maureen, I asked her for the recipe again and she sent it in an email. The recipe goes as follows:
Nana’s Cream Cake (“Money Cake”)
1/2 pint heavy cream
1.5 cups sugar
2 cups Presto
1 tsp vanilla
Mix cream, sugar and egg yolks.
Add vanilla and mix well.
Add flour, stir until well blended.
Fold in egg whites, beaten to stiff peaks in a separate bowl. Bake in a deep pan 1 hour at 375.
Presto Cake Flour was very popular in the New York City area. I live in Southeastern Virginia and this is not an item I can find in the local Harris Teeter. I ordered a box from Amazon. If you cannot find Presto, add 1/2 tsp of baking powder and 1/4 tsp salt to every cup of cake flour. Because it was raining yesterday and I had nothing more pressing on my list of things to do, I decided to give it try. I had all of the ingredient and Aunt Maureen’s email up on my laptop sitting on the kitchen counter.
The result was surprising. It revived a taste memory I think I had filed away in my brain. Was it as good as Nana’s? It was close. I think I may have left in a minute or two longer than I should have. My oven temperature in an electric oven may be more stable than Nana’s old dinosaur gas oven. I recommend you test with a wooden toothpick or bamboo skewer. If it comes out dry, it is done. My sons seemed to like it. They happily helped me taste the result of my successful baking experiment.
This is how I paid tribute to Nana on the day before her 111th birthday. Maybe later on I will go pick up a Hershey Bar as a nod to her twin, my Great Uncle Ed. He always seemed to have Hershey Bars for his grandnieces and nephews when we visited him in his brownstone on Dean Street. But that story can wait for another day.