Grandmother Lily Rose had an unbreakable kitchen rule. Don't touch her white enamel saucepan that was strictly reserved for birthday cakes.
This time of the year, that white vessel with the red handle saw plenty of use. In my family, January, February and March seemed to have more birthday celebrations than the rest of the year combined.
Lily Rose, who was born in 1886, had a cake repertoire of chocolate, devil's food, orange, coconut, mocha, pound and birthday. You could practically tell the season by the kind of cake she was making -- orange in summer, chocolate in winter, fresh coconut when in season in winter, for example. Hers was a household of 12 and each birthday was celebrated with proper affection, attention and ceremony.
Lily Rose's birthday cake was tall and lathered with white icing. It had absolutely no connection with the gloppy, chemical-laced messes that pass for cakes today. She used only basic ingredients -- butter, sugar, flour, eggs and vanilla. There were no packages of pudding mix, no cooking oil, no carrots or other foreign and highly dubious substances. She went after taste, not the latest recipe in a cooking magazine.
Her birthday cakes never differed. Yellow batter and white icing piled high and heavenly. It was a proud, ceremonious cake. It made you feel like the most important birthday celebrity in the world. Grandmother sure knew how to employ her cake tins. No sadness or depression on birthdays in the household she so wisely orchestrated.
The birthday cake was generally made a day in advance. Her theory was that baked goods usually tasted better when made ahead of time. Since her time for rising was 5 a.m., the cakes were usually completed long before the old tomato canning factory whistle shrieked somewhere in the distance. I think it went off at 7:05 a.m. Lily Rose felt the day was half over at that hour.
I recall the birthday cake as white as the snow that was outside the kitchen window. The heat from her Oriole-brand oven made the kitchen seem all the more comfortable.
When one was 5 or 6, was there anything so marvelous as standing on a Windsor-backed chair in the kitchen and watching the beaters of a General Electric mixer? The batter started out dry and crumbly. By the time all the ingredients were beaten together, it was pale yellow and smooth.
The ingredient that made the cake so tasty was the pure vanilla extract Lily Rose added to the batter. She could have made a great bartender had she not been such a teetotaler. She always kept the largest bottle that McCormick or A&P sold. And whenever she poured in a substantial dose, she always told the same story.
Her father claimed he was Methodist or Baptist and didn't drink. But every Sunday morning, he slipped into the pantry and indulged in a lengthy swallow of vanilla extract. She always laughed, knowing of course that the extract is merely vanilla bean in pure alcohol.
The smell of vanilla was strong when the extract first went into the cake batter. But once the cake was baking, the scent perfumed the whole house, like some sort of birthday incense, although real incense never smelled that good.
The truly superior part of her birthday cake was its boiled white icing, laced with sugar and beaten egg whites.
The icing was tricky to make. It required a certain enamel saucepan that could never be used for any other purpose except making icing. The dime-store pan was a sacred utensil and Lily Rose sometimes hid it, lest anybody dare boil a three-minute egg in it.
Some cooks would have used a candy thermometer. Lily Rose didn't have much patience with the tools of pretenders and amateurs.
Boiling the granulated sugar in water was sticky business. The sugar had to melt and form a clear strand. If the sugar didn't congeal properly (say on a humid day), watch out. The cook deteriorated into a less than happy mood.
The boiled sugar was mixed with the egg whites into something resembling white clouds of sweet perfection. Lily Rose iced the cake so perfectly and so high that the hole in the middle of the cake disappeared. It was all waves, swells, swirls and peaks. If it looked like a bubble bath, wasn't that the idea?
The icing was piled as high as a snowdrift, which is precisely what it resembled in miniature. The top was a little crusty, but the inside was a heavenly soft consistency that was sugary, light and reeking of vanilla. These tall and proud birthday cakes needed no decorations.
When we open a family photo album and look at the birthday pictures, Lily Rose never seems to be in any of them. The master baker of the white-walled cakes disappeared when the camera came out. She'd probably fled to the kitchen to make the batter for the next morning's buckwheat cakes.