Grandmother Lily Rose baked her holiday cakes from scratch

December 14, 1997|By Jacques Kelly

IF I EVER NEEDED proof that my beloved family didn't operate quite like most others in 1950s Baltimore, I got it every December when my grandmother Lily Rose made her Christmas coconut cake.

Other people bought packages of dried, shredded coconut. Some zealots went farther -- they made a pilgrimage downtown to the Lexington Market, where they made much of buying a jar of fresh-grated coconut.

Lily Rose, the supreme matriarch of our house, would have none of this abject laziness during her brisk December baking season. Never would she brag about her routine either. It was merely what she did in the 12th month of her year.

She appeared at the Gorsuch Avenue A&P, chose a hairy (well, to a 5-year-old, it seemed like hair) coconut and carried it home. Then, the day she produced that cake, she took an ax and descended the cellar steps.

I was allowed to follow and watch -- even though the rest of the cellar was off-limits because presents were stashed there, and until Dec. 25 I wasn't allowed to see the Christmas train garden under construction past the furnace room.

Lily anchored the coconut in a vise on the cellar workbench and then started hacking away until it fractured into five or six curved chunks. She had a metal basin handy to catch the draining

coconut milk, a substance some members of her household of 12 considered a rare wintertime delicacy. I didn't.

The story doesn't end here. She carried the broken coconut shards upstairs. Using the very sharpest paring knife in her kitchen weaponry drawer, she peeled that tough hide off, more than once nicking a thumb. Blood in the kitchen was merely a trifling matter. No Band-Aid. She improvised a bandage with a piece of string, a clean rag and an ice cube and went about hand grating the coconut meat into little shreds.

Her exercise in coconut smashing wouldn't have been so remarkable if it ended there. She then made three layers of cake and a boiled white icing. She'd have tossed you out in the alley if you suggested she give Betty Crocker a try. The grated coconut got mixed into the sugary white icing. The result would go bad if you didn't keep it in the cold pantry and consume it within a reasonable time.

December was one of Lily's busiest times. In addition to her coconut, she also made a complicated and dense fruitcake, plus favorites -- orange, chocolate (that icing took nearly an hour to beat by hand), mocha, devil's food and a simply staggering pound cake. She had help. Right alongside was her sister, Great Aunt Cora. Together, they toiled in peace and mostly harmony.

In their free time in the weeks ahead of Christmas, they also turned out stoneware crocks full of butter-and-nutmeg sugar cookies, then filled a baby bathtub full of eggnog so infused with whipping cream that a teaspoon stood up straight up in a cup of it.

Somewhere along the way, a couple of loaves of date-nut bread emerged from Lily's well-loved oven, too. All her cakes went into wax-paper-lined tins and were served to family and those guests who merited them. Guests knew they could do no wrong when Lily Rose offered them a slice of both coconut and chocolate cake. Only the most select had access to her fruit- or pound cake. Rarely did the eggnog get past the close family members.

As you can see, there was something for every taste waiting in Lily Rose's Christmas pantry. I was the odd grandchild who detested the flavor of coconut. Its demands of energy, blood and time seemed curiously excessive, even within an environment wherein laziness did not exist.

Foolish me. I once summoned the courage to inquire why she went to the trouble of axing coconuts and scarring her fingers with sharp knives. Didn't she have enough to do?

To this inquiry, she would turn up her nose and offer this terse sermon: "Because my cake isn't like other people's."

Pub Date: 12/14/97

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