The Art of Secret Baking
One of my mother’s most prized possessions was a copy of The Joy of Cooking – specifically, a red-leather bound edition my father had imprinted with “Annotated By Martha Marder” in gold letters on the cover. My mother was an excellent cook. She had an eye for good recipes, but when I conjure her kitchen, what comes to mind are not fancy dishes but the daily offerings that were so her. A simple breaded and baked chicken cutlet, that as children we called “Mommy’s chicken,” but which quickly morphed into “Grandma’s chicken” in the next generation; gigantic bowls of Israeli salad, the cucumbers, tomatoes and scallions neatly diced, bathed in just the perfect amount of olive oil and lemon juice; and her matzoh balls, so light and fluffy, defying gravity and rising to the surface of the chicken soup, earning her the moniker of “the Kneidlach Queen.”
But my mother’s baking was more personal somehow. She had a few signature items – and each had a back-story, a bit of a mystery.
Some cakes were seasonal, appearing only at a specified time during the year. My sister’s request for Angel Food birthday cake was one, and it was also my mother’s only acknowledgment that a Duncan Hines mix sometimes really was the best. She would make the cake the night before, and it would fill the house with, to me, an overly sweet, cloying aroma as it cooled magically in its special pan, upside down over a glass coke bottle on the kitchen table. Another annual item was my father’s birthday cookie—a rich, buttery dough, formed into little balls, rolled in walnuts, and then gently imprinted in the center with my mother’s thumb to be filled with red currant jelly before baking. The cookies were time consuming to make and over the top delicious. After he indulged himself in a few, my father would freeze the rest, rationing them out, one cookie at a time, savoring them as long as he could before resigning himself to waiting for his birthday to roll around again. And my mother’s Passover cakes – a miracle in and of themselves – baked without leavening as required but not leaden and dense as the holiday seemed to demand, but light and buoyant, always prompting some guest to question whether they were authentic.
And then there were the cakes that appeared more often, although still infrequently enough to be a treat when they graced the table at home or were brought as an offering to some lucky relative or friend.
My mother was ahead of her time when she started baking her zucchini bread, nearly forty years ago. With its earthy appearance from the green of the vegetable, the brown of the walnuts, and the heady smell of cinnamon, it was an outrageously delicious concoction. But it looked exotic, and, heaven forefend in those days, healthy. When she would present the bread—it was always called bread, whether in loaf form or not, but it was most definitely a cake—the question would inevitably be asked, “What kind of cake is it?” My mother would never answer, encouraging, and then insisting, that the person try it first. Only after the lucky recipient was drowning in the goodness, did my mother admit to the presence of zucchini. This cake was also the most portable; my college roommates are still talking about my mother’s zucchini bread 30 years later.
My mother’s cheesecake was the most decadent of her creations. She was a cheesecake purist. No cherry or blueberry or chocolate chip would besmirch the creamy goodness of Philadelphia cream cheese and a plain graham cracker crust. Her recipe was exacting. At one point, the instructions read: “Bake for 1 hour. Open door partially; bake 10 minutes more. Close door. Shut off heat. Leave in oven for 10 to 15 minutes more; watch it!” I was afraid to make the cheesecake. I tried it once, but the spring form pan I bought was of inferior quality. When I put the cake in to bake, the house almost immediately (and way too soon) was filled with the overwhelming aroma of cheesecake. I opened the oven door, something my mother always told us not to do until after the halfway mark, to find globs of cheesecake cooking directly on the oven floor. I had to throw away the whole cake, and I have never tried again.
The chocolate cake of choice in my mother’s house had not one, but three, “secret” ingredients. The first was chocolate syrup—preferably Fox’s U-bet, although Hershey’s would do in a pinch. The second was a whole cup of chocolate chips, which were not melted, but remained whole, giving the cake both texture and intensity. The last was a single tablespoon of strongly brewed coffee, which did not impart a coffee taste, but brought out the complexity of the chocolate flavor in a sophisticated way. No matter how many times I make this cake, and how well I grease and flour the pan, I manage to leave a chunk of cake stuck to the bottom when I remove it after cooling. Although this almost never happened to my mother, she showed me how to patiently pry the piece of cake off the pan and carefully fit it, like a jigsaw piece, into the rest of the cake. A quick flip over, and the repair would be on the underside of the cake, unnoticeable, the top cheerily covered with confectioner’s sugar.
But the cake that remains my favorite is my mother’s apple cake, or more accurately, “Teddie’s Apple Cake,” a recipe which she clipped from the New York Times in 1973 and made ever since, at Rosh haShana and Thanksgiving and whenever else her best cake was required. There is no way to describe this cake. The combination of the tart apples, walnuts and cinnamon is classic, and yet the way it comes together—moist on the inside, crunchy on the outside—is otherworldly. My mother’s version slightly amended the NYT’s one, leaving out the raisins, which, at least to me, is critical. She also tinkered with the baking times, her handwritten instructions reminding me that if I make the cake in a 10-inch tube pan rather than a 9 inch, I am to reduce duration to 67 ½ minutes.
But my favorite aspect of my mother’s apple cake is how seriously she guarded the recipe—this, for a cake that she herself had found in the New York Times! We were not allowed to give the recipe to anyone, and if you asked my mother why, she would answer you with a question: “Do you want to be eating at someone else’s house and this cake, our cake, appears as dessert?” Her logic, although clearly flawed, held a certain sway for me. I understood that she felt that this cake was somehow her contribution to the world of culinary delights, and, although she had not invented the recipe, she felt a certain proprietary pride in having “discovered” it. When people asked for the recipe, as they invariably did, my mother evaded the question, deftly changing the subject.
I only gave out the apple cake recipe once while my mother was alive. I had been taking an adult education class on Jewish history. In the class was Roz, a lovely woman in her early 70s, tiny and fragile looking, with soft white hair and big blue eyes. She was an intense student, relishing her evening in the class once a week as a respite from caring from her adored but ailing husband. At some point, she mentioned that she was looking for oil-based cake recipes, as her husband was not supposed to have butter or margarine, and I immediately thought of the apple cake. I did not ask my mother, but reasoned that she would like Roz, and she would want to help.
Sometime shortly after I gave Roz the recipe, my family had Shabbat dinner on a Friday night at a friend’s house in my neighborhood. When it came time for dessert, my mother’s apple cake was proudly presented by the host. It was the first time I had ever seen the cake outside of my family. I was shocked, and for a moment, had the reaction I knew my mother would have had – “who gave you the recipe for my cake?” I asked, in a more polite way, and my friend showed me a recent clipping from the New York Times. The paper, in their “recipe redux” column, had reprinted in 2009 my mother’s recipe for all the world to see.
After the New York Times’ re-ran the recipe, I confessed to my mother that I had given the recipe to Roz, a fact which my mother accepted with grace. But when I asked her if now I could freely give the recipe to whomever asked, she answered, “That’s really up to you.” My mother passed away in 2010. You’ll have to look up the recipe for yourself.
Martha Marder’s Apple Cake
Reyna Marder Gentin lives in Westchester, New York, with her husband of almost 25 years and their two wonderful teenage children. After over twenty years of practicing law, Reyna is now pursuing other interests, including taking courses in memoir and fiction at The Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College. She has published in Mothers Always Write, Mamalode, and elsewhere, and is currently working on her first novel.