The First Time I Tried Baking


One of my fondest memories of childhood was watching Granny Wham bake stuff. She made biscuits from scratch three or four times a week and she was always making pies, especially a chocolate pie I dearly loved. My favorite thing she baked though was her pound cake. She would take out her spiral bound notebook of recipes and remove the card with Pound Cake on it and lay it out on the table next to the mixer. I never understood why, after all the pound cakes she had made over the years, she would still keep the recipe close at hand. She said it was, “just in case.” I used to “help” as much as I could. I got to sift the flour onto a sheet of wax paper with the wire sifter. I can still hear the “zip, zip, zip” of the bail in the sifter can going around and around as I turned it. Then I could add the flour into the stand mixer along with the cans of sweetened condensed milk and pour in whole milk, too. The only thing I wasn’t allowed to add was eggs.

Granny preferred I not try to crack eggs on the side of the mixing bowl like she did. I had tried once and it took her ten minutes with a fork to get all the eggshells out of the batter. The greatest treat though was once the batter was safely in the baking pan, I got to lick the bowl and spatula. Now today, mothers and grandmothers too I’m afraid would be all in a tizzy about eating cake batter with raw eggs in it, but it was a simpler time back then and if it made me happy to lick the bowl, Granny was content to risk a little salmonella. (Spoiler alert: I licked A LOT of cake batter and not even an upset tummy.)

Once the cake was in the oven, I had to be extremely quiet and still. It took over an hour for the cake to first rise then bake through completely and Granny always admonished me that any shaking the floor or loud noises could cause the cake to “fall” and that would be the worst thing to happen since FDR died in 1945. I walked pretty much like an elephant when I was younger so to avoid a so-called “sad cake,” I would usually just lie in the floor of the den and read the encyclopedia while the cake baked. Later on in life, much later actually, I learned that cakes will not actually fall. This was simply scientifically impossible, but my thinking so did give Granny Wham two hours of quietude from a grandson who could be most unquiet indeed.

Well, when I was 11 or 12, I was staying at Granny and Papa’s on a Saturday morning. Papa was working till noon when Mr. Ashley called and asked Granny if she could come in to work at Belk’s for a few hours because someone had called in sick. She was leery of leaving me by myself. Granny was a worrier, and the thought of me being by myself worried her greatly, but she was also intensely loyal to Belk’s where she worked. So, after wringing promise after promise from me to not get into any mischief, she told Mr. Ashley she’d be in directly. It was only going to be for a handful of hours anyway. She left with worry on her face, but I assured her I would be fine. It was early on a Saturday morning and I was watching cartoons.

Things went swimmingly until the cartoons I liked ended at 10:00. It took me five minutes to get bored and I was dangerous in a bored state even back then. I don’t know to this day what put it in my head, but against Granny’s strict instruction to not touch the stove or even go in the kitchen, I decided I was going to bake a pound cake to surprise Papa and Granny when they got home. Again, I don’t know why. Who knows what causes a 12 year old boy to do anything? So I went into the kitchen and got started.

First, I took the faded index card containing Granny’s recipe out of the spiral bound notebook. Then, I got down the venerable green stand mixer. After that, I went to work gathering the ingredients. Now I had seen and helped Granny bake cakes more times than I can remember, but this was my first time flying solo, so I was nervous about that AND I was disobeying a direct order from Granny, which to be honest didn’t really matter much. I was the first grandchild and only grandchild, at least for a little longer, and Granny’s idea of severe discipline was to look stern and tell me not to do whatever I had done again, then give me a Chips Ahoy chocolate chip cookie or three and send me on my way. In my whole life to the day she died, Granny, and Papa too for that matter, never raised their voices, much less their hands, to me. If any child has ever been spoiled by a grandparent, it was me.

So, I had all the ingredients laying around with the mixer and the Pyrex measuring cup and the measuring spoons and at long last I was ready to begin. I flipped the mixer on and put in sugar, then, holding my breath, I cracked an egg. I put that egg, along with its fellow travelers into the mix without a single shell falling in. I alternated between flour and sweet milk just like Granny did and I added the vanilla and lemon flavorings just like I was supposed to. The sweetened condensed milk gave me a bit of a struggle because the lid didn’t want to give in to the ancient can opener, but eventually, it saw the fight was hopeless and yielded its contents. Last of all, I put in the baking powder. Some butter — well, a lot of butter actually — and some Crisco shortening made it into the mix earlier on as well, but I can’t remember when. I had my first cake batter all ready to pour.

I got out Granny’s pound cake pan with the cylinder in the middle to make the hole in the middle of the cake and I rubbed it down with one of the butter wrappers to grease it up real good. Then, I poured the batter into the pan, scraped everything out with the trusty spatula and set the full pan aside to lick the bowl and beaters. I always did when Granny baked a cake, so I absolutely was going to with my first creation. I slide the cake into the cold oven — pound cakes go into a cold oven rather than a preheated one — and turned the oven controls to bake at 350 degrees. Now it was time to wait two hours on tenterhooks to see how it would turn out. What’s more, I couldn’t open the door to check on it because Granny had assured me that would make a cake fall quicker than anything and her oven didn’t have a window in the door!

I washed the mixing bowl and the rest of the dishes I’d used, then cut the TV back on and watched some later morning cartoons and wrestling. The cake was beginning to smell good when I heard Granny return! She came in the house and put her keys down and asked me why she smelled pound cake cooking. I came clean immediately and told her I wanted to surprise her and Papa. She looked like she was going to scold me, but she gathered me up in a hug instead. Like I said, spoiled rotten.

Granny asked me how much longer it was to bake. At that point about twenty minutes remained and I wanted so badly for them to hurry by. Finally the kitchen time dinged and it was time to take the cake out and see the fruits of my labor. I walked to the oven with Granny behind me. I cut off the oven first to be safe and I opened the door. . . . Cake was EVERYWHERE! The cake had blown out of the pan and flowed down the sides. It looked terrible and I wanted to cry; then I noticed Granny’s smile.

She asked me one question: Where did I get the flour for the cake? I showed her the red plastic bin marked “flour” where she got the flour almost every night of the week to make biscuits. She smiled even more broadly. “So that’s the problem!” she said. Then she reached back in the pantry and pulled out a box of flour with the picture of a cake on the side. She looked at me, still smiling and said, “I suppose you put the baking powder in like the recipe says?” I nodded. Then I learned that two types of flour exist: self-rising, which already contains leaven, and cake flour, which does not. What I had done was use Granny’s biscuit flour, which was self-rising, to make the cake AND added baking powder to the mix. Essentially, I had doubled the amount of baking powder in the batter and the result was a cake that rose WAY too much.

We slid the monster cake out of the oven. It surprisingly came out in one piece clinging to the pan. Granny broke off a piece and ate it. She said there was nothing wrong with the taste of the cake; it was just a bit more fluffy. I took a piece and after I ate it, I agreed. I asked Granny what in the world we were going to do with such a seemingly ruined cake? She said, “Well, I guess you are going to learn what a trifle is.” So, I did. We made a trifle out of that over risen cake. For those who don’t know, a trifle is alternating layers of cake and fruit with whipped cream. I’d never seen one before then, but when Papa got home we all ate some and even though I’m not crazy about fruit, I thought it tasted just fine.

Granny was proud of me, but she made me promise not to ever use the stove again! So I did.

Love y’all and keep those feet clean!

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