By: Bill McFadyen
My mom’s first caramel cake, according to recollection by her little-girl-to-life’s-end friend Katherine Holmes Wheeler, came from a recipe on the back of a box of cake mix. All I knew was that the first time she ever made me one, it was the best sweet thing I had ever put in my mouth. From the time I was about 10 or 12, she made one every year for my birthday. That started back in those crazy, zany years when every foolhardy partygoer actually ate the cake slice after someone had blown all over the top of it and without any regard to whether it would subsequently kill us.
The cake itself was not anything special. It was just a yellow mix in a box. However, according to my wife, Mom purported to use butter instead of oil and whole milk instead of water. My birthday is on Valentine’s Day, so over the years, she started making the cake in the shape of a heart. At least, something close to the shape of a heart, as it always had a little misshapenness here or there.
The icing, though, was a complex culinary creation. It commenced with lots of butter melted around substantial amounts of brown sugar and whisked together into a viscous goo that was desperately dependent upon proper temperature such that it coalesced without scorching. As if the brown sugar was not sweet enough, at some point in the blending together of the first two ingredients, she added powdered sugar to thicken it up some, followed by vanilla extract.
Mrs. Wheeler says that Mom admitted to testing the consistency of the icing during the heating and cooling process by drizzling it on the stove top. It was supposed to plop and hold fast. If it ran across the surface at all, it either needed more heat or more powdered sugar. If it stuck to the spoon, I don’t know what she did. Add more butter? Or more salty tears maybe because Mom did allow the process to cause her great angst! Things did not always go well. In fact, there was never a caramel cake where Mom herself bragged about how good it was. She would not even accept our accolades, even with crumbs from our second slices falling out of the sides of our mouths as we lauded her effort.
She always hedged to the possibility of failure and of the icing having possibly been ruined in that critical stage of the heat application. The reason given was always the same. “The cake is probably ruined because while I was stirring the icing the phone rang,” she would say in apologetic desperation. There was never a rational discussion that I remember about why she did not just let the phone ring. That would have been obviously absurd, to achieve perfection in the greatest cake icing ever made at the cost of not answering a ringing phone.
As terrible as she said they turned out, I never remember one as being anything less than the finest sweet I had ever eaten. The rule was that either brother or sister-in-law or niece or nephew and so on could eat as much of that cake as they could stuff in their bellies at the birthday gathering. No one but me, however, was allowed to take any home. I remain unapologetic for that dogmatic stance, even today.
Mom would not ever say the cake was good. On the other hand, she knew not many bakers could successfully complete the same process. I think that she liked that distinction.
Mom was giddy when she met my fiancée. Susanna was most everything Mom hoped for in the wife of her theretofore wandering middle son. My wife is a fantastic cook and she diligently provides the things the children and I love, just like Mom did for her family. Ten or 12 years into our marriage, with Mom being at or around 70, the inevitability of Mom being at some point gone from this world led Susanna to ask for the recipe for the caramel cake. The response was not what one would consider immediate. In actuality, it took Mom about five or six years to remember to share it with Susanna. When she did finally remember, she could not find it written down anywhere. She just kind of gave Susanna a verbal rundown on the basics. The really odd thing is that Susanna tried and tried again, each time calling Mom to clarify the recipe. It turns out that the exact measurements and procedures were something of a moving target.
I am not inferring that Mom did not want anyone but Mom to know how to make that cake. Neither am I saying that she was willing at all costs for Susanna to replace her as the primary baker of my ritualized dessert.
Back in those fanatical 20 years after the turn of the prior century when people held Christmas parties with unmasked participants crammed shoulder to shoulder in the kitchen around bulk quantities of foods, Kelley McCauley always had a caramel cake from some exquisite bakery. It had about 10 layers of caramel inside and a perfectly swirled outer layer of icing. It was flawless. I could tell when slicing it that no phones rang during its preparation.
Dear Susanna has pretty perfectly averaged together all those different recipes that Virginia McFadyen Rose gave her over those last 15 years of her life. My love of that cake has been effectively forwarded to the taste buds of our three children.
Nothing though, replaces the way a boy loves his momma. Or her caramel cakes.
Bill McFadyen can be reached at email@example.com.