Just a Little Cake Talk

strawberry whipped cream cake

When it comes to baking cakes, I am no match for my mother.  Actually, I am no match for my grandmother, either.  Yet, I am the one who loves cake probably more than both my mother and her mother put together.  Perhaps that is because both were so good at baking them.

My grandmother made the same cake for most occasions. It was a simple homemade yellow cake with homemade chocolate icing.  She made everything homemade, including bread, including sausage…and she grew fresh vegetables in her garden.  I’ve always said that she could make a fried egg taste like filet mignon.  My grandmother was a natural, wholesome cook.  She somehow got us kids to beg for more broccoli.  That’s how good hers was, cooked to perfection, even though it was just plain broccoli.  I would give anything to have the cake recipe my grandmother followed–or probably didn’t follow; she rarely followed a recipe.  My grandmother’s yellow cake was hands down the best cake I have ever tasted.

My mother, ever the rebel, baked differently from her mother.  My mother not only followed recipes (at least until she made the cake a couple times), she often tried new recipes, or made up her own recipes that she rarely wrote down.  You might say she was a visual cook, a creative cook.  She could also have something in a restaurant, go home to her kitchen and duplicate it.  She seemed not only to guess the ingredients but also the correct amounts and combinations. 

If you had to pin down my mother to one cake, you might say she was mostly a master at the cake du jour.  poke cakeThat is, whatever cake was trending: dump cake, bundt cake, poke cake, angelfood cake, cheesecake, banana cake, coffee cake, chocolate eclair cake, tiramisu….She loved what she called an “easy” cake, but none of them seem all that easy if you don’t make as many cakes as she did.  She would even go beyond wild on occasion and try things such as Pumpkin Caramel Dream Cake or Tartufo –whatever she might come across– this woman who whipped up Baklava like it was omelettes. In truth, my mother was an expert in all things phyllo dough.  She used it regularly, while I am afraid to open the package. There were also the many fruit pizzas, which were cake-like with their crusty cream-cheese bottom, along with the various cookies, the millions upon millions of mint squares, the occasionally poorly shaped biscotti of her arthritic years.  All and all , you could pretty much rely on some kind of dessert whenever you had dinner at my mom’s, and more often than not, it was a cake she made while dog-tired after preparing a lavish little feast, just to let you know she was excited to see you.

Tartufo chocolate cream cake

Tartufo chocolate cream cake

So here we are, nearing my father’s 85th surprise birthday party, trying not to be too sad because Mom’s no longer with us. I’ve got her and her cakes heavy on my mind, and wish so much that she were here for the festivities.  As I prepare, I do spontaneous impressions of her, knowing what she would say and how she would say it, if only she were here to see the plans taking shape.  My mother loved joy, and nothing feels or is as joyful without her enthusiasm, without her excitement.  You know, that feeling of wanting to call your mom when you can’t.  Because nobody cares like your mother does.

So I ordered one big cake, enough to feed 50 people, at the same bakery I always got my mom’s birthday cakes.  Mom was easy…she liked strawberry whipped cream cake; that was her staple favorite.  Dad, less a cake fan, harder to predict; I guess he mostly likes cannoli cake, which is often served at weddings.  After hours with the baker, I finally settled on something called “success cake,” with a sort of autumnal look to the orange ganache on top. I liked the name. It’s supposed to have hazelnut and almond cake with praline and macadamia nut French buttercream.  I got to taste it when I was trying to decide, and it was very light and not very nutty-tasty, just delicately flavorful–probably the tastiest cake they had at this popular neighborhood European bakery.  I’m worried we might not have enough, so in addition, I want to make one of my favorite cakes, a carrot cake, just in case. In my mother’s honor, I want people who want it to have a piece of cake to take home with them.

strawberry whipped cream cake

This is Day 16 in the 31 Day Writing Challenge, 31 Days of Breaking Free from Fatigue


© debra valentino, all rights reserved,

Culinary Adventures with a South Indian Flair

Rich and I have been looking for good Indian cuisine ever since we dined at a little restaurant next to the Prairie Lights Bookstore in Iowa City.  It was at Masala that we both fell in love with the spicy, savory, exotic and varied flavors of the spices mostly unfamiliar to us.  So when we recently had an opportunity to experience southern India hands-on via a cooking class in the city, we did not hesitate to join.

Although my husband likes to cook and bake, and we often cook together, we had never before taken a formal cooking class like this.  Beyond the requested bottle brought along (we chose San Pellegrino) we weren’t sure what to expect.  All we knew was that the dish or dishes would likely contain common Indian spices, such as cardamon, cayenne, turmeric, cumin, and curry.

I had also learned from a friend of Indian descent that the trick was in the amount of each spice used and also in the process of blending each spice together with the food.  She said she didn’t know how her mother kept them all straight in so many different dishes, but that without measuring, her mother always seemed to know exactly how much of each spice to use…and that this was the trick she marveled at, the way to master Indian cooking. This friend claimed that she somehow never got it right–no matter how many times she herself tried to replicate the dishes she watched her mother repeatedly prepare throughout her childhood.  While I felt empowered by this information, I obviously knew upfront that this new kind of cooking was going to be a challenge.  I decided I would dutifully follow the recipes provided, and save Creative Cooking 101 for another day, in the confines of my own kitchen.

We were divided into groups of five, given four separate recipes, including one for Lentils With Coconut Milk, Lentil Wafers (Pappadam), Cabbage Thoran, and Gulab Jamun.  Two of the group members were responsible for two of the dishes, while the other three (my group) were responsible for the other two. We made things easy by having the first two group members create the first two dishes listed, and our group (my husband Rich, a man named Scott, and myself) create the other two–the Cabbage Thoran, which is a vegetable stir fry (generally served with steamed rice), and Gulab Jamun, a common deep-fried fritter for dessert.

Other than the recipe provided and some occasional assistance, the groups were pretty much on their own. We began as instructed by perusing the recipe, trying to match ingredients to the spices just introduced–I had never seen fresh curry leaves before, nor cardomom. Then we were on our own, and it was interesting to see how the new environment revealed how much we take for granted while cooking independently. Plus, following this foreign recipe felt to some extent akin to trying to read the manual in order to assemble some complex, head-scratching widget.

Indeed, we shuffled about initially, not knowing exactly how to proceed, who should do what, and the extent of each cook’s responsibility.  As the men conversed, I considered how to begin.  The first thing that came to mind probably originated in a high school cooking course that’s no longer offered.  I instructed the men to begin by assembling the ingredients and then measuring them accordingly.  That way, we would have what we needed when we needed to add it.  In the meantime, I left to wash the head of cabbage, then returned to pat dry and shred it, only to discover later that my idea of shredding was a bit coarser than another group’s, which I thought looked better.  This bothered me, but first the instructor and later the internet seemed to favor my slightly thicker version of “shredded.”  The difference appeared to be in how much time each of us spent slicing the cabbage before proceeding (unless the other group used a grater that was unavailable to our group).  A minor variation, but a somewhat distracting one when you’ve never seen the dish you’re trying to prepare.

After the cabbage was prepared, I recognized the following cooking process as familiar.  This brought me some relief and as we proceeded I found myself suddenly relaxed and confident.  Long ago, when I was an economically-strapped graduate student, I used to survive all week on a head of cabbage.  With a touch of oil, I would sauté the cabbage (which, come to think of it, I shredded quite thinly back then), then season it with a bit of minced garlic, salt, pepper and on occasion, a touch of oregano or basil, whatever spice was on hand.  I called this dinner.  Often.  The sautéing process for the Cabbage Thoran was the same that I thought I had invented out of desperation in the 1980s.

I marvel at the number of spices used in Indian cuisine.  I counted ten (10) just for this cabbage side dish.

In the end, perhaps a bit ironically, Rich and I both felt that the recipes provided at this cooking class leaned more toward too little rather than too much spice.

So, as we begin to cook Indian food going forward, we expect to make adjustments as needed.  I’m sure it takes a while, too, for one’s palate to adjust.

Here is what our group’s Cabbage Thoran looked like while it was cooking:


Here is how it looked at serving time (complete with curry leaves and quartered jalapeño peppers):

cabbage thoran

The Pappadam made by the other group members:

The primary dishes–Cabbage Thoran, Lentils with Coconut Milk, Pappadam:


Here is the Gulab Jamun, rolled and ready to deep-fry:


Gulab Jamin, prepared:


We found the main dishes to be pleasantly easy on one’s digestion.

Although we didn’t learn any other significant tips worth sharing, and the recipes we received in class were family recipes exclusively shared by the leading chef, it appears that most recipes on the internet for these dishes are quite close to the those that we prepared.

The class was fun and especially worthwhile because having knowledgeable staff and experienced cooks nearby helped extend us both beyond our comfort zones.  Also, while neither of us had ever prepared Indian food before, we are already considering joining a second class, this one an even more ambitious, nine-course meal.

I’m looking forward to cooking with new flavors.

Here is a recipe for chai tea that I want to try next:

“Dad’s Official Chai Recipe”
2.5 cups water
1 cup 2-percent milk (soy or almond milk)
1/4 inch grated fresh ginger
4 pods of cardamom
1 tea bag (he swears by Orange Pekoe Tetley tea)
3 tsp sugar


IMG_0589© Debra A. Valentino, all rights reserved