Sunday, February 26, 2012

Family Recipes

Oatmeal cake by Sesser
Oatmeal cake, a photo by Sesser on Flickr.
*My apologies for the inconsistent colours of these photos.  Mr. Happy acquired a new camera in November and I am just getting familiar with it. These photos were all edited in Snapseed. The photo above was taken in the evening in my wee little pantry, the photo at the bottom was taken in the same pantry but with obviously different lighting conditions. 

January and February have always been the two months of the year in which we see very little of my sister-in-law and her family. No biggie, really, especially after spending the Christmas holidays together, we don't really notice it.

This January, however, my father-in-law, feeling the wanderlust in his bones, set off on his first solo adventure since the passing of my mother -in-law. He visited friends in both Hawaii and New Zealand. Not bad places to visit when the Maritime January wind is chapping your cheeks and making you dream of blueberries and idyllic days at the cottage.

With his conspicuous absence, those of us left behind, noticed, for this first time, how quickly January can fly past without a family gathering. It's been 11 years this spring since my sister-in-law and her family moved home to the Maritimes, and this is the first time we all felt strange about not seeing each other during this, the month of endless basketball tournaments.

Now, normally, my birthday in February is when we all gather around a table again to break bread and more importantly, eat cake. This year, however, we were all so busy that my birthday festivities were postponed.

This week I realized that my father-in-law had been home almost a whole month and we had not yet all been around a table together since his return. Finally, on Friday, I thought, "Enough is enough!" I called my SIL and told her that they should come here on Sunday night.

I had decided to try a new recipe for roasted red pepper pasta. I made it, but I don't believe I'll make it again. It was fine, but not something I would bother to write down in my recipe book.

Speaking of recipe books, thankfully for my family's palate, I had been thumbing though my mom's recipe book on Friday night and decided that we needed a cake for tonight's meal. Oatmeal cake, to be precise.

Oatmeal cake

Oatmeal cake is not so fancy that it pretends to be birthday cake (heaven forbid I make my own) but it's not so plain as to be considered coffee cake (which would relegate it to afternoon guests and not family dinner).

Oatmeal cake, my friends, is a moist, dark brown cake made with brown sugar and cinnamon. The icing(?) is brown sugar, butter, milk, vanilla and coconut. It's made on the stovetop and poured one the cake while it's still warm. It eventually hardens and is the kind of stuff you scrape out of the pot with a spatula and eat while hiding in the pantry.

My mom made this cake quite a few times when I was a teenager. There is a note on the page that it came from Jean West's school. My great-aunt Jean was a schoolteacher in Devon, New Brunswick until I was about seven. My mother has quite a few recipes from Jean and her counterparts at the school. I imagine those ladies now as pleasantly plump and enjoying their bridge games with dainty plates of treats and squares sitting next to the bridge table.

It's comforting to realize that I can flip through my mother's recipes and know that each one is connected to her, to a friend, to a story, to a memory. I realize that this is not everyone's experience. Not everyone is fortunate enough to have a library of dog-eared and vanilla-stained recipes. In fact, that was not my own mother's experience.  Her own mother didn't teach her to cook. Her mother, well, let's say, liked to be on her own in the kitchen, so my mother learned to cook when she got married. She did have her mother's recipes, but she hadn't had the same experience as I did, of sitting on the counter next to the mixer on Saturday mornings, or of reading the ingredients to her mother, or of having her mom show her how to do the many things she showed me.

Oatmeal cake
So, I count myself lucky, blessed, really, to have the memories, to have had the lessons and to have family nearby with whom I can share these recipes, to introduce them to bits of my mother (my SIL never knew her) and to add another memory to this recipe.

To the invisible footnotes for this recipe, I now add the memory of a February night when we all finally gathered again, when we noted how much the kids had grown, when we heard wonderful news of my niece's provincial JV basketball championship and her upcoming summer opportunity, AND when we all tried a new pasta recipe together and were saved by dessert.

Oatmeal Cake
(Jean West's School - Devon, NB)

Mix together and set aside:
1 C oatmeal
1 1/2 C boiling water

Beat together:
1 C brown sugar
1 C white sugar
2 eggs
1/2 C shortening

Add oatmeal mixture to the sugar mixture and then add (I mix these ingredients together before adding them):
1 1/2C flour
1 t salt
1 1/2 t soda
1 1/2 t cinnamon

Bake at 325 for one hour in a tube pan. (I grease and flour the pan, mostly out of paranoia, not because the recipe says to do so.) Cool for 10 minutes in the pan, run a knife between the cake and the pan, then flip onto a cooling rack. (Don't forget that quick prayer to the flour gods that the cake doesn't break.)

In a medium saucepan, cook to a soft boil:
1 C brown sugar
1/4 C butter
1/4 C canned milk (I used just a little less of whole milk instead)

Take off the heat and add:
1 t vanilla
1 C coconut

Pour over the cake.

Sneak into the pantry with a rubber spatula and the saucepan. Eat the icing when it isn't so hot it burns your tongue.

Allow time for the icing to cool before serving.


  1. Sounds amazing! A whole bunch of my favourite things mixed into one lovely cake...

  2. I am definately going to try this!

  3. I have a recipe book exactly like your mom's. my mother gave it to me years ago, and I keep all my tried and true recipes in it. I'm going to have to try your moms oatmeal cake recipe ... Looks yummy!