Aunt Clarissa’s Pound Cake

In the last blog, I promised you a recipe. But first my story:

The children were tired after spinning around on the State Fair rides. We had toured the animal barns and seen the Big Pig, filled up on cold milk at the twenty-five-cent-all-you-can-drink milk stand, and climbed on the huge green tractors on Machinery Hill. It was late afternoon on a hot August day at the Minnesota State Fair, and the streets were a mass of people. A strange mixture of corn dogs, cotton candy, and human sweat filled the steamy air.

“Can’t we get our ice cream now?” asked Susan, my daughter, who was maybe nine or ten years old that summer. She was ready to head to the agriculture building where we always saw the bees and devoured huge cones of sunflower honey ice cream. “No. Not yet,” I said, “We’ve got to go this way to the creative activities building.” I pointed in the opposite direction.

The boys were still little—both squirming in their double stroller. My parents, Ruth and Carl, who came every summer from North Carolina for State Fair, were with us too.

On this particular late August day, we were all together as we made our way to the creative activities building to see the cake display. “We have to check it out,” I said as we pushed the boys in the stroller through the crowded aisles around displays of quilts, handmade baby sweaters, carved duck decoys, and stamp collections towards the cakes.

Every year Gloria, my neighbor across the street, entered her bagels in the state fair baking competition. Each summer she encouraged me to enter my pound cake. She kept telling me that my pound cake might win a ribbon. I thought that Aunt Clarissa’s cake was much too ordinary to win anything in a cake contest. Of course, we all loved it—with its fine buttery texture and tender crust. But to me, it was just an everyday cake, one that my Southern relatives would serve at any meal—no icing, nothing fancy. When I was a girl, my mother’s favorite sister, Clarissa, baked it every time we visited her in Mt. Olive. Later Mother made it when I came home to North Carolina. And now, I had made it so many times I knew the recipe by heart. images

“Oh come on,” said Gloria. “You have to enter it.” So a few weeks before my parents’ visit, I spent a steamy August day in the kitchen baking. I made two cakes that day because the first one looked a little flat. I dashed up to Milt’s Grocery and bought fresh baking powder, butter, flour, and eggs and made it again. Our house had only a couple of window units to air-condition the bedrooms, so the kitchen must have been a hundred degrees by the time I finished. My friend June’s daughter from across the alley came over to watch the children. I jumped into the car, my wet hair clinging to the back of my neck, and took the cake over to the fairgrounds in St. Paul to be judged.

By the time my parents arrived for their August visit, I had almost forgotten about the cake. But now, here we were, our entourage, approaching the glass-enclosed display in the creative arts building.

We saw a big group standing around the cakes. My husband peered over the crowd as I tried to jockey the stroller in closer to the case. Susan slipped between the adults and pressed her nose against the glass. Finally we all managed to crowd around the cake display. At least a hundred cakes were arranged on shelves behind the glass—brightly frosted layer cakes with heaps of red, yellow, and blue flowers, all-chocolate cakes, yellow cakes with fluffy vanilla frosting, pineapple upside down cakes, every cake imaginable.

In the center, on a pedestal, surrounded by half-a-dozen ribbons, sat Aunt Clarissa’s plain pound cake with its sprinkle of powdered sugar. One huge blue ribbon said, “Grand Cake Sweepstakes.” On the card next to it, I read my name and the carefully lettered words, ‘Best Cake of the Fair.’ ” I was stunned. We crowded in front of the cakes and took photos and acted goofy. “Well, what do you know,” said Daddy.

“Mom’s cake won! Mom’s cake won!” said Susan to her two little brothers as she jumped around their stroller, pointing to the cake. I just stood there, shocked to see Aunt Clarissa’s ordinary cake taking its place so proudly among all the fancy cakes. Mother’s eyes were a little moist. “I can’t believe it,” she said.

Later as we headed over to buy our honey-sunflower seed ice cream cones, I was thinking, No, it’s not my cake. It’s Aunt Clarissa’s cake. She deserved that moment of glory.

Her pound cake pops up at most every meal at our house when my now grown children with their children come home. I take it to people when they have lost someone, the way I have now lost Ruth and Carl and Aunt Clarissa and all my many aunts and uncles. I take it to people in the neighborhood who are sick. I bake it when I need a lift.

I’ve tried to branch out and make other kinds of cakes. But I’ve made this cake so many times now that I can whip it up quickly. In a little over an hour, we’re poking toothpicks into its center to check if it’s done. We’re cutting into the moist steamy interior even before it has cooled. Aunt Clarissa’s pound cake never disappoints. All those memories are baked into its warm center.

Daddy an Me  State Fair 1982

Daddy and Me                                   State Fair 1982

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Writing Idea:  Do you have a story about a recipe–a story about a certain food that just keeps popping up again and again in your life–and in the lives of others?

After writing this piece about the pound cake, I see that the one I really must write is about Aunt Clarissa, my mother’s favorite sister. Maybe your recipe and story will unearth another one.

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Here is the recipe for Aunt Clarissa’s Pound Cake. I’ve always said that I give this recipe and the cake itself only to people I love. I hope you do the same.

Aunt Clarissa’s Pound Cake

3 cups sugar
2 sticks butter
1/3 cup shortening (Crisco)
1 cup milk
5 eggs
3 cups flour (cake flour works well, but any kind will do)
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. vanilla

Bring milk, eggs, and butter to room temperature.
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Grease (using Crisco shortening) and flour a large Bundt pan. See note.
Blend together butter, shortening, and sugar.
Add the eggs, one at time. Beat each one into batter.
Mix together the flour, baking powder, and salt in a separate bowl or large measuring cup.
Add flour mixture and milk, alternating—end with flour.
Add vanilla.

Bake at 325 degrees for one hour and ten minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. Let the cake rest for 10 minutes before turning out on cake plate. Sprinkle with powdered sugar.

Note:
You can use Bakers Joy spray, which has oil and flour together, for preparing the Bundt pan. Be sure that all areas of the pan are covered with shortening and then flour to prevent sticking. Use a very heavy-duty Bundt pan (Nordicware), rather than the lightweight ones. Also be careful not to over-beat as you add the flour. If you use the large Kitchen Aid mixers, beat for only a short time—just enough to combine the ingredients, during the flour adding stage.

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10 thoughts on “Aunt Clarissa’s Pound Cake

  1. Great post! Oh how we have loved that pound cake for so many years. It’s only fitting that it won the grand prize given all its history. You might say it was icing on the cake!

    • Thanks, Mike…I so appreciate your comment! You’ve certainly eaten your fair share of pound cake. It was probably your first food!
      Let’s enter a new one this August, so we can expand the family cake repertoire. Another one of my aunts was famous for her coconut-pineapple layer cake. Maybe I’ll try that one! : )

  2. LOVE this! Especially the love that goes into each cake, whether it’s for the family or a big pre-wedding gathering! While I would say I am more of a “meat and potatoes” type, and one who rarely cooks, I have learned so much from my husband about food for understanding other cultural traditions (lutefisk, chitterlings) rather than simply to satisfy a belly rumble. Food has also been about re-fueling after an intense weight-lifting session.. but most importantly I think I’ve learned to make peace with food, to not judge it for what it “means” or attaching a “judgment “… the pound cake may be spoken by some as “naughty” because of all the butter, sugar.. however, I’d rather see it another way… a fond memory, a family tradition.. a connector.

    • Thank you for this wonderful comment, dear Susan. I appreciate your reflections on how food comes to mean so much more than simply satisfying hunger. The pound cake has certainly served to connect us over the years to each other and to a Southern heritage. I love the way Jared has incorporated such a variety of foods and tastes into his Scandinavian heritage. (Still I haven’t developed a taste for either chitterlings or lutefisk!) And you have certainly inherited the cake-making gene. I will always remember Ella’s multi-colored birthday cake! So much time, effort, and love went into that magnificent creation.

  3. Lovely, lovely lovely. I gave your blog info out at the workshop I lead last Sat. And showed them your site. Hopefully, some will log in and see what you’re doing!
    Workshop over; fed and state taxes mailed (today); and I’m somewhat brain dead……but I saved this post in my inbox to read!!

  4. I’ve come late to this post, dear friend. I feel so lucky to have been the recipient of more than one of “Aunt Clarissa’s” pound cakes. Now that I know the history behind the cake, it makes it even more special. Your story of winning the grand prize at the State Fair made me feel like I was right there with you in your kitchen and cheering for you when you won first prize. Obviously, memorable recipes and stories are most successful when they are created with love. I’m going to try my hand at baking Aunt Clarissa’s pound cake, which has evolved into Vicky’s, Mom’s, and Grandma’s pound cake depending upon whomever is the lucky recipient of that delicious and lovingly created cake.

    • This is such a great comment!
      Don’t worry you and Bob will have plenty more opportunities to enjoy the cake.
      Safe travels to New Hampshire and your beautiful new home!

  5. Vicky, love your writing and the recipe! Kudos all around. We celebrated Mother’s Day last week and I made this cake. It was appreciated by all. These heritage recipes (and memories) are the best!

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