My Most Cherished Canadian Recipe
Close your eyes and imagine your childhood birthday parties: where were they, what did you do, what did you eat, and what kind of cake did you have?
My most cherished Canadian recipe is my great-grandmother’s homemade angel food cake first made in a dishpan with a quart sized canning jar baked into the middle of the glistening whipped egg whites.
I was born in 1955. My parents moved into their spanking new turquoise and stucco 1050 square foot 2 bedroom ultra-modern home a couple of months before I arrived. All of the young married couples up and down the block that year stayed for 25 years, at least. Pink, yellow, turquoise (ours), red, sky blue, brick, yellow, stucco, white, green, orange… happy homes all the way down the block. Each was different. All were bungalows with large front yards. The children in the neighbourhood grew up together.
In time, garages were erected in each backyard entering onto the alley. The wooden back fences were small enough to easily climb over, and the clotheslines were laden with billowing fabric every Monday. Mondays were the only day of the week there was a ban on burning garbage.
Summer birthdays were outside in the backyards. Up and down the block, all of the children the same age would be invited. In our neighbourhood, there were 7 of us: me, Sheila, Diane, Linda, Patty and Francis and David, the two boys. But, there were others we played with all of the time, particularly Mavis and Vivian. If Mavis came, Donna had to come. She was about 4 years younger, but that their family rule. If you invite Mavis, you invite Donna.
There would be balloons. Birthdays were the only times there were balloons, and that wasn’t a sure thing. Mom would use her white linen table cloth. I envied Patty and her sister Donna. They used pretty party table cloths with matching napkins and paper plate. “That is such a waste!” Mom would whisper whenever she would see that. “Why would anyone spend their hard earned money to use something once and throw it out?” Yet, she did sometimes buy party napkins for our parties. We probably begged. Everyone had the same take home goody baskets decorating the cake table: little plastic lacy cups with handles: blue for the boys, and pink for the girls.
There was always a party dress. Maybe that is why I am still such a diva. My mom certainly enjoyed herself dressing us up. Oh, my. Hair was curled and shoes were shone. Little lacy socks and just whatever the cutest little outfit you had was buttoned on and zipped up. Mom sewed, but our matching outfits were usually made for Easter and Christmas. Almost at once, everyone would be coming through the back gate with their parents and wrapped presents with beautiful ribbons and bows in hand dressed in their party clothes, hair slicked back or up.
Presents went on the table beside the cake. The cake. Well, that was a bit of a problem when we were really young. Kids are fussy eaters, but what do they all like? Yup. Chocolate cake with chocolate icing. Almost every single one. My mom didn’t make that kind of cake. Ever. I really didn’t think she knew how because we loved it so much, yet she never made it for us. Mom would make two birthday cakes. A half slab one layer rectangular chocolate cake with brown sugar icing. No decoration. “It is so much better than one with chocolate icing!” (And my adult palate definitely agrees.) And, the pièce de résistance: her famous homemade angel food cake with pink almond flavoured icing. That was the one placed on the glass pedestal in the middle of the table with little birthday candles on top and jelly candies and Smarties festively stuck into the side and on the top.
We would gather around the cake wishing to nab a candy off of the icing with no one noticing, until the next guest would come. Most often a couple would succeed. The games would start once all arrived. We played red rover, and tag, and hide and go seek. All in our good clothes. We could swing on the swing set and play in the yard – but, not in the sandbox. After lots of games, without prizes or any food treats which no one missed as no one expected any, there would be cake! On a hot day, there would be Kool-aid break during the game time. Rich families would have two colours and paper cups. The gift opening used to happen after the cake. No one would pay attention and everyone wanted to just go home with their treats. Sitting down for the birthday song, a yummy drink and the cake was the highlight of the party for all little guests. Cake was a big deal. It was only made for birthdays or special holidays. No one would pass up on a party with cake.
Gifts would be plastic little treasures that would last a week or two before they would break. I still remember the golf set that Francis gave to me. Two wooden handled golf club “woods” with massively huge plastic – one orange and one yellow – heads. The heads were stapled to the wooden handles and the white plastic golf ball was about as big as a tennis ball. Mom and dad were active golf players and I was so excited to get some golf clubs that I could touch! The boys were so rough with the set that they broke it before I even had a chance to play with it. The badminton set with the plastic birdie that I got from Mavis and Donna was another favourite. That lasted a long time and I loved it, but everyone was fighting over it. Remember the plastic cones you would get with a hard plastic ball inside? You would play with another person, press the button on the handle, the ball would pop out and the other person had to catch it in their cone and pop it out back to you. Video games are a lot more expensive, aren’t they?
We washed our hands and sat up on the kitchen table that was carried outside for the party, waiting while the cake was sliced and served, hoping to get a lot of candy on the icing. Some moms would put money in the cake wrapped in wax paper. Mom did it once, too. I never got the quarter, but got a nickle twice! No one ate the angel food cake, but me. The candy was picked off of the icing, but it was the chocolate cake that was snorfled up and all over everyone’s nice clothes when their parents came to pick them up at the end of the afternoon. The older kids got ice cream with their cake. I remember that rite of passage very well. Chocolate cake is actually better with ice cream than angel food cake. Angel food cake is perfect on its own.
The angel food cake has always been our family birthday cake. Fast forward 20 plus years. Mom made 25 perfect homemade angel food cakes for her mother’s 80th birthday tea. Every single one was frosted with that beautiful pink almond icing and every single one was eaten. Thirty plus years after that, mom is turned 80. I wanted to make the angel food cake for her birthday tea, but made little individual lovelies, instead.
She actually made it herself. She insisted, and that truly was the icing on the cake.
Preparing for this party, I asked mom about the very first angel food cake she could remember as I was curious about how ours is the only family I know who has this homemade angel food birthday cake tradition. She shared with me her first memory and I wrote about it at that time with detailed step-by-step instructions and photographs detailing her making this cherished family recipe. You will find the recipe there.
She recalled the old farmhouse was a flutter with activity when she was about ten years old. All of the woman in the family were plumping the pillows, dusting the rooms, and beating the rugs to get ready for something. When all converged to the kitchen, little Helen knew enough to keep out of the way. After gathering a huge bowl of eggs from the hen house, the women were whipping up fluffy egg whites. Someone carefully cleaned the largest dishpan. Taking turns to whip the egg whites into a white fluffy cloud, she recalled a massive round ended, yet flat, whisk “bigger than her head” each took turns using. A sterilized one-quart canning jar was placed in the middle of the dishpan and the airy eggy batter was gently swirled around it and placed into the wood-burning oven and watched very closely. It was turned often, as the fire was built on one side, and that side always cooked faster than the side away from the fire. Everyone had to be still when the oven was opened and the cake was turned so it wouldn’t fall.
That was the beginning of our family birthday cake tradition…. In 1940, in a dishpan, with flowers in the quart jar: the celebratory cake for her grandmother and grandfather’s 50th wedding anniversary. I was mesmerized by this story. “it be wonderful if she had a photograph of it, mom!” Her eyes lit up and she sat for a minute, then rose from the couch, and came back very shortly with this photograph. I did not believe it either.
This story and heritage recipe is a cornerstone of my Canadian family food tradition and is My Most Cherished Canadian Food Recipe. As I carry on the family’s Angel Food Birthday Cake tradition, I am proud to know that our first angel food cake that can be recalled in our family was that of my maternal great grandmother, Etta Iris (Kling) Morrical (Born June 21, 1874) and her husband, Alberta Lincoln Morrical (born September 18, 1862, married for 50 years in 1940 made in a dishpan around a quart jar. The roses were cut from the bushes lining the house.
And now, the descendants of this proud farm family, so many years later, share the same beautiful cake, at every family birthday.
In the black and white photo my great-grandmother is standing beside the cake. I remember her wide and loving smile as she would wrap her wrinkled and flappy arms around me. Her bosom was ample and tired and soft, and a wonderful place to be. She had given birth to 13 children through her long life and had her two eldest beside her with her husband and some of her grandchildren in this photograph. My grandmother, Maude, was somewhere in the middle of this clan, born in 1898. My great grandfather had died before my birth.
Tonight, my dad asked me to call my mom to come and stay with him at the hospital. Tonight, he couldn’t be alone. My dad is my hero. While I publish this cherished family recipe, I am praying for my dad and am so thankful for the wonderful parents I have been truly blessed to have as part of my life for so many years…. and so many homemade angel food cakes.