My Family is Connecting Generations 80 Years Apart Through Cake
By Laura Mullin
Sep 2, 2022
In 1942, on a February day in North Bay, Ontario, my grandparents Bill and Kae were married in Kae’s father’s living room. Five days later, Bill went overseas to war. They didn’t see each other again for almost three years.
In the days leading up to the wedding, Bill’s mother, affectionately called Ma, hosted a bridal shower for Kae. She invited all the guests at the party to write their favourite recipes into a handmade cookbook for the war bride. Ma’s contribution to the book was a cherry cake recipe made of simple ingredients available during the era of food rationing.
"She invited all the guests at the party to write their favourite recipes into a handmade cookbook for the war bride."
That cake has gone on to infamy in my family, spanning five generations and counting.
When the dessert came on my radar 40 years later, my great aunt had taken ownership of it. It became known as “Aunt Annie’s Wedding and Funeral Cake.” Aunt Annie was a larger-than-life personality with a signature style of crystal-encrusted cat-eye glasses, short permed blond hair and oversized drop earrings.
Her interpretation of the confection reflected her unique flair. She’d add food colouring to the icing, transforming it from boring beige to neon green or electric yellow garnished with red and green maraschino cherries. No matter how it was adorned, it was always a hit.
Annie served the cake at weddings, funerals, parties and, my favourite, family reunions. For me, the dessert became synonymous with childhood summers visiting my mom’s extended family in North Bay. There we waded on the sandbars of Lake Nippissing, dodged shadflies and ate corn dogs on warm nights.
A Cake For Weddings
When I got married, I didn’t need to taste 10 pieces of cake to know the one I wanted for my special day. I knew we would serve my Aunt Annie’s Wedding and Funeral Cake. And while Ma and Annie were long gone, my mom, Susan, stepped up to the plate and made an elegant version of the legendary cake — cream-coloured, dotted with red cherries, blush pink icing on top.
"Whenever it gets served, [my daughter and niece] love to hear the lore of where the recipe came from and why it's so special to our family."
The cake appeared at various family events over the years. Sometimes the pastry took a backseat to newer and sexier desserts. It had almost completely faded into the background when my mom revived it and started making it for Christmas Eve dinner.
She served it with another cherished family recipe, Kirkland Lake Spaghetti Sauce, a clandestine recipe Bill scored from the Kirkland Lake Hotel's chef in 1960 when they left the town after living there for almost a decade. That recipe was so confidential it feels almost scandalous to admit this all these years later. My dad John has taken over that recipe and makes a mean sauce.
My daughter and niece have grown up enjoying Aunt Annie’s Wedding and Funeral cake. Whenever it gets served, they love to hear the lore of where the recipe came from and why it's so special to our family. To them, it tastes like Christmas.
And Funerals, Too
In April of this year, three days shy of her 100th birthday, my grandmother Kae passed away. Instead of a funeral, we threw her the 100th birthday party that she didn’t get to have. Of course, my mom served Aunt Annie’s Wedding and Funeral cake. It had been nearly 80 years since Ma had handwritten the recipe into her bridal cookbook. A bittersweet bookend.
"The dessert helped connect our family and cope with our grief."
A second cousin of my mom's, whom I’d only had the pleasure of meeting once before, came to the party. She looked at the cake, turned to my mom and asked, is that what I think it is? Even though we didn’t know each other well, we all knew the cake. The dessert helped connect our family and cope with our grief.
To prepare this article, my mom pulled out the original recipe from Kae’s book. She and my 14-year-old niece, who is now proficient at the recipe, blended the ingredients together in a bowl. My 15-year-old daughter watched from the sidelines, stealing maraschinos when they weren’t looking. I licked the icing from the spatula and thought about Ma.
I couldn’t help but think how touched she would be to know her great-great-granddaughters were making and enjoying her cake all these years later. Would she have guessed that such a simple thing would help keep her memory alive and unite our family for generations?
I wondered how long she had that recipe before she wrote it down on that fateful day in 1942. Did she bring it over with her from England before she was Ma to a girl named Olive? Perhaps our relatives have been sharing this cake for generations before us. We’ll never know.
Now, if you’re like me and all this talk of cherry cake has put you in the mood for a slice, it would be my honour to pass on this recipe from my family to yours. I can assure you that the mixture of sugar, flour and fat that has bonded my family is more than just a sentimental treat. It’s also pretty darned delicious.
And that, dear reader, is the icing on the cake.
What You'll Need
- ½ cup butter
- 1 cup sugar
- 2 eggs
- 1 cup of milk
- 2 tsp baking powder
- 2 cups of flour
- 1 pinch of salt
- 1 bottle of maraschino cherries
How It's Made
- Cream butter and sugar together.
- Mix dry ingredients and set aside.
- Add alternately with wet ingredients to butter and sugar, mixing each time.
- Drain bottle of maraschino cherries and cut them in half, saving some for decoration.
- Fold into the cake batter.
- Bake in a 350-degree oven in a greased and floured 8x8 or 9x9 square pan.
- Bake for 35-40 minutes. Test for doneness with a toothpick.
- When cool, ice in the pan with buttercream, tinted pink with juice from cherries or red food colouring. Cut in squares, decorating each piece with a cherry.
- Bring to all family occasions, especially weddings and funerals.
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