Weddings, Women, Sweets, and Wishes

Weddings, Women, Sweets, and Wishes June 5, 2012

My heirloom cookbook was born during a Washington D.C. snowstorm in February of what was then called “The Year 2000,” in my final months of singlehood before I was to be married in July. That storm barely registers in the city’s memory now: it was neither the Blizzard of 1996, with its eight-foot-high snowbanks, 2003’s freak President’s Day storm, nor was it the incomparable Snowmageddon of 2010 (which I wrote about on Good Letters).

However, the storm in 2000 was significant enough—knee-high drifts under a gun-metal sky and the threat of more on the way—that work was cancelled for two days, and my roommate Paula and I lounged around the apartment filled with snow-glare-white light, drinking wine, ordering pizza (somehow Domino’s still delivered), and watching the first season of Survivor with her boyfriend Johan, who had crashed at our place for the fun.The second night we were housebound, Paula—a tall, raven-haired engineer originally from Bogotá—announced that she was going to bake a cake. Not just any cake—I, for one, was raised on Betty Crocker—but her Colombian grandmother’s homemade white cake. She went into the kitchen, and once she ascertained that, amazingly, we did have the many eggs and flour and baking powder and mountains of sweet cream butter required, began to separate eggs with the acumen she brought to technical drawing.

Paula beat a sweet yellow cake batter that, once it was poured carefully into floured cake pans, smelled high and sugary in the heat of the oven. The remaining egg whites she beat into thick stiff peaks, to which she added sugar until she’d beat a glossy meringue frosting—her grandmother Sophia’s treasured batido blanco—that held its shape when twirled with the back of a spoon. Once the layers were out of the oven and safely cooled, she sandwiched a layer of jam between them, and spread this thick luxuriant icing all across the top.

We ate. And we ate and we ate and we ate. I have had wonderful cakes in my time, but never one as purely delicious as this. It amazes me that the tight bodice of my ivory jacquard wedding dress still zipped up so easily at the next fitting, the skirt snug over foamy layers of tulle.

As eminently serious as always, Paula obliged with a typed multi-page and five-part list of instructions when I asked her for the recipe, and carried it as a bride into the first kitchen of my marriage. A year after that, Paula married Johan, in her own long dupioni silk skirt, wearing my simple tulle veil. (And now we each have two children and get to see one another perhaps twice a year.)

But I didn’t record the recipe for Sophia’s White Cake in my own hand, not until 2003, when I purchased a volume called The Dowry Cookbook by culinary professor Cynthia Salvato, designed to replicate the family recipe books given to Sicilian brides. The hardbound volume interspersed some of Salvato’s own recipes with gold-edged blank pages for creating a cookbook of one’s own, or one to give. While I was not Sicilian and had no major family recipes of my own to speak of, I had other recipes to remember.

Chief among them: the pecan ball cookies made by Mrs. Georgia Pistolas of Saint Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral. She’d worked in dentistry and been a business owner and had ended up in the finance department of the Republican Party, a tall, elegant and unfailingly kind woman who made these cookies for the Ladies’ Philoptochos Society Annual Tea as though they were tiny versions of Greek kourambiedes cookies, covered in powdered sugar and carefully arranged in mini-muffin cups on a fluted sterling-silver tray. Two years ago, I cried at her funeral with my surprise baby in my arms.

There’s also a delightful quick salad that was served by my friend, the writer Gina Bria, on a hot New York Sunday overlooking Riverside Drive: Salad: honeydew and blueberries tossed with lime juice and fresh mint.

I’ve been criticized about being essentialist on gender issues before, but it strikes me that there is something irreducibly female here about the ways emotion and longing get wrapped up in recipes and their transmission.

Most of my friends and I have husbands who typically do far more of the everyday cooking than we do: they are the wielders of the peppermills, the pourers of long draughts of balsamic vinegar from Modena. But they do not, for the most part, do sugar. Or icing. Or edible preserved flowers, or petits fours monogrammed with the initials of the bride.

A couple of years ago, my then-new friend Jehan hosted a party for another female friend who was facing an imminent health crisis. The centerpiece of the stunning table was Sparkling Rose Punch, in which floated pink rose petals and crystals of ice.

I copied the recipe down as I was still drinking the punch, and in the tradition of these female legacies, I offer it here. Watch out—it’s potent.

Sparkling Rose Punch:

6 teaspoons confectioners sugar or simple syrup
1 ½ cups club soda
2 ounces orange liqueur (Cointreau)
4 ounces brandy
4 cups chilled champagne
3 large mint sprigs
20-25 pale pink pesticide-free rose petals

Fill punch bowl with ice. Add first four ingredients. Stir in the champagne. Garnish, and serve.

Years later, our friend continues to flourish. In another couple of weeks, Jehan will herself be married, and I send her prayers and good wishes.

“We all deserve some sweetness in the end,” writes Susan Wood in a poem from her 1991 collection Camp Santo.

Blessings to Paula and Jehan and memory eternal to Georgia. I send the treasures of these recipes onward. Lord have mercy on us all.

(Note: I’d welcome any recipes and stories that you, too, might like to offer in the comment thread below.)

A native of Yazoo City, Mississippi, Caroline Langston is a convert to the Eastern Orthodox Church. She is a widely published writer and essayist, a winner of the Pushcart Prize, and a commentator for NPR’s “All Things Considered.”

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  • alyssasophia

    Very nice! And that punch was yummy.

  • Lola LB

    Oh, wow . . . I’m going to have to try this recipe! But I simply must have lots of people around to help me drink it up.

    When my sister got married, we all got together to make up a family cookbook for her. I think she still has it, as I’d like to see what recipes our mother had contributed. I, too, love to bake and once in a while I will get a craving for cake. My mother would often ask me to make pound cake. I used to make it so often that I pretty much had the recipe memorized. But, still, I just could never get that particular crust texture that I would see on the pound cakes that were sold at the bake table at mother’s church in my childhood. I wish I could go back in time and ask whoever made those cakes just what was the secret to getting this crust – the kind that looks like cakey browned pie crust, but very sweet.

    • Caroline

      Lola LB: Please post that recipe! Maybe we can collectively bake it and figure out the crust issue!

  • Beverly Parkison

    Oh, cousin, I really would like the cake recipe,the one you ate and ate and ate. After reading this maybe a gift to you of the” Christmas recipe book” would be in order. I still owe you Blinder Waffles and am waiting for your Christmas, or was it New Year, cake you and Alex bake.

  • Helen

    This is a wonderful essay! My heirloom recipe book is actually two volumes literally bursting at the seams. As a new bride, I started collecting favorites from the many military families we befriended as well as local, traditional dishes from the different parts of the country in which we lived. Over the years, the number of dishes I’ve placed in the clear plastic protectors could literally outlive my ability to create them all. But you know, the most treasured ones are from my mother and paternal grandmother, who were phenomenal cooks. Several of the well used and ingredient stained cards contain my mother’s own, precise, Palmer- perfect handwriting. These I could never discard. One of them has the recipe that I’ve made many times, and will share here.
    Nana’s Pineapple Upside Down Cake:
    – melt 1/4 cup butter in a large cast iron skillet (a cake pan in this instance will not do)
    – add 1 cup brown sugar and let it melt down
    -turn off heat
    -drain 1 large can crushed pineapple- save juice and add fruit to mixture and even out
    -place whole marachino cherries in whatever pattern you wish on the mixture and set aside
    – batter:
    3 eggs, separated 1 cup all purpose flour
    1 cup granulated sugar 1/4 tsp salt
    3/4 cup reserved pineapple juice 1 rounded tsp baking powder
    Beat egg yolks until creamy and gradually add in sugar. Sift flour, salt and baking powder. Add flour mixture to eggs/sugar alternating with the pineapple juice. Set batter aside. Whip egg whites until stiff and FOLD into batter. Pour over pinapple mixture in cast iron pan. Bake in oven @ 350degress for approx 35 min. or until knife comes out clean.
    Let cool for 10 minutes then invert on cake platter. I usually use a knife around the cake edge before inverting to keep the cake intact. May be served warm or cold with whipped cream or ice cream.

  • Lola LB

    Oh, yeah, Pineapple Upside Down Cake! My mother was famous for this. She would make this for special occasions.

  • angela

    When I use my grandmother’s wooden spoon, or my husband’s grandmother’s rice maker, or follow the family recipes past down four generations, I feel the love of those beautiful, giving, servants of their family.

    This article reminded me I am a part of their legacy as I teach my own children to cook.

  • Mary Frances Richards

    After having read your column in defense of fina china, I am backtracking. Several someones must be speaking to me through your writing, because now the keys are starting to blur as the tears fall. A recipe, in its purest form, is a memory of love. Perhaps the love is of an occasion, a home or for a person long departed but never forgotten. As we go through the motions of measuring and mixing, the familiar smells that emerge call forth the sweetness of a stilled voice, the sight of a special dress or apron, the touch of a tender hand upon our own in guidance.
    Below is my grandmother’s recipe for ice box rolls. She was not a blood relative but a grandparent of the heart. Do be careful, for there is not one whit of nutritive value in these rolls, yet a prodigious amount of calories and fat. Every single one of those calories will go straight to your ass, bypassing the stomach altogether.
    Valma Wood’s Rolls
    1 pint sweet milk
    1/2 cup lard (I use unsweetened butter)
    1/2 cup sugar
    20 grams of baker’s yeast
    Mix and scald until lard is melted and sugar dissolved. Let cool, add yeast and let flower. Add enough (white) flour to make a soft batter (like thick pancake mix – 3 or so cups). Set aside until double in bulk. Stir down and add 1/2 teaspoon – each – of salt, baking soda and baking powder. Add enough flour (again, white) to make a soft dough (like bread dough, ≈2 more cups). Place in a greased bowl, greasing the top of the dough. Cover and let stand in the refrigerator 24 hours before using. Bake at 400°F for 10-12 minutes.