Sometimes family recipes are even more mysterious than they seem. Writer Angela Brown recalls her grandmother’s famous dessert—and the moment it became hers to carry on.

By Angela Brown
Updated December 27, 2016
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My grandmother was a woman of closely held secrets. Her jewelry collection was kept under lock and key. The serums that preserved her smooth skin were shared only with her medicine cabinet. But the mystery she protected more than any other was a recipe for a family favorite: her strawberry-frosted layer cake.

By the time I was in my late 20s, I was a dedicated home baker and had tried repeatedly to duplicate my grandmother’s fabled dessert without much success. Occasionally, I’d complain to her (“Nanny, my cake turns out too dense”; “Nanny, my batter sticks to the pan”), hoping she’d offer assistance or inadvertently reveal a clue. But she remained reticent, the door to her kitchen forever closed while she created her confections.

As far back as I can remember, she’d show up on my parents’ suburban New Jersey doorstep on holidays and birthdays with a giant pastel cake balanced in her delicate hands. Everyone dipped a finger in the thick swirls of pink frosting, creating sugary familial hieroglyphics that multiplied until the dinner plates were cleared. After supper, we watched my mother’s serrated knife slide down to create the first slice, revealing moist layers of a cake as simple and classic as my grandmother’s pearls.

Nanny rarely ate cake herself, blaming her waistline or her medications. Instead, she sat back and watched the scene unfold: her great-granddaughter tucked in a high chair squeezing bits of frosting through her tiny fingers like clay; her full-grown grandkids savoring each bite; her son-in-law sneaking a second, then a third piece. Laughing and talking, we ate slice after slice until all that remained was crumbs.

Five years ago, at the start of Easter week, my 87-year-old grandmother was admitted to the hospital. What seemed at first to be a bad stomachache turned out to be an intestinal injury caused by an inadequate blood supply. For a woman of her age, the doctors informed us, surgery was not an option: The damage was past repair.

We spent the week shuffling through hospital corridors, where the nurses’ stations were decked out with garlands and colored paper eggs. My grandmother lay in bed, a labyrinth of plastic tubes and a thin cotton gown where one of her chic blouses should be. On Wednesday, when my mother suggested that we cancel Easter, my grandmother swatted her hand, bruised from IVs, in my mother’s direction. Cancel the holiday? Pfft.

“But who will make your cake?” I asked.

My grandmother and mother exchanged a smile. Without a word, it became clear: The task had been bequeathed to me.

“But I’ve never baked your cake,” I said.

“Trust me,” my mother said. “You’ll be fine.” Nanny patted my hand and told me to save her a slice.

In spite of the circumstances, the prospect of learning the recipe thrilled me. I envisioned my mother carefully handing over my grandmother’s tattered recipe card. Perhaps I’d learn that the secret to the airy batter was an artisanal cream cheese. Or that an expensive organic vanilla extract was what gave it that magical aroma.

Instead, the next day, when my mother and I went to Nanny’s home to retrieve her slippers, something entirely undramatic occurred. My mother unceremoniously swung open the pantry doors. And there, occupying two shelves, were rows of Betty Crocker SuperMoist Yellow cake mix. (Later I learned that if there was a sale at the supermarket, she would settle for Pillsbury.) Nearby were tubs of frosting—the same brand, in a flavor called Whipped Strawberry.

My mother smiled, noting my confusion. “What? You didn’t think she baked all those cakes from scratch, did you?”

But, of course, I did. My Nanny had always made such a fuss about her baking efforts. I’d always pictured a mess of sugar and eggshells, streaks of flour across her rouged cheeks. But that scene only existed in my head.

“I’m certain she didn’t just rely on boxed mixes,” I said, still in denial as I rummaged through the shelves for other ingredients. “She must have added something.”

“You’re right,” my mother said with a laugh, pointing to a plastic bottle filled with pale yellow vegetable oil. “She added this.”

Turns out, the rest of my family had always known the source of our favorite dessert. After all, the signs had always been there: picture-perfect punch-colored layers, too-good-to-be-true consistency every year. No one else was fazed, but the revelation left me with a sense of disappointment and moral conflict. I bake my own bread. I can my own jams. I pride myself on my weekly visits to a nearby organic farm stand. How could I make a cake from a box?

A few days later, I sat in my kitchen staring at glass jars full of whole-wheat flours and flaxseed and contemplated ways to make the cake less manufactured. Perhaps I could swap applesauce for the vegetable oil. Or mix up some homemade berry frosting.

I continued to brainstorm clever ways to manipulate my grandmother’s method. However, I couldn’t ignore the iconic red cake box that rested before me. I studied it and thought about my Nanny whisking together her signature store-bought mix for all the celebrations of my life. As I did, I began to accept that my healthful modifications were beside the point. What mattered was honoring the decades of memories my grandmother’s cakes had inspired for our family.

So I swallowed my pride. I peeled apart the thin cardboard, cut open the plastic bag, and poured the dry mix into a large bowl. I added the required ingredients—eggs, some water, a bit of oil—and waited while my kitchen filled with the familiar scent. Although we had never baked together, in that moment it felt as though my grandmother were right there beside me.

On Easter, our family gathered around my mother’s table. After dinner, I plated the cake. The room was quiet, the only sound fork tines on china. Everyone expressed enthusiasm for my efforts. But their faces revealed the truth: Something was off. Technically, my cake tasted like my grandmother’s, but it still lacked something. I thought that maybe I hadn’t used the right amount of frosting between the layers. Or maybe I didn’t sprinkle in enough coconut or jelly beans. Soon enough, I realized this sense of lack had nothing to do with ingredients or ratios; what was just missing from the cake was my grandmother.

Before the last piece was gone, the phone rang. My grandmother had taken a turn for the worse. We left the plates on the table and hurried to the hospital. In Nanny’s room, we gathered close, held hands, and said a prayer. One by one, we each said our good-byes to Nanny. When my turn came, I kissed my Nanny and whispered that I had made her cake. “It was good,” I said. “But it wasn’t the same.

About the author: Angela Brown is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Saveur and the New York Times. She lives in New Jersey with her family and is at work on her first novel.