Exactly one year ago today, Tim and I were up in the Chicago suburbs, driving out to the DuPage County courthouse to lift up our hands and solemnly swear that we were who we said we were and get the nice lady in the sea of cubicles to hand us our marriage license, our marriage license! I remember walking out of that building, into the crowded parking lot, hand in hand with Tim and thinking, our marriage license! It’s official now! Not just in terms of a giant dress in the closet and a chalkboard seating chart, but, as in, according to the government, we’re actually about to do this thing. Three days from now, we’re getting hitched!
I know I’ve said this here before, but, seriously, there are so many more details involved with planning a wedding than I ever would have imagined, and, when you plan your wedding fast, like we did in six months, you learn to scrap a lot of those details in the name of staying sane—like a wedding cake maybe. We had pretty much ruled it out, thinking that there’d already be a full meal and a full spread of a cookie table, so who needed a cake?
My mom, that’s who.
Listen, she’d been a champ about a lot of wedding things she’d originally seen a different way: my not having a veil, my seeing Tim before the wedding, no little boxes of Jordan almonds. But the one thing she violently disagreed on was not having a wedding cake. Cake is tradition. Cake tastes good. Plus, and this is where she hit my soft spot, cakes are the thing my grandma used to make for weddings as a caterer. We have these amazing black-and-white photos of her tall, tiered versions, usually with one of those vintage bride-and-groom sets on top, and oh, you guys, I can’t tell you how much I wish she could have still been alive to make mine last October.
So we talked about it and we talked about it, and we agreed: the next best thing to having your grandma, the one who taught you how to bake and love food, make your wedding cake is having your mom, who fed you before you knew she was feeding you, do it, especially when your mom is the kind of person who takes such intense pleasure in being the one to provide a meal.
It would be my gift to her to have one, her gift to me to make it, and, in the process, everyone would have some cake.
So months beforehand, Mom tested pumpkin cake recipes, almost giving up the idea once or twice. Turns out there are several truly bad cake recipes out there in the world and, not every recipe translates into three or four tiers.
But come our wedding day, her work was a thing of beauty. And that afternoon, she let the caterers transport the tall, dark, spiced cake topped with homemade cream cheese frosting down to the tent. It was simple, like us, no frills or iced flowers, and it was sweet and, honestly, I liked it quite a lot—partly because it tasted good, mostly because she made it for me.
Last week, remembering that cake and the work Mom put into it, I emailed her and asked for the recipe.
She sent ingredients.
Do you have directions, too? I wrote back.
She said cream the wet with sugar; mix the dry; combine it all.
Baking times? I wrote back. Size of pan? Oven temp?
And then the correspondence became a confusing, winding email chain of 9X13 pans and guessing on oven temperatures and the promise of a different, much better pumpkin cake recipe, which, if she had it to do over again, is the one she would have used for the wedding last year.
She had me laughing, and frustrated, and aware that when I talk to her I am looking at my future, and so an hour or two later, there I was, mixing ingredients in the kitchen like my mother’s daughter who was her mother’s daughter, according to a recipe she got from a Chicago news reporter or a lady at her old church or somewhere else, it’s still unclear, pouring it all into a greased and floured rectangle pan, letting the warm and autumn smell of it fill our kitchen.
I may not have wanted a wedding cake, but I’m glad we had one anyway, and I’m glad I made a version of it last week—moist and pumpkiny and wonderful layered with homemade whipped cream and nuts—so that when I looked at it, like I looked at my mom’s in a big white tent, I could think, heart full, that more than anything else?
My grandma would have loved this.
Makes a large bowlful of trifle or many individual ones; serves a crowd
I’ve had trifles on my mind ever since I attempted a paleo pumpkin bread a few weeks ago, found it too dry and ended up turning it into a trifle, which saved it, barely. If a dry pumpkin bread could be good in a trifle, imagine a moist pumpkin cake! I mean, really, what’s not to like about pumpkin cake layered with whipped cream, nuts and honey?
One 9X13 Pumpkin Cake (recipe below)
20 ounces (or more) heavy whipping cream
1 cup hazelnuts, toasted and chopped
Cinnamon, for sprinkling
Bake pumpkin cake and cut into cubes; set aside. In a large bowl, whip heavy cream until light and fluffy, adding just enough honey to make it sweet (maybe 1-2 tablespoons). Then, in a large glass bowl, create your trifle layers: cake chunks, whipped cream, drizzles of honey, sprinkles of cinnamon, hazelnuts; repeat.
My mom says this recipe comes from her book, and before that from the grandmother of Chicago newscaster Marianne Childers, who, incidentally, my brother and I met at a gas station once (the reporter, not the grandmother). I think he got her autograph. Mom adds, however, that she got this exact same recipe years before any connection to Childers’ recipe, back when I was just a kid, from a lady at the church I grew up in. These details, coupled with the fact that we’ve adapted it to use einkorn flour and Sucanat and coconut oil, make me want to just say, “adapted from my mom,” and be done with it—but, let’s be honest, the women in my family wouldn’t do that and, also, this story’s better.
2 cups einkorn flour (or your favorite flour; to sub spelt or wheat, you *may* want to up the oil slightly)
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups unrefined cane sugar (Sucanat)
1/2 cup coconut oil, brought to liquid state
2 cups pureed pumpkin or squash
Preheat oven to 350F. Grease and flour a 9 X 13 baking dish.
In a medium bowl, sift together flour, baking soda, cinnamon and salt.
in separate, large bowl, lightly beat 4 eggs. Add then add sugar, coconut oil and pumpkin puree; mix together. Add dry ingredients to this wet mixture and combine well.
Pour mixture into pan, and place in oven for 30 to 40 minutes. You’ll know the cake is done when a knife inserted in the center comes out clean.
About Shanna Mallon
Shanna holds an MA in writing from DePaul University. Her mantra? Restoring order and celebrating beauty through creative content, photography, and food. Shanna's work has been featured in Bon Appetit, The Kitchn, MSN.com, Everyday Health, Better Homes & Gardens, Houzz.com, Food News Journal, Food52, Zeit Magazine, Chew the World, Mom.me, Babble, Delish.com, Parade, Foodista, Entrepreneur and Ragan PR.