On my dad’s side of the family, I don’t think a birthday went by without a celebration at my grandma’s (well, I called her Nanaw) house. If I close my eyes and concentrate just enough, I swear I can almost take myself back there. From turning into her long gravel lane and up to the small house on the hill to the end of the boisterous family affair full of jokes and laughs, I can envision every detail as if it happened yesterday.
The candles are lit, the lights go out, all sing, then darkness. If it’s my birthday, the July heat settles thickly in the room, occasionally interrupted by a pathetic breeze that drifts through and rustles the thin white cotton curtains. The dulled sounds of… maybe it’s Jeopardy?… drift in, unwatched, from an adjacent room. Someone switches the light back on and lifts the darkness.
My parents, my sister, aunts, uncles, cousins, and Nanaw all reappear, crammed around the floral vinyl tablecloth-covered kitchen table, most likely doubling up in the chairs to make room for us all. It’s about that time that the all too familiar smell of freshly extinguished birthday candles hits my nose. That smell, Pavlovian in its effect, triggers the only response I know: prepare for cake. And if it’s a birthday at Nanaw’s house, we’re eating Bonnie Butter Cake.
My Aunt takes charge of slicing the cake, divvying it out onto paper plates alongside a massive scoop of Edy’s vanilla ice cream. Nanaw passes out cups of Coke or ginger ale. There’s a 97% chance that it went flat about 2 weeks ago but I drink it anyway. The cake is the same as it’s always been and I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s buttery, as its name implies, sweet, and fluffy but the real star is the caramel icing, the sort that gets an ethereally thin crispy and flaky shell that shatters as my fork breaks into it. It’s an intense toffee sort of flavor and needs the cake and ice cream to mellow it out a bit.
If I’m lucky, there will be a few slices left that I can wrap up to take home with me. I’ll nibble on it bit by bit, drawing out its existence as long as I can. In the meantime, all of us, dazed in a post-cake coma, continue chatting around the table. I hear stories from my dad and his siblings. We all laugh as they regale us with tales of the antics they got up to as kids growing up on a dairy farm. Nanaw, the last to sit down with her slice of cake and ice cream, sits by quietly, shaking her head occasionally at the rowdy rest of us. We continue for hours, long after the residual bits of ice cream have melted on our plates, yet the sweet taste of Bonnie Butter Cake seems to linger on the palate, a taste I’ll never forget.
When Nanaw died one year ago today, I worried that my mind would not be able to move past the memories I had of her in her final years. She was still the same person, of course, but old age and illness took their tolls. But time went on and before I knew it those final images trickled away and the happier memories returned. Memories of the woman who watched as I learned how to ride a bike in her backyard, who watched over me during the summer while my parents were at work, withstanding the countless hours of The Price is Right I put her through. The woman who let me sit in the middle of her old white pickup truck and shift gears when she pressed the clutch (which probably was not legal), who let my cousins and I parade through her garden to find rotten vegetables to make our “witch’s brew” in a 5-gallon bucket. The woman who made us Bonnie Butter Cake year after year because we all knew it wouldn’t really feel like a birthday without it.
Other than knowing that Nanaw made this cake for more family birthdays than I can remember, I hardly know any more about it. Where did she get the recipe? When was the first time that she made it? Was it her favorite cake? I may not ever know the answers, but rather than dwell on the questions I can no longer ask, maybe remembering what I do know is the most important thing. I know that Nanaw lives on in the blood that runs through my veins, in my memories that I have and share with others, and through the things she’s left behind, things like a cake recipe scratched onto an old bit of paper.
Bonnie Butter Cake
Makes one 2-layer cake
Note: the ingredients list for the cake and the entire recipe for the caramel icing is written exactly as it is on my grandmother’s hand-written recipe. Instructions for making the cake were not included so I wrote those on my own.
For the Cake
2/3 cup butter or margarine
1¾ cups sugar
1½ teaspoon vanilla
3 cups Softsilk cake flour (I actually used King Arthur)
2½ teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1¼ cups milk
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and thoroughly butter 2 cake pans. Cream the butter and sugar together in an electric mixer for 4 minutes on medium speed until it’s light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, scraping down the sides and the bottom of the bowl after each. Add the vanilla and mix until combined.
Add the flour, baking powder, and salt into a separate bowl and use a whisk to combine. With the mixer on a medium-low speed add a third of the flour mixture. Once combined, add half of the milk. Add another third of the flour, then the rest of the milk, and finally the last of the flour. Turn to a medium speed to fully incorporate for about 15 seconds. Divide the batter between the two cake pans and bake for 30-35 minutes until golden and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Let the cakes cool in the pans until just warm then transfer to a cooling rack to finish cooling completely before frosting.
For the Caramel Icing
"Mix together thoroughly in saucepan, 1½ cups brown sugar (packed in cup), 3/8 cup milk (¼ cup plus 2 Tbsp.), 3/8 cup shortening, ¼ tsp. salt. Bring slowly to a full rolling boil, stirring constantly, and boil for 1 minute. Remove from heat and beat until lukewarm. Add ¾ tsp. vanilla. Continue beating until thick enough to spread. If icing becomes too thick to spread, add about 1 tsp. cream. Icing for 2-layer cake."