Aunty Em Saves the Day

My memories, especially my early years on the farm, allow me to return for a while, relive the sights and scents, and experience once again the warmth of special occasions that my family always enjoyed.  To go there I relax while being supine, put my head on a soft pillow, close my eyes and suddenly Momma is in the kitchen baking, cooking, smiling or planning something new to surprise us.

My birthday was on the horizon and Momma always made plans early, but this year she had not shared them with me.  I wondered if she wanted to surprise me with the celebration as she did when I was young.

My seventh birthday fell on Father’s Day like the day I was born.  My birthday continues to land on every other Leap Year.  On that, first Leap Year Birthday Momma made a huge chocolate torte, wrapped it in white butter cream, and adorned the sides with blue swags.  On top of the cake was a figurine of a man in a black tuxedo with a gold crown and specula and a deep rose, satin cape with a long train edged in white fur.  The cake read “Two Kings for the Day”!  I was giddy–I too would be a King for the day.  Later that day Momma helped me wrap the cake top in tissue paper and placed it in my little trunk.  I wanted to keep it to remind me of how special I felt that day.  Many, many years later I looked through the keepsakes in the trunk and among them was the little figurine Since then I have used it as an ornament on my Christmas Tree and twice have used on a cake for my father and me.

As I sat at the kitchen table watching Momma work, I decided not to ask what she was planning for my birthday.  I would find out soon enough.  I assumed Momma would make the same cake as last year, because then I told her it was going to be my favorite birthday cake.

At my sixteenth birthday, Momma made an incredible Citrus Torte.  Its three layers were split and filled with a rich pastry cream and fresh strawberry slices Then Momma covered the outside of the torte with a thick layer of the pastry cream, refrigerated the torte for awhile and then covered everything in swirls and clouds of freshly whipped and sweetened heavy cream.  The sides of the torte was covered with fresh strawberry halves highlighted with tiny green leaves and the top held a ring of giant, fresh, lightly glazed, Jumbo Strawberries.  I was sure it would be the torte for this year!

My day arrived, as always, in the middle of June when farmers are busy in the fields and wives must attend to the gardens and blooming flowers.  Regardless of the added work, Momma always had a celebration for me.  I hoped that she would ask for some help, yet every time she was busy in the kitchen she would give me other tasks than any work for my birthday.  Fortunately, the day before my birthday Aunty Em called to say she was coming to the farm to help my mother the following day.

Aunty Em was not a real aunt, but was a dear friend of the family and a neighbor of my real Aunt’s in town.  She lived in a trailer behind the house she had lived in with her husband.  Now that he had died, Aunty Em’s family bought her a trailer, moved her in and had her grandson and wife live in the house.  The transition was very difficult for Aunty Em.  She missed her home and missed having her own yard to garden and plant flowers.  My mother started having her come to the farm to work with her or when there was free time, we would go to Aunty Em for afternoon coffee.  Coffee at Aunty Em’s was great.  She made a very simple, but extraordinary coffee cake.  I tried not to eat so much of it, but Aunty Em knew how much I loved it and would send me home with the leftovers.

She gave my mother her recipe.  Momma and I each made the little coffee cake.  Where Aunty Em’s coffee cake was an eight-inch, one and a half inch high, flat topped cake topped with a thick layer of sugar and cinnamon; ours always had a hump and the sugar/cinnamon mixture would crack.  Ah, Aunty Em’s was far better and when you had a slice and slathered it with soft butter, you knew you had the best!

When Aunty Em arrived, Momma was baking my cake.  Momma had the baking time to sit with Aunty Em to divide the tasks that needed to be done.  Aunty Em told Momma she would take care of all the dinner prep work, the dirty dishes and get all the dishes, flatware, napkins, glasses, etc. for Momma to set the table.  When she finished her work, she could help Momma further.

I woke up late on my birthday and after I came down stairs Momma told me to go over to my Aunt’s (my father’s sister) because she had the day planned around my birthday.  As I, left I looked around the kitchen.  Momma’s work counter was crowded with trimmed vegetables and Aunty Em was busy washing some pots and pans with a smile on her face and humming to herself.  She had said many times how appreciative she was that my mother had her out so often to help.  She always said she enjoyed the work and that anything was better than sitting in her trailer all alone.  My immaturity was evident when I wondered why work would be better than being able to do nothing!!

My Aunt, Uncle and I arrived a little before the time Momma had set.  Just as soon as I walked in the kitchen door Momma told me my clothes were on my bed and asked me to quickly change because everyone was here!  Momma called everyone to the table when she saw me downstairs.  I felt so uncomfortable being the center of attention; I preferred helping Momma serve dinner on nights like this one.

I knew the time had come; Momma and Aunty Em were clearing the last few dinner plates and resetting the table for dessert. Then she would return carrying a birthday cake while singing “Happy Birthday” to me.  This year I saw Aunty Em motioning everyone to start singing.  When Momma arrived in the middle of the double doors to our dining room suddenly everyone started laughing which included a couple of snickers!

On a large, round silver platter was a huge mound covered with swirls of whipped cream.  The entire mound was then covered with fresh strawberry halves, tiny green leaves and small birthday candles.  For some reason, the cake reminded me, because of its shape, of a big Baked Alaska that hadn’t been browned.

Momma walked around the table to me.  My mouth opened and as she neared, I looked up to see a tiny tear coming from her eye.  She was not smiling at all.  I asked timidly, “Momma what happened?”  She suddenly started singing and motioned for everyone to join in.

After they finished singing, Momma gave me a kiss, told me to blow out my candles and then said to me: “Honey, your cake was so pretty when I finished it.”

Momma made the Citrus Torte but it cracked down the middle in four or five places while it was being stored in the refrigerator.  The cake was too large and fresh for assembly.

The question became which would win:
Momma wanted to throw the cake away.  It was no longer perfect.
Aunty Em wanted to keep the cake and reassemble it.

Aunty Em won and devised the plan of reassembly.  Everyone agreed the cake was unusually good.  As I ate a huge piece, I thanked Aunty Em for saving the cake and my day.  The result of her help was a cake that seems as though it had been turned inside out.  The creamy filling now was mixed with the outside cream so that each nugget of cake had filling, frosting and fruit.   I told Momma many years later that this particular birthday cake was the best because it had the greatest taste and texture and through the years it sealed a memory  and placed it deep within my heart forever!!

My Mother continued to make the Citrus Tortes for as many of my birthday’s as she could. The last Torte that she made for me was in 2002 in Arizona. It was as spectacular as the first one. In the years in between there never was another mishap and I never forgot my 17th birthday!
Momma wanted to start a tradition with the Citrus Torte because she felt it was the last birthday for me on the farm. She was right. During the next two summer’s I worked in East Hampton following my graduation from the Culinary Institute of America. The following year two years I was either at an Army camp at home or in Vietnam. After that term of service my summer’s continued to keep me from traveling home for Momma’s special torte. For many of those working years Momma arrived at my door. My father had an ice cooler and inside were the makings for a torte. As soon as Momma rested after her arrival she would tell me it was time for me to take her to the store. She needed heavy cream and fresh strawberries.

This is the recipe for an incredible cake and filling.
It is best when you frost it with the whipped cream and accompany it with strawberries.
I hope you enjoy—-

Citrus Cake
2 ½ cups sifted cake flour
2 tsp baking powder
¼ tsp salt
1½ tsp grated lemon rind
1 tbsp grated orange rind
⅔ cup butter
1½ cups sugar
3 eggs, unbeaten
2 tbsp lemon juice
6 tbsp orange juice
¼ cup water
Sift flour once, measure, add baking powder and salt, and sift together three times.
Add lemon and orange rinds to butter, and cream well; add sugar gradually and cream together until light and fluffy.
Add eggs, one at a time, beating thoroughly after each. Add flour, alternately with combined fruit juice and water, a small amount at a time, beating after each addition until smooth.
Bake in two greased 9-inch layer pans in moderate oven (375°F) 20 minutes, or until done.
This cake may be baked in two greased 8×8×2-inch pans in moderate oven (375°F) 20 minutes, or until done.
When the cake is done and you have removed it from the pan, carefully wrap in plastic wrap and freeze, or keep in the refrigerator for one day. The cake is a very tender cake and it must not be set together immediately or it could crack. WILL AUNTY EM BE THERE FOR YOU?

Pastry Cream
6 egg yolks.
Pinch salt.
¾ cup sugar
four tablespoon flour.
1½ cups half-and-half cream.
2 teaspoons vanilla
Add salt and sugar to the egg yolks and beat until thick and very light. Add the flour and beat until smooth.
Scalp for cream and pour into eggs slowly and stir briskly. Return to saucepan and place over low heat stirring till mixture is thickened. Keep stirring until mixture is smooth. Remove from heat and strain.
Add the vanilla. If you want a firmer cream to ensure it does not weep in any way soften 1/2 packet gelatin in 1/8 cup water. Heat gently until clear. Cool and whip into the prepared cream..
If not used right away stir until smooth before using.
Servings: 3 cups
Cool. Cover with a piece of buttered waxed paper.
Whipped Cream
Prepare 2-3 times the stabilized whip cream recipe.
1 tsp. plain gelatin
2 tbsp. cold water
1 c. whipping cream
3 tbsp. powdered sugar
1/2 tsp. vanilla
Add gelatin to cold water in small pan. Set this over boiling water until it is clear. Do not stir. Cool to room temperature. Meanwhile whip the cream until it is medium thick. Pour gelatin mixture into the center of cream while mixer is going. Pour in the gelatin all at once and continue beating. Add powdered sugar and vanilla. Beat until cream stands in stiff peaks. Use as frosting for cakes or dessert decoration.

Assembly of Torte
Split both layers of the citrus cake. And follow the diagram for the assembly. Each of the fillings may have sliced, fresh strawberries added to the mixture.
After filling the layers, frost the outside and the top of the cake with pastry cream.
Place the cake in the freezer for 10-15 minutes to set. Then remove and frost the entire outside with the stabilized whipped cream.
Top the cake with glazed, whole strawberries and ring the bottom sides of the cake with halved, glazed strawberries.
To glaze the strawberries, brush with gently melted clear, strawberry jelly.
After the torte is frosted and decorated with the strawberries, PLEASE REMEMBER, to put in the refrigerator and hold until time to serve!!


4 thoughts on “Aunty Em Saves the Day

  1. What a wonderful story to go along with a delicious recipe! I’m so happy that your mother always made your birthdays memorable for you.

    And thank God for Aunty Em. She realized that the perfection was in the heart of your mother and that would be reflected in the cake, no matter the accident.

    I tried to make my kids’ birthdays special, too. That’s what momma’s do!

    I definitely want to try this recipe!


  2. Yep–Lynda, the cake is very good! I hope you like it! Aunt Emmy (as we really called her) was the sweetest lady and it was so sad when her family just moved her out of her house and into a trailer. That was the last day her house was ever cleaned!! And so she sat watching and never said anything, even quiet in her death.
    Thanks for reading again–Frank


  3. I’m sorry for your auntie’s sadness in her twilight years. My grandmother was kind of like that, too. It hurts to see someone you love withdraw from life.


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