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Grandpa’s Favorite Spice Cake

September 16, 2010

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My Grandparents both passed away this last April. Their deaths were unexpected: Both were pretty healthy for being 80 years old, and had just returned from spending the winter with my parents in San Diego, which they’ve been doing every year for the last 15 years. My Grandma had a stroke one spring afternoon while out tending her garden, and a week later, my Grandpa passed away of a heart attack. It’s a blessing that neither of them suffered, that they didn’t have to endure years of failing health and illness, that they lived together in their home until the end, and that they were surrounded by family in the days and weeks before they passed. But these blessings come with the sadnesses of unanticipated loss: There are so many things I never got to ask them, never got to learn, never got to understand about their histories, and their lives together.

Like most people, a lot of my family memories revolve around shared meals and food: beer cheese soup and summer sausage sandwiches every Christmas Eve; baking pies with Grandma in the summer and anticipating the scraps of dough, baked with cinnamon and sugar, as a treat; watching Grandpa grind potatoes with his old hand-cranked grinder for his famous potato pancakes; dusting Grandma’s funnel cakes, fresh out of the fryer, with powdered sugar; spreading peanut butter and honey over fried bread dough and calling it dinner. And even though I have countless kitchen memories shared with them, when I came across my Grandma’s ring of faded and smudged recipe cards in her kitchen last spring, I realized how many more family stories there were to share that I am never going to know about. Grandma’s recipes were the only thing I really wanted when my aunts and uncles started cleaning out their house.

When I got those recipe cards in a box from my mom a few months later, I couldn’t bring myself to look through them right away. I set the box aside, until my mom came to visit a few weeks ago, and mentioned a spice cake that she wanted to make.

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I’d never heard of this spice cake, but apparently, whenever Grandma and Grandpa went to visit her mother, my Great Grandma Jankord, Grandma Jankord made this cake, and it was Grandpa’s favorite. My mom doesn’t remember her own mother ever making this cake. And right there, I realized there was another story I’d never really know. But what I could know was this spice cake, so we decided to make it.

I can see why it was Grandpa’s favorite. It’s dense and moist and smells of fall and upcoming holidays. The frosting is buttery and tastes faintly of caramel, and a little of maple. My mom said when she had it, it was baked to be more like a bar than a cake: thinner and a little crispier at the edges. That might explain why the center of this cake collapsed a bit and needed some extra oven time to bake completely through. No matter, it still tastes wonderful.

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The frosting is not particularly stiff, and so it, too, might have worked out better if these were baked as bars, rather than a cake. There was a lot of drippage, and now that I think about it, it’s really more of a glaze. But I could have forgone the cake completely and eaten this frosting with a spoon. It would probably be terrific drizzled on top of cinnamon rolls or scones, for a special caramel flavor.

Here is Grandma’s original recipe card:

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Helen Jankord’s Spice Cake

For the cake

  • 1 cup butter or shortening (I used unsalted butter)
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 3 cups flour
  • 4 teaspoons unsweetened cocoa
  • 1/4 teaspoon cloves
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon allspice
  • 2 cups buttermilk
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda

For the frosting/glaze

  • 6 tablespoons butter
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 1/3 cup whole milk
  • 1 1/2 cups powdered sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt

Preheat the oven to 350F.

Cream together the butter and sugar (an electric mixer is a godsend for this). Add the eggs, one at a time, and beat thoroughly.

Stir together the flour, cocoa, cloves, cinnamon, and allspice, and stir into the egg and butter mixture. Beat in the buttermilk and baking soda.

Spread into an 8 x 12 inch baking pan (I used a 9 x 9 inch pan). Baking for about 45 to 50 minutes, or until a toothpick or knife inserted into the center comes out clean. We had some funny problems with the center baking through but the edges not, and some collapsing, and ended up needing to bake it for close to an hour. But it turned out alright in the end, so don’t worry if things seem a little…off.

While the cake is cooling, make the glaze. Melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium-low heat. Add the brown sugar and the milk, and bring the mixture to a boil. Cook for about two minutes, then remove from the heat and let cool.

Once the butter mixture is cooled, beat in the powdered sugar, vanilla, and salt. My Grandma says the texture is greatly improved by using an electric mixer. Once it’s thickened a bit and the sugar is well mixed in, spread it (or pour it) over the top of the cake. Let it set, then cut into slices (or bars, like a brownie).

Dripping Glaze

I plan to cook a lot more of the recipes from my Grandma’s kitchen, and even if I don’t know her stories behind them, I will be able to create my own stories around them, share them with you, and hopefully someday pass them down to my own family. And that is really the best part about cooking. Well, that and eating delicious things like this cake.

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13 Comments leave one →
  1. Linda Harmsen permalink
    September 18, 2010 7:08 am

    Love it.

  2. Randy and Michele Jankord permalink
    September 18, 2010 8:28 am

    We love the story and Randy is particularly interested in Bud”s potato pancakes! Randy makes them too and didn’t know about Bud’s recipe. If you would like to share just email if not that’s ok too.

  3. Kevin Saufley permalink
    September 18, 2010 11:45 am

    Laura you just made me crave grandma’s cake. I douby you will find anything in writing for your grandpa’s potato pancakes so I’ll give it to you to share with the world because everyone should eat these at least once. This recipe will make about 1 gallon of mix : 5 lbs of red potatoes ; 2 large onions ( or to your taste ) ; 5 eggs ( use 1 egg for 1 lb. of potatoes ) & 3/8 – 1/2 cup off cooking oil . Peel your raw potatoes & onions and grind them with a medium blade in your hand grinder ( but I’m sure a food processer will work fine ). Add the eggs & oil and stir together. Your griddle should be pre-heated 400 or hotter. Spoon your mixture in small ( 4 inch ) thin cakes ( make sure you have liquid in each spoon full ). When the top is almost dry flip it. Keep your mixture stirred up so the liquid doesn’t separate. Enjoy !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Love ya, Kevin

    • September 20, 2010 7:14 am

      Thanks, Kevin! I suspected it wasn’t written down anywhere and I’d have to convince one of you to share, so I’m grateful! I can’t wait to make them myself…although I think I’ll seriously have to scale down the recipe. :-)

  4. Christina permalink
    September 19, 2010 5:12 am

    What a lovely post. Thank you for sharing.

    I empathize completely. My maternal grandmother, though living, has deteriorated to the point where she now sadly lives in a nursing home and is spoon fed mush because anything else presents a choking hazard. It’s a sad end for a woman who cooked for 8 children and their families, well into her late 70s. The world seemed to revolve around her kitchen. The worst thing about her illness is that it’s neurological (Parkinsonian), and confusion set in along with reduced motor function. Aside from a handful of recipes here and there, there are so many secrets that have faded with her. She was literate, but not very, and wrote very little down. I find myself experimenting with other people’s versions of the same recipes so that I can hopefully stumble upon her versions…

    Treasure your Grandma’s recipe box. The header on the recipe card is so right, wherever you’re from! May your kitchen be filled with the warmth of your grandparents’ love.

  5. Katy permalink
    September 19, 2010 9:53 pm

    Thank goodness that in their age, good handwriting was a virtue! I recently had a similar experience with my grandmother’s recipes, my heart goes out to your loss, and I hope your adventure in knowing your grandparents through their food is as satisfying as it sounds! I personally enjoy the gastro-archaeology, even when it takes a while to perfect.

  6. September 20, 2010 7:15 am

    Thanks to everyone for your kind comments! I’m looking forward to sharing more…and learning more from all my awesome aunts and uncles.

  7. kim e. permalink
    September 21, 2010 4:59 pm

    Wow, this post made me cry, smile and truly made me value my grandparents and their stories. I was at my g’parents this weekend and gave them extra love….and pilfer from my grandmother’s stash of recipes :)

    • September 22, 2010 6:37 am

      Well, I’m sorry I made you cry, but I’m glad you enjoyed it. You should share some of your grandmother’s recipes! Especially if she has any good casserole recipes…

  8. September 23, 2010 5:10 pm

    I emailed this post of yours to some relatives – my grandma, a couple of aunts, my mom – and wanted to share the results.

    First, my G’ma printed it out and put it on the kitchen counter, which means she’s about to make it (which means I’m about to eat it without having to exert any effort whatsoever. SCORE!).

    Second, my aunt replied today with this: “Thanks for sharing. This came at the end of a very frustrating and low-productivity day so it was good to get some perspective on what really counts: loved ones and food. Love ya!!!”

    • September 24, 2010 6:23 am

      I hope you and your Grandma enjoy the cake! And thanks for your comment: It’s always nice to hear that people and enjoy and share what I write up here.

  9. November 5, 2010 10:59 am

    I loved reading this. I was shocked and amazed that your grandmother’s handwriting looks the SAME as mine! It must have been the way they were taught. While my sister got most of the ‘stuff’ when she died, I got the best ‘stuff’. A crystal necklace and earrings that are OLD and gorgeous, gloves [b/c sister’s hands were too big, hurray!] and Moggie’s recipe box.

    I remember the days of making cinnamon rolls, with pecans and brown sugar and butter and the extra scraps baked up with cinnamon and sugar too. oh gosh, aren’t those awesome memories?

    and the hours spent first cutting/picking blackberries or asparagus out in the fields surrounding Sacramento, Ca, and then Mog making the pies and we all cutting, blanching, freezing BUSHELS of asparagus, or corn, or whatever it was we had.

    Moggie’s kitchen was the place to be. She had whirlygigs in the corners, [lazy susans on steroids], an oven that was up high, one did not have to bend over to get in it, a bottom freezer on her fridge and a stove with cabinets underneath.

    Thanks Kevin, for the spud cake recipe. I used to cook them with a bit of flour, egg, onions, spuds in oil. Use a sweet onion, they are better.

    I have NO desire to start a blog on recipes, but I will contribute to yours if you’d like? It would be neat to have a place for all of the old recipes.

    I will try my hand on this cake, using Just Like Sugar brown sugar for 1 cup of the real sugar and .5 cup of real brown sugar. I’m severely restricted on my sugar intake.

    • November 6, 2010 9:55 am

      I’m glad you liked it! It is wonderful to have all the old recipes, especially the funny recipes for odd casseroles and salads made primarily of jello. Oh, cooking in the 60s.

      I don’t publish a lot of recipes from other people, but if you want a place to share all family recipes, you should check out Tasty Kitchen. It’s a great community of people sharing recipes, and there are some good finds there.

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