Grandpa’s Favorite Spice Cake
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.
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.
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:
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).
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.